A Different Type of Rapper: Tyler, The Creator
A Different Type of Rapper: Tyler, The Creator
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date March 3, 2021
When Tyler, The Creator first burst onto the scene in early 2011 with “Yonkers”, many were quick to notice—or worse, scarred by—his visceral lyrics and jarring visuals. Others picked up on something else entirely—the Supreme 5-panel sitting atop his head. Regardless of what you may have noticed, the takeaway was the same: Tyler was drastically different than his rapper contemporaries. There were no music videos featuring lavish mansions, super cars or strippers. Nor were there extensive bragging about wealth and opulence. Louboutin and Balmain were replaced by Vans and Supreme. With Tyler, a new paradigm emerged.
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While Tyler has a successful musical career, Pitchfork points out that the Odd Future collective, Tyler included, “were neither the first alternative rappers nor the first shock rappers nor the first DIY rappers.” While Tyler has had an impact on the sound of his contemporaries, he hasn’t radically altered the hip-hop landscape. That said, Tyler’s cultural impact—tied as much to clothing as it is to music—is undeniable. In the eight years since “Yonkers” debuted, Tyler has transformed from a Supreme-clad rapper from Los Angeles to become the face of a new era of streetwear, launching his own brand and collaborating with countless others in the process. No longer just a rapper, today Tyler more closely resembles world-recognized polyglots like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. Today, Tyler is a multi-hyphenate creative dabbling in numerous endeavours and boasting tremendous influence.
To fully appreciate Tyler, The Creator’s impact, it’s crucial to understand hip-hops relationship with fashion in the beginning of the decade. Rappers still primarily wore gaudy high-fashion, Balmain and Givenchy in particular. Jordan Brand was at its apex and Supreme, while already undeniably cool, had nowhere near the same international recognition—drops didn’t even necessarily always sell out. Back then, a Tisa snapback was arguably “cooler” than the Supreme cap that Tyler wore—at least, amongst the hip-hop set. For Tyler, like many skate-affiliated teens in Los Angeles loitering on Fairfax Avenue, Supreme was mecca. He did not gravitate towards the store for any reason besides that fact that it was literally where he and his friends shopped and hung out. Perceived clout was entirely unrelated.
The “Yonkers” video wasn’t an abnormality. During that time period Supreme was a part of Tyler’s everyday wardrobe. The Odd Future front man rarely ever took off his signature 5-panel, and became so closely associated with the brand that in 2011, he starred in Ollie Magazine’s Spring/Summer Supreme editorial. While Tyler is clearly not solely responsible for Supreme’s meteoric rise over the past decade, he clearly plays a role. Google search data points to Tyler as overall the largest driver of Supreme-related searches from 2011 through 2015—more than A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper, respectively—and he is still a consistent contributor to this day, though some of the buzz has faded.
That said, Tyler’s wardrobe was not limited Supreme. His early career sartorial choices were simple—T-shirts, patterned camp shirts, a box logo here and there, Vans with tube socks, tasteful use of jewelry and of course his patented Supreme 5-panel. He dressed like your typical LA skater, because that’s exactly who he hung out with. Tyler just happened to make hip-hop rather than skateboard, and he wasn’t going to eschew what he was comfortable in just to adopt some rapper stereotype. Instead, Tyler doubled down on his own aesthetic.
In November 2011, shortly after Tyler and Odd Future started making waves, the collective opened the Odd Future store. Originally intended as a temporary pop up on Fairfax—right alongside Supreme and Vans—Tyler was often at the shop himself, meeting fans, causing mayhem or just hanging out. Whenever he was spotted on the block, Tyler always wore Odd Future merch or original designs from the fledgling Golf Wang line. Boasting an aesthetic that somehow combined Supreme, prep and middle school nostalgia, the line’s bright pastel color palette was totally unexpected, but surprisingly welcomed. While available online, the Fairfax flagship—similar to Supreme on Lafayette Street—embodied the label and, in turn, Tyler’s own sartorial influence.
