Each of Hip Hop’s four elements all represent creative outlets of style within the culture. Rather one wants to admit it or not, clothininfatuationg or fashion holds the culture together. It’s the first impression before one dances, scratches, tags or rocks the mic. The level of competitiveness Hip Hop garners naturally extends to this world as well. Who doesn’t want to be the flyest dressed person in the room? In Sacha Jenkins’ directed documentary Fresh Dressed, the roots of Hip Hop’s relationship with fashion is observed in detail fashion. From entrepreneurial spirits birthing iconic lines including Cross Colours and FUBU to brand worshiping, the Nas co-produced documentary perfectly illustrates the apparel industry’s history with the thirty-plus year culture. Helps that trendsetters like Pharrell, Kanye West, Pusha T, FUBU co-creator Daymond Garfield John and Karl Kani delivery pretty insightful interviews. Set to broadcast tonight at 10PM on CNN, Fresh Dressed earned great hype after making Sundance last year.
Speaking with DX, Jenkins explains where confidence and insecurities align themselves through Hip Hop’s love of fashion.
Hip Hop’s Inner Struggle Between Consumerism & Entrepreneurship Extended To Fashion
DX: Your documentary Fresh Dressed is premiering on CNN tonight. I know it had a great run at Sundance, and the buzz has been high. Let’s talk about some of the hype that’s been built around it since its announcement last year.
Sacha Jenkins: Getting into Sundance was an amazing experience; I didn’t have such grand expectations but it’s great to know that the film is being recognized and appreciated by folks well beyond Hip Hop. I set out to make a film that was true to core of what Hip Hop is and speak to the folks that really appreciate Hip Hop but also I wanted to make a film for those that don’t know about Hip Hop could appreciate. So, making it into Sundance helped validate the notion of what we set out to do making the film. It’s been excellent.
DX: As we know, Hip Hop is over 30 years old and it seems with every half a decade, fashion trends change dramatically. How did you fit all the changes in Hip Hop fashion in a documentary that’s less than two hours long?
Sacha Jenkins: I’ve been writing about Hip Hop for a long time, and before that, I was a kid who grew up when Hip Hop was coming of age. I recognized that the Hip Hop story had been told in lots of different ways but it hadn’t been told through fashion. You talk about the four elements of Hip Hop, and fashion is a very important component and it hadn’t been discussed. So, as you achieve the evolution of Hip Hop you see the ways Hip Hop evolved: first starting with the gangs in the south Bronx which were the prototype for the foundation of Hip Hop or what the original B-Boys and B-Girls would be. They were dressing like Hell’s Angels. And then eventually when the gangs start to fade, you have this new idea of the “crew,” be it a graffiti crew or a breakdance crew. So then, there is the notion of when you’re in the gang you wear this jacket that identifies you and then that whole energy was transferred onto sweatshirts, where people would iron on their names and the names of their crew on their sweatshirt to identify who they were. So you see the spirit of where Hip Hop came from, out of this really intense environment. With these gangs, the competitive energy continued on, the intensity continued on, and the fashion that we wore was a reflection of what was going on. You can go from there to Puffy and Jay Z. We grew up in parks where people DJ’d and there was broken glass everywhere, as was said in “The Message.” Now Jay Z and Puffy, if they break any glass, it’s a bottle of expensive champagne on a yacht. So how people have dressed along the way has been a reflection of where some of us inside of the culture stand socially so now these guys are rubbing elbows with the “elite” and how they dress is a reflection of where they move, and how they move.
DX: The documentary talks about the relationship between consumerism and entrepreneurship in terms of Hip Hop fashion. During the 90’s you had the Karl Kani’s, the FUBU’s of the world, but if you look at the 80’s, it was “My Adidas” and name brands. And if you look where it’s at now you see it’s Versace, and Louis Vuitton. What are your thoughts on these relationships?
