Fresh Dressed

Looking at the clothes that made hip hop, Fresh Dressed is definitely a doc that deserves the term ‘fly’, even if it’s not exactly on the wall.

This is bright, funky fun, starting back in the Bronx in the 1970s, the days of the gangs when sleeveless denim biker jackets were customised with badges, patches and studs, a look immortalised in films such as The Warriors, and scored by the ghetto poem sound of Gil Scott Heron’s Whitey on the Moon.

But the term “fresh” came with hip hop and this film sees the label-crazy street fashion as very much an extension of the African-American experience, going back to when even slaves took pride in their Sunday best. It’s about “radiating your flare” and “kings dressing like a king”.

The Kangol hat (even if some of them looked like pith helmets), the Cazal shades (often without lenses), the sneakers: these were essential items and each borough – the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Harlem – all had their own ways of wearing their gear in different combinations that defined their territories.

Later came the obsession with Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand and Tommy Hilfiger, both of whom made fortunes out of their popularity in the hip hop community, a fact that lent their preppy clothes a priceless cool. Hilfiger cleverly started the trend by handing out free clobber on the streets until his become the must-have items. People got mugged – “vicked” – for that stuff.

Sacha Jenkins’ film has great interviews. Sean Puffy Coombs, Nas, Kanye, Jay-Z all talk fluently about fashion – they’ve all got their labels, because clothes are a necessary extension of the music and the brand – while older rap figures such as Kid n Play and Big Daddy Kane recall the outfitters of their era, such as Dapper Dan’s Boutique in Harlem (Dap’s, as they called it) who’d put his own fresh, pimped-up styles on high-end labels such as LV and Gucci. “I blackenised it,” he tells us. Until he got raided and busted for copyright infringement.

Others recall Lower East Side spots on Orchard and Delancey – a corner that gave rise to some epoch-defining street photography by Jamal Shabbaz – or “Jew” shops who’d do you a discount on sneakers.

The shoe culture gets its props here, too, although I suspect there’s a whole separate film one could dedicate to sneakers. Shell toes, fat laces, Run DMC singing My Adidas. This is all good stuff, colourfully mapped out and, more crucially, prepared to move forward rather than just revel in the hey day of 90s hip hop, when the culture went mainstream and made huge stars of its proponents such as LL Cool J and Salt n Pepa, all of whose fashion styles became influential, peaking on prime time TV shows such as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and In Living Color, which took hip hop street fashion into homes around the world.

The music is almost a by-product as far as this film is concerned, though you can’t help but nod away to old skool bass lines from Kurtis Blow, The Humpty Dance or Tribe Called Quest’s still-slammin’ Scenario. These were my jams, my friends, and I’m sticking with them.

Street labels such as Roc-A-Wear, Cross Colors, Fubu and Kani enjoy their popularity but, as the film and Kanye so interestingly point out, have failed to establish a long life compared to the grand houses such as Gucci and Hermes, which remain the markers of status and aspiration for ghetto wearers.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed Fresh Dressed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do a crazy legs and a turtle. Where’s my cardboard box mat?