fresh dressed: hip hop's legacy in the fashion industry

Cultural appropriation, white supremacy and homophobia -- re-evaluating the relationship between fashion and rap.

by Stuart Brumfitt
30 October 2015, 9:09pm

"Being fresh is more important than having money," insists Kanye West in Sacha Jenkins' new documentary about hip hop, Fresh Dressed. Having been Music Editor of VIBE magazine in the 90s, Jenkins has a packed contacts book and a reputation on the New York scene, which helps explain the presence of Kanye, Pharrell and P Diddy as talking heads in the film (having Nas as Executive Producer can't have hurt either). But there are also fashion heavyweights in the film, with Riccardo Tisci and André Leon Talley assessing the correlation between style and rap - the latter waxing lyrical about the beauty of gospel choir robes. 

After opening with a look at the black community's "Sunday best" during the slavery era, we're flashed forward through the jazz age to Little Richard and then to 70s "money-making Manhattan", where Jenkins's story really begins. The 70s were also a time when the Bronx was burning and gangs like the Savage Skulls were taking inspiration from biker film Easy Rider, wearing Lee jeans and customising their cut-off denim jackets with badges. This "warrior rebel" look soon morphed into early B-Boy styles, which street style photographer Jamal Shabazz snapped in order to capture the "pride and dignity" of the community. 

We then swoop on to FUBU, Rocawear, Karl Kani, Sean Jean, Tommy, Coogi and Phat Farm: brands that were booming off the back of the commercial success of hip hop in the 90s. But after the boom, came the crash, with cynical celebrity rapper brands over-saturating the market and successful labels imploding from in-fighting and too-quick expansion. From that period on, Jenkins focuses on the death of the "for us by us" brands and examines the hip hop scene's ongoing obsession with historical European houses.

The film starts off as a celebration, with the back-story of style in the black community and the early days of hip hop, but at the end there are a lot of bigger questions about whether black fashion businesses can survive and about self-esteem in the community.
I want to just introduce the conversation and let the viewers come to their own conclusions. There was this renaissance period where you had all of these brands making a lot of money. I used to be the music editor at Vibe magazine in the 90s, when that was happening. Lots of people had jobs. Now, if I went to the inner city, to the projects and said, "Here's a whole truck load full of these clothes - do you want it?" No one would take it. So there is this conversation about self-esteem and this conversation about white supremacy, honestly, and how these garments that are associated with "luxury lifestyle" - how folks in the inner city buy into the values and principles of those brands and apply them to themselves as a means of projecting where they are in society.

So why do you think people were willing to take clothes from the back of a truck when Tommy Hilfiger first did it, but they wouldn't be now?
Well, I think if you have a white man going to the hood with clothing, maybe people will take it, because there's a sense of value in what white America has to offer the inner city. But as an African-American, if I went to the hood with a truck trunk load full of clothing, people might be sceptical. For folks in the inner city, what we wear, it's a language on a high level because it's not just function; it's not just to keep us warm. It's to express and communicate our social standing to other folks in our community.

People are also wearing the same sort of labels as markers of who they are in, say, posh circles in Paris.
Right, but those people probably can afford that. It's a real sort of, expression of their wealth and their affluence. When you're dealing with folks inner city, who can barely pronounce some of these brands, let alone afford it, why is there so much value attributed to owning something to make you feel better about yourself? A$AP Rocky was just a kid from the inner city who said he would walk the streets of Soho looking in the windows. My office is in Soho and I see the same thing now. But the relationship young folks have in the inner city now with fashion is completely different from my generations. We knew that Louis Vuitton was expensive and we liked the way it looked, but we didn't understand the history, the legacy or the value of it. Now, these kids do.

"Fresh" is a key word in the whole thing.
The idea of freshness is the notion of when you see me wearing something brand new, it says, "I have money. I can afford to buy something new and fresh." People went to great lengths to maintain their clothing to make it look fresh. You didn't want step on someone's sneakers. It was a problem if I interrupted your fresh. Fresh just represented this notion of having money.

Pharrell makes a point in the film that he gets a lot of love from big fashion houses. In the past, these brands didn't engage with the hip hop community, but that's changing quite significantly. Hopefully it will stay a strong and mutually beneficial relationship rather than being about brands exploiting rappers for current cool and credibility. What's your take on that?
Well, if you look at Riccardo Tisci, he grew up with hip hop, so it's not scary or intimidating and there's a level of respect that he has for the artists. In the 80s, these luxury brands couldn't fathom having a relationship with these people because hip hop was brand new and scary. Now that hip hop is mainstream, and has become like a genuine export of America that has power globally, how could these brands not take any of these folks seriously? Especially since they're wearing the stuff and turning people onto their brands, therefore putting lots of money in the pockets.

Kanye's been quite vocal about not getting access to these houses when he thinks he should.
I think he understands that you can't just come off the street and gain respect in this world. Now he says he's been studying pattern making and all these things. There's just a level of cross-pollination that didn't exist before.

