Brooklyn, New York; c.1986. Photograph by Jamel Shabazz.
“Being fresh is more important than having money. I only wanted money so I could be fresh,” Kanye West says with the utmost conviction. Dressed in all white, Kanye is sitting in on the deck of a beach house, somewhere where the skies are blue and the water is clean, and drops bon mots like this for the camera. Yeezy is just one of the many moguls, masterminds, and pioneers in Sacha Jenkins’ documentary film, Fresh Dressed, which premiered at the SVA Theater, New York, on June 18 and releases nationwide on June 26, 2015.
The theater was a who’s who of legends who created the form of Hip Hop that took the world by storm. As KRS-One said, “Rap is something you do. Hip Hop is something you live.” This way of being was very much in evidence in the crowd, filled with the artists, musicians, and designers who have defined Hip Hop style. It was a veritable who’s who of fashion visionaries including Dapper Dan, Karl Kani, Mark Ecko, April Walker, Shirt King Phade, and Jorge Fabel Pabon, among others, people who revolutionized the look, feel, and availability of mainstream apparel as well as couture pieces.
Nasir Jones, executive producer of the film, was sitting in the audience as Sacha Jenkins took the stage before the screening began to welcome the audience and say a few words. Wearing a Public School shorts-suit, bow tie, and plaid shirt with red kicks, Jenkins was handed the mic and asked, “You know my first question, right? Is Queens in the house?” The call was answered enthusiastically by the audience. Jenkins did roll call, then he broke it down, introducing Nas by saying, “He went to the same shitty junior high school as I did…The guidance counselors told me the best way to make it in life was vocational jobs. None had any expectations of us.”
Jenkins, who moved from Silver Springs, Maryland, to Queens when he was seven years old, remembered, “My mother told me to go outside with a football and I did and I made friends…. Some people had these markers and I called myself a writer. I wasn’t the best but Hip Hop gave me an identity. When I look into this audience—I wish I could tell you who all of these people are because they made Hip Hop. It wasn’t something I learned in school. It was something I learned on the streets. It had nothing to do with a college education.… I was told writing on things wouldn’t get me anywhere but that’s Lee Quinones sitting behind Nas; the first voice you hear on Illmatic is Lee.” The audience turned to look as the two gave each other daps. Jenkins said in conclusion, “Think about what’s happening in the world today. Think about how Hip Hop has had a change in the world.”
Photograph by Jamel Shabazz.
The audience broke into great applause, something sorely needed the day after the domestic terrorist attack on an historic Charleston church, a moment that echoed again as the film began, focusing on the tradition of “Sunday Best,” wherein slaveholders acted as “good Christians” by giving their slaves one good outfit that they could wear to church. Andre Leon Talley explained that the gospel choir was the thing to watch, as music and fashion melded during services. Talley observed, “Music can make you feel free…and give you a sense of your freedom.”
Against that backdrop, Fresh Dressed launched, guiding us on a direct course for New York in the late 1960s, when gang culture was making a fresh rise, and the members became involved in customizing their clothing as a matter of pride. Against a backdrop of Joe Conzo photos and “Wild Style” footage, and Buddy Esquire flyers, we return to the Bronx of the 1970s, a time of police brutality, arson, and benign neglect, a time when the Cold Crush Brothers were live on stage in Armani suits, mink coats, and gators.
Hip Hop was everything that was new, rising from the ashes like a phoenix. And the thing that everyone saw was just how fly you were. The period was one of creativity, innovation, and originality. The greatest sin of all time was to bite, to steal, to appropriate. People got hurt for that. My, how the times have changed.
Brooklyn, New York; c.1986 Photograph by Jamel Shabazz.
By the 1980s, there was a desire for status in the most apparent way, reaching new heights with the work of Dapper Dan. His custom made leathers, screenprinted with the likes of Louis Vuiton, Gucci, MCM, and Fendi, were cut in original designs made for his wealthy clientele. Hip Hop artists, athletes, and gangsters found themselves at Dap’s Harlem haberdashery at all hours of the day and night. As Dap notes of his work, “The fabric is anything I want it to be… I blackenized it. I took it where they would never take it.”
Indeed, that is the message of Fresh Dressed. As Hip Hop goes mainstream, the film explores the rise of urban apparel, from Cross Colours, Karl Kani, and FUBU to Sean Combs, who transcended the genre, and became the first African American to win a CFDA Award. “The more risks you take, the more respect you get,” Combs observed.
Props to Sacha Jenkins for having the vision to embrace and explore a story this big with sensitivity, wit, and intelligence, but above all, with style. The film is riveting, and filled with gems. One of my favorites was Karl Kani’s story about Tupac. He asked Pac, who always rocked his clothes, how much it would cost to hire him for an advertisement. Pac said he would work for free because Karl was black. That’s brotherhood. One Love.