From Underground To The Runway: Reggaeton’s Influence On Mass Fashion

Reggaeton has exploded into the mainstream, and the fashion industry is opening its doors to the pop icons cementing the genre’s global success. 

Last year, Crocs announced its partnership with Spotify’s top streamed artist Bad Bunny, unveiling a glow-in-the-dark shoe with cosmic-like accessories. Guess also revealed the second installment of its vibrant “Colores” collection with hitmaker J Balvin, full of hoodies, T-shirts, and bucket hats. In June, Maluma unveiled his collab with sunglasses company Quay, titled “So Much Sol” — a collection of styles inspired by the singer’s ever-eclectic fashion — just two years after he became the first reggaeton artist to attend the the Met Gala

It’s become normal to see reggaeton stars on the front row at Virgil Abloh’s Paris Fashion Week shows for Louis Vuitton, or collaborating with some of the world’s biggest brands. And magazines like W, Harper’s Bazaar Men, GQ, and Elle have featured reggaeton artists like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Karol G, and Maluma. But the relationship between fashion and reggaeton began in the Caribbean and Latin America decades ago, and has since become one of the biggest influences on fashion, long before the fashion establishment gave the genre its stamp of approval. 

“[Reggaeton] fashion used to be a manifestation of what the lyrics represented,” says Orlando Velázquez, the Puerto Rican fashion and reggaeton expert behind No Tan Hype and co-host of the podcast “Sneakers: La Verdadera Cultura.” Born from Afro-Caribbean and American influences, reggaeton is a musical genre credited to Panama and Puerto Rico, where artists, DJs, and musical collectives like El General, Chombo, Playero, and The Noise harnessed a freestyle-like cadence mixed with raunchy and raw lyrics. Some, like “Rumor De Guerra” by The Noise, narrated real life beef with other artists. Others, like Ivy Queen’s “Somos Raperos Pero No Delincuentes” denounced the prejudice faced by their communities. 

The lyrics reflected their realities: Living in Puerto Rico and Panama’s low-income barrios with cultural connections to the Caribbean diasporas in the United States. These artists rebelled against the constant criminalization and prejudices against their communities, expressing their frustrations through music that uplifted and celebrated their people with a drum-heavy beat that anyone could hardly contain themselves from dancing to. As Ivy Queen explained in the first episode of Spotify’s LOUD podcast, the Panama canal and Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States helped bring in the influences of hip-hop, rap, and R&B, which tackled much of the same themes and suffered a similar type of marginalization. As such, early reggaeton fashion was a direct product of these influences, according to Velázquez, with artists like Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam donning baggy pants, winter jackets, and Timberland boots in their early videos, even if they were shot in 90-degree temperatures in Puerto Rico, an island known as the “isla del encanto” but offered little enchantment to its poor and marginalized communities. 

But the look also presented challenges for the genre, which was seen as more perverse than mainstream in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, especially in Puerto Rico. In the early days, reggaeton was not only fringe; it was criminalized. Known as “undergound,” early reggaeton artists, producers, and fans were arrested and censored in Puerto Rico in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. According to Marison Lebrón’s account in The Boston Review, the government attempted to control the drug traffic and crime wave in the island with constant raids and militarized policing — and pushed the narrative that reggaeton encouraged criminal activity. The persecution also extended to those who looked like reggaetoneros, meaning people who also wore baggy pants and shirts, bedazzled chains, and baseball caps. 

The look is best represented by the cover of Daddy Yankee’s 2004 album Barrio Fino, the first record that introduced reggaeton to the rest of the world with the hit song “Gasolina.” On the cover, Yankee looks off-camera, wearing an army-printed Yankees cap with a long-sleeved shirt and layered chains on his neck. 

For scholar Verónica Dávila, the “blin blin” was the defining characteristic of the early days. “This is a genre that is immensely preoccupied with the realities of the working class,” says Dávila. “Through fashion and jewelry, reggaetoneros could show that they had made it.” Dávila adds that while the look cemented the origins of reggaeton as we know it today, hip-hop culture had already popularized it two decades prior. 

Barrio Fino exploded globally. The album became the first reggaeton record to reach the top spot on Billboard’s Hot Latin charts. Duos Zion & Lennox and Wisin & Yandel also enjoyed worldwide success in reggaeton’s heyday with their albums Motivando A La Yal (2004) and Pa’l Mundo (2005). Soloists like Don Omar, Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, and Hector “El Father” also fueled the genre’s boom. 

Velázquez says the commercial success of reggaeton at the time led to the first wave of fashion collaborations inside the genre. Following in the footsteps of hip-hop collectives like Terror Squad, which included Puerto Rican Fat Joe, artists like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar saw fashion — specifically sneaker collaborations — as a way to expand their already-booming celebrity. 

In 2005, Daddy Yankee signed a multi-year partnership with Reebok, including apparel, sneakers, and lifestyle items, and appeared in the brand’s “I Am What I Am” campaign, making him the first reggaeton artist to do so. That same year, Don Omar also released a collaboration with English sportswear brand Umbro. 

