In any discussion about hip-hop and style, there may be no one more influential than Lil’ Kim.
What began as an organic expression of style between Lil’ Kim and stylist Misa Hylton is now recreated by a multitude of rappers hoping to replicate her staying power and replicated by high-end fashion designers attempting to earn cultural currency.
Which is why a major new exhibition on hip-hop and fashion feels incomplete. Fresh, Fly and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style, currently on view at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, may well be the largest and most comprehensive exhibition to date, featuring more than 100 garments and accessories showcasing the evolution of hip-hop fashion. Yet there’s just one ensemble Lil’ Kim wore in 2003 and too little representation of women’s fashion overall.
The story of men’s style is well told, beginning with the fine knits, elements of formal wear with creases in the jeans and the tracksuits the B-boys wore in the 1970s, to the explosion of Americana brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger in the 1990s, and the high-end designers who were inspired by hip-hop.
“It’s true that a lot of the brands and the fashion styles did come from our boys,” said Elena Romero, co-curator of the exhibit and a professor at FIT.
“We had to dress like the boys so we could go toe-to-toe with them,” she said. “Once we got in, we made our lane, and we started dressing with our own personal style, whether it was adding Lycra suits to the Dapper Dan jacket like Salt-N-Pepa or coming out full throttle and expressing our femininity and the power of our body part like a Lil’ Kim.”
On “No Time,” a single off her debut 1995 album Hardcore, the artist denounced “fake n—as” and proclaimed she “usually rock the Prada, sometimes Gabbana.” She was a fly Black girl from Brooklyn putting the world on notice: Rap and its boys’ club would look different now.
Because the 4-foot-11 rapper was different: She was flashy, she was braggadocious, she was overt — not just with her femininity but her sexuality as well.
Born Kimberly Jones, Lil’ Kim rose to prominence as a protégé of Notorious B.I.G. and with her rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A. The female rappers before her — MC Sha-Rock, Roxanne Shante, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah — weren’t peddling sexiness. It was all about their wit and lyrical prowess. But Lil’ Kim was using fashion to flaunt her femininity.
Some of Lil’ Kim and Hylton’s most iconic looks can be seen in her 1997 “Crush On You” video, which featured the rapper dressed head-to-toe in monotone designer outfits. “The ‘Crush on You’ video really introduced me to the fashion industry,” Lil’ Kim said during a ComplexCon panel in 2019. “It set the tone for my career.”
Lil’ Kim laid the foundation for every female rapper to front a fashion campaign, be a designer’s muse or star in a major ad campaign. Her earliest collaborations were with luxury designers such as Giorgio Armani, Donatella Versace, and Marc Jacobs. She signed with Wilhelmina Models in 1998, had endorsement deals with Candies Shoes and Iceberg Jeans, starred in a M.A.C. Viva Glam campaign (with Mary J. Blige), and modeled in Kimora Lee Simmons’ first lingerie fashion show for Baby Phat.
Many of the trends Lil’ Kim and Hylton pioneered still feel fresh. Rihanna paid homage to Lil’ Kim by wearing a green fur coat with matching thigh-high boots and sunglasses at the iHeartRadio Awards for the first televised performance of “B—- Better Have My Money.”
Beyoncé dressed up for Halloween in 2017 in a series of Lil’ Kim’s greatest hits: the Chanel suspenders, red pants and chain-link belt Lil’ Kim wore in rapper Missy Elliott’s 1997 “The Rain;” the teal blue wig with the Chanel logo Lil’ Kim wore on the cover of Manhattan File magazine in 2001; another magazine cover photo shoot in which the rapper wore a blond wig, blue mini-slip dress, blue fur coat, and blue contacts; Lil’ Kim’s sheer catsuit with fur cuffs at the Source Awards in 2001; and the neon-green two-piece set topped with a Chanel chain-link belt, matching fur coat and short cropped blond ’do she performed in during the No Way Out Tour in 1997.
The music video for rapper Cardi B’s second single, “Bartier Cardi,” off of her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, included a quick homage to Lil’ Kim. Cardi B’s blond wig was styled in an updo, she’s wearing a red fur and matching two-piece set. She’s dripping in jewelry and further blazing a trail for New York rappers and beyond who are inspiring a new generation of regular, degular, shmegular girls who want to live the high life.
Lil’ Kim described her earliest fashion inspirations as a mix of Janet Jackson and the queen of hip-hop soul, Mary J. Blige.
“Mary J. Blige was always my big sister in my head, but I didn’t even know her [at the time],” Lil’ Kim said. “She dressed like how I dress, she moved like how I move, she talked how I talk, she moved how I moved. Everything about her was me.”
Music executive Andre Harrell signed Blige in 1988 and released her debut album, What’s the 411?, in 1992. By the time Blige’s sophomore album, My Life, came out, she was on her way to pioneering a new visual of what a soul singer could look like.
Blige was one of Hylton’s first clients. Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs brought Hylton to Uptown Records to style R&B quartet Jodeci in combat boots, hoodies, and backwards hats for a music video and she began to work with Blige shortly after.
“She was doing R&B music, but she was a hip-hop girl through and through,” Hylton told The New York Times in 2016. “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.”
Blige was a tomboy who at first used her clothing to deflect attention. As she grew as an artist, she grew into presenting her femininity and sex appeal. (The FIT show includes one corset Hylton made for Blige.) Lil’ Kim and Hylton built on what Blige was doing with her look and took it to new heights.
Both Blige and Lil’ Kim brought Harrell’s philosophy on hip-hop fashion, which laid the groundwork for present-day street style, to the main stage. It was Harrell’s aspirational vision for not only how hip-hop should sound, but the way it should look, how it should feel, that made the genre profitable.
“I wanted to bring back the style of Harlem in the twenties, which is why I made the company Uptown, to evoke sleek style,” Harrell told New York Magazine in 1992.
Many of the guys who make rap music are from the suburbs or are middle-class, Harrell told the magazine. “I’m the only one who was actually from the ghetto,” he said. “I’ve seen hard, I’ve lived hard, and I didn’t want to see that s—. When you’re from the projects … you want to see style and glamour. You want to see mansions, champagne, caviar, fancy cars and beautiful women.”
This was the basis of “ghetto fabulous” or “high Negro, ghetto glamour” that permeated everything Harrell did — and the lasting legacy of so many of artists he introduced to the world. Lil’ Kim was one of its biggest practitioners.
“When Andre Harrell and Puff Daddy of Uptown Records introduced the queen of hip-hop soul to the world, it was the beginning of a movement,” Blige said during his acceptance speech for the Billboard Icon Award in 2021.
“Every inner-city girl was recognizing their own and could relate to everything I was saying,” she continued, wearing a custom Rey Ortiz dress. “Every female artist that came into the game wanted to do everything I was doing, and still does to this day. I was ghetto fabulous, and I still am. So ghetto, so fabulous, and people were threatened by that. Now everyone wants to be ghetto fabulous.”