With “bling-bling” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and the television program Empire‘s unprecedented ratings run, it’s difficult to believe that hip-hop culture remains in its relative infancy. Director Sacha Jenkins’s film, Fresh Dressed, goes back to hip-hop’s inception and examines the evolution of the genre’s culture, rapid growth, and style influences. The result is a cinematic boom box pumping out a string of little-known facts and celebrity interviews aimed at schooling both hip-hop fans and non-fans alike.
Hip-hop culture is – and always has been – ostentatious. From graffiti art’s bright flashy colors to rap music’s thumping, bass-heavy beats, every aspect of hip-hop culture is drenched in excess. From the film’s opening moments until the final credits roll, Fresh Dressed authentically captures the spirit of hip-hop. Kicking off with a throwback Soul Train-style dance-show clip before transitioning to some slickly-produced animated cuts as the opening credits roll, those familiar with hip-hop culture will feel right at home with the movie’s “dope” presentation. Unfortunately, Fresh Dressed does not always possess enough substance beneath its well-produced sheen to keep the audience engrossed in the subject matter. There are too many instances where it loses some of its soul, devolving into what feels like an oral dictation-style book report rather than an insightful story into an edgy culture.
No one can accuse the production team behind Fresh Dressed of not doing their homework, however. The film goes all the way back, past the formation of hip-hop in the late 1970’s, to the roots of fashion in the African-American community during the days of slavery. It makes several insightful points about how the impoverished and marginalized turned to fashion in order to gain the illusion of affluence. Still, although Fresh Dressed spends time discussing how clothes turn paupers into kings, the movie never slows down to take more than a cursory glance at the root of this topic.
A documentary can flourish or fail based on the credibility of its interview subjects, and Fresh Dressed goes above and beyond expectations, gathering a solid cast of knowledgeable “A-listers.” Director Sacha Jenkins stuffs his film with a collection of fashion and hip-hop industry luminaries; Kid ‘n Play, Nas, Marc Ecko, Andre Leon Talley, Pharrell Williams, Karl Kani, and Kanye West are a few of the many fashion and hip-hop icons that share personal insights.
Fresh Dressed works best when the charismatic interviewees discuss their relationships with fashion, and their accounts range from stories about sewing logos onto their off-brand sweaters to getting vic’d (robbed) for their sweet new gear. One of the high points of the film is the story of Dapper Dan, Harlem’s number one fashion trendsetter during hip-hop’s fledgling years. Dapper Dan created luxury urban brands by adding non-licensed Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos to street wear (or as he puts it, “I blackenized it”). Many of the interview subjects in Fresh Dressed offer firsthand accounts of the urban trends that suburban America eventually re-appropriated.
The film is at its most insightful, however, when it takes the time to hold a magnifying glass over the tiny trends that snowballed into fashion essentials. One origin that stands out is the creation of fat laces (one of hip-hop’s most iconic fashion accessories). In the early 1980’s, stores didn’t carry fat laces – a minor fact that didn’t stop the style from taking off. The movement caught on when fashion forward hip-hoppers began creating their own fat laces, and those with the skill and patience undertook an onerous 35-minute process which consisted of stretching out, starching, and ironing their laces. The fat laces story is a prime example of the type of humble fashion origin that even hip-hop fans are not familiar with. Regrettably, there aren’t enough of these types of insights in the film.
Fresh Dressed begins to lose momentum when it pulls away from the interview subjects’ street-level insights, its charm fading as it takes a broad, macro-level look at urban fashion’s rise and fall in the fashion industry. The film does an adequate job of delivering the important facts behind hip-hop/urban fashion’s mid-90’s boom and early 2000’s implosion, but designers’ tales of brands penetrating suburban markets are far less compelling than the previous subject matter.
Before Fresh Dressed wraps up, some of the high-profile interviewees pontificate on fashion equating to freedom of expression. Ending a film that predominately focuses on people’s obsequious relationships with major brands is a bold choice, as the film spends its first hour interviewing subjects that share stories of LITERALLY begging, borrowing, and stealing in order to jump on the fashion bandwagons of those that inspired them. Many of the subjects speak as though they would think long and hard about pushing their mother in front of a bus for a new pair of Jordan’s or Gucci’s. It comes across as disjointed to end the film with a message stating that people need to be themselves.
At certain points throughout Fresh Dressed, the viewer can catch glimpses of a more compelling story adrift in the fringes of the film. There are several intriguing topics it glosses over; the links between fashion, cultural subjugation, and overcompensation in the hip-hop community all cry out for a thorough examination. Still, despite only taking a shallow dive into certain areas, Fresh Dressed is a serviceable film. It’s a fun documentary that provides essential insights into hip-hop culture’s inseparable relationship with fashion, and though it skips over the endearing deep cuts that create a meaningful connection to the music, much like hip-hop on commercial radio, Fresh Dressed offers more than enough swag to grab an audience’s attention.
- Victor Stiff