In this series, iconic items from the history of hip-hop are celebrated for their legacy in the culture.
When the curators for the Baltimore Museum of Art’s The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century exhibition contacted celebrity hairstylist Dionne Alexander to ask if she wanted to display any of the now-iconic designer logo wigs she created for rapper Lil’ Kim, Alexander had no idea where the custom hair pieces were.
In 2001, Lil’ Kim was photographed in a teal wig with the double-C Chanel logo stenciled on top of its blunt-cut bangs for the cover of the now-defunct magazine Manhattan File. Similarly, Lil’ Kim wore a Versace logo in a blond wig when she attended the spring 2001 runway show in Milan.
“Kim would have kept those, as far as I know,” Alexander said. “But at the end of the day, that was 20 years ago.”
Alexander spent six months reimagining and re-creating the pieces for the exhibition. When she created the original pieces, it was a collaborative idea between Lil’ Kim and her stylist Misa Hylton.
“They wanted the logo,” Alexander said. “So I went to the art store. I traced the logo on the wigs.” She even used a black Sharpie so the Versace logo would appear more prominently on the blond synthetic hair. Back then, Alexander was constructing everything by hand. Wigs weren’t as fashionable as now, and no one wore lace front units.
The hairstylist got her first big break with MC Lyte and met Lil’ Kim through Mary J. Blige on the set of the “I Can Love You” music video where Alexander was Blige’s hairstylist. She styled Lauryn Hill in her first lace-front wig for the “Doo Wop (That Thing)” music video. She says seeing her legacy on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art was amazing but overwhelming.
“Younger women are emotional about my work because of the influences it had on hip-hop, but was I thinking about that back then? Heck to the nah,” Alexander said. “I knew that the famous people I was working with would be famous — because I had the best of the best, so I knew they would be famous — and I thank God for that. But did I know the artwork and the things we created for them would last this long and influence the generation to come? I didn’t know that.”
Alexander’s innovation and Lil’ Kim’s fashion-forward taste make the pieces iconic. It’s such a groundbreaking look that singer Beyoncé replicated it in a teal wig with the Chanel bang, rapper Nicki Minaj in a short blond bob printed with Fendi’s “F” logo, and rapper Cardi B in a blond ponytail with the Louis Vuitton logo on it.
Lil’ Kim’s hair and the savviness of her hairstylist reflects where she comes from, said Tianni Graham, a born-and-raised New Yorker, now working as a fashion archivist for the Thom Browne luxury brand.
“I’ve been around women who are totally into their hair and have a new hairstyle every week,” Graham said. “Like, if we’re not at the salon, we have a family friend that does hair and she would do it in the kitchen. So, people would mix and make their own [hair] colors. They would make their own unit. The innovation has always been there, but I will say, men, they would go to the barbershop and cut designs into their heads.”
Lil’ Kim’s designer logo wigs, she said, are an interpretation of that. “She came in at the perfect time, too, because this was when hip-hop was coming into this commercial form.” And Lil’ Kim branded herself a fashion girl. Designers loved her, and she always looked the part.
“Your hair is also part of your image,” Graham said. “So, your hair has to reflect everything else. If you are going to be deemed a style icon, everything has to be at the same level. It’s the complete package of that ghetto fabulous, as they used to say. Now, we’re very politically correct, but we were proud to claim ghetto fabulous. Like, yeah, that’s me.”