These days, hip-hop is a mainstay in American culture and fashion. But that wasn’t always the case.
When the music movement took off in the ’70s, it took rule-breaking and fearless fashion leaders like June Ambrose and April Walker to set the tone for the style that would define this new cultural phenomenon for decades to come.
Ambrose and Walker discussed their journeys defining hip-hop style during a joint conversation with WWD executive editor and Fairchild Media Group head of DEI Tara Donaldson at the third annual WWD x FN x Beauty Inc Women in Power event, which was held Sept. 7 at the Rainbow Room in New York and drew a crowd of women helping to drive the industry forward.
“What you’re seeing is the manifestation of seeds that we planted back then,” said June Ambrose, the famed designer and creative director of women’s hoops at Puma. “We were brazen and provocative and unapologetic, we didn’t ask for permission to tell the story.”
Ambrose, the architect of Jay-Z’s iconic style, was one of the trailblazing stylists who helped propel what has become modern hip-hop style. However, it wasn’t always easy. Ambrose described the experience of being one of just a few women in a male dominated industry and how being persistent and confident was crucial to achieving her goals.
“I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said.
Ambrose added that when she started out, she had to find the white space in the industry, especially when many hip-hop artists were mainly dressing themselves. She said she learned to “never ask permission” when it came to trying something new.
For young people looking to get into the fashion industry, Ambrose offered some advice.
“If you’re getting into the fashion industry, don’t think about anything else but the art and the work,” she said. “If you’re great, you will attract what is right for you, you will attract fortune, and success will come to you. But focus on the art, focus on the work.”
April Walker, who founded one of the few female-led streetwear brands, Walker Wear, in 1990, also discussed the challenges in the earlier parts of her journey defining hip-hop style.
“I had to be very unconventional,” Walker said. “And at that time, we weren’t being served. We couldn’t go into the stores and find clothing that spoke to my lifestyle. The music was there, but we wanted it to be representative.”
Walker noted that when she started designer men’s clothing and launched Walker Wear, she decided not to publicize the fact that she was a woman due to concern about how she would be received as a woman designing clothes for men.
“I just played in the background, let the product speak for itself and focused on quality and serving them with style and serving my tribe,” Walker said. “My internal tribe knew, but the world didn’t know.”
Looking back, Walker said if she started her business today, she would be loud and clear that her products had come from a woman.
“2023 — this is the year, the era, of women,” Walker said. “And it’s not going backward.”