Misa Hylton has been influencing the music and fashion industries for decades. Her golden touch and sharp eye has left a mark on artists of the aughts such as Lil’ Kim, Jodeci, and Mary J. Blige. As an image architect, she was responsible for styling clients and getting them to become the best version of themselves. Hailing from Mount Vernon, NY, Hylton notes that her multi-cultural background is where she believes her creativity stems from. She would style friends and family members as a youngster. As she got older, she remembers expressing herself through her personal style.
At 17, Misa and her then-boyfriend Sean Combs, an A&R intern, pitched a refreshing idea to style Jodeci which later led to a wildly successful career. She would go on to style a number of acts including Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, Faith Evans and countless others. Despite the successful years she had, she also recalls moments when designers didn’t want to work with her. When this would happen, Hylton details that she would simply either make the looks herself or get ultra-creative. Later on in her career, she would go on to create the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy as a way to enrich the next generation.
Here enters her daughter Madison Star Brim, an emerging creative who is currently continuing Misa’s legacy. Brim previously held a role as a fashion intern at ELLE magazine and looks to follow in her mother’s footsteps as she grows within the industry. As a current student at Howard University, Madison is typically involved with the historic school’s Homecoming Fashion Show. This year as the chair of the show titled “ROOTS: The Howard Homecoming Fashion Show,” she will spearhead the event. The presentation will be a cultural experience dedicated to the essence of African American culture.
We recently caught up with Misa and Madison while they were both in New York City. In our interview, Misa provides an in-depth look at her career and following her passions, while Madison breaks down her current dreams and what drives her.
Can you share what your upbringing was like in Mount Vernon, New York?
Misa: I grew up with a mixed race background, Japanese, Jamaican, and African American, which gave me a rich source of cultural influences that was there from as far back as I can remember. But it also came with a somewhat conservative upbringing, which I appreciate now of course because it provided me with a sense of discipline. Back then, of course, I did feel very much misunderstood because my parents couldn’t always understand where I was coming from. From the beginning, I was pretty confident in my style and how I expressed myself in the way I dressed or how I would style and color my hair.
As one of the definitive stylists of the ‘90s, can you share exactly how you got your start?
Misa: The way I started my career was pure destiny. I was already styling [my friends and family] while I was growing up, I just wasn’t aware that it could turn into a career. I was going out with Sean Combs at the time and he had just been promoted to being A&R at the legendary Uptown Records. I was hanging out at his offices when he was assigned to handle the R&B group Jodeci’s project. In those days, R&B acts had been dressed in polished suits and hard bottom shoes, it was like it had become a uniform. There was nothing exciting or different about putting them in another variation of the same look. So we came up with this idea of putting them in a more street influenced, hip-hop look with combat boots and baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts. The idea was inspired by wanting Jodeci’s image to connect to the youth, our demographic. Of course, Andre Harrell who was the company founder couldn’t really wrap his head around the idea and wasn’t really feeling it. It took us two hours to convince him that it was a great idea. After he finally agreed, the “Gotta Love” video came out and it was a hit. Everyone loved it. That changed everything. From there, I began to work with Mary J. Blige on her first album, creating outside of the box looks which became trends and were finally moving fashion forward into the R&B and hip-hop scenes.
What about working with Mary J. Blige and Lil’ Kim was the most important to you during the time periods you worked with them?
Misa: Working with Mary and Kim were life-changing moments for me because with them I found kindred spirits. What was most important to me back then were the bonds of friendship and sisterhood we were forming. We were starting out. We were in it together. We were trying to make a difference. And we had each other’s backs. Their imagination and sense of style allowed me the opportunity to hone my craft. We all had the same mind set of believing in our talents yet still having something to prove. We were also fearless with our ideas and willing to try new things that reflected the culture. These were important and special moments in our lives both personal and professional, they remain so precious to me. We changed the game together.
Can you break down your The Wiz inspirations behind Lil’ Kim’s “Crush On You” video?
Misa: Going in, we already had the director Lance “Un” Rivera’s overall concept for how he wanted to frame the video. The concept was to recreate the colors of the Emerald City from the movie. I was immediately inspired to take that idea to the next level by creating monochromatic outfits and hair. This had never been done before. The Wiz is all about magic and color and of course, the main inspiration was Kim herself. We were always ready to push fashion boundaries.
Do you feel as though your fashion work catapulted stylists into the forefront of fashion conversations? If so, which projects?
