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A Walk Through the Decades with Stylist Misa Hylton

The legend reminisces about her most iconic career moments, working with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, and the importance of femme power.

misa hylton
Misa Hylton is single-handedly responsible for creating the bridge that formed the forever-bonded alliance between the mainstream fashion industry and hip-hop culture. Over the last 25 years, this legendary fashion architect and MCM global creative partner hailing from Mount Vernon, NY, has used her magic touch and sharp eye to create iconic looks for some of the biggest names in the game, from Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige to Foxy Brown and Missy Elliott.

Still not familiar? Maybe Lil’ Kim’s purple pasty 1999 MTV Video Music Awards look will ring a bell. Or how about Beyoncé’s leather MCM bustier and trench coat for the 2018 surprise video “Apeshit”? Yes, ma’am, that’s Hylton. As she continued to break down barriers in the fashion industry, Hylton decided to pay it forward in 2012 with the launch of the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy (MHFA) as a way to assist the next generation of creatives as they embark on their journey in fashion.

We connected with Hylton about her career in the music industry as a styling icon, a respected and powerful Black woman, and philanthropist who gives back to the younger generation through mentorship and education.


misa hyltonPhoto: Dove Clark
Let’s take it all the way back. When did you know that fashion and style were your calling?

“As far as I can remember, I’ve always been into wardrobe and hair. I really love hair, and that was the first place that I was able to be creative. I would do my hair in different styles, I would cut and color and style my friends’ hair, and I had no license—it was just a natural gift. I actually made money doing that in high school; I did my neighbor’s hair, my family’s hair, my friends’ hair. That was the first place that I was able to express my creativity, but I’ve always been into wardrobe and style. I was heavily influenced by my upbringing and my ethnicity. My mom is Japanese and Jamaican, [and] my dad is African American, and I had all of this amazing culture around me and style influence. I don’t even know, but maybe five [years old] is as early as I can remember. I used to change my clothes three times a day and get in trouble for it because I would make laundry (laughs). My momma used to be upset about that.

“As far as my career, I probably didn’t realize that this could actually be a job and a career for me until I started working for Mary J. Blige, and when I started working with Lil’ Kim, that cemented it. I was like, ‘Oh boy, this is amazing,’ and I had no idea that I could make a living being a creative and working with wardrobe and using my natural gift that I had.”

Everybody knows that New York is a melting pot of different cultures and influences. How did your upbringing in Mount Vernon, New York, and your multicultural background play a part in your creativity?

“I think just experiencing Japanese culture and the kimonos, paintings, origami, and the colors, and my West Indian side [with] the rawness and the realness of reggae music. I’ve always been inspired by music visually; when I hear music, I think of wardrobe, and it inspires me to create looks and tap into fashion. My dad is from East Orange, New Jersey, so I spent a lot of time there. Those three places that I spent a lot of time as a young person heavily influenced me because it was what I saw and what I lived every day. I didn’t realize how much of an influence it was until I began to look back at my work. It was just something that came out of me, something that was natural and something that I expressed. In a lot of my styling work, you can see a lot of aspects of that.

“Hip-hop culture played an extremely huge part in my influence, as well. Again, the music, the lyrics, the artists, their style, the freedom that hip-hop gave, the authenticity, the truth telling—it was just all very inspiring to me and something that I could relate to.”

What was your personal style like as you were growing up?

“It’s always been very colorful, eclectic, and out-of-the-box. You see that Asian influence, you see hip-hop influence, and, of course, African American style. It’s always been reflective of those three things, but if I had to add to that, I would say I put things together that people wouldn’t think to put together. That was my gift in stylinghaving a vision. The first person I dressed every day was myself, right? So I was like a walking billboard without trying to be, but it was because I didn’t shy away from how I wanted to express myself, and it was like my art and it still is. I would wear combat boots and a tennis skirt, or wear a hockey jersey as a dress with thigh-highs. I would put things together that weren’t put together back then when I was a teenager.

