An emphasis on style over substance is a comfortable fit for “Fresh Dressed,” a snazzy docu portrait of hip-hop’s influence on the fashion world. Focused specifically on the ’80s origins, ’90s boom and ’00s collapse of a particular strain of flamboyant, graffiti-colored, oversized sartorial statement making, the directorial debut of journalist Sacha Jenkins doesn’t provide much in the way of fresh insight into the topic it’s covering. But the breezily likable pic benefits from an underexposed topic and solid execution. Picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and StyleHaul post-Sundance bow, this CNN Films presentation will likely find limited buyers in theaters before connecting with a broader customer base via smallscreen exposure.
Jenkins opens with an amusing vintage TV clip featuring a young man and woman happily showing off their fat laces, Kangol hats and fresh B-boy looks. He makes it clear from the get-go that dressing “fresh” (looking like a million bucks, even if you’re dirt-poor) has to do with both establishing a personal identity and pursuing an aspirational lifestyle. USC professor Todd Boyd and style guru Andre Leon Talley take a historical perspective, tying the relationship between clothes and music in the African-American community to dressing for church, as well as icons of self-expression like Little Richard.
While punk rock had its own trends, the hip-hop explosion was notable for bringing an infusion of playfulness and bold colors — following the lead of street art and making high fashion accessible beyond the prototypical Ralph Lauren types. To that end, Jenkins briefly dips into the story of Harlem businessman Dapper Dan who popularized a “luxury urban brand” (or, in his words, took designer clothing and “blackenized it”).
Dapper Dan never went mainstream, but many who followed in his path did. From Karl Kani to Sean Combs’ wildly popular and award-winning Sean John line, so-called “urban” clothing eventually became so pervasive that major department stores could no longer turn a blind eye and deny it space on their racks. (And one particularly hilarious archival clip reminds auds of Channing Tatum’s past as a Sean John model.)
For some reason LL Cool J, held up as a pivotal figure in giving urban clothing a media boost, isn’t interviewed on camera. Neither is Will Smith, despite his highly influential “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” wardrobe. But many other hip-hop stars past and present are, including Pharrell Williams, Nas (also a producer) and Kid ‘n Play.
Ultimately, the brands became a victim of their own success. The market grew oversaturated, thanks in no small part to poorly executed vanity lines tied to rap stars like Eminem, and the fickle fashion pendulum swung in another direction. Today’s hip-hop stars like Kanye West favor long-established luxury brands from Versace to Yves Saint Laurent, leaving other designers out of the mix.
Although Jenkins keeps the pic bouncing along at a steady pace, aided by Hectah Arias’ whimsical animated interludes, a deeper dive into certain areas — or individuals, like Dapper Dan — may have provided a heft the film ultimately lacks. For all the emphasis on individual style, the smoothly assembled “Fresh Dressed” plays more like a catalog of highlights than a work of singular self-expression.