Hip-Hop and Its Impact on Fashion: Sacha Jenkins, Director of “Fresh Dressed”

You don’t see just how fly my style is
I don’t see why I need a stylist
When I shop so much I can speak Italian.
Kanye West, “Champion.”

A couple weeks before the theatrical release of Fresh Dressed, a new documentary releasing this Friday that details the evolution of hip-hop fashion, I caught up with its director Sacha Jenkins at Mass Appeal headquarters in SoHo, NY, where Mr. Jenkins is the Creative Director. The above Kanye line kept coming up in my head as a display of playful arrogance combining rap and designer clothing. As an ’80s baby, hip-hop taught me the value of being fresh and having fun with fashion, so I couldn’t wait to get the inside story behind some of the most influential trends of my lifetime as both a fan and consumer.

Within minutes of sitting down in the bustling office kitchen with the Sacha, I learned my original angle for this interview was a bit misconstrued. Rather than the ‘Ye line that first came to mind, a classic Jay Z lyric from Scarface’s 2002 banger “Guess Who’s Back?” was far more fitting:

Came from the dirt,
I emerged from it all
without a stain on my shirt.
Scarface, “Guess Who’s Back.”

You interviewed a lot of heavy hitters, from artists to designers to execs, for this film. At any point did you find yourself geeking out because you were getting behind-the-scenes stories about fashion trends or products that you yourself might have been a fan of back in the day?
The “geek out” factor really isn’t there for me in terms of particular pieces or the specifics of clothing. Growing up in New York in the `70s and `80s, there were kids who came from much less than I did, but they had fresh gear because they sold drugs. They were in a situation, like most kids, that they didn’t want to be ridiculed due to their appearance, so they sold drugs to finance their apparel. And so when you think of that—just what was going on in New York at that time, and how that influenced the way we dressed and how we felt about the way we dressed—to me that trumps any, not that you were particularly asking about these, rare Jordans or whatever.

For me, the film is really about the social ramifications. Why people dressed the way they did, and what they had access to.

You mention the importance of appearance and one’s identity. People from different levels of socioeconomic status have different ways of displaying their wealth. In the suburbs, you might be judged on the car you drive or house you own. In the inner-city, however, and throughout the evolution of hip-hop, it seems like clothing is the most important and frequent showcase of financial success.
Like you said, there are people with money who can “stunt” or “ball” by owning a Ferrari. In the inner city, you don’t own such luxuries. You own yourself. You are a billboard. You are advertising the product that you are. So you want to be the most flamboyant, sexy billboard that money can buy. I wouldn’t say that this is exclusive to the inner-city though—spending money well beyond your means—it is really an American phenomenon.

In the hood, based on the lack of economic resources, the best way to show the illusion of money or status was through clothing. And often wearing clothing that was created by brands that promoted this aspirational or exclusive lifestyle.

Like Polo, there is a whole culture that goes along with being a polo player and belonging to a polo club. There’s a level of exclusivity. Even if you have the money, you still might not be welcome at that club.

Clothing, in a lot of instances, has that strong connotation of what it represents, and people in the inner city, just like other people, want to attach themselves to that brand.

On that note, a main point in your piece is that the inner city and people of color have been responsible for many of the most successful trends in the fashion industry in the past several decades. How would you explain Polo and Tommy Hilfiger, both traditionally preppy suburban brands, gaining prominence in the ’90s amongst the “urban” market?
There’s a gang called the ‘Lo Lifes who are featured in my film. I interviewed Thurston Howell III, and he says, “I had no furniture in my house, but I had plenty of Polo!” So sure, there are still instances where suburban America has a hand in what hip-hop does, but at the same time, what hip-hop does from a fashion angle is just like what the music has done–the music samples Black Sabbath, country music, and classical and creates something original. ‘Lo Lifes are wearing Polo, but they’re wearing it a particular way; their pants are sagging, their hats are turned to the side.

So that’s an example of hip-hop saying, “I don’t see myself being reflected in what’s being created and what’s popular. I like it, but I want to see myself in it.” So this is hip-hop saying “Yeah, I wear this too, but I’m wearing it on my terms.”

