The important role women played in hip hop’s early history, growth and development is not a story often told, but it is one that has enormous impact.

Brooklyn resident and 90s iconic streetwear designer April Walker is one of a handful of women retelling the story and setting the record straight. As a featured subject in a hip hop documentary and now, with a new photo exhibit, Walker and her legacy hip hop brand Walker Wear get an encore.

Walker Wear was synonymous with 90s swag. The brand outfitted some of the biggest names in 90s hip-hop, including Method Man, Naughty by Nature, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Queen Latifah and Aaliyah.

Fashion designer April Walker in Walker Wear. Photo courtesy_April Walker

Soon, the public will get a chance to review the brand’s history in a solo exhibit at Port Authority Bus Terminal, which opens on Wednesday, Feb 19, during Black History Month, running through March for Women’s History Month.

The exhibit, entitled, Women in Streetwear, will showcase Walker Wear’s 27-year journey through archival photos– many pieces that have not previously been seen and “iconic moments in time in fashion,” Walker said from her studio in Clinton Hill. 

She promises the exhibition will be an emotional journey, chronicling the timeline of how the brand cemented its place in fashion during what is now known as “The Golden Years of Hip Hop.”

The Notorious B.I.G. with April Walker
Photo: Courtesy April Walker

Hip hop fashion and music go hand-in-hand, shaping a larger image of the African-American identity. From the immense popularity of music videos in the 1980s, Black fashion was able to move from the streets to the screen, giving the wider world a glimpse into Black culture.

“Streetwear style, hip-hop style, I think is one of the biggest fashion legacies of American fashion on global style, period,” said Constance White, a fashion journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine.  

Tupac Shakur with Mickey Rourke
Photo: Courtesy April Walker

As popular 90s brands such as FUBU, Cross Colours, Karl Kani and Phat Farm were making a name for themselves, said White, “to us in the [fashion] business who knew what was going on, Walker Wear was right there with them.”

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Brooklyn, Walker started her own custom clothing store, Fashion In Effect, in 1987, while still in college. Influenced by Harlem designer, Dapper Dan, Walker took what her predecessor was doing in Harlem and brought it to Brooklyn. 

Because Walker Wear started as a menswear brand, there was an assumption that the designer was a man. At one point, Walker said, the public assumed the brand belonged to Naughty-by-Nature, who were heavy supporters of Walker Wear. 

“When I first started out, hip hop was very misogynistic, it still is,” she said.  “Me designing clothes at that time, there was no blueprint [for women designers] and when I looked at all the success stories, they were all men.”

Walker said she knew that the brand would have a “much better chance at success at that time” by letting the product lead with a bit of mystery about the designer. Now, that’s no longer necessary.

“I just remember making this denim suit, it was a full denim suit it had contrast stitching and from that contrast stitching we made the pockets a little deeper,” she said. “We were listening to our customers which was really important, and they kept asking for deeper pockets, more room to put more things in.” 

Walker said she also created the bootleg cut by putting just enough room so the pants could over Timberlands, the footwear that also made a name for itself in hip-hop culture at that time. 

The fashion luminary currently is featured in The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion, the 2019 documentary produced by Lisa Cortes that focuses on the women in hip-hop who worked behind the scenes creating fashion. The film, which was screened at The Tribeca Film Festival and Urban World, also features fashion architect, Misa Hylton.  

“When you look at the origin story of hip-hop fashion, April Walker and Walker Wear occupy a central, integral role in the early portion of the story,” said Cortes. “You don’t know that things are possible until you see somebody doing it.

“And even though in the beginning, April hid the fact that it was a woman behind Walker Wear, it then [later] became known that it was a woman.”

Almost 30 years later, the woman behind Walker Wear has cemented her legacy in hip-hop fashion and is telling her story. 

“If we don’t tell our stories who will, right?” Walker said.

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Keishel Williams

Keishel is a Fashion, Arts & Culture Journalist

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