The Birth of Hip-Hop Fashion
April Walker and Angela Hunte-Wisner
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new-age renaissance was being embraced across the country. Groundbreaking artistry was emerging in the forms of hip-hop and new jack swing music and the fashion that embodied it. In the beloved borough of Brooklyn, two young women would be inspired and embark on a journey to transform the culture that groomed their talents. April Walker and Angela Hunte-Wisner contributed in setting the standard for a burgeoning fashion craze. Their innovative, custom designing techniques undoubtedly shaped the iconic styles for urban culture.
April Walker opened her first custom clothing shop in 1988 called Fashion in Effect at the age of twenty-one. Three years later, she founded her own clothing label called Walker Wear. Her trailblazing styles were worn by some of the most iconic athletes and entertainers in the late 1980s through the 1990s such as Mike Tyson, Naughty by Nature, LL Cool J, Jay-Z, EPMD, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., among many others. They could be seen in popular films, television shows, award shows, and music videos. She was the first young Black woman to create her own clothing line in a male-dominated industry.
Angela Hunte-Wisner began her career as a casting director for the legendary video director, Lionel C. Martin’s Classic Concepts production team at the age of eighteen. Gradually, she became both a casting director and stylist for numerous hip-hop and new jack swing music videos in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Her trendsetting styles were worn by hip-hop and new jack swing’s elite artists such as Bell Biv Devoe (BBD), Jodeci, Boyz II Men, Hi-Five, Bobby Brown, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, among many others. She was the first young Black woman to be a stylist for music artists behind the scenes.
As the nation continues to celebrate Black Music Month, I recently sat down to speak with Walker and Hunte-Wisner about being the first women to cultivate urban fashion.
When did you decide that designing clothes would become your way of life? Has it always been a passion of yours?
April Walker: Actually, I had the spirit of entrepreneurship and I have the gift of wearing a creative hat. Fashion always came easy to me. In high school, I started taking it seriously. I went to work at American Express and it was a short gig because I realized there that this wasn’t something I wanted to do. I wasn’t built for the corporate, every day same structured routine. My mind thinks differently and, to be honest, it had to do with growing up with my father, who always danced to his own beat and set his own rules. He was very creative in the music world. Music wasn’t my thing, but the thing that came easiest to me was fashion. Dapper Dan ignited the flame further. Dapper Dan was a custom tailored shop on 125th Street everyone used to go up there to order custom outfits. I was just in awe of his business and, I think, once I stumbled upon his business, I decided that this was something I wanted to do. I used his formula to create my own custom shop in Brooklyn.
Angela Hunte-Wisner: Michael Bivins led me into styling. I was getting really good at what I was doing for Lionel Martin’s Classic Concepts crew by casting people for videos, but I was bored. I remember being in the office when we got the call about the Bell Biv Devoe video. Michael called and asked me could I dress them and the girls in the video because he liked the way I dressed. I was a fashionista my whole life. I used to dress fly. I always had the latest gear. I never styled for a video before, but when I did it, I loved it. I told Lionel [Martin] that I didn’t want to cast anymore. He was like, “No, you’re going to do both.” [laughs] This was in 1990. I was styling and casting at the same time. I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I did. Later on, I got another phone call from Michael. He said, “Hey, I’m starting this label called Biv 10 Records. I want you to dress my acts.” And I was like, “Okay, who do you have?” He said, “I have these guys and they’re like a doo-wop, a cappella, hip-hop type thing, but I want to dress them very nerdy. I need it to look really cool.” I said, “What!” I was so perplexed. He had a little mock Polaroid, which I still have. I remember walking past a Ralph Lauren store and the store had these jean shirts on the mannequins with a sweater. There wasn’t a tie at that point it was just a jean shirt and a sweater. We called it the Alex Vander Pool era look. It was the nickname we gave for it. I remember telling Michael that it would be cool to dress them in this nerdish argyle sweater too. It just exploded into so many different looks. We turned the nerdy look into being something cool. There were no other boy bands that were out that dressed like that during that time. I remember walking past a Polo store two months later and seeing a jean shirt on a mannequin with a bow tie and an argyle sweater. I said, “Oh, my God! That is incredible.” And the look stuck. Everywhere we went you would see someone with a bow tie and an argyle sweater with a fitted cap. You would’ve never thought that look would’ve become a staple in the ghetto. At the time, I was so young and I didn’t really see how much it resonated. From there, I kept evolving my style. The ’90s was a time that everything was big, baggy, flashy, hood, and raw in terms of fashion. Sometimes when I’m watching TV One, one of our videos will come on and now it’s so strange to be doing a completely different career knowing I had twelve years of doing this and no one knows about it. It is pretty surreal.