Odd Future merch and earl Golf Wang pieces shared a common thread. Loud and impossible to miss, there were Tie-dyed T-shirts with giant cat faces on them, bright tube socks just like those Tyler wore, and Microsoft Paint-esque graphics. Yet, as Tyler’s stature grew, his absurdist style was accepted—and eventually, replicated. It wasn’t that what he wore was absurd per se, but that it was absurd for him, a budding rap star, to wear it. Tyler’s wardrobe sent a message. He showed that it was totally acceptable to wear baseball raglans, thigh-grazing shorts or pink hoodies with obscene slogans regardless of who you were. Better yet, you could look good wearing them. Tyler championed self-expression through clothing.
Fans heard the message loud and clear. Given the collective’s fervent following, demand was high and Odd Future merch and Golf Wang pieces were suddenly stocked at notable boutiques around the world. The collections were seemingly sold out everywhere. By 2013, the signature OF Donut logo widely recognized. That’s when Vans came calling.
Tyler’s collaboration with Vans in 2013—officially labelled a Golf Wang x Vans Syndicate drop—was the first sign that his aesthetic had staying power. The initial collaboration was tame, at least by Tyler standards. Iterating on the Old Skool Pro S, Tyler presented four monochromatic suede colorways, each fitted with the Golf Wang logo at the heel and insoles featuring an all-over cat print. The initial success set the stage for a series of Vans collaborations, first with Golf Wang, then Odd Future, Tyler himself, and even sneakers to commemorate his annual Camp Flog Gnaw festival. While it spawned some coveted kicks, the relationship between Tyler and Vans only lasted until 2016, when Tyler jumped ship and aligned himself with Converse.
The shift towards Converse may seem like a pure cash grab, but was in fact rooted in Tyler’s desire to become more directly involved in fashion. By 2016, Tyler had become a bonafide star. No longer directly involved in designing Odd Future merch, instead Tyler focused his creative energy on building Golf Wang, which, while worn by others in the crew, was decidedly his own venture. The aesthetic of Golf Wang is still essentially the same. Despite his role in helping normalizing laidback streetwear within hip-hop and encouraging countless youth to express themselves through their clothes, Tyler was still a relative outsider in the fashion world. His neon-blasted prep wear still lacked critical recognition.
“The fashion world don’t let many people in. And because I wear t-shirts and shorts, I’m not all like high fashion they don’t take me seriously,” Tyler said to Dazed. But, to a certain extent, Tyler had always wanted in. He briefly interned for Rick Klotz at streetwear stalwart Freshjive and often sketched out designs that drew on what Pharrell—who he lists as an idol—wore and put out through Billionaire Boys Club. The shift to Converse coincided with a more concerted effort on Tyler’s part to break into that closed-off fashion industry. In 2016, Golf Wang made its runway debut at MADE LA, a short-lived effort to create an LA fashion week. Rather than adhere to high-fashion tropes, Tyler went out of his way to keep the T-shirts, shorts, bright colours and eclectic patterns. “It was t-shirts and big girls and short guys and black kids on the runway because they don’t accept none of us in that world, for the most part,” he said to Dazed.
It was during this inaugural show that Tyler introduced his new project with Converse: GOLF le FLEUR*. Not simply a collaboration, GOLF le FLUER* was clearly Tyler’s endeavour—he even removed the Converse logo. “I realized, black people don’t really own shit. So I said, fuck royalty checks, I’ma start my own shit, and if it fails, it fails. I decided to start my own shoe company and shit,” he said following the show. It was a declaration of agency and an assertion that he could do whatever he wanted with his clothes and sneakers. GOLF le FLEUR* became extremely successful, while Golf Wang has evolved into a full ready-to-wear line, as opposed to simply a convoluted extension of Odd Future merch. While the Odd Future store shuttered in 2015, the Golf Wang store sprouted up in its place just down the block. Tyler was just as connected to Fairfax as ever.
Looking at Tyler’s string of successful projects, it’s easy to see why others followed suit. Tyler’s—and, by extension, Odd Future’s —approach to merch was not only novel but extremely profitable, replicated by everyone from Justin Bieber to Drake and even Kanye. Today, touring pop-ups are the norm, as merch designed with a purpose is standard. Tyler helped establish the whole system.
