Tributes have been paid to Derek Khan, the fashion stylist who invented the “ghetto fabulous” or “bling” look which merged haute couture with street style, who has died aged 63.
Khan altered the aesthetic of hip-hop culture in the 90s by convincing previously reticent fashion labels to work with rap stars. His work with Mary J Blige (he styled her 1997 Share My World album cover), Sean Combs (then known as Puff Daddy) and Salt-N-Pepa forever changed the look associated with the genre.
He started his career as an assistant to Hubert De Givenchy, but it was when he started dressing Madonna’s backing dancers that he came into contact with the music world. After he landed the job of the in-house stylist to Motown Records, he began to change the style of hip-hop.
Explaining his motivation in creating the “ghetto fabulous” look to the Genteel magazine in 2012, he said: “Hip-hop stars were just beginning to cross over to the mass market and to make this transition their images needed a little polishing.”
Khan’s first paying stylist job was with Salt-N-Pepa in the early 90s, moving their look on from their Kente inspired hats, bomber jackets and undercut haircuts. “These ladies had a sense of style, but my task was to introduce them to couture,” he said.
After Khan died, Cheryl “Salt” James wrote on Instagram: “Thank you for everything you were Salt N Pepa’s first real stylist.”
“Up to that point, most women in hip-hop wore Timberlands and baggy jeans – style elements that were borrowed from the men, and were worn in the same way as men,” explained Mario Dodovski who runs the Runway to Music video Instagram, dedicated to archiving runway pieces worn in music videos.
“Suddenly, you have three Black women rapping about gender equality in these expensive designer clothes, looking unapologetically glamorous.”
In 1998 he helped style Lauryn Hill’s timeless look for her classic debut The Miseducation of…. “(The look] fused these disparate realms of bohemian, hip-hop, and grunge dress styles,” said Darnell-Jamal Lisby, a fashion historian. “Mixing a fur coat with a leather halter dress or keeping it casual with her denim ensembles were strategic and rightly elicited the image that [Hill] wanted the world to see,” he said. “Khan’s vision was a beautiful convergence of the time.”
The stylist claimed to have taught Blige how to walk in heels and Combs how to dress, but his biggest legacy was making European luxury fashion labels pay attention to hip-hop. “Brands like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent were fighting to get their clothes in music videos and on the red carpet so they could reach a more diverse audience and increase sales,” said Dodovski.
After a prison sentence in 2003 for defrauding eight of New York’s most prestigious jewellers (he borrowed more than $1.5m worth of jewellery, which he later pawned), Khan moved to the UAE, where he resided until his death.
Khan’s legacy remains the way he opened up hip-hop culture. “The ‘ghetto fabulous’ aesthetic gave permission for this generation of hip-hop to embrace fashion in the way that they have,” said Lisby. “It’s practically a part of the lexicon to see a hip-hop artist wear specific luxury brands and styled in specific ways.”
Through the “ghetto fabulous” look Khan anticipated the style of streetwear and even today’s boom in luxury sweatpants. As he told the Genteel magazine: “As long as there are customers who are willing to spend money on fine jewels there will always be bling.”