Sacha Jenkins: Early on when I was coming up, Hip Hop was still coming of age and figuring out what it was, and so corporate America hadn’t figured out what Hip Hop was and how to market Hip Hop outside of making music. Then you get groups like Run DMC and they do a song called My Adidas and Adidas recognized how their sales were boosted by the song and they gave them an endorsement deal. That was the first time a non-athlete was given an endorsement deal by a sports brand. So at least in that moment Adidas recognized the power of the audience and embraced it. But once the 80’s hit and you have this new economy in the inner city coming on the backs of people addicted to crack, there’s all this money now. So you have a guy like Dapper Dan who designs clothing that takes Louis Vuitton prints and does what we do in Hip Hop: we remix it, we reimagine it, flip it and make it speak our language and make it reflect who we are. But still those luxury brands had no interest in our consumership. And then eventually the rappers are making a lot of money and in front of a lot of people, and they realize no one is really catering to us, no one is making clothing for us. And the rappers said “Hey, we should be getting that money too.” So finally there was this movement of entrepreneurship by way of focusing on the community making their own clothing brands and having great success for many years which leads up to where we are today where kids want to wear stuff they can’t pronounce and can’t afford which to me is a reflection of where we as a people are socially. Not just Black people or Latinos or people of color, but poor people. Americans are caught up in consumerism, Americans are addicted to spending money they don’t have. And as the clothing evolved or devolved, I wanted the film be a statement on where we were and where we are currently.
From Baggy Pants To Skinny Jeans: Dress Is About Language
DX: How do you look at Hip Hop fashion now?
Sacha Jenkins: Because of the Internet, the way folks don’t have a lot of money, they might not be able to travel to Australia but they can go online and travel to Australia and see what people are wearing. The influence of Hip Hop has had such a strong effect on Americans across the board, particularly white Americans, that’s opened up this sort of cross pollination in the ways people dress. You have these kids from the inner city wearing a punk rock t-shirt, or a Misfits shirt where 20 years ago I might have been one of the few black people who knew who they were. But today, black kids ride skateboards, have spike belts and wear skinny jeans, and to me, fashion in general is about how you express yourself, and in the world of Hip Hop we have very particular ways of expressing ourselves – whether it’s sagging pants or wearing ball caps in a particular way and to me it’s a metaphor for the bigger idea that reflects to a time where we had our own brands that we doing really well but in the absence of that why people keep turning to hip hop and why hip hop is so powerful is the attitude and the spirit of it. Like the average baseball fan is going to wear their hats in a particular way, but we wear our baseball caps in a very particular way, so how we dress is also about language. In the way the drum is about communication, how we dress is also an extension of who we are but also as another means of communication.
DX: Looking at people like Kanye who has been very vocal about his struggles as a Hip Hop artist trying to get into high fashion, do you feel like his complaints have any merit?
Sacha Jenkins: He reflects a bit on it on the film. And I learned from the conversation I had with him off camera, he realizes that there is a lot to learn. You can’t just come off the street because you are who you are and be the man in the world of high fashion. There are legacies and dynasties – people who have been doing this for years, in a business that’s largely Caucasian and European. You’re not dealing with dollars, you’re dealing with pounds – pounds that go back a thousand years. You’re dealing with a lot of power, and at the same time, the more educated Kanye became by going to shows, meeting the designers, some of those designers opening up their world to him, I think he knows what it takes to make it in that world and I think he is continuing to educate himself; he has focus to have success down the road and I think he is extremely dedicated to doing that.
DX: Do you see that level of entrepreneurship in, for example, with the Fairfax District in LA. That’s been heavily bolstered by Hip Hop.
