Happy 38th Birthday, Aaliyah: A Look at Her Lasting Impression on Style
She’s been gone over 15 years now, but Aaliyah — who would’ve turned 38 today (Jan. 16) had her life not been cut short in a 2001 plane crash — left a lasting imprint on the culture. The influence of her fearless fashions and strong sense of self can clearly be seen on today’s music stars, runways and beauty palettes.
Like the title of the then-14-year-old’s R. Kelly-produced 1994 debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, suggested, Aaliyah sounded and telegraphed older than her years. When it came to fashion, she was a trailblazer, confidently mixing streetwear with high fashion long before the word “athleisure” came into the style lexicon.
“Aaliyah’s style was ahead of its time 15 years ago and it’s still relevant today,” says Brooklyn-based stylist Marcus Paul, who works with hip-hop stars like Pusha T and Desiigner, and Swedish singer Zara Larsson. “She came onto the scene singing Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, with a tomboyish style that had a twist of sex appeal. She would wear unique shades, crop tops, baggy jeans and Timberlands. I’m sure Aaliyah’s style has been on countless mood boards from stylists to designers within the last 15 years.”
According to her own stylist, Derek Lee, “Aaliyah showed the world that street attire can be sexy and feminine even when she was wearing baggy pants — you don’t have to show your ass in order to be hot.”
Even more importantly, he notes, it was her confidence in pulling off any look that resonates today. “That ‘not giving a f–k because I’m so fly I don’t have to give a f–k’ style? Aaliyah owned that. Now you see a lot of girls like that—they’re everywhere.”
The Brooklyn-born, Detroit-reared R&B sensation, born Aaliyah Dana Haughton, helped paved the way for today’s empowered stars such as Rihanna, whose Fenty x Puma collection owes a debt to the styles Aaliyah pioneered, Ariana Grande, Ciara, Rita Ora, and Beyonce (who took to Instagram to pay tribute to the fallen star on the 15th anniversary of her death last August.)
Aaliyah also blurred fashion’s binary gender lines in a way that predated the agender trend by more than a decade. “Her ability to open the conversation of androgynous fashion was beyond her time,” according to Los Angeles-based celebrity stylist Ade Samuel, whose clients include Kelly Rowland, Jhene Aiko and Big Sean. “She was a pioneer in taking risks and creating fashion moments that still remain iconic even today.”
Designers inspired by the nexus of fashion and music continue to draw upon Aaliyah’s sense of style.
“From Tommy Hilfiger to Alexander Wang, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Balenciaga, Puma x Fenty and Yeezy, we have seen renditions of what the modern day Aaliyah would feel like,” says Samuels, citing the emerging streetwear designer Vetements as the most recent example of a brand tuned into Aaliyah’s sensibilities. “From the oversized unisex hoodies to the cropped tops and baggy jeans, the brand to me is an extension of the style that Aaliyah played with during the ’90s,” she says. “I also love the way that Alexander Wang and Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma continue to push the boundaries by creating sensual layering pieces that feel very sexual and modern but yet has the influence of Baby Girls’ touch.”
Elsewhere, Gigi Hadid’s recent collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger echoes the looks Aaliyah wore in her 1996 campaign for the brand. “It was obviously an homage,” notes Lee. “A lot of brands, like Fila, did that vintage ’90s look this past year.”
It’s not just the singer’s fashion sense that still resonates today. Her influence on beauty is also robust. A change.org fan petition urging M.A.C. Cosmetics to create an “Aaliyah for M.A.C.” limited edition collection has garnered over 25,000 signatures. “Aaliyah stands for M.A.C.’s mission of ‘All ages, All races, All sexes.’ She was a risk taker, innovator, edgy, street but sweet, & R and B’s Princess,” reads the petition. “She continues to influence today’s mainstream artist & people around the world still love and celebrate her life and music every year!”
While the M.A.C. x Selena collection came into being after a similar fan-driven campaign amassed over 37,000 signatures, M.A.C. had no comment on whether or not they will put out an Aaliyah collection.
“Her approach to beauty was effortless,” notes stylist Marcus Paul. “She used minimal make-up which accentuated her natural beauty.” But for her own stylist Lee, it was all about the eye: “Aaliyah was the queen of the smoky eye. Her makeup artist Eric Ferrell did that smoky eye every day on her. It worked. It helped with the mystery.”
And that mystery clearly continues to enthrall the imaginations of many of today’s most daring pop stars and designers.