The Style and Influence of Hype Williams' "Belly"
The Style and Influence of Hype Williams' "Belly"
- Words Alphonse Pierre
- Date August 01, 2017
Nas struts into the Harlem corner fried chicken spot. Paolo Gucci sunglasses sit perfectly on his face, his fade is sculpted, a leather trench coat sways behind him while a knit turtleneck and Timberland boots round out the look. If Instagram had existed in 1998, Belly would have ensured that Nas would be properly recognized as a fashion icon. These hypothetical accolades wouldn’t be credited to Nas alone. The film’s biggest aesthetic praises belong to director Hype Williams and costume designer June Ambrose. Spending a good portion of the late 1990s making music videos more cinematic than they had ever been, this legendary duo brought their unique, NYC-inflected style and flavor to the silver screen in 1998’s cult classic Belly.
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In the late 1990’s, Hype Williams became the premier music video director for rap and R&B. If you’re watching a music video today, you’re looking at a visual language defined (and subsequently redefined) by Williams. Known for their cinematic shots, over-the-top absurdity and occasional "narrative," Williams’ videos were pieces of modern visual art, featuring trendsetting fashion courtesy of Ambrose. With Williams' reputation firmly established, a transition to film seemed only natural. His first and only feature film, Belly—while critically panned for its lack of a cohesive story—is irrefutably iconic due to an epic cast, incredible visual style, and Ambrose’s era-encapsulating costume design.
Ambrose’s work on the film juxtaposed luxury merchandise with classic hip hop tropes. Simply put, it was menswear meets the streets of Queens. For years both prior to and following Belly, fashion designers have been attempting to effectively accomplish the same feat. While some succeeded, many have failed.
In one of the standout scenes, Tommy—played by DMX—along Nas’ Sincere hide out at Tommy’s home following the opening credits nightclub heist. The men sit in Tommy’s luxurious house draped in baggy black leather and clean crew neck sweaters, white tees poking out from underneath and Jesus pieces effortlessly laying across their chests. Their lavish, gaudy, almost noir-esque garb clearly implies the crew is a success in the New York crime scene, with Williams’ use of low angle shots only further highlighting their eminence—both in business, and in wardrobe.
At the time, New York street fashion was synonymous with opulence, where accesories were signified success and influence. Impractical and expensive foreign jeans were certainly a symbol of style, but also embodied wealth; if you could afford to spend more to cop a pair of Evisu's—Ambrose takes credit for bringing the denim brand over to the states—over Levi’s, what else could you afford to splurge on? This first scene at Tommy’s modernist mansion showcases more than his love of modern art (and films by Harmony Korine). Ambrose chose accessories that both mimicked each character's upbringing while obviously implying wealth. Crosses dangled around their necks, earring studs glistened, but the casual wave cap—as much a symbol of honest, casual style as of the characters’ roots—acted as a humble counterbalance. Considering the exponential growth in fashion’s love affair with streetwear, it’s not surprising that even these more mundane details found their way onto runways years later. Look back at Givenchy’s S/S 2015 runway show and their is a striking resemblance to the signature style seen in Belly—especially when considering the inclusion of said wave caps.
Hype Williams always excelled in getting his jewelry to pop beautifully on camera, be it with Diddy’s shining studs in the “Mo Money Mo Problems” video, or Missy Elliott’s oversized dangling hoops in “The Rain”. Naturally, he continued that trend in Belly. In a scene when Tommy meets Ox, the Jamaican drug lord’s style is ostentatious, but in a subtle way that reflects his secure, upper crust lifestyle. Going in to orchestrate a deal with an immensely powerful figure, Tommy pares down much of his innately brash nature—and by extension, his jewelry. In comparison to Ox, Tommy’s seen only wearing a single ring, a bracelet, a watch (hidden behind his sleeve) and a slim chain. Even as the two simply chat in Ox’s palatial home, it’s clear that jewelry is used to reflect dominance as much as body language. Ox may be sitting on his couch talking business at home, but he’s shining like he’s heading for a big night out. As Hype Williams sits on a shot that lingers behind Ox’s ear where his massive studs taking up almost half of the screen, it’s clear that in Belly’s world, jewelry represents authority.
A hallmark of it's era, Belly includes many of the definitive 90s hip hop fashion labels. Seminal brands such as Enyce, Ecko, Avirex and Phat Farm are all featured heavily. In the context of the film, though, these brands—while iconic in their own right—are indicative of a lower class. Unlike our protagonists, draped in leather and designer, the "urban" clothing brands are associated with lower-level dealers an unofficial uniform for those still on the block. When Nas’ character, Sincere, returns to the beleaguered project building where he used to hang out with Tommy, he dresses down in a heavy white leather Avirex jacket. Sincere wears a piece that those still peddling drugs find aspirational, in the hopes that they too can make it out the projects, and “rise above all this madness.”
The driving force in Belly is a never-ending war for dominance. Those themes aren't lost on William's and Ambrose, who riff heavily on the most iconic of menswear tropes: military. Violence is ubiquitous in the world of Belly. During a shootout at a strip club, Method Man’s character is fittingly dressed in head-to-toe camouflage, with, naturally, Timbs on his feet, a la Capone-N-Norega. It’s no secret that camo is runway mainstay, but considering the pop-cultural impact of Belly, it's no surpise that hip-hop inflected lines— be they OFF-WHITE or Kanye West’s Yeezy—have made liberal use of camo in multiple collections.
As much a NYC-style fixture as a Yankees fitted, the online memeing of New York’s undying love for the Timberland six-inch classic boot may be tiring, but is undoubtedly rooted in truth. In nearly every New York scene, at least one character is wearing a pair of Timbs. While not the direct result of Belly’s cult influence, the Timberland boot has become a bonafide menswear staple, boasting runway appearances and high-fashion homages—undoubtedly attempts to incorporate and capitalize on hip-hop's notable cultural cache. Perhaps the most infamous case is A.P.C.’s F/W 2015 collection, which included a collaboration boot inspired by the six-inch "wheats" seen on nearly ever city block. The collection’s core ethos was the product of strong hip hop influences and most notably, and the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. A.P.C.’s founder, Jean Touitou, elecited harsh critiques, calling the boot, “A ghetto signifier” and naming the collection itself, “Last Ni**as in Paris.”
But for all the time spent in New York, one of Belly’s most aesthetically appealing sequences occurs when the film briefly leaves New York for a quick sojourn in Jamaica. Right after landing on the island, Tommy settles in the back of black Mercedes-Benz, wearing a pair of sleek, gold-tinted oval frames reminiscent of the classic Cartier joints. While the accessory certainly grabs your attention, Tommy downplays the ornate eyewear in some island-appropriate casualwear, ranging from a palm tree-printed polo to an unforgettable all-white dancehall ensemble. While dancehall and reggae have infiltrated the charts in the last few year—to be sure, Drake's current riddim-obession plays a role—the island elegant vibe has become a runway mainstay, found everywhere from Louis Vuitton runways to Dries Van Noten collections.
While hip-hop has always been a treasure trove of style influences, very rarely does one project encapsulate the aesthetics of an era. When the right pieces come together, the result can be something as visually breathtaking as Belly. Looking back on the key scenes and characters, it’s abundantly clear that Belly has played its part in documenting, and even defining, late 90s hip-hop style, and cemented its influence on runway collections to this day. Considering the project’s all-star ensemble and enduring impact, Belly is, and always will be, representative of hip-hop’s lasting relationship with modern day fashion.