Mirror, Mirror: In ‘Fresh Dressed,’ fashion’s success led to its failings

Sacha Jenkins, director of the documentary "Fresh Dressed," was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Queens. (CNN Films)

Sacha Jenkins’ documentary Fresh Dressed, which opened Friday in theaters, isn’t a whitewashed rehash of hip-hop’s gritty, golden era that proclaimed all things oversize and baggy as its sartorial gospel.

It goes so much deeper than that.

Jenkins, who was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Queens, N.Y., spent more than two years chatting it up with artists like Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, and Swizz Beatz. He interviewed Riccardo Tisci, the creative director of Givenchy, and Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, the forces behind Public School, about the music’s influence on style.

A former music editor for Vibe magazine, Jenkins connected with the urban-fashion industry’s earliest entrepreneurs, such as Harlem-based Dapper Dan, who “borrowed” designer logos (think Louis Vuitton) to make clothing for the era’s biggest stars, from Big Daddy Kane to Salt-N-Pepa.

And Jenkins traced the rise and fall of urban menswear brands like Karl Kani, which peaked at $300 million in sales back in 1995, but has since fallen by the wayside, thanks in part to the infusion of celebrity designers.

Jenkins’ conclusion: Despite hip-hop’s braggadocio and rebellious nature, its awards and accolades, it was unable to sustain success in the fashion industry because, as a whole, the genre suffered from deep-seated low-self-esteem.

And that’s crazy when you think about.

Kimora Lee Simmons’ Baby Phat runway presentation in the late ’90s was among the first shows to draw top celebrities to its front row. In that same decade, designer labels like Marc Ecko and Rocawear turned the Las Vegas Magic Trade Show into an industry must-go. And in 2004, Sean Combs was the first African American designer to win a Council of Fashion Design Award for the Sean John collection.

Even though those brands aren’t as important in the luxury market as they once were, their impact on the industry is still palpable. If it wasn’t for hip-hop-inspired fashion, menswear wouldn’t have evolved to the point it has reached today: Tuesday begins the debut of a New York Fashion Week dedicated solely to men’s collections.

Still, Jenkins said, the purveyors of hip-hop never got a sense from society as a whole – or within their own communities – that their style mattered. That is part of the reason, he surmises, that so many brands petered out.

“This is just an extension of who black people are in America,” Jenkins said ofFresh Dressed. The doc, financed by CNN – which will air it in September – premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.

Turns out the core of hip-hop’s fashion success was part of the reason for its failings.

“Something that kept coming up in the film is this notion of freedom,” Jenkins said. “When your identity is being challenged every single day, the one thing you have control over is how you look. For these people who were being oppressed, the one simple thing that made them feel good about themselves was the way they dressed.”

Early in the film, Vogue editor André Leon Talley explains that, in a segregated world, one of the few times black people could hold their heads high was in church while wearing their Sunday best.

The film transitions to the Bronx in the 1970s when rival street gangs are at war. After a truce, black and Latino gang members – dressed in Lee jeans and motorcycle jackets – battle each other using quick-witted rhymes instead of violence. Rap music is born.

Jenkins then segues into the 1980s and ’90s – a time I experienced, growing up in Jamaica, Queens. I fondly remember the airbrushed graffiti sweatshirts at Shirt Kings in Jamaica Colosseum Mall. And who didn’t wear Crayola-colored denim, popularized by Cross Colours? (Will Smith brought fame to the brand during his Fresh Prince of Bel-Air days.)

It was through hip-hop that many of us young, black Gen Xers got our first taste of designer labels, Jenkins illustrates.

My mother didn’t own any Gucci, but I knew all of the words to Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s 1985 hit “La Di Da Di,” from which the title of the movie comes:

Fresh dressed like a million bucks,/ threw on the Bally shoes and the fly green socks./ Stepped out my house stopped short, oh no./ I went back in, I forgot my Kangol.

“We didn’t have access to these brands. They weren’t for us,” said Elena Romero, author of Free Stylin’: How Hip-Hop Changed the Fashion Industry and one of the film’s commentators. (She also went to college with me.) “But we grew up watching Robin Leach. We couldn’t get our hands on yachts, mansions, or cars, but we could maybe get a Polo shirt.”

There was a downside: a tendency for teens to define themselves based on the labels they wore, and that longing to fit in drove them to shoplift. Jenkins talks to members of the Lo Lifes, once a Brooklyn-based crew that stole Polo clothing and accessories from high-end department stores. In the film, the Lo Lifes’ story is told through graffiti-style animation by Hectah Arias, and that added to Fresh Dressed‘s authenticity.

But the need to be “fresh” also was the driving force behind the birth of urbanwear brands like FUBU and Cross Colours. Eventually, however, the urban-fashion scene became saturated, and like the rest of the fashion industry, it became more celebrity-driven than designer-focused. And now the Internet and gender fluidity – like Chris Brown’s ankle-length skinny pants on Sunday’s BET Awards – are influencing fashion as much as the music.

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