Who were some of the designers and every day people that influenced you growing up in Brooklyn?
April Walker: Number one would be Dapper Dan. At that time, I was going to amateur night at the Apollo on Wednesday nights and after the show was over we would all go down to Dapper Dan’s to see what was going on. He was world famous. I don’t know if you remember, but that’s where the Mitch Green and Mike Tyson fight happened at back in the day. When you would go in there, you would see everyone from celebrities to Japanese tourists. It just baffled me. This was in the early 1980s and he was charging $300 for plain velour sweat suits. Back then, $300 was like $3000. It was just like, Wow! He had a niche and he was identifiable and a real person with tangibility. I respected him a lot for what he put together. The other designer that had a lot of influence on me growing up was Willi Smith, who designed Williwear. I just remember saying that this was a Black designer and I loved the way he used to take plaids and pinstripes and mismatch them. And that was taboo back then in ’70s and ’80s, but he would do it. He would do it so well that it made you want to wear one of his suits. A lady named Nelda was also an influence on me. I remember growing up and she lived on my corner in Brooklyn. She was young, but a little older than me. She was so fashion forward. She would always take chances. Her colors would be loud, crazy, and it just worked. She introduced a lot of new brands before I knew what they were. You would see her with it first. She was one of the first to have colored wigs. It was just a lot of different things. I think Lil’ Kim got a lot of her influences from Nelda. Lil’ Kim and I grew up in the same neighborhood.
Angela Hunte-Wisner: There was this guy who came up with this collegiate clothing line dedicated to HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. I can’t remember his name now, but everyone was wearing his clothes. He played such a pivotal part in my career. Watching someone who was African American start his own clothing line was inspirational. I remember watching the Cosby Show, A Different World, and Martin and they would have his clothes on. Because of him, I was always sure to be innovative in whatever I was creating. April Walker was another inspiration. For her to be a young, African American woman with her own clothing line that was unheard of during that time. She is so underrated for being a woman and competing in a man’s world. She had to compete against Color Colours and Karl Kani and they were dominating fashion. Everyone wore Karl Kani and Color Colours. She came in and completely took over. April’s clothing was the clothing that cool artists wore. I always leaned toward April’s clothing. I loved Ralph Lauren.
What were some of the challenges you faced being a woman designer in a male dominated industry?
April Walker: Well, I was very young. My wisdom has come from experience, but I didn’t go to school for fashion. I went to school for business and communications. I stumbled upon fashion. So I had a lot of hands on training to go through as opposed to if I went to school. Going to school would’ve given me an edge. Some of the other stumbling blocks I had were being really young. I had to work a lot harder to be taken seriously. And being a woman was something I had to contend with as well, but not in a bad way. I had to deal with it because I was in an all men’s clothing business once I started Walker Wear. Ninety-nine percent of the people I had to interact with were men. It was that constant tug of war I had to endure being a very young person and a woman.
Angela Hunte-Wisner: It was hard. I had challenges and trust issues. Getting artists to trust me as their stylist was very hard. They would say things like, “How is she going to dress me?” “How does she know how I like to wear my timbs?” I would tell them because I wear my timbs the same way. The first time I worked with R. Kelly, we argued all the time. At that time, I was eighteen and I had to be an adult. I had to dress a certain way for the artists to be comfortable to let me be this young and work with them. Back then, a stylist was an older lady who wore red glasses and walked around with a pin cushion and a tape measure over her shoulder. They didn’t look like me. A young, Black girl who was fly wearing jeans hanging off her with two ropes hanging around her neck and a four finger ring. I was bringing the flavor and it was something they didn’t have. Once they started to trust me, it became okay.
When you did you make the decision to create Walker Wear, what was your vision for the company?
