For nearly 3 decades, Misa Hylton has been at the forefront of fashion, music, and culture as a trailblazer and one of the most iconic celebrity stylists of our time. In honor of her many achievements and massive impact on the industry, Hylton will be recognized as the 2022 honoree of the Fashion Innovator Award during the EMERGE! Fashion Runway Show on September 13. The annual fashion show, which is celebrating its 15th year, provides up-and-coming Black designers with a platform to showcase their design talents, while honoring fashion greats, like Hylton, who have paved the way.

There are few as deserving of this recognition than Hylton. Throughout her career, she has been the visionary behind some of the most iconic style moments from hip-hop’s biggest stars including Mary J. Blige, Sean Combs, Missy Elliot, and 50 Cent. From Lil Kim’s legendary purple pastie-pants-and-hair ensemble at the 1999 VMAs to Beyoncé’s leather MCM bustier and trench for the 2018 music video for “Apeshit”, Hylton’s streetwear meets high fashion aesthetic is impossible to ignore and synonymous with hip-hop.

Today, she is focused on championing creatives who are looking to break into the industry. She founded the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy in 2012 for aspiring stylists to learn the ins-and-outs of the fashion business, providing them with access and mentorship. She’s also on the board of the Black in Fashion Council and Harlem's Fashion Row, revealing “this chapter of my life is all about philanthropy, education, and mentorship.”

In conversation with EBONY, Hylton reflects on hip-hop’s fashion beginnings, her steady presence in the industry, what she’s learned along the way, and her mission to empower the next generation of Black fashion creatives.

EBONY: The Emerge fashion show is honoring you with The Innovator Award which is all about honoring fashion visionaries like yourself, who are trailblazers in the industry. How does it feel to receive your flowers and to be recognized for your epic career?

Misa Hylton: It feels amazing. When I first started, as a fashion stylist, I had no idea that my journey would take me this far, I had no idea that my love for fashion would actually turn into a career. So, to be honored, it really feels amazing. I feel so blessed.

As a stylist, you have such a unique way of blending hip-hop and street style with high fashion runway, always staying true to yours and the artists’ aesthetic. How important is it to you to enhance your clients’ personal style and individuality as opposed to making them fit in a box? 

I'm all about authenticity. I believe that we all are great, I believe that we all are beautiful, and we all have particularly unique assets about ourselves that I like to amplify. I'm not a stylist that just comes in and says, ‘Well, this is hot in Vogue, or this is trending…so you need to do this to be fashion forward.’ No, I'm about bringing out the best of my clients and take time to have conversations and discover what their fashion goals are. It's really all about bringing my client's vision to life, no matter if it's an artist, a musician, athlete, actor, actress, or brand that's looking to achieve, you know, a certain image or look.

What were some of your creative influences when you first started out? 

Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York and East Orange, New Jersey, my first influences were my environment, my family, and my aunties who I looked up to, along with my parents’ Japanese and West Indian cultures. I was also inspired by street style and hip-hop. All of those things were a constant inspiration inside and outside of my house.

Throughout your career, you watched hip-hop became global and serve as the genesis of so many fashion trends (many of which you were responsible for). What was it like for you seeing the industry evolve and be embraced by the world?

When I first heard rap music for the first time it was the Sugar Hill gang. I was instantly enamored by the whole movement and I've never looked back. Our culture has watched it grow. In the beginning, hip-hop music was only played on the radio on Friday and Saturday at night. That would be the only time you could hear it unless you were like at a party or on the street where people blasted it from their boom boxes. To see it evolve from something that was seemingly small, but always powerful to me, to where it is now is incredible. 

Now, it’s actually the driving force of every area of entertainment and culture. It’s everywhere…you turn on the television commercials now have jingles with people rapping. In the fashion space, there was a time when anything or anyone associated with hip-hop wasn't accepted not taken seriously. But one thing about hip-hop, it has a undeniable strong energy and influence. Now, when you look to high fashion brands, the impact of hip-hop is obvious. 

