'Fresh Dressed': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A business-minded history of hip-hop fashion

From the South Bronx to Paris runways.

Commerce and culture are joined at the hip (-hop) in Fresh Dressed, Sacha Jenkins' history of the way impoverished youths influenced the fashion business and vice versa. What begins as a vibrant look at street culture eventually morphs into something that might play on a financial news channel, which is appropriate, even if it makes the doc less fun than, say, Style Wars or the recent Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer.

Shabazz, who documented not just the clothes young New Yorkers wore at the dawn of the hip-hop era but the panache with which they presented themselves, took plenty of the photos seen here (some of them manhandled by an overuse of 3D-ifying parallax effects). There we see the Kangol hats, huge rectangular glasses, and pristine sneakers that have become iconic — but the film also takes us further back, with historians and fashion editors finding the roots, not just of African-American attitudes toward impeccable clothes, but of a penchant for D.I.Y. modification: Those fat sneaker laces, we learn, were simply the laces that came with the shoe that had been stretched, starched and ironed beyond recognition.

Interviewees like Kid & Play explain the thinking behind using all your resources to look more successful than you are, recalling times when they'd hit the streets "dipped" (cue on-screen definition of slang meaning "mint condition") in new gear but have just 40 cents in their pockets. As rap's success brought money to neighborhoods, entrepreneurs created modes of dress unseen in suburban shopping malls. Shirt King Phade started airbrushing paintings on sweatshirts for artists including LL Cool J; the resourceful Dapper Dan did everything that could be done using leather printed (sans licensing) with the logos of Gucci and Louis Vuitton. "I blackenized it," he recalls.

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Dan's approach, which remixed European luxury iconography the way DJs in the South Bronx were appropriating Kraftwerk, eventually gave way to more straightforward brand-worship, as rappers went mad for Polo and other gear made for unimaginative status-seekers. Crews of thieves would trek into Midtown Manhattan to shoplift merch they'd sell back in their neighborhoods. We hear how tastemakers were courted by established designers (Tommy Hilfiger cruised around giving clothes away out of his car, we're told, like a dealer offering the first hit for free) and by upstarts like Karl Kani, who allied himself with Tupac Shakur.

The film's focus turns now to gross annual revenue, department store floor space and the like, watching as every rapper in the biz starts his own fashion brand (Shady hoodies, anyone?) and some, like Sean Combs, edged onto the turf of the fashion establishment. Fashion is mercurial, though, and industry observers lament how the "for us, by us" brands again became less desirable than the grotesquely expensive wares of century-old fashion houses.

Jenkins has no interest in making judgments about the trends he's charting, which is fair enough: There's no shortage of scolds out there lamenting the materialism of hip-hop mythology. More disappointing is that a straightforward focus on what rap fans are buying misses some of the point: Whatever luxury companies and fashion mags might suggest, you can't buy your way to looking as good as Pharrell Williams or Andre Benjamin. The alchemy of sartorial savoir faire is far more interesting than stories of how FUBU got its logo into a Gap commercial. It's also much harder to explain.

Production companies: CNN Films, Mass Appeal

Director: Sacha Jenkins

Producers: Peter Bittenbender, Nasir Jones, Marcus A. Clarke

Executive producers: Vinnie Malhotra, Amy Entelis

Director of photography: David Vollrath

Editor: Andrea B. Scott

Music: Tyler Strickland

Sales: Submarine

No rating, 84 minutes