'Fresh Dressed' documentary explores hip-hop fashion through the years

Booth Moore
Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

Long before Jay Z was rapping about fashion designer Tom Ford, Pharrell Williams was pitching for Chanel or Kanye West was a front-row fixture at Givenchy, kids were customizing jean jackets with spray paint and accessorizing shell-toed Adidas shoes with starched laces.

Hip-hop fashion, born from the music scene, has evolved into a global business and pop culture phenomenon that is explored in "Fresh Dressed," the new film by Sacha Jenkins that opens Friday.

The film is a fun, colorful scrapbook with references ranging from Little Richard to "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and interviews with rap artists, designers and executives including Williams, West, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Kid 'n' Play, Nas (one of the film's producers), Damon Dash, Jeff Tweedy, Riccardo Tisci and more.

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"In the world of hip-hop, fashion is a language," says Jenkins, 43. "But I also wanted people to understand the climate and the environment that created hip-hop."

He traces hip-hop fashion's roots to New York City in the 1970s when, against the backdrop of racial and economic tensions not unlike those making headlines today, gangs customized their jackets and jeans to forge an outlaw look.

"The Bronx was burned out, the educational system was screwed up and you had all these gangs rumbling," says Jenkins, a longtime chronicler of hip-hop who created his first zine (about graffiti art) when he was just a teenager and is currently the creative director of Mass Appeal magazine. "It was an aggressive world, and the clothing was very aggressive."

By the 1980s, beefs were being settled at the microphone through rap. "Fresh" evolved to mean dressing fresh out of the box, brand new and perfectly creased. "Being fresh is more important than having money," West says in the film. "The entire time I grew up, I only wanted money so I could be fresh."

"It makes you think about the importance in the inner city for other folks to understand that what you are wearing is brand new," Jenkins says.

The film highlights hip-hop fashion pioneer Dapper Dan, the Harlem haberdasher known for making crazy custom looks with allover logos from Gucci and Louis Vuitton. ("Dapper Dan's was Tom Ford before Tom Ford," Nas says.) The Shirt Kings, who airbrushed T-shirt designs of Mickey Mouse smoking crack, among other things, are also featured.

As rap began to permeate pop culture, artists developed a more relatable style, which was broadcast to the world in magazines and on MTV. "[Hip-hop artists] were dressing how kids on the street were dressing, not like Grandmaster Flash or Parliament-Funkadelic," Jenkins says. "Run DMC's 'you guys' style felt comfortable and accessible. And once hip-hop became accessible, the fashion became accessible and spread like wildfire."

Rappers gravitated toward old school status labels like Vuitton, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger until African American entrepreneurs created their own lines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These included Daymond John's FUBU in New York and Carl Jones' Cross Colours and Carl Williams' Karl Kani, both in L.A.. Music moguls Dash, Combs, Russell Simmons and Jay Z followed, and urban fashion emerged as a multimillion-dollar branding juggernaut.

Baggy pants and bucket hats went mainstream when LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls wore them. "Until then, no one was making clothes for this contingent," Jenkins says.

Hip-hop fashion reverberated on the runway, too, influencing countless high-end designers, and spawning its own successes. In 2004, Combs' Sean John line won the top menswear award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Public School, designed by Sean John alums Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, won the same award in 2013.

And yet today's rappers seem more interested in promoting luxury brands than their own homegrown labels. In 2013, ASAP Rocky rapped, "Rick Owens, Raf Simons usually what I'm dressed in," and Jay Z is more associated with Tom Ford than the Rocawear label he created with Dash.

"Kanye, Jay Z, Pharrell, the worlds they are traveling in are far away from the housing projects," Jenkins says. "I wanted to make a film that … got people to think about how many things have changed and how many things have stayed the same. Why is it so important for inner city kids to wear and own stuff from brands they can't pronounce? Because they feel marginalized and there's a lack of opportunity and they feel like somehow clothing can make a difference."

"Fresh Dressed" is opening at Laemmle NoHo and is available anytime at freshdressedmovie.com.

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