Tyler, The Creator’s impact has always extended beyond music. The basic make-up of his wardrobe—camp shirts, bucket hats, cross-body bags, tie-dye—not coincidentally forms the foundation of modern streetwear. Fans began dressing like him as early as 2011, flocking to Supreme to cop 5-panels and waiting anxiously outside the Odd Future store hoping the OF frontman would show up. At the same time, popular artists and athletes began moving away from traditional luxury and experimenting with streetwear across the board. Today, countless rappers are lauded for their atypical fashion choices and you have to wonder whether they would be as comfortable in Vans and skinny jeans if it weren’t for Tyler.
More than his fashion choice, Tyler’s most important contribution is the normalization of individuality. Tyler’s complicated relationship with the LGBTQ+ community is well-documented—he has used slurs, but has welcomed and vociferously defended queer members of Odd Future, while also leaving his sexuality very much open to interpretation. He has challenged traditional gender norms, on occasion opting for a Chanel handbag or tweeting about his predilection for crossdressing. His upcoming GOLF le FLEUR* collection, for instance, features crushed velvet sneakers—a material often used in women’s lines—and tote bags that resemble purses. It’s rooted, he says, in his love for the color pink, which he was mocked for as a child. Regardless of the reason, Tyler never fails to push the envelope.
While he is not alone in doing this, nor the first—Pharrell also has a penchant for Chanel womenswear—Tyler has certainly helped normalize a new form of self-expression through clothing. "Gully Guy" Leo Mandella, Lil Uzi Vert, Gunna and countless others are now seen with Chanel bags, painted nails and an abundance of pink, clearly not coincidence. Tyler played a crucial role in dismantling the stereotypes surrounding how rappers portray themselves and perceived masculinity and boundaries within streetwear.
In 2019, IGOR—Tyler, the Creator’s fifth studio album—became a showcase of the artist at the peak of his powers, combining performance art, cultural commentary, narrative-driven storytelling and his own unique blend of hip-hop, electronic, jazz and gospel. Critically acclaimed, the album earned the artist the 2019 Grammy award for “Best Rap Album” (which, Tyler used as a springboard to institute a larger change for future editions of the notoriously out-of-touch awards ceremony)
Conceptually, IGOR is, as The Wall Street Journal succinctly describes, “the story of an ill-starred love triangle between Tyler, a guy he’s crushing on and the woman that guy is dating.” In the context of Tyler, the Creator’s cultural evolution, it’s a clear break from the Odd Future-esque hip-hop that spurred projects like Goblin. That’s not to say that Tyler is discarding his past work or moving beyond brands like Supreme (let’s point your attention to this incredible candid shot of Tyler and Luka Sabbat picking up Supreme pieces while shopping out in Los Angeles), but there’s no doubt that his aesthetic has evolved… in this case, into an on-stage persona wearing skinny suits and a blond bob wig.
All that said, even if Tyler doesn’t dress or look like he did in 2011, we’d also argue that he’s remained largely the same. While there’s clearly various phases of Tyler, the Creator’s career that are different from others, the unifying theme has to be his willingness to metaphorically “rock the boat” in order to convey his vision—be that in his lyrics or in his style.
If anything, it feels like we’re simply catching up to where Tyler has already been. With the rise in preppy styles and a broader appeal for genderless clothing that’s permeated both women’s and menswear, Tyler’s colorful suits, pastel Lacoste cardigans and hard-bottom shoes or loafers feel less like an outlier and more like picks off a cult-favorite Instagram moodboard.
From an era market by Supreme and Vans to a period that blends prep, streetwear, luxury and—frankly—grandpa style, Tyler, the Creator has built his place in the modern men’s style pantheon for roughly a decade. Today, his two clothing brands (Golf Wang and the collaborative GOLF le FLEUR*) serving as sartorial embodiments of Tyler’s personal style—on top of both his Camp Flog Gnaw merch and his own music—it’s clear that Tyler, the Creator is a 21st century icon. Of course… starring opposite fellow style inspirations Iggy Pop and A$AP Rocky in a Gucci campaign certainly drives the point home.