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What Jay Z’s Capsule Collection with Barneys Means for Hip Hop and Fashion

This year's collaboration marks the first time in history that Barneys is working with a hip hop star. Here's why it's a big deal.
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Hip hop fans and fashion obsessives alike were thrilled to hear that Barneys tapped the great Jay Z to collaborate on this year's holiday campaign. He's working with Balenciaga, Balmain, and Proenza Schouler to create an awesome limited-edition capsule collection titled “A New York Holiday.”

It's a natural pairing for Barneys, which is no stranger to high-profile holiday collections. Last year, the luxury retailer teamed up with Disney on the somewhat-controversial fashion cartoon "Electric Holiday" and the year before that, Lady Gaga presented a tricked out version of Santa's workshop. But 2013's collaboration marks the first time in history that Barneys is working with a hip hop star. (Albeit a sports agent, producer, all-around mogul who happens to also be a rapper.)

In the context of hip hop and fashion, two decades ago—and let’s say, even up until five years ago—this kind of joint venture probably wouldn't have come about. A luxury high-end retailer tapping a rapper to handpick items for a major holiday collection? Sure, hip hop had embraced high fashion before, but high fashion--except for maybe Versace--had never really reached back.

In the '80s and early '90s, way before anyone like Kanye West was evangelizing leather sweatpants, the rap uniform was all about streetwear, like baggy jeans, bandanas, and saggy pants. Slowly thereafter, a groundbreaking change washed over the industry as artists like Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur shifted lyrics from life-on-the-streets to luxury (and back again) without arousing contempt or confusion. As the cash flowed in, the looks changed. Both Smalls and Shakur dropped their baggy gear in exchange for designer silks and prints from fashion houses like Versace, which was one of the only major fashion brands to embrace hip hop. (In 1996, the brand invited Shakur to walk its runway show. Watch the footage here.)

Fast-forward to 2008, and the release of Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreaks. With that album came a new type of hip hop uniform. There were leaner silhouettes and more flamboyant colors and pieces that were downright experimental: neon shirts, pink puffer vests, and how could anyone forget those blinders shades? With his new interest in fashion, West would begin rubbing elbows with designers and fashion houses, attending shows like Chloe, Christian Dior, and going on to collaborate with Louis Vuitton in 2009. Others, like Jay Z, followed suit, trading court-side seats at a Brooklyn Nets game for front row seats at Milan Fashion Week. (Although he still does the former.)

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In recent years, the popularity of rappers and their influence on pop culture tastes caught the eyes of designers who have always linked up with celebrities of the moment--good for press, great for sales.

Today, West is BFFs with Givenchy creative director, Riccardo "Ricky" Tisci, who acts as a mentor of sorts. He also likes to occasionally wear the designer’s edgy kilts. (Bonus: girlfriend Kim Kardashian and baby North West get custom Givenchy stuff.) West’s collaboration with APC sold out in days. A$AP Rocky, no stranger to raising a few eyebrows when sporting everything from an Ann Demeulemeester dress to fur vests—noted that he’s become Alexander Wang’s muse. Drake shares his devotion to Rick Owens by wearing the designer almost daily.

It's a mutual admiration: Hit tracks written as homages to designers include Jay Z’s “Tom Ford,” A$AP’s “Fashion Killa,” and Migo’s “Versace.” Rappers like Lil Wayne have traded in bandanas for Balmain and baggy jeans for skinny leopard-print ones—though Wayne still swears by his wife-beaters (T by Alexander Wang?). Swizz Beatz is a Christian Louboutin connoisseur. And, finally, Pharrell Williams went from pioneer of street wear to one of the most highly regarded contemporary fashion icons.

When brands like Barneys link up with tastemakers like Jay Z, it’s more than simply checking off the “cool factor” box. It’s savvy business. Today, designers not only accept hip hop stars—they design for them and keep them as inspirations.

So here's the lesson: Times are changing. Hip hop and high fashion are no longer polar opposites. And the power dynamic has shifted: No brand is too good for hip hop. Fashion may need these stars more than the stars need the fashion houses. Biggie and even Tupac woulda been proud—and maybe would even consider wearing a skirt (ahem, Yeezy). It’s uh, high fashion, so it’s all good, right?

Jay-Z’s “A New York Holiday” collection will be at Barney's New York starting November 20. The collaboration benefits the Shawn Carter Foundation.