It will be interesting to see whether hip hop maintains that sense of rebellion as it becomes part of the fashion establishment.
The fashion establishment is an establishment for a reason. You've got hundreds and hundreds of years of language, culture and affluence, and the folks who are the gate-keepers of that world want to hold onto that. It's human nature. Then there's race and gender and politics that come into play, but I feel the way the world is moving and everyone wants to make money. I think eventually you will have more players who came out of the urban space. Again there was that period where you had all these rappers who had their own brands making lots of money but as April Walker said in the film, a lot of these guys were not serious designers. They're in it to make money and then, you know you're taking away space in the stores from other designers who deserve that space.

Was it generally a very booming time in America when the hip hop labels like FUBU were kicking off?
It was a booming time in America in general but hip hop at that point was still a risky proposition. A lot of the money was made by people who weren't of the culture, and now a lot of it is gone. Now the energy is more focused on high fashion and being a participant in that world, and having respect in that world, as opposed to, "Here's an audience: it's hip hop. Let me make clothing for them." There's that whole thing in the film where Karl Kani talks about the time he asked how much it was going to cost to be in an ad, and he was like, "I'm not going to charge you, you're black." That sentiment is something that was one of the reasons why it flourished for so long, but that sentiment has been lost.

I didn't know until I saw the film that Spike Lee had a store in Brooklyn.
Yeah he had his film company, 40 acres and a Mule, and he made clothing that was pretty popular in the early 90s. I guess Carl from Cross Colours had come to his shop and was inspired and influenced by some of the stuff he was making, but Spike Lee doesn't get any credit for what he had a hand on.

And I only just discovered that P Diddy won a CFDA award!
Yeah, and you notice that Maxwell and Dao-Yi [from Public School] used to work there? They talked about how to a certain extent - I mean the subtext - there was a stigma attached to Sean John. But Sean John transcended everything and actually was a pioneer and people don't talk about that.

Now movements like Afropunk are taking black style in America in a whole new direction.
I'm pretty involved with it. It's not just the music being at the forefront, but how fashion is a big part of its identity. In America, this whole conversation about cultural appropriation is so heavy on the minds of black and brown people. It's this notion of how in America, when you don't feel like an American, the one thing you can control and own is your identity. And if your identity is an extension of how you dress, if your identity is an extension of how you speak, if your identity is an extension of the music and art you create, you're going to be very passionate about protecting that and making sure that reflection stays true to who you are and where you come from. Afropunk is the personification of that. It's saying, "This is how we dress, it might be scary or different for a lot of folks, but this is who we really are and we are finally feeling comfortable in pronouncing that and putting that out there." And owning it, more importantly.

That ties in a bit with Swiss Beatz's comment about how people in hip hop are more willing to experiment with fashion, because these days there's less fear of being labelled gay for dressing a certain way. And Afropunk is about no prejudice, full stop.
Yeah, the African-American community definitely has some issues with homosexuality and that's largely tied into religion and their own sense of social standing. I think everyone kind of looks down on the other, but those outsiders are part of your community as well; they are you and you are them. And Afropunk does a great job of changing the perception. Kanye said people thought he was gay because he liked fashion. We've always liked fashion in the hood, but because of guys like Pharrell and Kanye making it okay to wear certain things, it's definitely changing the way kids dress in the inner city and how they view folks who are gay. Which is extremely positive.

It's not just a gay fashion thing though: movements like Afropunk are also embracing alternative styles in general
Well that goes to white privilege, right? That the sense of being punk. What's punk? You're saying I'm stripping away society and I'm going to dress in this way as a fuck you to society. When you're black, you're already punk. You know, so, since you're already punk, you want to wear a uniform that makes you acceptable. So this sense of black people now having this more alternative style is sort of saying, "I'm already punk because I'm black and now I'm going to go the extra mile of being super punk, of dressing in this way that goes against society." That goes to young folks of colour finally getting closer to embracing their identities and not having the fear of being stigmatised or held back.

It shows how style is very re-cyclical. I played rugby as a teenager, but then I saw a hip-hop video of a rapper wearing a really cool Ralph Lauren rugby shirt and tracked it down. But I was buying it because of the rapper, not to look like the English rugby player that I already was.
But here's the interesting thing about hip hop and homosexuality, right? One might say, "Oh, to fan boy over fashion on that level, is like a homosexual thing." But guess what? Everyone in hip hop fanboys over that and some of those people are gay, you just don't know it. But because of Afropunk and Kanye and Pharrell and how things are changing, people are feeling more comfortable to be who they are.

I find it quite amazing, the forensic detail with everyone into hip-hop style. Like with the laces that they stretched, ironed and starched. Can you talk a bit about that?
Yeah there was great effort that went into making sure your outfit was up to snuff. I mean if you laced your laces the wrong way, you'd be ridiculed. You know, there are rules. There is protocol. People don't understand that, you know whether it's music or graffiti art or whatever it's not some random person scribbling; there's a whole science behind what it is that they do.

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