Misa: I would say so, yes. When I started, people behind the cameras were hardly ever known except by people in the industry. As service providers, our job was really to interpret what the director’s or the label’s concept was. The stylist was there as a visionary who executed the look. But when you have out of the box ideas and the right person is willing to listen to your ideas, something magical can happen, as it did for me. To be clear, I had to stand my ground a lot in the beginning. And since you ask which projects, it was all of them, each project was one step at a time. The first time, it was “Oh, she was right.” The next, “Okay, she might be right again.” The next, “I think we better listen to what she has to say.” And when you’re working on creative projects, people become curious about who created the look or image. Eventually, I believe I contributed to making styling a valid position in the creative process where we could then bring our own ideas to the table and expect to be heard and considered. But it was really “Crush On You” that changed everything.
Can you speak about the issues you experienced with pulling and showroom visits?
Misa: All my triumphs were hard-fought. They weren’t rolling out the red carpet for me when I started. There were several factors — I was young, I was a woman, and I was a woman of color. Then the luxury brands didn’t see any real value with working with us back then and unfortunately, many brands refused to loan out samples.
How did this push you to become creative and resourceful?
Misa: You really find out what you’re made of when you face [challenges], and I have always believed that where there is a challenge, there is also a hidden opportunity. Whenever I was unable to pull from a showroom for a project, I was forced to figure out a solution. And my solution was almost always to just go ahead and create something myself. I would design what I envisioned and go out and source fabrics. I enjoyed all of it because I genuinely love creating.
Was the creation of the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy your way of reaching back and intentionally influencing the younger generation?
Misa: I founded the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy as a way to pay forward all the opportunities I’ve been given. Being a mother, teacher and mentor, I wanted to do my part in providing these aspiring fashion professionals with the knowledge and skills to embark on a successful career in fashion. The academy really has many different functions. It’s there to nurture and inspire talent. Many creative people need this kind of safe space to realize they are not alone. We work at honing their skills. Then we provide them with the know-how of the many areas of fashion that they can venture into. And we do make it a point to provide them with the understanding of the business side of fashion so they are able to monetize their talent and navigate their careers.
Why do you believe it’s essential for individuals to be aware of the finance side of business?
Misa: Because many creative people are unaware of it. When you’re a creative person, you have a natural tendency to focus all your energies on creating. But neglecting to see that you need to know how to manage the financial side of your career is a quick way to fail. At the academy, we really go into the specific details of the things they need to know as it pertains to business. Also, when you walk into a job already with this knowledge, decision-makers take you seriously and treat you as a professional.
Can you share what your involvement was in the recent MCM film?
Misa: I was contacted by the amazing directors Lisa Cortés and Farah X who were doing this documentary called The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion about the early days when style and hip hop culture converged to create a movement that would affect an entire generation in the ’90s and then go on to be a global phenomenon. Of course, being a part of that era I felt very honored that they recognized my contributions. So my story is featured as well as fashion icons like April Walker and Dapper Dan, and we each tell our stories about how we helped pioneer this movement from our individual careers, and how together it culminated into this culturally impactful moment in fashion and music history. You also get to hear from the amazing Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss who shares his story and how that era influenced his art and paved the way for his own brand.
What are your aspirations in the fashion industry?
Madison: I would love to be a part of the editorial side of the fashion industry as well as designing. I go to Howard University, I’m a graduating senior and I’m studying fashion design. So I see myself kind of having a hand in every pot. After interning at ELLE, it provided me with the experience of understanding the journalistic side and the editorial side of fashion. So I would love to continue that. But also design and create custom pieces, kind of like Dapper Dan, that’s really what I’m passionate about. Also, continuing styling with my mom.
Do you look at your mother as a source of inspiration when you reflect on what you see for yourself in the future?
Madison: Absolutely, my mom always showed me what was possible. She never limited herself and she always went after the things she felt were in alignment with her path and what she wanted to represent in this industry. I’ve always had her as a guiding light [to show me] the possibilities are endless and there’s no limitation to anything you want to do in this industry, [and] outside of it as well because she does the coaching. She’s definitely been my biggest inspiration. She’s showed me the power of believing and what it means to keep going and to just conquer.
What about the current landscape of the creative industry attracts you to it?
Madison: Right now I love how fashion has become all about inclusivity and representation from people of all walks of life. I think that that is what really makes me want to contribute to the industry now because it’s so open, vast and creative more than it’s ever been. The idea of what’s beautiful, the ideas of what’s accepted, and the community, whether it’s someone that’s a part of the LGBTQIA community and with race and religious beliefs. I think we’re stepping into a new day in the industry where nothing is off-limits in such a good way, where it’s like, this is not the only thing that can be represented. My hope is to be able to contribute to that and to be able to create that for the people that come after me.
Are you working on any current projects we should look out for?
Madison: One thing I’m always working on is Howard University’s Homecoming Fashion Show. All the things they have going on with fashion, in general, I always have a hand in that. Other than that, outside of fashion I do a lot of community activism. [Also] every year I have a clothing drive for the people who experience homelessness in New York City.