GETTIN' FRESH STARTS WIT' YOUR FEET
The Chronicles of Hip Hop Fashion
Fresh Dressed, the directorial debut documentary of Sacha Jenkins, takes us back to the days of how hip hop culture began, on the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem, where the idea of “being fresh is more important than having money,” says Kanye West, one of the many renowned contributors to the film.
It brings the viewer all the way from understanding the historic context of Kings, how they used to peacock dress; In other words, “It’s all about that flare” to how hip hop’s status symbol dressing became accepted in mainstream culture. The idea of individuality, a free lifestyle, and dressing as an expression of aspiration is conveyed through archival imagery, photos, and videos, as well as cartoons by artist Hectah Arias.
“Your clothes are your wings, you wanna be fly” says Nas. It’s the idea of looking your best, and relates to the origins of the term putting on your ‘Sunday Best’. The film talks about the significance in the roles of religion amongst African American culture; No matter where you came from or how much money you had, you had at least one good outfit to wear to church.
It really begins though with fashion worn by the New York gang members in the seventies. There was a lot of killing and brutality within those groups, but it was just the reality of the streets of the Bronx at the time. Those members wore a certain attire to indicate “Oh, he’s just like me.” It was an attitude that went hand in hand with having the ability to wear the clothes. The true art of customizing and personalization in hip hop dress, patches for example, came directly from gangs without a doubt, says Popmaster Fabel. Denim sleeveless patched-up jackets worn over biker jackets, with black cuffed jeans. That was the ‘classic outlaw look.’
André Leon Talley, former editor of American Vogue, talks about the huge influence of music on fashion. Jazz, Blues, Hip-Hop, the music coming out of those areas of New York at the time had a completely unique clothing style. Essentially, fusing hip-hop and fashion together created its own culture.
When hip hop and rap music began to really take off and artists like Run DMC - who really had this, not following the rules mentality - became successful, it entirely shifted the meaning of ‘dressing for success’. No longer did someone have to wear a suit to be who he or she wanted to be, to be taken seriously, and to be respected. At the end of the day, that’s what music does, it makes you feel free. Big Daddy Kane, talks about B-Boy style being true to hip-hop culture in terms of dancing, breakdancing. If you had your Pumas on with your Kangol bucket hat, you were a true, respected, B-Boy.
The streets of New York were always like a runway. Brands are identifiers as to whom we are from head to toe, and whatever you wore was an indication of where you were from. You had your Kangols, your Cazals sunglasses, you knew you were from Harlem. It was the same with Brooklyn, and the Bronx was wearing a mix of the two. Basically your clothes were a reflection of your upbringing as much as they were a reflection of how you were economically doing. It was a “status symbol based on insecurity,” and everyone wanted to be fresh like a million bucks.
The question that you didn’t want to answer on the street back then was “What’s your size?” You could get killed for that. Killed for having the freshest kicks on the block. Just re-doing your laces from the manufacturers default was a ritual for these kids; it’d take them a half an hour sorting out their laces. After all, says Christopher (Kid) Reid, you could tell by looking at their laces who was hip. You had to “build your outfit off of your shoe game.”
It seems that some fashion rules don’t change, because footwear as a part of streetwear style has become increasingly popular in recent years. Sportswear giants like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok are in constant battles for the spot as the coolest, freshest looking brand, taking on designer collaborations and guest designers in any attempt to create excitement and newness.
Copyright infringement began to be a mainstream issue back in the eighties when the likes of Dapper Dan - the Harlem legend of logowear – developed a proprietary process for screen-printing on leather, just as logomania was reaching its peak. Garments were emblazoned with YSL, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and just about any other luxury brand’s emblem. He owned a boutique on 125th street, which opened in 1982, when he was dressing Floyd Mayweather, Salt-N-Pepa, Diddy, Mike Tyson, and LL Cool J.
As trends wave naturally, and luxury brands began to realize how they could monetize from all the free promotion, and taking design inspiration direct from the streets, they started to hand out their clothing to artists for free. Endorsements weren’t necessary at the time; they were making a lot of money from being born across the chest of the most popular singers and rappers at the time. This of course allowed for living the fantasy of exclusivity, owning expensive clothes that not everyone had access to, and it soon became un-cool to wear knockoffs. Jay Z even rapped, “Got a G on my chest, I don’t need Dapper Dan,” signaling this preference for real over faux. Damon Dash reiterates, “What’s fly is not copy-cat, what’s fly is doing something that other people recognize and notice, and you know it’s fly, before they know it.”
Around the same time, television shows like The Fresh Prince, and In Living Color gained popularity. Carl Jones, founder of oversized fashion brand, Cross Colours, began to create clothing for these shows, garments with these larger silhouettes on the bottom but smaller around the waistband, meaning that fans could now wear what was reminiscent of the baggy low slung jeans, which were popular in hip hop culture. 1992 was the year that big pants really impacted, and just like that, the designer had himself a one hundred million dollar business.
1996 became the year that mom and pop fashion businesses turned into department store businesses, streetwear stores opened across the pond, like the renowned Black Rainbow boutique in Paris, and instantly hip-hop fashion became a one-world global trend. It was no longer confined to the streets of New York City. The documentary then opens up hip-hop’s takeover to the mainstream when artists like Sean “Puffy” Combs, launched Sean John, as a high fashion label in the urban space. If luxury brands were taking influence from the streets, they wanted to do it better. U.S. based designers like Marc Echo developed a ‘fuck that’ attitude, deciding they didn’t need external approval to be seen as good as, or on par with luxury brands, and European designers. Sean John’s designer offspring, including Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of the label Public School, were recently named the creative directors of DKNY. Self-projection was, still is, and always will be a way of proving street level appropriation.
The film works like a history lesson in African American culture and the influence that it had on fashion, how an entire type of fashion had been created from an understood theory that if you look good you feel good. That is pertaining to fashion even in a wider sense, that how you feel about how you look is a real reflection in how someone carries themselves in their clothes. But we also get to see how a culture rose up, how style can emulate an attitude, and how status in dressing has evolved over the decades. The nature of hip-hop fashion and its origin is largely of African American culture from the streets of New York and therefore the film is very race and class oriented, and primarily male-dominant. We don’t get to see much about the influence of hip-hop on womenswear, although this is a huge topic itself and could even be developed upon as a sequel.
Video: Official Fresh Dressed Trailer - Style Haul YouTube