Music and fashion are one of the few lasting unions in popular culture, and no era has produced more rich and diverse jewels than the ’90s. During what was deemed the “Age of Urban Enlightenment,” we witnessed an evolution—a departure from the ‘80s especially—in the music and publishing industries. Vibe magazine emerged as the voice of a pulsating and creative sub-culture. Karl Kani, Encye, Pelle Pelle, and Iceberg draped us in garments that were relatable and laced with urban vernacular. And black arts, especially cinema, flourished with major box office successes like Love Jones, Dead Presidents, and Malcolm X.
Relaxed hair worn by Babyface, L.A. Reid, and Jermaine Stewart; denim from head-to-toe from Al B. Sure; tailored suiting from Levert; and silk shirts from Keith Sweat provided a more adult, contemporary soundtrack during the late ’80s. But once the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1990, a new day emerged with a swagger and attitude to match. A new dawn of how culture shaped music had arrived with a sense of hyper-masculinity on one end of the spectrum, fashion forward towards the middle, and cookie cutter at the opposite pole.
Gone were the days of perfectly crafted bubble gum tunes and imagery: enter New Jack Swing and pop R&B, which allowed artists to experiment with a bevy of street inspired, hip-hop influenced, and athletic minded garments. No longer would R&B crooners ooh and aah about love from a feminist perspective but with an alpha male’s point-of-view and with a matching bravado. You not only had to sing hard, you had to dress the part as well.
One of the most talented and polarizing groups to emerge in the early ’90s was Southern bred quartet Jodeci. Composed of two sets of brothers and deeply rooted in traditional, fire-and-brimstone gospel, the group sang lyrics that were, most of the time, sexually overt and spoke to an audience of women willing to embrace the guy that America lusted after yet demonized. More striking than their charming, bad boy looks was the gear they rocked. Guys and girls related to their rugged and often intimidating streetwear usually composed of leather vests, combats boots, and all-black themes. And thank stylist Sybil Pennix for introducing us to the this “post-New Jack Swing” way of dressing. A former director of artist development at Bad Boy Records, Pennix’s clients included Sean “Diddy” Combs, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim , and Faith Evans, and she was responsible for discovering, managing, and styling the girl group Total. “Rock ’n’ Roll mixed with white trash mixed with hip hop mixed with me mixed with them mixed w/shock value” is how she described Jodeci’s aesthetic. Pennix feels that being surrounded almost entirely by men in clubs and at the Bad Boy Records offices was inspiring.
“My dad raised me to think like a man, think for myself, so the background chatter/noise of life doesn't really affect me. I was the only girl in the boys’ club at Uptown Records in the conference room making decisions. As Puffy's assistant I carried that mentality all the way through my time in the music and fashion industries to this day. It’s all I know. The only time I thought of this was when I tried to speak to other women about it,” she says.
Whether she realized it or not, women were not only listening but taking notes as Jodeci’s style soon seemed to influence R. Kelly, Blackstreet, Dru Hill, H-Town, Sista, and Xscape.
Straddling the middle ground were what I call the Soul Gentlemen, a slew of artists who adopted a style aesthetic similar to what we’d seen in the ’70s and ’80s, when group members were more polished, groomed, and usually in formation with one another. Their sartorial stylings usually complemented their tone of music: melodic, smooth, romantic. We saw both Joe (Thomas) and Case introduce the art of leather suiting; Boyz II Men’s Philadelphia-inspired “Alex Vanderpool” looks consisted of bowties, knit sweaters, jeans, shorts, and other comfortable separates. Shai showcased their Howard University Afrocentric HBCU collegiate attire of silk dress shirts and slacks. And Keith Sweat, Christopher Williams, Tevin Campbell, and Silk kept it smooth in designer threads. The standout from this grouping was Texas-based quintet Hi-Five. The ’90s answer to New Edition, like Soul For Real, Riff, and Another Bad Creation, Hi-Five became instant teenage heartthrobs and were able to keep up vocally (and sometimes sings circles around) veteran acts. When asked about their look, it was pretty straightforward: “Trendy yet classic.” Says band member Treston Irby. “We tried to create a look that was comfortable yet allowed us to separate themselves from other groups. We’re not concerned with fads and ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fashions. We want to look attractive to the ladies and fresh to the fellas. It’s important for us to have that connection with our fans.”
And then you have the band of outsiders, the risk takers found in every musical genre whose sole purpose was the art and delivering that art to their audiences. Tony Toni Tone, Maxwell, Eric Benet, P.M. Dawn, Lenny Kravitz, Arrested Development, Mint Condition, and Portrait’s styles were more organic and relaxed than were those associated with Pre- and Neo-Soul artists. Vintage suiting, multi-layers, ethnic prints, non-traditional footwear and accessories were all they need to get their messages across. They were the original black hipsters, and this attitude would cross over into the early 2000s with Musiqsoulchild, Lathan, Donnie, and Chance The Rapper, A$AP Rocker and Anderson Paak, who have become fashionistos thanks to their predecessors. Even some of today’s designers have taken a cue from this nostalgic period: Vetements, Public School, Virgil Abloh, Jerome LaMaar, and Kerby Jean-Raymond and his design firm, Pyer Moss.
So you can say the ’90s taught us everything we needed to know about fusing streetwear into designer clothing and boy bands taught us how to look hard, long, and with a fashionable edge. Yes, even you, Kanye West, were influenced and it’s all good!