“I cut my hair offI used to wear short hair all the time and baseball caps. I used to mix hip-hop style with fashion items. It’s just my art. When I look at wardrobe, I have a way of putting it together that is unique and it stands out, and that’s why I call it my art. It also speaks to people, too. It creates emotion in people, whether they relate to it, they enjoy it, it makes them happy, it’s inspiring, and I had that effect since I was young.”

misa hyltonPhoto: Dove Clark
Take us to your first styling gig ever. What was going through your mind, and how did you handle the pressures of finally being given the opportunity you’d been waiting for?

“I was at the right place at the right time because, remember, I didn’t know that this was a job. I was a young person who loved styling, who was stylish, who was experienced in styling people because I would style my girlfriends when we were going out. I started dating Puffy, and at the time he was an intern. Right at that point, he had just gone from intern to A&R, and so he started working with groups and artists like Heavy D, and they were all on Uptown Records. Since we were dating, I would spend a lot of time hanging out at the office, and back then Uptown Records was like an urban Motown [Records] and there was just so much flavor in those offices. I mean, when you walked in, you could run into Al B. Sure, Guy, and even Bobby Brown because Uptown was on MCA [Records] at the time. There was just music flaring in the hallway, and there was this energy that I really gravitated towards. I had never been in an environment like that in my life.

“The first project that I was part of was Jodeci and Puff for their project, and he was in charge of not only overseeing the album, but coming up with the image and creating their look. I was right there when it was time to do that. The first styling job that I had for Jodeci was the ‘Gotta Love’ video off of their first album, and that experience was really a lot of fun. There really was no pressure because we were having a good time while we were doing it. It’s different now with Instagram, extra opinions and eyes looking all the time, people attempting to meet certain marks and not really just flowing with the creativity. At that time we flowed with the creativity, and the challenge was convincing Andre [Harrell] to let these R&B singers dress like rappers because before then that didn’t happen. Most singers dressed in hard-bottomed shoes or suits and dressed up because when you’re singing, you should be dressed up, right?

“Here comes Jodeci, and they have these songs, ‘Forever My Lady’ and these beautiful, passionate love songs, and there’s no denying that. He didn’t see them in hoodies, combat boots, and baseball caps, but we thought that it would be a great idea because it was a reflection of who we were. They were young, we were young, and that’s what we wanted to see. A combination of the new sound and younger people being able to have positions in this space as singers and at record companies—we wanted to see ourselves reflected in imagery. We fought for that idea, Andre gave us a shot, and that was the ‘Gotta Love’ video.”

What would you say was one of your most pivotal moments in your career, when you had that “I’m going to do this for the rest of my life and I really love this” moment?

“I probably would say working with Mary J. Blige. After the success of Jodeci, the next artist that was up on the roster was Mary J. Blige, and Andre had loved everything that I did with Jodeci, my creativity, and my personal style. He called me up one day and was like, ‘Misa, we have this new artist coming up. I know Puff probably has mentioned her, and I really want you to work with her and style her. You both are from Westchester, New York, and I think you’d click and get along. She’s from Yonkers, and you’re from Mount Vernon.’ And I was like, ‘Yup, a hop, skip, and a jump away. I believe our high schools play each other in basketball.’ (laughs). When he called me, I was at the very beginning of my career, and it was dope because she was, too.

“I was very young and entered into this industry styling at 17 years old. I was the youngest person in the room all the time, I didn’t have a mentor that I could look up to. Those were some of the challenges that I faced, but I stayed focused on the art and the creativity. I listened. I was fortunate to be in rooms with Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell, Puffy, and other executives, and I heard a lot and learned a lot. I learned how to do business in this space because I knew that it was important that I create that, and I did. In 1995 I formed a company, Chyna Doll Enterprises, and I managed other stylists because at that point, there were just so many jobs, and I thought that it would be a great opportunity to give other stylists—especially the stylists who were under me and assisting me at the time—opportunities to take on jobs themselves. I felt good about that because I would be teaching them what I knew and was able to give them an opportunity. Looking back, I see that as the seed for the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy, which I founded in 2012. I’ve always been somewhat of a natural teacher, a way maker, and I love to provide opportunities for other people that look like me. I knew early on, not only as a Black person but as a Black woman, that there were a lot of challenges that I would have to face.”

misa hyltonLil’ Kim and Missy Elliott

Photo: Dove Clark
How have you witnessed firsthand the influence of rap and hip-hop culture on fashion? And vice versa, how have you seen fashion impact music?

