Style Icon: Aaliyah

It sounds like BS to say someone’s primary defining quality is their je ne sais quoi, but for Aaliyah, it was actually true. Her ability to look stunning in anything—mostly tomboyish baggy jeans and a crop top—wasn’t necessarily just about her sinewy, athletic body or her angelic face. It was about the look she gave you, that sense that you never knew what was truly going down beneath her cat-eyed gaze. It was all tied into the music, obviously—the way she and her team of Timbaland, Static Major, Missy and them wrote the songs was like they were letting you in on a secret—and, moreso, her wispy voice feeding into her essential unknowability.

Aaliyah in 2001.
Photo: Getty Images

Beyond that, of course, the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah Dana Houghton was the epitome of LOOKING BKLYN FLY. She still is, to be sure—look on Opening Ceremony’s website, or on Tumblr, or on cool current musical women, from the underground (DJ Venus X, rapper Junglepussy) up to the mainstream (hello, Rihanna and Ciara), to see how her look endures. Most people associate her look with Tommy Jeans ads and her “One In A Million” videos—the diamondique bra top and baggy jeans of the title track, in particular, as well as the trenchcoat and pirate du-rag of “4 Page Letter.” This shot, taken at Summer Jam in 1997, was one example of that iconic zone: those omnipresent sunglasses (which, along with various eyepatches, led to a weird and unfounded rumor that she had a lazy eye), an athletic-inspired croptop, and what appear to be breakaway pants, all sexified with simple silver jewelry and heaps of attitude.

Aaliyah in 1997.
Photo: Getty Images

The influence of those looks, with the feminine top, boyish bottom, and, often, a sexy man-boxer sticking out the top of the beltline, cannot be overstated. But it’s also true that Aaliyah had a full style evolution from the first inklings of fame to her devastating untimely death, that reflected her growth as an artist, a woman, more than a woman.

When she dropped Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number at the tiny old age of 14, she was in the nascent stages of her hip-hop inspired streetwear steez, wearing clothes that were pretty typical for a young teenager, yet defined a signature “look” at the same time. The cover depicted Aaliyah in Ray-Bans, black skully, black jacket and t-shirt with Age collaborator R. Kelly creeping in the background out of focus, a shot that would prove ookily prescient. (Kellz would allegedly marry a teen Aaliyah, as proven by a marriage certificate published in VIBE, but her parents had it annulled since it stated her age as 18 instead of 15. Yikes!) On the street, she’d go more explicitly sports-inspired, like this excellent look at the age of 15 at a Virgin Megastore signing, in which her combination rudeboy/raver/hockey jersey reflected her caring not a nan about formality, belied by the mischievous and heart-wrenchingly adorable grin on her oh-so-young visage.

Aaliyah in 1995.
Photo: Getty Images

But in the early career-defining video for “Back and Forth,” she was already up to stylee tricks: crop top, baggy pants, ill LEATHER VEST, bandana as du-rag and sunnies, no thing at all. The reason this look is so excellent, and still so important in street style is because of its sheer effortlessness, and none of that crap about “transform your look from day to night!” applies. Wear it in the club, on the basketball court, at school, at your neighbor’s BBQ, at a dance party, whatever, its mix of hi-low, boyish-girlish, totally translates to just about any event barring a wedding (unless you are going to a really awesome wedding). This is AALIYAH STYLE. WHAT.

Aaliyah with Jennifer Love Hewitt at MTV’s Rock ’N Jock event in 1996.
Photo: Getty Images

So you can see why, by the mid-’90s, an early streetwear merchant like Tommy Hilfiger would want to nab her tout suite: she epitomized cool, she already had a look that aligned with his vision, and she already looked like a freaking model. She was just 17 when she dropped “One In A Million,” in ’96—which is actually insane to think about—and having finished high school in Detroit, she was ready to embark into the fashion world. Hilfiger draped her in the signature red, white, and blue of Tommy Jeans, and cast her in a commercial in which she talked about taking dance classes at her arts high school. I mean, IT’S SO GOOD I COULD PASS OUT. She was also going for it at his fashion shows, repping all-Hilfiger, of course, but can you imagine ANYONE showing up in the front row dressed in a t-shirt and an athletic suit today? The ’90s were the wild wild west. This is what I call f**king FROWING:

