With an intricate presentation of dressing and presentation in New York across three decades, Fresh Dressed is a documentary that develops coherent insights into the functions of culture and identity. Sacha Jenkins’ survey of East Coast hip hop and its accompanying street fashion constantly ties style to self-expression, and examines the imperative for distinction and identity that has defined New York hip hop and street fashion, particularly in the late 80s.
From co-founding the New York-based hip hop magazine Ego Trip in 1994, to editing Vibe Magazine and Mass Appeal, Sacha Jenkins’ involvement in the depicted scenes is extensive, and it translates into a film that boasts great access, detail, and intimacy. Speaking to Dapper Dan, the Harlem tailor that creates quintessentially hip-hop modifications of pieces from Manhattan outlets, Jenkins pinpoints a potent example of hip hop’s early attempts to distinguish itself, and goes on to lament how Dan’s store was shut down by fashion houses that would then imitate his style years later.
Throughout the film, Jenkins’ ability to trace the shifts in hip hop style clearly comes from experience rather than clinical research. In one sequence, Damon Dash discusses his work with Rocawear and the brand’s early success, while Daymond John talks about how FUBU emerged out of the lack of African-American representation in fashion, which is carefully juxtaposed with shots of the brand being worn by the Backstreet Boys. Both are signals both of those brands’ successes and the continuing commodification of hip hop and the work of black Americans. Dr. Todd Boyd, an academic from the University of Southern California, articulates this trend: “when mainstream American culture discovered hip hop, they began trying to sell bits and pieces of it in any way they could.”
There’s a consistency and breadth in the conversations of Fresh Dressed. While there’s the inclusion of early figures like Dapper Dan, Jenkins’ focus continues to anecdotes from modern artists like Kanye West, P. Diddy, Jim Jones, Nas, and Karl Kani. Even Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci makes an appearance, discussing his love of hip hop artists and thoughts on the latent class issues in fashion. It’s presented in deep contrast with the earlier scenes of early-90s designers, which actively pushed back against the styles of tailors like Dapper Dan. Other highlights include West discussing the importance of attaining Ralph Lauren in predominantly black neighbourhoods, Kani recalling Tupac wearing his clothing and pushing the brand for free as a show of support, and P. Diddy’s articulation of Sean John as being “from the block to the board room”.
As an artist that has defined the intersection between hip-hop and fashion for over a decade (and more recently as a black designer working in fashion today himself), West offers some of the most insightful, lasting and personal parts of the documentary, thus demonstrating the degree to which access can improve a work like Jenkins’. When he talks about “the doors that Russell, Puff and Jay opened”, we’re given specific and intimate reflections that emotionally ground what Jenkins’ film portrays. When Kanye discusses how his fear of expression and acceptance defined how he used to dress, the gravity of a moment such as Karl Kani’s clothes first appearing on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air is made much clearer.
It’s not simply the presence of the figures themselves within Fresh Dressed, but the sincerity of their engagement. The documentary presents a malleable and moving definition of hip hop by engaging with the intricate and layered history of the genre, while articulating the emotional and racial histories that the style, clothing, and genre hold in American history. It certainly has extensive sources, anecdotes, access and interviewees, but beyond this is Sacha Jenkins’ ability to work them into something more complex: a statement of identity and expression, rather than a simple historical look at relevant case studies.