April Walker: I was making all these custom outfits and then all these artists started finding out about my shop. The first artists to walk through the doors to my shop were Milk & Giz from Audio Two, Shinehead, and Shaggy. They were from Brooklyn too. So they started ordering clothes. At that time, you almost had to fight for a stylist. They were just ordering clothes and wearing them. They would wear my clothes in their videos and, simultaneously, customers would start coming in and ask me to make the outfits they saw in the videos. The other customer who used to come in all the time was Biggie. He used to come into my store and put stuff on layaway. This is how we started our relationship while he was trying to get put on. And it fostered as he grew and became an artist. But, from those relationships, they gave me such good support by wearing my clothes. Then kids and adults would come in asking for the same outfits. It made me recognize that there was a niche there. This was a time where you couldn’t stick your hands in your pockets because it was such a European cut. At that time, the designers were Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt. All the men would ask for deep pockets and then the back pockets had the same cut so they wanted those deeper as well. They also asked to have more room in the crouch when I made clothes. This tipped me off to say there is a market that isn’t being served. Jam Master Jay became one of our steady clients. We started styling Run-DMC as well. I remember one day Jay saying, “You really need to start making your own clothing line.” Because everyone was wearing the same outfits that I was creating from a custom level. Ralph Lauren was the designer I respected just based off the business model he had and how he was able to have our market share and just everyone. He stayed on his own course and didn’t stray from it. I said that I was going use my name as the label for my brand. My last name is Walker and the word wear just made sense for me. And that’s probably from Williwear. So that’s how the name came about. I figured the two W’s would be a good logo. And that’s what we did. Everybody liked it and bought it and that was the beginning of Walker Wear.
How did hip-hop and new jack swing music influence your designing style?
April Walker: It definitely influenced me. It was a lifestyle, period. Music and fashion went hand-in-hand and it still does today. But in the ’90s, there was this whole spirit of creativity. You had different genres of music from Jungle Brothers to A Tribe Called Quest to De La Soul and you had these different pockets, but you could bump all their songs in the club and dance to it. As young people, that was our creative form of self expression and you really saw it through our music and fashion. We were expressing ourselves back then whether it was “Downtown” Julie Brown or it was the Uptown look or you had the Chucks going on with the Dickies on the West Coast. You could say this is where we came from and this is how we get down. You could respect that and see the difference. Everyone had a different way of expressing themselves. I worked with all my music artists. The first thing I would ask them is if I could hear their music before I would take them on because I wanted to make sure I understood what they were trying to convey before I could have a mental picture of what they might like to wear. It was the standard we set at my company. We would also ask for photos of the artists too. We would need to meet with them to talk one-on-one to find out who they were as people. I believed that styling was one thing, but you had to make sure you’re styling a person to be who they are.
Angela Hunte-Wisner: I worked with Guy, Teddy Riley, and all the new jack swing artists at that time. I think the films like Juice, Above the Rim, and others were influenced by how we dressed artists in their videos. The music went with the clothing. I feel like in ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s their fashion accompanied their music. New jack swing and new jack swing clothing complimented each other. Fatigues, combat jackets, bamboo earrings, fitted caps, and many more styles became the norm. Back in the ’90s, you didn’t see girls wearing spandex dresses. An around-the-way girl was way hotter than a girl in a spandex dress. Hence, LL Cool J’s song, “Around the Way Girl.” The streets depicted what these artists were going to wear at that time. A stylist coming from the streets is what made this style happen. Had I not been from where I was from I wouldn’t have been able to come up with the styles I created. We did so many videos back then from Ralph Tresvant to all the new jack swing groups. We shot at least five videos a week back then and I did that for about eight years. I remember being one of the first Black people to go to Nike and ask for 125 pairs of Air Jordan sneakers. No one was going to their showroom getting sneakers. This was a fad that I started. I remember when Nike ID came out and I said to myself, “Why didn’t this come out when I was designing outfits back in the day.” I had to use crayons and markers to change the colors of the stripes and the swoosh because I needed to have certain colors to match the outfits we were creating. I remember calling Hi-Tek and asking them to send me some stuff for our videos. They were caught off guard by it because back then Hi-Tek was company for boots and people weren’t wearing these boots on an everyday basis. Starter was definitely something that wasn’t cool. Starter was something that you wore at baseball practice, in the gym, and they were issued clothing by the schools. I told them, “Hey, I’m dressing these kids and these artists in these Starter hats and Starter puffy jackets.” It turned into a craze when I put them on Another Bad Creation for their “Iesha” video. I would take clothes to my friends who were graffiti artists and I would have them do the graffiti designs on there and I would put the group’s name on there like ABC or BBD and I would put studs on there. I remember I used to be up for hours studding these clothes and I didn’t have an assistant back then like they do now. It wasn’t a glamorous type of job. I was actually going into the hood to buy these things. So when the artists would leave from the set, they would ask about how much were the rent fees for the clothes and I would tell them they could keep the clothes. After people started to find out about this, more and more artists wanted to work with me. I also remember going to buy those leather jackets with the raw mats on it for Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” video.