For me, I've never changed. I stay true to what inspired me throughout these 30 years, and I just never, I never took hip-hop for granted, or never saw it as something that was anything less than powerful, influential, and exciting.

You founded the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy to educate, coach, and help the next generation of fashion creatives land jobs. How important is it for you to use your platform to empower your students with the wealth of knowledge you’ve acquired?

I was inspired to start the MISA Hylton Fashion Academy (MHFA) in 2012 because I saw a void in the fashion world for young people that look like me. As a Black woman, there were so many times that I was the only one in the room. That came with lot of challenges and barriers to entry. I noticed so few Black creatives get their foot in the door. Once they are in, many struggle to excel in those spaces because this requires education and mentorship, from someone who looks like you who can help you through those tough moments.

Instead of just being critical about it, I wanted to be a solution and empower my community by creating a curriculum that would help them build a career and achieve their goals. It's been 10 years since we started as just a fashion styling program and it's been an amazing journey. Currently, we offer six courses including fashion styling, business of fashion, fashion technology, and a streetwear program called Social Studies. We also have a junior fashion camp every summer for high school students. 

This chapter of my life is all about philanthropy, education and mentorship. I want to see all my students and mentees achieve even more than I have and to keep it going. I always tell them, bring someone with you, as you enter these spaces. Not just anyone, but bring someone who shares your work ethic, and your passion for fashion, and creativity. I'm big on that. 

What do you wish more aspiring creatives understood about the industry and how does that factor in the MHFA curriculum?

Most people assume that working in fashion sounds like fun, and you're going to be shopping all day which is a big misconception. While it can have fun moments, there’s so much more to it. The industry is fast paced, lots of pressure, and comes with a lot of yes’s and many more no’s. You have to be able to advocate for yourself, have agency, the courage and bravery to sell your ideas, and stay consistent and organized. I emphasize to students that it’s not only about the hard work required, they need to understand that there's a specific culture and way that business is done in each area of fashion. You need to understand all of that before you make the decision to work in the industry. With that knowledge, students become empowered to truly commit to working in fashion and if they do, they know how serious of a commitment it will be.

The Emerge fashion show is all about uplifting the next generation of talent. What advice would you give the up-and-coming designers aspiring to break into the industry and stay true to themselves?

You must educate yourself, maintain your work ethic, and always work with excellence. Most importantly, trust your creativity. Don’t look to the left, don't look to the right, just run your own race. God put something inside of you that's very special, and a unique talent to share with the world. Always trust that. 

These days with social media, I feel so bad for people coming up in a time where you have all this information, opinions, advice and an overwhelming amount of visuals to look at daily. The distractions can affect your creativity and confidence, especially for those who have grown up in this social media era and have never known anything else. That’s why I always emphasize to believe in yourself and trust the process. And don't let your highs get you too high and don't let your lows get you too low. Just stay steady because success will come if you take this serious and stay committed.

Are there any stylists or designers from the new generation that really stand out to you?

There are so many designers that I love today. I love Jason Rembert, Sergio Hudson, Be Iconic, Tiffany Bellargo… there’s just too many to name. I enjoy seeing people express their creativity powerfully. I really love fashion, color, and beauty. Whether it's from Target or Neiman Marcus, I appreciate unique points of view and when I easily spot what's special about a brand a person. 

How are you moving Black forward?

I want my legacy to be about making a difference and helping others excel in this industry. In addition to my school, I’m on the board of the Black in Fashion Council, as well as Harlem's Fashion Row. I'm committed to helping people from our community and Black people to Excel, and be protected, and honored, and celebrated, and so and educated

I'm also a certified life coach and bring aspects of personal development, mental health, and wellness to my students. You know, success is just not about how things look to the outside world, it is a marriage of the inside and the outside being in alignment. I've created so many images where that appear perfect to the outside world. But if you don't also give your personal wellbeing the same attention, then that's not that's not healthy or true success.