Tropical Rob:
A Fashion Show For Lil Kims & Foxy Browns

As magazine editors and top models jetsetted to London for its Fashion Week, there would be one show left on New York's unoffical calendar: Tropical Rob. The presentation, inspired by 90s pop-culture, was set above the frenzy of SoHo's Broadway, and teemed with 20-somethings who seemed better suited for a Susanne Bartsch party than a runway show.

But that was the point.

"Unlike a lot of designers now, I actually listen to the street," Robert Hurlbut said of his first showing. And so he invited artists and party kids to a presentation that was, in his words, inspired by "a late-90s shopping trip between Lil' Kim and Lauryn Hill" in Japan's Harajuku district. The outfits were overwhelmingly bright - pinks, blues, greens - and made mostly of silk. Mesh pink underwear matched well-cut scalloped tops for women while loose silk purple polos clashed against red pajama-like lounge pants for men. The looks were fun from afar, but upon closer inspection showed the intricate design work of the artist, who was trained in textiles at RISD.

Photo via Ryan Jay for SWAGGER

"He told me he was looking for Foxy Brown style black girls," said model Kimani Bellamy. "And I thought, I've seen Rob out all the time so of course I'd help him out." The designer reached out to each of his 28 muses - some patchwork designers, one a door guy at Up & Down - via Instagram direct message and told them to invite other friends that could be models too. And like that, the downtown scene came together to help out one of their own. They added friends to the show's Facebook invite, they Instagrammed looks from the fitting, and word spread across the city's digital web.

"This whole show was a community effort," said the designer, who adamantly refused to be seen as the show's star.  A college friend, Ben Langford, created the set of oversized flowers that hung on the walls; a duo of drag queens, Sateen and Exquisite, provided makeup backstage; performance artist Alexandra Marzella catwalked; and actress/DJ Nellie Blue fashioned a Tropical Rob corset minutes before show time.

Photo via Ryan Jay for SWAGGER

Despite putting on a fashion show - an event that designers sink obscene amounts of money into -  Hurlbut is laid back about the industry, generally. "TropicalRob isn't just a nod to my name," he tells me. "It's about robbing the fashion industry of what they think they know. After all, I consider myself more artist than designer." After four brief internships at houses like Vivienne Westwood and Thakoon, Hurlbut realized that if he could successfully 

bring together creative and technical types from his phone contacts, and 

design specifically for a 90s niche, he could slowly begin to make his mark. 

As to why he decided to host a runway show in a moment when even the most liquid of brands are choosing otherwise?  "It was a way to fuck with things," he said.  
"I liked the convention with no real models, with boas, people twirling."  Attendees and catwalkers alike took photos and uploaded them to Instagram in real-time, and without any traditional PR, word continued to spread among fashion's subculture.

Photo via Ryan Jay for SWAGGER

The whole event, from its post-fashion week placement, to masquerading non-models in brightly colored silks, and tipping a hat to 90s rappers was nouveau-punk, in a sense. It was a  fuck-you-I-can-do-this-too-moment with an audience that the Jeremy Scott's and the VFiles spend hundreds of thousands to capture.

On the way out of the venue, I stopped to ask one male model why he wanted to be a part of this show. "I think we get a free shirt," he said with a smile. Purple silk button downs, adorned with blooming flowers...coming to a runway near you.


Sep 21, 2015


Sian-Pierre Regis