wax Poetics
Fashion Killa


Excerpted from Sowmya Krishnamurthy’s FASHION KILLA, published by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

published online
By Sowmya Krishnamurthy

Journalist Sowmya Krishnamurthy explores the connections between the DIY hip-hop scene and the exclusive upper-echelons of high fashion in her book, Fashion Killa. An exceprt is below and the book is available to purchase here.

"Over my dead body,” said Quincy Jones. The founder of Vibe glared at the cover of the June/July 1994 issue. Madonna looked back, smugly pushing out and exaggerating her chest and torso. Her milky skin looked paler against her jet-black hair and hot-pink minidress. Was it technically long enough to be called a dress? NBA player Dennis Rodman stood behind her and pursed his lips, with one arm extended midair like a Renaissance marble sculpture by Michelangelo. She popularized “Vogue,” but he was striking a pose. The two would have a brief but fiery fling, and this was the precursor, the foreplay. “Talking Trash: Madonna Interviews Dennis Rodman,” read the headline. It was one of two salacious Vibe covers—the other had the singer and the Chicago Bulls star looking postcoital, with his belt undone and her mouth mid-moan—that the public was never supposed to see.

By the time he started Vibe, Jones was already an acclaimed multi- hyphenate, spanning music, film, and television. His discography as a performer/songwriter/composer/producer was expansive; Dizzy Gilles- pie, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson. He was no stranger to hip-hop and was the mind behind recruiting Will Smith for the lead in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990. But his 1989 album Back on the Block, which featured intergenerational contributions from rappers like Big Daddy Kane and Kool Mo Dee, inspired Jones to create a magazine for hip-hop. As he remembered in Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Vibe was intended to be an “urban Rolling Stone for the ’90s” or The Source with an “expanded reach.”

The idea for Vibe ended up in Time Ventures, an incubator for testing and launching new titles like Parenting and Southern Living. “As I remember, no one knew where to put it because Time, Inc. was very conservative. This idea of a hip-hop magazine was anything but,” Carol Smith, SVP, Group Publishing Director at ELLE (who was at Time Ventures back then), explained to me. “When nobody knew where to put it, the launch ended up with us.”

At this time, hip-hop magazines were incredibly important in con- necting fans and culture. They were a portal into hip-hop’s epicenter, New York City, and added depth to the music. Interviews brought artists to life and reporting provided analysis and insights not available elsewhere. Magazines were the monthly way to find out what the tastemakers were listening to, wearing, and thinking.

Jonathan Van Meter was an unlikely choice for the first editor in chief of Vibe. He was young—just twenty-eight years old—and a writer, not an editor. He was also white and openly gay. “It was weird. I had sort of been anointed suddenly out of nowhere and I had no idea why,” he told me. “I didn’t understand how unusual it was.” Van Meter moved to New York City and was given plum assignments that journalists dreamed about in Vogue, the New York Times Magazine, and Spy. In 1992, he was approached by Time Inc.’s corporate editor, Gil Rogin, to create a test issue of Vibe. Executives believed that his background in fashion and lifestyle offered a unique perspective for a hip-hop publica- tion. Van Meter laughed, recalling what one executive said in approval: “Jonathan Van Meter has the taste of an eighteen-year-old Black girl!”

It was a long interview process that involved flying to Bel-Air to meet with Quincy Jones at his home and many “alcohol-fueled dinners in SoHo.” Rogin was convinced of his instincts, but looking back, Van Meter saw the irony. “I was able to explain to [Rogin] hip-hop and urban culture. The idea of a white gay man being the person that they chose is insane, right?!” Outside of the office, he lived a hip downtown lifestyle that was invaluable to a room full of suits. “I was also living a life of going out to clubs, steeped in music. Every part of my existence, except for my work, was about partying and going to nightclubs and concerts. They saw me as the perfect mix of somebody who had the ‘right kind’ of journalist chops and a deep understanding of some of the culture, not all of it. In today’s climate, God, what a weird thing they did by hiring me.”

He hired a small staff, which included recruiting other Black peo- ple from publishing, and produced the test issue—with a budget of $1 million—in about three or four months. Van Meter credited his then-boyfriend, creative director and stylist Stefan Campbell, for helping create a brand bible that focused on high fashion and diversity. “He, as a fashion person, started tearing any picture out of any magazine that featured a person of color. He created this book for me. Imagine if the demographics were reversed: 80 percent of all the ad pages were the one Calvin Klein ad or the one Ralph Lauren ad with the Black person in it. What if all of it was like that and 20 percent was white people? We presented that book to the higher-ups and said, ‘This is what it should look like.’”