And similar aspirational themes can be found with hip-hop’s relationship with European luxury fashion, like the Guccis, Louis, and Pradas…
Absolutely, this can be traced back to the `80s when you had Dapper Dan who had an extremely popular boutique in Harlem. He wanted to sell Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and all these brands, but they wouldn’t sell it to him. So he said, “Listen, man, I’m gonna find a way to serve my community and I’m gonna ‘blackanize’ the clothing. I’m gonna make it cut and feel and look the way WE want it to be.” So he started doing hats, and upholstery, and interiors of cars, and belts using rolls of the designers’ fabric, and all these things these brands weren’t doing back then, but they do now. Eventually, he was shut down for copyright infringement.

Nas, who is in the film, says Dapper Dan was the Tom Ford before Tom Ford. It is mind-blowing that he wasn’t brought in to consult for these brands. They are now producing the things he was shut down for!

In the film you highlight the rise of urban fashion brands like Karl Kani, Rocawear, and Sean John, brands that Dapper Dan definitely influenced, but nowadays hip-hop artists aren’t pushing their own lines as much. Instead, they are partnering with bigger global brands for added resources and reputation. It seems like they have tried to distance themselves as far away from that “urban” bubble as possible. How would you explain this?
I think there is a degree of self hatred, in terms of African-American artists supporting African-American fashion designers. When Karl Kani was at his peak, Tupac was one of his endorsees. In the film, Karl Kani talks about meeting with Tupac and asking him, “Hey man, how much would it cost for you to be in an ad campaign for me?” Tupac replied, “Nothing, you’re black. I’m not charging you…”

I interviewed Jay Z for the film, and it didn’t actually make the final cut, but he talked about how he remembered saying very publicly that he would never wear FUBU. Looking back, he has no idea why he would say that: “Why would I say that about someone who came from where I came from? Someone who had the same struggles as I did. Why would I say that? Why wouldn’t I support someone like that?”

It is almost like African-American business has been so devalued, but we see the value in some Italian guy who is part of the fashion establishment who says we’re cool. That’s sexier than me getting behind some guy like Maurice Malone, who’s from Detroit and actually made really great denim and played a big role in Eminem’s success. Why wouldn’t you support that guy?

People from America buy into certain brands because of what they represent. That is the lifestyle that people have been trained to believe is the most fulfilling.

But at no point have we said “Karl Kani, you’re our Levi’s. We’re gonna rock with you regardless, we believe in what you’re doing, we’re gonna buy your stuff all the time.” This lack of support, combined with the need to get co-signs from European designers, is one of the main reasons there haven’t been any sustainably successful African-American owned fashion companies.

These are all super nuanced and difficult topics to discuss. But a lot of the outlets covering the film will focus on the fun fashion angle. As we finish up, what types of conversations do you hope your film inspires?
The film has been marketed to a very broad audience, and I think there is something very smart about that. Ultimately, a lot of people, if I came out of the gate like this, might not be interested because it would feel like it is too heavy. There are way more people who like fashion because they like fashion. They aren’t thinking about the social ramifications of what they wear.

Most people just want to geek out on the Pumas or Jordans or jeans that no one had. There is plenty of that in the film! Ninety-nine percent of the film is people being excited about clothes.

You see the trailer for my film and it gets into the flamboyance and the joy and the “cool” of hip-hop fashion, and the inspiration and the influence and all these things. And the film is that, the film is all of that. The film is fun. The film is color. The film is colorful people saying really wonderful and interesting things.

But for me as a filmmaker, it was also important to tell this other story of what the conditions were that spawned hip-hop, so my hope is that it encourages discussions about both of these sides of the matter.

Fresh Dressed releases Friday, June 26, in select theaters and video on demand via CNN Films.

In addition to chatting with Sacha, I had the privilege of discussing the film’s process with one of its producers, Marcus A. Clarke. He shared some incredible stories about the challenges and triumphs of the crew, and here is one of my favorites:

Having done plenty of video production, I know things rarely go according to plan. Do you have a good example of when things fell apart or you had to scrape things together?
Well, I wouldn’t say things fell apart, but there are some pretty big names in the film that were really hard to get. Most notably Kanye. Very hard dude to lock down. From our correspondence, he was always down and interested to be interviewed for the film, but he is a very busy guy as you can imagine.

So I had finished up a day of work here, it was a rainy night, 7 or 8 pm. I get a call from Peter, CEO of Mass Appeal and he says, “Kanye is down for the interview. The only catch is it has to be tomorrow, and it has to be in Mexico.”

I was luckily in the neighborhood and came back to the office so Peter and I could crunch through flights, hotels, equipment, getting a sound guy on board, etc. That was eight o’clock at night, and we were on a plane the next morning on the way to Mexico. We got the Kanye interview, and it was amazing.

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