Drenched in Gold: A Gilded History of Streetwear

Ever since ancient times, gold has never been far away from the collective fascination of many cultures and civilisations, often thought of as the ultimate symbol of wealth and importance. From the gold-spun fabrics used by royalty and nobility from the 14th to 17th century, to even older examples of gold-embroidered cloth favoured by the ancient Greeks and Romans, not to mention its sustained use in jewellery over the ages, the precious metal has an unmatched legacy within fashion. For the majority of the last 100 years, this legacy had mainly been associated with opulence, intertwined with esteemed luxury fashion houses like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, but towards the latter part of the century, its cultural association began to shift.

With the emergence of hip hop in the 1980s, gold became the go-to ornamental choice for many of the pioneering MCs. LL Cool J, Run DMC and Biz Markie were leading forces in popularising the gold rope chain and four finger bar ring. Slick Rick would don a gold crown and sceptre combo to accompany his multiple gold chains, and Big Daddy Kane’s ‘Long Live The Kane’ album cover displayed an even greater level of regal imagery, with the rapper draped in gold chains and sat on a gold throne, in a look reminiscent of ancient African rulers. 

Though this lavish era of hip hop fashion gave way to a more casual, workwear-influenced mode of dress in the early nineties, with an emphasis on tougher baggy silhouettes, gold jewellery remained a staple, albeit to a moderate degree. Artists like Dr. Dre and Ice T were often seen with a simple gold curb chain or bracelet, as well as the occasional iced out Rolex, which completed their cleaner, all-black ensembles.

As hip hop’s dominance on global popular culture intensified in the mid 1990s, gold was beginning to symbolise something new. By the end of the decade, hip hop style had pivoted back to more flashy, extravagant form, as the gangsta rap era reached new heights. Gold Cartier frames, medallions and watches accented oversized get ups, with an emphasis on power and money. The West Coast label Cash Money perhaps typified this new image the most as hip hop surged towards the new millennium, setting the tone by name alone, producing blinged-out album sleeves for many of their roster’s early output, notably Lil Wayne’s 1999 debut ‘Tha Block Is Hot’ and B.G.’s ‘Chopper City In The Ghetto’, released the same year.

Another hip hop favourite gaining traction in the 1990s was the grill. Originally seen on the likes of Slick Rick and Flava Flav in the previous decade, rappers like ODB and the RZA of Wu Tang Clan shone a new light on the accessory with inventive designs such as fang shaped canines. Across the pond, Drum n Bass Godfather Goldie learned the craft of creating gold caps to build an impressive 24 tooth grill to match his name. Goldie’s striking visual identity of baseball caps, shell suits and excessive gold jewellery could be seen as a precursor to the UK ‘Chav’ attire which went on to epitomise British working class street culture in the early 2000s. 

The gilded effect of street culture around this era would inevitably be felt in sportswear. Following the release of the groundbreaking Air Max 97 in its iconic ‘Silver Bullet’ colour scheme, Nike sought to further capitalise on the burgeoning interest of metallic palettes across its performance models. In its wake there had been a spate of shimmering sneaker renderings, notably on the blue-hued Air Foamposite in 1997, with its follow up silhouettes, the Air Foamposite Pro and Total Air Foamposite Max, adopting similarly silvery tones for the uppers, and the metallic theme would even seep into

the lifestyle range by way of the ‘jewel’ swoosh, which played a key role in reigniting interest in the Air Force 1 model around the same period. 

1998’s World Cup had seen the unveiling of the Mercurial R9 football boot, a pro model for the superstar Brazilian striker and Nike athlete Ronaldo, which channelled wavy silver accents into its sleek new lightweight design. A stark contrast to the all-black leather boots that had been the norm for brands and players up until that point, and a glimmering sign of things to come for the world’s most popular sporting industry. 

With silver then firmly established as a new core colour for Nike, the natural next step was to turn to gold. Two years on from the Silver Bullet, the Air Max 97 would be the first flagship Nike sneaker to get the gilded treatment when the aptly-named ‘Gold Bullet’ or ‘Golden Nugget’ dropped in 1999. By simply replacing the silver uppers with gold, the shoe kept the visual integrity which had made the AM97 such a success, as both colours complimented the white midsole, 3M accents and University Red swoosh combination perfectly. The Gold Bullet also called back to the famous asymmetric gold running shoes worn by American sprinter Michael Johnson at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where he would fittingly win two gold medals.

The connection of hip hop and streetwear has been cemented thanks to the alignment of culturally significant trends banded between the two factions over the last 40 years, so it’s no surprise that gold is so deeply-rooted in each. Taking cues from the early days of the imperious music subculture, trailblazing streetwear brands such as Stussy and FUCT have often used gold for their jewellery lines, memorable examples being the former’s 40th anniversary gold signet ring and the latter’s Skull Bunny rings and pendants from the FUCT SSDD range.

Gold’s employment within streetwear has also been a way to mimic and subvert designer labels and high end aesthetics. The masters of this are perhaps Supreme, who’s use of the colour stretches back to at least the late nineties, with the release of the ‘Bling’ box logo. The design featured a gold bar with a jewel-encrusted spell out, and was used on a selection of t-shirts and stickers in 1999. By the early 2000s, the New York brand had embraced gold as a staple colour, and whether utilised overtly- such as in 2013’s gold playing card deck or 2017’s Metallic Gold Nike Uptempo, or as a subtle embellishment- as seen on 2003’s Nike Dunk High’s use of gold stars to offset classic Dunk college colourways, the effect is still true to the label’s tasteful but tough aesthetic.

Western street labels weren’t the only ones getting in on the begilded act. As A Bathing Ape started to broaden its appeal by evolving from hip Japanese underground brand into mainstream streetwear powerhouse, many of its staple items would get the golden treatment. Gold-tinged t-shirt graphics, gold foil BAPESTA and ROADSTA sneakers, and a slew of gold accessories including BAPEX watches and Bearbrick figurines would serve to define the brand’s new identity. Even the APE head graphic woven label, situated at the sleeve of BAPE’s iconic tees, would be rendered in gold henceforth.

NIGO’s link up with Pharrell in the early noughties, by way of Jacob the Jeweller no less, explored this angle further, with the pair revelling in the ostentatious nature of hip hop of the time, eventually starting the bling-focused, luxury streetwear label Billionaire Boys Club together in 2003. The N.E.R.D. frontman’s influence on the designer’s personal style is well documented, but duo’s mutual passion for gold-plated nostalgic or culturally significant items becomes even more apparent when you conflate the aforementioned golden BAPE products with Pharrell’s inordinate collection of gold gear the years, which has included a golden Blackberry and a 14k gold-plated PSP console. 

The subcultural fixation on gold has yet to wane. It may have seemingly reached the apex, but the bond with hip hop is stronger than ever. Be it Kanye’s 2013 $750k gold toilets, or Drake’s 2 million dollar solid gold Jordan 8s from 2016, rappers have continually found outrageous new ways to flaunt the precious metal. But aside from these absurd novelty pieces, gold has remained a timeless hip hop fashion statement, and if the current crop’s penchant for layered gold curb chains and grills blended with the key element of today’s nineties revivalism (Cartiers, elaborate pendants) is anything to go by, gold’s popularity appears gleaming. Sneaker culture too remains in step with the metallic zeitgeist, evident in the carefully considered reissues of the Silver and Gold Bullets, built true to the original spec by Nike for the first time in over 20 years, and ready to define another era.

Words by Samuatro

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