Campbell saw the vision of marrying hip-hop and fashion. “I put together all the things that were relevant to me, all things fashion, all things cool,” he told me. “Music has always been the basis of anything involved in fashion for me. I told him the motto: ‘Where music goes, fashion follows.’ I saw myself as a fashion person loving hip-hop music but knowing that I wanted to show hip-hop culture from a different lens. Look what it could be.” The aspirational ethos was what separated Vibe from other publications. The magazine wasn’t intended to just feature the hottest artists or trends but it aimed to represent hip-hop culture as a whole and through the lens of prestige. This was the crème de la crème. Fans would pick up a copy of Vibe and get a taste of hip-hop at its finest. The paper felt sturdy, the photos were glossy and beautiful, and the writing was top-notch. What Vogue was to the fashion industry, Vibe would be to hip-hop.

In fall 1992, the issue hit newsstands and it was clear that Vibe was different from other hip-hop magazines. Treach of Naughty by Nature was the shirtless cover boy, shot by Albert Watson, and he looked like he was in a high fashion editorial. The muscular rapper was bathed in a shadow that made his dark skin glisten off the paper. Vibe had an eye for spotting talent. Treach pursued a modeling career afterward. Inside, the magazine was diverse and covered different aspects of hip-hop: a feature on Bobby Brown, a photo essay on artists and tattoos, a small piece on supermodel Naomi Campbell, and an editorial about “white people who think they’re Black.” This was representation in a way that mainstream publications didn’t understand. Hip-hop was an all- encompassing lifestyle. “The test issue sat on the newsstand for months. It was an enormous success,” said Van Meter. He cited a 45 percent sell-through rate that surpassed the industry average of 40 percent.

“One of the questions was, will advertisers like Calvin Klein come into a magazine like this? And sure enough, yes,” said Van Meter. Smith, who served as publisher, recalled Diesel and Absolut Vodka being on board. “It was pretty quickly an advertising success. It was pretty im- pressive who we were able to bring in. We had a nice roster of adver- tisers.” The glossy had an appealing look and layout. Keith Clinkscales, president and CEO of Vibe from 1993 to 1999, explained to me: “There was fashion from the very beginning. They had fashion layouts targeted toward the audience. All of the fashion in there was not ‘hip-hop fash- ion.’ It was different ways of looking at how young people dressed.” Vibe attracted hip-hop brands like FUBU, Avirex, and Enyce as well as luxury labels including Polo Ralph Lauren and Emporio Armani. Being able to balance high/low, streetwear, and luxury was a testament to the magazine’s overall vision. The Vibe consumer mixed and matched their looks; they needed to transition from day to night, from the office to the club. The majority of their wardrobe was likely casual T-shirts and jeans, but they weren’t afraid to splurge on a Polo shirt or Armani sweater.

Smith wrote a $10 million business plan, and the official launch was a go. “My pitch to them was, there is this incredible moment happening in music right now. Hip-hop gives you an opportunity for a multicultural magazine,” said Van Meter. “All Black magazines are for Black people, no white people read them. Essence and Jet and Ebony, no white people read those magazines. There’s a lot of Black people who read white magazines. Shouldn’t there be a magazine that is sort of like Vanity Fair for a new generation?” Even the paper, which was originally large- format heavy-stock paper left over from Life magazine, felt different and elevated. Vibe was gorgeous, like a coffee table book that you would be proud to display. Explained Van Meter: “It should be beautiful to look at. The level of photography should be Condé Nast–level for people of color, who never get photographed properly. And it should include everything from disco culture to house music to hip-hop, world music, reggae. My concept was 70 percent hip-hop and R&B, and all of these other genres would be at the edges of it. You would get this amazing mix of what then was euphemistically called ‘urban culture.’”

Quincy Jones mainly was laissez-faire in the editorial decisions, but his name provided resources and credibility. “We had deeper pockets than most, and we served up some of the best writing, photography, and design hip-hop has ever seen,” said founding editor Rob Kenner. “Yet our multiracial staff and corporate connects were always viewed with some suspicion. We had to earn respect by doing great work.” Vibe hired bright, young, and diverse talent and gave them a platform for real journalism: long-form and thought-provoking pieces. Its early masthead of editors and writers, such as Danyel Smith, Kevin Powell, Alan Light, Joan Morgan, Emil Wilbekin, and Mimi Valdés, made their impact in the media for decades to come. 

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