Fewer people were better poised to make “Fresh Dressed,” a film about hip-hop and fashion, than Sacha Jenkins. Currently the creative director of Mass Appeal, Jenkins has chronicled hip-hop’s evolution into global ubiquity for decades. This includes co-founding ego trip, an insurrectionary magazine that tackled questions of race and discrimination as it navigated the intersections between hip-hop and some of its constituent cultures—skate, graffiti, and punk rock among them. As a journalist, editor, author, publisher, television producer and musician, Jenkins has ridden through every stage of contemporary hip-hop while using his platforms to comment with prescience and wry humor.
“Fresh Dressed,” Jenkins’ debut feature film, shows the structural evolution of hip-hop through clothes. But when we spoke to him during a whirlwind of interviews and press for the film, he repeatedly said that he’s not that into fashion. But even Jenkins had to admit that the concept of “fresh” was so central to his identity. The feeling of being “fresh” that he had as a kid rocking suede Pumas was “so euphoric,” he had to investigate why. Building on interviews with rappers, gang members, scholars, fashion house designers and so many others of varying fame, Jenkins traces the concept of “fresh” as far back as “Sunday best”—when slave masters forced the black people they enslaved to dress nice for church.
In this edited and condensed interview, we discuss Jenkins’ creative choices, the advent of hipsterdom, and why he feels like some critics don’t get his film’s deeper investigation of class and race.
In the film’s chronology, you describe the origins of black fashion as rooted in slavery and the antebellum era. There’s then a jump to the post-WWII era and another to hip-hop. Was that conscious? Were you trying to say that Jazz-age fashion is less important to contemporary fashion than those other eras?
Well, I mean it’s all important, you know? I had 82 minutes to tell a story and I felt [like] going from the idea of slavery to this idea of being entertainers, and then going to this really harsh environment that was the South Bronx in the ’70s, was a way to bring home the severity of the environment that created hip-hop and whatever hip-hop’s fashion sensibility was or is.
Something addressed in the film, if not out loud, is the question of appropriation. When the fashion [developed] caché with white people the same way the music did, the game and fashions changed in tandem. And this still happens. Is there any way you see black style developing where it’s not going to be part of the perpetual cycle of decontextualization and appropriation?
Well, one thing I was trying to say with the film is that hip-hop fashion, black fashion, is a reaction to the environment and climate. So as long as there are extreme environments and climates, what poor folks wear is always going to be a reaction to it, especially in hip-hop, [with] this hyper-consumerism, the [popularity of] all this shit that you can’t afford and pronounce. Why? Because poor people want to feel like they’re not left out. They want to feel like they’re also on the team. And when you don’t have control over much, the one thing you can control is the way you look.
In some of your previous work (notably, in an open letter to Das Racist on Mass Appeal), you talk about the negative affects that hipster culture has had on hip-hop and artists of color. Has hipsterdom been a destructive force against black style? Or have folks like A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator repurposed that style in meaningful or transformative ways?
I think the world is much smaller now because of the Internet, but the world that black youth move through now is much bigger. Kids are willing to wear things that they typically wouldn’t wear. Their fashion vocabulary has expanded exponentially. The lines of culture have been blurred, partially because hip-hop has been embraced as an “American” thing or an “American” culture. So your typical Americans—white kids—feel comfortable wearing articles that scream hip-hop because they are comfortable with rap. I think kids of color find comfort inside of “luxury” brands because there is a high dollar value typically associated with said goods. Blacks wear X because is screams “I got money.” White kids wear X because it screams “authenticity.” But wearing something and understanding white supremacy are two completely different ideas.
So much of the movie, maybe because of the connections to where fashion houses and commercial culture are located, is set in an axis between New York and Los Angeles. Was that intentional?
Well, there’s two ways to answer that. One way is: New York is the shit, we created hip-hop, and everyone can fuck off. The other answer goes back to the notion that my film is a sort of back-door way of telling the story of hip-hop. The first half is in that world between the gangs and the rise of music, but also the rise of guys like the Shirt Kings and Dapper Dan. And that goes through the ’80s, before I break away and tell a different story about black entrepreneurs in this industry born on the back of hip-hop culture. A major part of that came from the West Coast—you had Carl Jones of Cross Colours and Karl Kanai, who’s from New York but has to go to L.A. to make it. Then you have the discussion of so-called gangwear, before it became “streetwear”—to white people who were the buyers at these shops, it was called gangwear!
I felt like telling the story of the entrepreneurial movement for black people that came out of hip-hop, and the relationships, like how Carl Jones helped Karl Kani, and how Karl [asked] Tupac how much he’d charge to be in an ad campaign and Pac said, “Man, I’m not gonna charge you, you’re black!” I wanted people to know that story, because you never hear it.
It’s always about, ”Black people don’t support each other and they cut each other down.” So I wanted people to learn about that and know that it is possible to have a group of African-Americans and folks of color actually having money and success. At the same time, I want people to also look at ourselves, to ask why we don’t support these brands, and why we get to a place where things are going well and then we look away, and say, “Oh, that stuff’s not cool. I’m gonna go with Louis, Gucci and Prada.”
Do you think that black fashion, however you define it, is synonymous with U.S. fashion or world fashion?
Yes and no. If you want to consider African-Americans American, then the answer is yes. But I think that because African-Americans have never felt like or been treated like Americans, how they dress is always going to go against the conventions of this country. The baseball cap—I’ve given this analogy a million times—is created for baseball fans. A little kid named Bobby from Baltimore loves the Orioles and his dad buys him the cap and he wears it. There’s no thought into how it’s placed on his head or how it’s folded, he’s just a kid who loves baseball. But when we wear it, we wear it in a particular manner, we tilt it to the side…it’s all language and communication! How we dress is all about not only articulating who we are, but communicating to other people in advance of talking to them.
Is there anything about your film that you feel audiences, especially critics, have misunderstood?
I’m not above criticism; I’ve been a critic in my day. But then there have been reviews asking, “How come Sacha Jenkins didn’t do this? He glossed over all the big-picture issues and doesn’t get into them.” I had [Dr. Elena Romero, fashion scholar] saying that the whole race and class conversation is a deeper conversation. But the whole time, we’re learning about kids dying over sneakers. You learn from Mayor, who’s a grown-ass man who tells you he can wear a new pair of sneakers every day for seven fucking years. But how did he get to that place? He tells the story of being a kid, his mom buys him Mark 5s, he thinks he’s the shit because his name’s also Mark, then he walks down the block and everyone laughs at him: “You’re fucking loser because you can’t afford expensive sneakers!” So that traumatized him so much that as a fucking grown man, he has more sneakers than anyone else. Like, do I have to fucking tell people, “Hey guys! Look, blacks and Latinos are suffering from issues of self esteem! Look people! Blacks and Latinos look to luxury brands to feel better about themselves!” Do I have to fucking hold everyone’s hand? No!
Why do you think this is happening?
Personally, I also feel like if I was a white filmmaker, there are certain questions I wouldn’t be asked. I think when you’re white, you have more of an ability to say, “This is my statement, this is what I tried to say with my film. I don’t even have to answer these questions!” But for me—and it’s not sour grapes, for the most part, the reviews have been great—part of the issue I have with people saying I didn’t land on certain thing [is that] they came into it thinking it was a fashion film. And yes, it’s being sold and promoted as a fashion film; you gotta sell that. There were so many things I wanted to tackle, but if you go in thinking it’s a fashion film, you could pick it apart all day.
“Fresh Dressed” is in select theaters and available on iTunes and Vimeo On Demand through Mass Appeal and CNN Films.