Those were actually Avirex leather jackets. After that video came out, it turned Avirex into a household name. Only certain types of people would wear that type of jacket, but after that video, a huge influx of Black people started buying Avirex jackets. Many brands of the ’90s ate well off of urban culture because they became cool to wear through these music videos.
Who were some of the other artists and entertainers that you designed clothes for?
April Walker: I designed clothes for Queen Latifah, Biggie, Craig Mack, Puffy, Tupac, Naughty by Nature, LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Onyx, R.Kelly, Aaliyah, EPMD, Mike Tyson, among others. My father used to manage Jaz-O and Jay-Z for a time early on. I was the first designer to have a heavyweight champion wear my clothing in the boxing ring. Before me, there was just Everlast, but there wasn’t another designer, period, who had done that with a boxing champion. It was a big moment for me. Ninety percent of the clothes you saw in the Above the Rim movie were designed by Walker Wear. I helped to develop Onyx’s image and their logo as well.
Angela Hunte-Wisner: I remember arguing with Puffy [Combs] when I was styling Jodeci for their “Forever My Lady” video. I told him, “Let me put these boots on them with these white shorts.” I also bought these oversized blazers and a white hoody. I went to an Army-Navy surplus store and I bought these Hi-Tek boots. No one was wearing these boots. I placed the blazer overtop of the hoody with the hood sticking out from the back. So the guys had this look along with the jean shorts, Hi-Tek boots with the socks hanging out. I remember looking at the guys when they were on the hill singing “Forever My Lady” and thinking to myself that it was the Wilson Phillips shot like when they were singing on the hill in their video. I said, “That’s our look! This is urban culture at our best.” A few months later, I remember going into a club in NYC and I saw everyone in the club rocking the same outfit from that video. I also designed clothes for Hi-Five, Bobby Brown, Total, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, NWA, Public Enemy, Kool G. Rap, Masta Ace, Biz Markie, and many others.
As you look back over the past twenty-plus years, how do you feel about being one of the first women designers with groundbreaking styles and how those styles have been able to endure throughout urban culture?
April Walker: You know, it’s so funny and surreal to me sometimes. I really am thankful and it really humbles me just to be a part of the whole ride. And, really, more importantly, to have been there from the beginning to watch it grow. The thing is no one knew what it would become. So we were doing what we loved and figuring it out at the same time. Now it has become this multibillion dollar industry. In that sense, it is humbling. I remember when I was knocking on doors and it was very hard to get an account. It is interesting how we used to have to prove ourselves and fight and fight and fight to say that this culture wasn’t going to be a fad. That it was going to be here to stay. At the time, it took a lot of knocking on doors, being consistent, and just believing in yourself when no one else would believe it and now it has blown up. Everyone from corporate America on down is knocking on the door to figure out how to get a piece of it. It’s really powerful in one sense and it’s totally diluted the creative process in another sense. I think it has affected the culture because it has become so much about the business.
Angela Hunte-Wisner: To be one of the first pioneers and, to be a woman was something I hated for a very long time. I don’t know why. I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of it, but I hid it. I never talked about it in front of people, ever. As I embarked upon another career and became very successful in that career, people would see and ask me if I remembered things and I would just shut down. I would still try to hide it. I remember someone saying to me, “You need to let people know about what you’ve done. People want to know this information.” These clothes didn’t just appear from thin air. Michael Bivins didn’t go out and buy these clothes; I did. Then, I would begin to tell people that I used to be a stylist. And they would ask me, “You were?” And the moment I started talking about it, people were completely fascinated and overwhelmed. I would always tell people it was something I did in my past when I was in my twenties. I felt like it was something that people really didn’t care about, but as time goes on, I see how much this era resonates with people and people want to know so much about this particular time period. I’m proud that I’m able to do things like this interview and I’m honored that someone like you can ask me to talk about it. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I feel like I need to talk about this chapter in my life. I really needed to let people know that I was a part of this groundbreaking era.