I love Lauryn Hill’s music. Like many of you, I grew up with her—in tandem with her, really; when Lauryn and I were both 18, our black student union booked a then relatively-unknown New Jersey rap group called the Fugees to perform in the cafeteria of our small liberal arts college in New York. And when I was trying to extricate myself from an abusive relationship in my early 20s, “Ex-Factor,” “I Used to Love Him” and “Hurts So Bad” were my soundtrack. And the next time I fall in love, I hope it feels like “Water,” because I ain’t felt that way in years.
So, trust me when I say that nothing here is intended in any way, shape or form to be slander of the legendary Lauryn Hill. But despite my decadeslong admiration for her talent, “style icon” has never been the first phrase that comes to mind when I think about her.
Currently, Hill is officially back in the public eye—and likely appearing at a venue near you—as she tours in celebration of the 20th anniversary of her instant classic solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (indisputably one of the best albums of all time). And unsurprisingly, there’s also been renewed interest in her style, which could best be described as “eclectic,” if at times downright eccentric.
So when Vogue recently began writing headlines about Hill that included phrases like “major fashion moment,” I admittedly went into thinking face-emoji mode. Because though she’s long had a penchant for big designer labels—and lately, outrageously big skirts—do daring fashion choices a style icon make?
Perhaps not, but to be fair: Is Hill’s style, however idiosyncratic, any more or less avant garde or experimental than her closest contemporary, Erykah Badu? And yet, unlike Badu, Hill has rarely if ever been credited with big trends (like mainstreaming the headwrap) or placed at the center of major fashion campaigns—that is, until now.
In tandem with her tour, Hill has now taken on the first fashion campaign of her storied career—now as the newest face of American legacy brand Woolrich, starring in their appropriately titled “American Soul” campaign. Captured by photographer Jack Davison and styled by Rihanna stalwart Mel Ottenberg, Hill’s offbeat style blends seamlessly with the label’s rustic aesthetic, creating a decidedly modern interpretation of the American classics the brand is known for.
In fact, Hill collaborated with the brand on reworked pieces for the series, which feature embellishments like heavy beading and screen-printed imagery of her face and “Miseducation” on parkas and pea coats. According to British Vogue, Hill herself produced 30 sketches for jacket designs alone, drawing on her own decades-long experience designing and customizing her own wardrobe.
“Lauryn Hill does what Lauryn Hill wants to do,” Ottenberg told the magazine. “She marches to her own beat, and with this project she got to completely show her instincts as a creator. So much of her vibe is in the pictures, it’s so cool.”
Some of that vibe may also have been due to the fact that for the Woolrich campaign, Hill returned to same Harlem theater where she filmed the video for her first solo single, “Doo Wop (That Thing).” As a result, there is the sense of a full-circle journey for the singer, further enhanced by the classic silhouettes.
“We had her in all these really wild looks that symbolize who she is now as an artist, and the new approach of Woolrich,” Ottenberg told Vogue.“It was fun to style Lauryn in outfits that display real American grit. These pieces have been part of the American vocabulary for over a hundred years, and they are definitely part of my soul as a stylist, and Lauryn’s identity.”
But perhaps the most incredible aspect of the campaign is its promotional video, which is set to Hill singing a gorgeously stripped-down version of “Ex-Factor” with piano as her only accompaniment, proving without a doubt that she does indeed still have “that thing.”
So seductive is the entire effect that I began to rethink my assessment of Hill’s personal style (which, admittedly, I hadn’t paid much attention to since the early aughts). So I created a little retrospective, just to see if memory served me correctly.
And you know what? There was some good—and some really good—as well as some bad, and some just plain ugly. But looking at Hill’s style evolution over the past nearly two decades, the biggest takeaway was that she was (and likely still is) ahead of her time. In much the same way that she paved the way for a new generation of raw and soulful singers (notably, Amy Winehouse and Adele both credited her as an influence, among others), Hill was a prototype for proudly quirky and fashion-forward black girls (Solange comes to mind, as does SZA) who aren’t afraid to experiment and make mistakes.
So, whether we call her a style icon, or just plain icon, perhaps there’s only one thing to know about the indelible influence of Lauryn Hill: She was arguably one of the originators, long before it was fashionable.