Aaliyah at the Tommy Hilfiger fashion show in 2000.
Photo: Getty Images

Onstage she had it, too, and once she got her diploma, she started to pack it in and act a little more grown, adding silvery lamé here and there, plus an obsession with a bra top that laced around her tiny waist like the satin wings of a ballet slipper, a look she showed up in quite a lot during the “One In A Million” appearances. Keep in mind, also, that this was the cusp of the so-called “Shiny Suit Era,” when Brooklyn and Harlem boys like Jay-Z, Biggie, Puff Daddy, and Ma$e were going for maximum jigginess; it was also around the time Aaliyah’s homegirl Missy Elliott was breaking out on her own as a solo artist. In ’97, after the success of “One In A Million,” Missy showed up in her breakthrough “The Rain” video wearing a superslick black sweatsuit. Aaliyah, not to be outdone, pulled this at a performance at the Forum in Inglewood, California, giving “raingear” a sensual overhaul and making Puffy’s shiny suits look like he was trying to break Amish or something.

Aaliyah performing in 1997.
Photo: Getty Images

By this time, Aaliyah was being styled by the team of Liza Montoya and Derek Lee, both of whom have spoken extensively about her wardrobe, and how their jobs were just building on the style that came naturally to her. The sensual tomboy look was all Babygirl, ingrained into her DNA; they just had to pull looks for her. And as she got older, branching out into an acting career and recording final album Aaliyah, she seemed to want to express her sensuality in a deeper way, transitioning her style with a more grown-up flavor that isn’t necessarily as remembered as her tomboy badassitude. But still, it was there, as was her natural sense for what was futuristic or cutting edge—she was the original ghetto goth. At the time of her death in 2001, she had been working on Dolly Pop, a fashion label with her best friend Kidada Jones, with looks based heavily on the Harajuku styles that Gwen Stefani would discover years later. And when she played the title character in the Queen of the Damned, you could see the vampiric influences bleeding into this sexuality. (This killer armcuff and strappy heels are on point for any kind of royalty, undead or mortal.) By Y2K, though, she was the Queen of the Millennium, hitting red carpets in all-black ensembles and baring not just her belly but leg, too, as with this excellent, slinky cocktail number at the 2001 MTV Movie Awards:

Aaliyah at the 2001 MTV Movie Awards.
Photo: Getty Images

She was 22, dating Damon Dash (or was it Jay Z?), and fully embodying her preternatural woman-tude by basically just being the most gorgeous, talented human on the planet. Even her streetwear became more adult, as with this blue denim jumpsuit and Timbs, or a totally fashion-killa leather tank top and pointy boots that even make early-’00s, capri-length, stonewashed denim look stunning.

But that was the way with her, Babygirl’s je ne sais quoi. It’s tragic and horrible that the end-all, be-all of where she was going as a woman, artistically and style-wise, is best exemplified in her final video. Her plane went down August 25, 2001, just after shooting the clip for “Rock the Boat.” Unabashedly sexual, she duttywined in the Bahamas wearing dancehall queen mesh, but also an outfit change in crisp white, an angel in the making. And maybe that’s how she should be remembered; not necessarily for the Timbs or the bra tops, but for those moments where we could see she was kinda too precious for this earth. In 2008, I conducted, compiled, and edited a whole grip of interviews for a commemorative Aaliyah issue of the FADER, where I was executive editor. In an interview with then-Style Editor Chioma Nnadi, Liza Montoya, Aaliyah’s stylist, said this:

“I remember thinking to myself [on the “More Than a Woman” video shoot] that she looked like an angel and I turned to Eric [Farrell, her make-up artist], and said, ’She grew up on us, she’s a woman now.’ It was something special on that day, it was something in the way she looked. I tend to think now that it was because she was going to go. I truly believe that it was her time because something was different, something had changed—she looked angelic.”




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