Intimate Photos of ’90s Hip-Hop’s Biggest Stars, From the Woman Who Styled Them
This weekend, a number of influential hip-hop acts — Jay Z, DMX, Faith Evans and more — will gather at Barclays Center for two sold-out concerts celebrating the legacy of Bad Boy Records, founded in 1993 by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. But Bad Boy’s cultural impact extends beyond the realm of music — thanks largely to Combs’s former girlfriend, the fashion stylist and costume designer Misa Hylton. Starting from their basement in Scarsdale, Hylton created a spectrum of iconic looks for the likes of Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige and Combs himself that continue to remain points of reference for today’s performers.
Hylton began dating Combs when she was 15, and started her career with him in 1991 when he was an intern-turned-A&R rep at Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records. Uptown had just signed the R&B quartet Jodeci, who needed an image. Combs had “this cool idea of guys in combat boots, hoodies and baseball caps, and so he needed someone to help him sell the idea, and I was totally cool with it; I was like his cheerleader,” Hylton explains. But their vision was a marked divergence from the polished New Jack Swing style — suits and hard-bottomed shoes — that permeated R&B culture at the time, and Harrell wasn’t sold without a fight. “After a couple of hours, Andre finally agreed to let us fulfill our vision, and the rest is history.”
After Jodeci’s new, streets-facing look proved a hit, Harrell asked Hylton to style an up-and-coming artist on the label: Mary J. Blige, who hailed from Yonkers, close to Hylton’s native Mount Vernon. They clicked immediately. “The first video I did with Mary was for her first single, ‘You Remind Me,’ and I dressed her in all silver. It was this get-up I got from Patricia Field’s,” Hylton remembers. “After that video, we went on to work together to create a harder look, similar to that of Jodeci — combat boots, tennis skirts and hockey jerseys from Paragon — and that really changed the game,” she explains. “She was doing R&B music, but she was a hip-hop girl through and through. We grew up in a time where the B-girl look was everything: the sneakers, the hoops. I just made her look off an interpretation of a feeling, and that feeling was hip-hop. Hip-hop is bravado, hip-hop is hard, and the look we engineered was in response to that.”
Styling would end up a family affair for Hylton, too, when Combs signed her cousin Faith Evans. “The moment Sean heard her voice he was totally smitten, and he signed her,” Hylton says. “Then Big saw her at a photo shoot and married her literally within two weeks.” Evans’s sudden wedding to the Notorious B.I.G. impacted how Hylton would position Evans’s image from then on: “She was all of a sudden Big’s wife,” Hylton says, and needed to look it — so she swapped combat boots for strands of all-white pearls.
Perhaps most memorably, Hylton lavishly un-dressed Lil’ Kim to make her into the provocateur she’s recognized as today, finding femininity in her overt sexuality — including the now-infamous single-pastie look that Hylton created from Indian bridal fabric for Kim to wear to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1999. “It just felt right. We were never trying to shock anybody. It was too organic for that,” she says. “Let’s put it this way: I almost died when Diana touched the pastie,” she continues, referring to Diana Ross, “because I was so damn scared it was going to come off on live TV and I would have had the FCC at my door. That night, we actually went after the show to shoot a video with Kim and Mobb Deep, and by the morning, it was on every newspaper in the world.” At the time, the look made headlines as a fashion faux pas; today, it’s recognized as a seminal pop-culture moment.
By 2000, Hylton had formulated instantly recognizable identities for hip-hop’s finest — contributing to the creation, on the pages of Vibe magazine and in classic MTV videos, of the “ghetto fabulous” aesthetic. “Because not everyone understands what ‘ghetto fab’ means, it can be problematic. I own it — but I want it to be understood correctly,” she says. “When people hear ‘ghetto,’ they think derogatory. I want people to understand it as a movement where things can be equally aspirational, unique, attainable, powerful. It’s not taking off the earrings when you’re asked to.” For Hylton, the style boils down to a melding of the accessible and the untouchable. “Whenever I style, I like to keep things relatable, yet aspirational. It draws in the consumer,” she says. “It’s like, “I can get that, but where the hell did you get that?”
For proof that Hylton’s influence still shapes the pop landscape, look no further than Rihanna, who has called out Lil’ Kim as a styling inspiration and even channeled the Pantone-chic styling from Kim’s pivotal 1997 “Crush On You” video at an awards show last year. “I like to see that my ideas from 20 years ago still resonate today,” Hylton says; she shared a selection of personal, candid photos from that time with T, above. “I come from a time when we were first-things-first about the culture. Everyone had their own identity. I think it’s the perfect time to remind people of Bad Boy’s influence and legacy, because it never left.” (nytimes.com)