“I’ve seen it all. Anything that is created from a place of authenticity, people are going to gravitate towards and they’re gonna follow. It may not be everybody, but every energy has its tribe of people.

“Let me give you an example. Lil’ Kim as an artistjust about everyone knows Lil’ Kim. Even people who shouldn’t know her or you wouldn’t think would know her, know her. They definitely know that 1999 MTV outfit. You see the power in that? That’s why it’s brought up so much even in my work, because they know people remember that. White people, Black people, Asian people—people remember that look. People gravitate towards it, and they remember it even if they don’t like it or they wouldn’t wear it. Maybe they’ve never listened to her music or didn’t really know her name, but it’s striking and it stands out. As Black people, we have that gift naturally; we stand out, and we have a style and a way and a swagger about us that stands out.

“Hip-hop fashion has had a huge influence not only in hip-hop music, but all music because you see hip-hop style everywhere. You can turn on the TV right now, and it could be an insurance company commercial, and you see somebody rapping in it or something that comes from hip-hop culture. It’s all about the power of what we create, the power of creation and how it’s spread. It will and does impact everyone because it’s art, and art is for everyone to enjoy.”

Now with everything happening in the country, the killings of our people and the uprising of protests, how have you seen fashion play a role in the Black Lives Matter movement?

“It’s sad that we have to experience so much pain and endure so much for so long, especially with everything that has happened most recently for us to get to a place where we finally have more power that’s recognizable. When you look at what Brandice [Daniel] has been doing with Harlem’s Fashion Row or [what] the Black In Fashion Council has been doing, what they’re doing to protect creatives—all of this comes from realizing enough is enough. There’s power in numbers. Coming together through pain has pushed us to this point of opportunity and pushed us to this platform to use our voice more loudly and more [proudly] than we ever have before.

“I’m also excited about Black people creating their own businesses, their own schools, their own organizations, their own fashion line, [and] their own everything. In fashion, we can create our own everything, and then we can have control and we empower ourselves. We don’t have to feel like our only option is to work for a big brand. That’s a great option, but we have other options and we can create our own. With the right opportunities, support, and resources, anything is possible.”

misa hyltonPhoto: Dove Clark
How do you believe that your work in fashion and styling has created a larger avenue and greater conversation, especially for Black women and women of color?

“Thank you. I’m honored, and what I want young women to pay attention to would be some of the things that got me along the way and that I kept close to me in my journey. That’s having courage, believing in myself, having integrity, being able to pick myself up when I fall down and continue to move forward and not give up until I reach my goal. That sounds good in a sentence, but sometimes that takes a couple years or a decade. You don’t know how long that time will take. It’s really up to us how long it will take, but there’s outside energy that comes in and you have to work through to get to where you’re trying to go.

“Some of the barriers I had to break were around fashion from our culture and from our background, being Black, being from the hip-hop culture and being accepted, especially when certain artists that I was working with went mainstream. Everyone wanted to jump in at that point. The high-fashion magazines wanted to bring in their white stylists, and everyone started hovering, and a lot of times I would be faced with someone wanting to re-create my look. That was tough, and my clients fought for me as hard as they could. In the best cases, I would be a consultant there; in the worse cases, they would go on and do that without me.”

Where do you see, including the graduates of the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy, the future of Black designers, Black stylists, and Black fashion heading?

“The possibilities are endless. There are going to be so many more opportunities at brands and companies—more than we’ve ever seen before. There will be some tokenism at first, but ultimately that’s a first step. We hope that it will become real and a way of being where it isn’t something that we don’t have to fight so much for to be noticed, to get equal pay, to be up for certain opportunities that our white counterparts may be up for, but that’s changing now. I know that will continue to change and that will bring a new energy to the fashion space—it’ll bring a new vibe, I believe, and it’ll be even more exciting than fashion can be now for people when it’s fair and when it’s more balanced.

“We’re making a difference, banding together, and we’re not going to retreat—and we don’t have to.”

Photos: Dove Clark

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