“These [collaborations] didn’t reach the mass popularity we know today, but it’s important to remember them because, back in 2006, it was unheard of that a company as big as Reebok would do this with reggaeton,” says Velázquez. 

While “Gasolina” broke new ground, it has since been built upon by the worldwide success of reggaeton. Artists such as Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Karol G, Myke Towers, Maluma, and Jhay Cortez dominate global streaming charts while singing only in Spanish. Their fashion influence has followed suit.

Collaborations between fashion companies and reggaeton artists are now common, following suit to the growing trend of rappers like Travis Scott partnering with luxury houses. In 2020, J Balvin became the first Latino artist to collaborate with Nike on the Jordan 1, one of the brand’s most iconic styles, unveiling the drop at the SuperBowl Halftime Show. In March 2021, Bad Bunny and Adidas announced a creative partnership, the first few drops of which sold out in minutes. The Puerto Rican artist and producer also dropped a three-way collaboration with Cheetos and Adidas in July, which includes two shirts and a sweatsuit. 

It’s also common to see reggaeton artists receive free clothes and products from fashion houses like Versace, Off-White, and Dolce & Gabbana, a hallmark of “having made it” among the celebrity class. Fashion houses, too, are much more likely now than before to lend reggaeton artists clothes for their appearances, music videos, and performances. 

Bad Bunny’s stylist Storm Pablo says that, in the past few years, it’s been increasingly easier to pull samples from luxury fashion houses to dress the artist. But back in 2018, when the two started working together and Bad Bunny hadn’t yet reached Billboard’s top spot, it was a struggle. “They’d ask me, ‘Who is that?’,” says Pablo, who also works with Jhay Cortez. Now, he’s able to dress Bad Bunny in Louis Vuitton, Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens, and Balmain. As he rises through the charts, Pablo says that Bad Bunny’s musical authority has grown parallel to his fashion credibility, securing him features and interviews with W Magazine, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine

Fashion brands have big money to gain from embracing reggaeton and its big exponents. In the United States, the Hispanic community has a $1.7 trillion purchasing power, while in Latin America, apparel and footwear is set to be worth over $180 billion by 2022.  “We’re in a very interesting juncture, in which high-end designers are also wanting to get in the game,” says Velázquez. 

Luxury houses and sneakers companies have actually attempted to “get in the game” for quite some time. Since 2017, when Louis Vuitton collaborated on the runway with Supreme, streetwear has become the norm in the industry. Birthed in the 1980s and 1990s, the history of streetwear is intrinsically tied to the rise of hip-hop and reggaeton in mainstream culture, with Black and Latinx communities in the United States and the Caribbean leading the boom from the streets to the runway and becoming fashion’s cool factor. Still, for reggaeton artists, their fashion boom is still in its infancy. No luxury fashion label has yet worked on a product partnership with a reggaeton artist. Only Adidas, Guess, and Nike have bet on reggaeton for now. But Velázquez predicts it’s coming soon. 

Beyond the million-dollar deals, reggaeton artists have been cementing their style and luxury credibility through their lyrics since the beginning. Much like trap and hip-hop artists who often mention brands in their songs, reggaeton artists have grown increasingly prone to inserting fashion references into song titles recently, as evidenced by singles like Bad Bunny’s “Yo Visto Así,” (2020) Jhay Cortez’s “Christian Dior,” (2021) and Myke Towers’ “Burberry” (2021).

Velázquez sees the relationship between fashion and reggaeton as one of the key reasons that the industry has embraced the genre. “The commerciality of the music now allows people to be closer to it and that also includes the fashion the artists wear but also sing about,” he says. 

Other insiders warn that it’s important to observe which artists within the genre are being welcomed into the fashion industry. As reggaeton has gone mainstream, the genre has transformed into pop, catering more to white and Anglo audiences and losing its Afro-Caribbean roots by changing its lyrics from raw narrations of everyday life to sanitized love songs. It’s also become a primarily white genre, with most of its Black proponents, such as Sech and Myke Towers, left out of the mainstream boom. Meanwhile, some white Latino artists, in an effort to mimic the early hip-hop and reggaeton style, push damaging narratives about Black bodies. 

One example of this can be seen in Karol G’s cover for the album KG0516, in which she wears braids and an oversized suit paired with white sneakers. In the background, a Black model lays naked wearing only sneakers and a gold plane that covers his penis. It’s a suggestive image that relies on damaging stereotypes about Blackness and perpetuates the commercialization of a look that originated in Black communities in the Caribbean and United States, but has criminalized Black Puerto Ricans for wearing reggaeton clothing. 

More than 25 years after reggaeton started in the Caribbean, the genre’s success has turned its best-known voices into global pop stars who are driving trends and securing an audience for fashion houses. Still, Orlando Velázquez says that, as the genre becomes a mainstay in the fashion industry, it’s important for today’s fans and artists to remember where reggaeton comes from. “Without those first artists and collaborations, none of this would’ve happened,” he says. 

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