Hair stylist Dionne Alexander is one of a handful of women responsible for the iconic glam we saw in hip-hop in the 1990s, styling trendsetters like MC Lyte, Lil Kim and Lauryn Hill, just to name a few.
And those looks, as well as Alexander’s colorful printed wigs, still inspire the fashion we see in the music industry today. She grew up in Washington, D.C., where her mom owned three hair salons and naturally picked up the trade. In the early ’90s, her career would land her in New York City, doing hair for up and coming executives at record labels like Uptown and Def Jam.
Years later, Alexander would find herself styling Lil Kim for the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, in an iconic look that’s still talked about today.
Alexander spoke with WNYC and Gothamist about her artistry and her influence on the culture, exploring her journey to becoming one of the pivotal figures in shaping the image of women in hip-hop.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you get your big break?
In 1992, I [was a stylist on] a film called “Fly by Night,” a movie about three New York rappers who try to gain acceptance through their music. I had a friend that was a costume designer on that film. I met MC Lyte on that set, and during that time she was on top. Her look was changing to be a lot more feminine with her hair and makeup, so, I showed her my book of hairstyles and she asked me to go on tour with her.
So it kind of helped me out. And, I would say in New York at that time, a lot of young college kids were coming out and going in as interns and working behind the scenes in [record label] offices. So when I moved to New York, I was doing a lot of their hair; people that worked at Def Jam, Uptown, different record labels.
After working with MC Lyte, you began working with another pioneer in the music industry, Mary J. Blige. How’d that happen?
When Mary came out, [her team] sent her to me to get hair styles for her debut album “What’s the 411?” That was the first shoot that I did with Mary and then we did the “You Remind Me” video. And that was my first video with Mary.
Styling her was fun because Mary represented everything that every young Black girl was at that time or wanted to be.
She was able to rock different hairstyles and wasn’t afraid to rock the very urban, very street look. But it was salon hair. Mary was that one that all the girls would go to the salons and would want to recreate Mary’s hairstyles. So it was an urban look and Mary’s the queen of the urban hairstyles.
How’d you hook up with Lil Kim?
We first worked together on a Mary J. Blige video, she was featured on the song ”I Can Love You.” After that, some years may have gone by and one day I was at home and I said, “you know what … I really want Lil Kim.” And within 30 days I was on the phone with Lil Kim. She was really excited and said that she always wanted me to do her hair. So it clicked just like that. And on top of that, working with Nzingha Gumbs and Misa Hylton, they all were working on Kim as well, and Nzingha was her makeup artist and Misa Hylton was her stylist. So it was an easy slide in because we were already working on Mary together.
Where were you drawing inspiration from during that time? What was the thought process behind creating some of your most recognized pieces?
I had traveled to Europe right after high school and that opened me up as far as my creative side; seeing something different because we didn’t have the internet.
When you go over there, they had their own style, they had their own way of fashion and it kind of triggered something in me. So when I came back home, I would order European magazines all the time. And they were always so very avant garde with hair.
So when Kim came, she was ready for that fashion breakthrough and it was definitely a great match.
So I had all these books and I would just go through stuff. Misa would come with an outfit and say, this is what we’re thinking. And I would just go and make it happen some kind of way. The Versace and Chanel wigs, it was so organic back then that I would say it was a collaboration because they were well into designers.
If you notice most of my work, they had bangs or a swoop because we weren’t into lace [front wigs] at the time yet. So when [Lil Kim] would give me an idea, I would go and find blonde wigs, and then I would recreate them. I would dye them and I would make my own stencils. The Chanel wig [that she wore for Manhattan File Magazine in 2001] was actually done with a magic marker. It wasn’t even done with color.
At the time, the Versace one [that Kim wore for their Spring show in 2001] was a synthetic wig and I just did it. We were young, it was no thinking. We just did it.
How was it working with Nzingha Gumbs and Misa Hylton? Did you think you all would have such an influence on the elevation of glam in hip-hop.
Not at the time. We were just having fun. It was all new because I felt like at that time in the 90s music changed. So it was just a flood of young people coming in with these creative ideas. It was just very organic. We all got along, we flowed together and we bounced off each other. We helped each other. It wasn’t about us. It was about us creating a dynamic look for this artist.
Talk me through the day you styled Lil Kim for the 1999 VMAs because all of you came together to create one of the most memorable looks in hip-hop history.
That was one of the most hectic days that we have ever worked, because we did both Mary and Kim that day, all three of us. So that day was hectic, but very fun and amazing. Misa had come up with this idea with the pasty and then the outfit. She had it designed and worked out and she said, “we want a lavender wig, Dionne.” I’m like, OK, perfect. No problem. So I went and found this lavender wig and basically cut it and shaped it. That also was a synthetic wig. But, wigs weren’t popular like that back then. So finding the materials was a challenge and making them look good. I couldn’t just pull a wig out of a bag. I had to cut it and style it and you know, give it the shape that it had. It was lavender with a hint of like a silver kind of when the light hits it.
Can you share some insights into how hair trends in hip-hop have changed since the start of your career?
They have evolved. I feel like it was a pivotal point with Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop.” I did that video with her and as far as my recollection was the first lace front in hip-hop. Because we weren’t wearing lace fronts at the time. They were only used in Hollywood pretty much. So, I had to get that wig from actress Rosie Perez. She took me to downtown Manhattan to a Jewish wigmaker who made wigs for Old Hollywood. So that was my first introduction to a lace front wig. [The wig maker] actually created the wig, and then I had to go and style it. Plus, Lauryn Hill had dreadlocks during the time. I had to get the wig over those locs!
When you look at artists in hip-hop now, are there any styles that excite you?
Cardi B. Cardi just got it. I don’t even know how to even say it. Cardi got it. She has won me over. I just love her. I love how she wears everything that she wears. She does it well.
I can’t say anything negative about how I’ve seen her look. I mean, I’m older now, so things aren’t my style, but when it comes to representing it, it’s Cardi B. Whoever’s working with her, they just do a great job. A complete look! Somewhere, somebody’s thinking over there. That’s all I’m gonna say, because everything looks good on her.
In recognition of your contribution to hip-hop, a few of your creations are now being featured in an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. How was it recreating those wigs for this exhibit?
I definitely am honored that my work has inspired so many great artists of today. I would’ve never thought that back then 20 years ago when I created those wigs. Recreating them was just one of the greatest gifts because it brought me back to understanding and knowing how powerful and how much of an impact I have had on creating styles for women in hip-hop.
So, it was a great experience. It was challenging because the materials of today are completely different. I had to do a lot more work in reconstructing and finding my materials because they wear a lot of lace fronts now; they don’t wear the bangs like they did back in the ’90s.
It took me six months to create the wigs, including the lavender wig and both the Versace and Chanel wigs. But that whole time, it just took me right back to those moments of gratitude. I know Kim is very honored about that too, I’m quite sure.