Sacha: There are a lot of folks who are leveraging their brands in Hip Hop to create apparel that can cross over. But there is a big difference between streetwear and high fashion. Street-wear is t-shirts, maybe some cool cuts on pants and maybe some nice socks. That’s something that when you’re dealing with a mass market with consumers you want to tap into, like with Tyler, that’s one thing. But what Kanye is looking to do, or what Pharrell may or may not be trying to do, is on another level of breaking into some kind of acceptance in dealing with an elite group of people and you’re dealing with fashion that wasn’t mainstream and not marketed to the world. Kanye does things with Adidas and other brands, so he is making things that are acceptable to everyday people. But I think Hip Hop is way more successful than rock and roll when it comes to merchandising and extending their brand into the coolness of fashion. Like if you like Bon Jovi, you’re going to go and buy the t-shirt at the concert but if he started making jeans, I don’t know if people would be like “Yo, I’m fucking with those Bon Jovi Jeans.” When it comes to cool, folks of color in America and largely around the world, we dictate what is cool. So if we think it’s cool, if we all of a sudden said “Yo son, I’m fucking with Bon Jovi” then it would happen but as long as we continue to lead the way creatively in the world of music, there’s always gonna be the opportunity to create fashion that further articulates where that point of view is coming from and I think Tyler and Odd Future is a good example, and Fairfax is a perfect example of how that works.
Sacha Jenkins Explains Rap Fashion’s Roots In Slavery
DX: What insight did you gain by the time you wrapped production?
Sacha Jenkins: Going into it, I wanted to make this film because I remember what it felt like to have gear that Europeans respected. And I think that’s universal; I’m sure suburban white kids might go through that to a certain extent. But when I got my first pair of suede Timberlands, it was a big deal, this feeling that I had; I felt like I was a part of a community, a society. At the same time, a lot of people growing up couldn’t afford that so crack was around and I knew kids that were making $1200 a day in 1987 selling crack and they could afford to buy their entire building a pair of suede boots if they wanted. So going into it, I learned more about how important fashion is to us and why it’s important to us and what I’ve learned is when you don’t have control over so many things in society, and you feel like you’re marginalized and you can’t go where you want to go, what’s the one thing you can control? The one thing you can control is how you look. Throughout the film, I didn’t ask people like Pharrell, “Hey man, does fashion make you feel free?” A lot of people I interviewed all individually said something about freedom. And so when you consider what’s going on in America with folks of color right now, you think about the simplicity of clothing and you think about people feeling such a way that the one thing they can take pride in is controlling how they dress and making a statement, that says a lot about where we are and how we feel. On one hand, everyone wants to look good and feel good, and there’s nothing wrong with looking good and feeling good – and that good feeling is powerful. At the same time, on some levels, we’re so beaten down that one of the only things we have is clothing. So I wanted this film to start a dialog and get people thinking about these kinds of things.
DX: Growing up myself in of Hip Hop, I was also raised in a Baptist church where every Sunday was like a day to show out fashion wise. Every Easter you had to get a new Easter outfit…
Sacha Jenkins: Tying into what you’re saying, at the top of the film, it talks about church. You talk about Sunday Best? What people don’t know is where “Sunday Best” comes from. There was a time during slavery where slave owners by law had to buy their slaves one good outfit so they could go to church. Now when you think about that, and you think about the fact that Africans weren’t necessarily Christian, now were they? And they’re in a new world where they have to dress in a way that’s foreign to them as Africans and on top of that, there’s a new religion that’s imposed upon them and then on top of that their slave masters buy them one nice outfit so they can worship a god that’s completely foreign to them. So you think about Sunday Best might mean to you – going to church and you’re trying to look fly, trying to look flyer than the next man, but when you really think about the history of where it came from, these are the things I wanted my film to touch on and create conversation so people understand fashion is something that makes you feel good, there’s nothing wrong with loving fashion, but let’s look at where it all comes from. I don’t have any issues with Jesus. If you love Jesus, that’s beautiful; I don’t think that’s bad. But, I think we as a people need to better understand our history. I think the more you know about history, even though it’s ugly, the more free you are. Because if you don’t know your history, you’re continuing the ugly cycles of history. Then, you’re really not free. You’re really still a slave. You’re making the mistakes they want you to make. So when you understand your history, which is what we’re setting out to do, there’s a level of confidence. And I think that’s what Americans, we call ourselves African-Americans for a reason, to have a level of distinction because we weren’t always necessarily treated like Americans, we were treating like second class citizens. So, I think it’s important to know our history and Hip Hop history, but there’s still more history to be made.