Designer April Walker said that when she created her menswear line Walker Wear in 1988, she decided not to shout from the rooftops that her streetwear line was run by a woman, out of concern that she’d be written off.
Walker went to her father, who worked in the music industry, to ask his advice. “I remember talking to him,” Walker said in an interview for “50 Years Fly: The Rise, Fall and Revolution of Hip-Hop Fashion,” a new documentary by NBC News, “and asking him, ‘I wanna do this line. I wanna call it Walker Wear. Do you think people should know that there’s a woman behind it?’ Because I was kind of skeptical that if they knew it was menswear, they might be like, ‘I’m not buying clothes from a woman. What does she know about making clothes for men?’ And he just posed the question. He said, ‘If you have to ask the question, you’ve already answered it.’”
Walker dressed many Black celebrities with her designs, including Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Run-D.M.C. and heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who once wore custom shorts from Walker Wear’s athletics line. In addition to collaborating with other brands, Walker is now an adjunct professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
“The give back for me now is empowering the next generation of leaders, of creatives, of streetwear brands and giving them the tools they need with the knowledge so that they can go on and design the lives they imagine,” Walker said.
As the 50th anniversary of hip-hop approaches, the effects the genre had on Black culture are undeniable. And female designers — similar to female rappers entering the music industry in the early ‘80s and ‘90s — refused to be marginalized.
Like Walker, Kimora Lee Simmons became a trailblazer in the hip-hop fashion world after launching Baby Phat out of Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm in 1999. Known for its signature crop tops, jackets, sneakers and jeans, Baby Phat flourished during the early 2000s and became one of the most successful urban streetwear brands of that era, reaching $265 million in revenue by 2002.
Lee Simmons, who landed her first modeling contract as a teenager, said the brand’s identity was born out of her belief that women’s fashion “should be sexy and dynamic.”
Another important aspect of the Baby Phat brand, Lee Simmons said, was to provide consumers with fashion for an affordable price while being accessible to women of all colors, shapes and sizes.
“I started to just take it in another way and create something different, which was what I thought women would want,” Lee Simmons said. “Young women like me, young women from where I was from, young women all over the United States.”
This was not often the case in the fashion industry, where some designers declined casting Black models for shoots.
Lee Simmons, who is Korean, Japanese and Black, said she recalls one time a designer refused to cast Black models. She also recalled struggling with being accepted by others “outside the circle” in her teenage years due to her biracial background and tall stature — another reason why she wanted to be inclusive with her brand.
“I worked with so many young women that I could name to this day that came and told me, like, ‘This is my last casting,’ ‘My agency said my hips are too big’ or ‘my boobs are too big,’” Lee Simmons said. “What Baby Phat represents is different to many people, but it embodies that same spirit of a beautiful life.”
Phat Farm, Rocawear, FUBU, Karl Kani and other urban streetwear brands emerged at a time when Black consumers were “tired of giving credit” to brands that were “ashamed” of them and who wanted to create brands for their own community, said Lindsay Peoples, editor-in-chief of The Cut. By buying and wearing these brands, Peoples said she felt like she belonged to a “community and a culture that really cared about me.”
“I think that even then, it felt like I wanted to support a brand that isn’t just here for the moment, that’s actually, like, here, because they care and they care about Black people,” Peoples said.
Brands like Baby Phat “created so much space for women” to feel that they belonged to “everything that was happening in hip-hop culture,” she added.
“I remember so much of Baby Phat feeling like ‘If I wear this, like, I’m going to have the best time of my life,’” she said. “Like ‘This is, this is going to be the moment.’”
Despite the success of these brands, the fashion industry can still feel “like a mountain” for Black people navigating it decades later, Peoples said. That’s why she co-founded the Black in Fashion Council in 2020 to help create a more equitable work environment for Black people in the fashion industry. The organization works with brands including Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Tiffany & Co.
“I think a lot of times it feels like people want to, you know, tap in and out of Black culture when they feel like it’s convenient for them,” Peoples said. “And that’s why it feels like inclusivity is still really not at the forefront in the industry as much as it could be.”
More than three decades after Walker Wear launched, Walker said she continues to face challenges in the business, particularly as a woman of color.
“When it comes to conversations, when it comes to opportunities, when it comes to my male counterparts,” Walker said she’s still sometimes considered an afterthought within the fashion industry. “You know, that’s just a reality that I’m used to.”
Despite these challenges, Walker said she wants to continue empowering the community with her brand.
“If I would’ve sat in self-pity, I wouldn’t have started,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t have really moved ahead and forged ahead. … Society is going to be society. You just have to do what you love and be who you are. And I’m thankful that I don’t do it for the accolades. I’ve never done this for validation of others. You know, I do it for my community, but I also do it because it feeds my soul, it feeds my livelihood, and I’m committed to the process and my purpose.”
“50 Years Fly: The Rise, Fall and Revolution of Hip-Hop Fashion,” launches Thursday on Peacock and will stream on NBC News NOW at 10 p.m. ET, as well as on NBCNews.com and NBC News’ YouTube channel.