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Where the runway meets the street

After months of anticipation, the hip-hop fashion documentary ‘Fresh Dressed’ has arrived. We take a look at the 10 most interesting, insightful and disturbing things we learned over the course of the film.

Just over a month ago we premiered the trailer for the documentary Fresh Dressed. Debuted at this year’s Sundance Film FestivalFresh Dressed features notable figures in hip-hop and fashion such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Riccardo Tisci, amongst others, shedding insight throughout the movie, detailing the importance and influence of style in hip-hop.

We were given a sneak peek of the film and now, on the day of the film’s worldwide premiere, we take a look at the 10 most important, interesting and downright disturbing things we learned from Sacha Jenkins’ latest project. See them all below and order the film here.

1. A horrible gang death helped bring hip-hop fashion to the masses.

Sure, we all know that New York gangs and looking good went hand in hand in the ’70s. Gang members painstakingly stitched patches, tassels and laces onto their denim jackets, while fur was wrapped around the collar to identify their alliances. Fashion was so important that after beating rival gang members up, gangs would even steal their jackets and hang them up over their fire escapes to mark their dominance.

But, we’ll bet you didn’t know this: when gang violence was at a high in 1971, one Ghetto Brothers gang member, Cornell Benjamin, tried to intercept three other gangs who were heading to the Ghetto Brothers’ clubhouse to plead for peace and was beaten to death.

Instead of retaliating, the Ghetto Brothers convened a meeting of all the gangs in the South Bronx to broker a truce. During the truce, gangs had to find peaceful ways of competing with each other: which led to the rise of rapping, not rumbling, in the Bronx. Sometimes gangs would settle disputes on the dancefloor or the turntables. In short, gangs became crews and members put the name of their crew on their sweatshirts. “Without our peace treaty, a lot of the guys that started hip-hop wouldn’t have even been alive by then,” claimed Benjy Melendez, another Ghetto Brothers member.

2. As hip-hop’s popularity grew, the battles began to be shown on TV, which introduced a whole generation to the accompanying look.

You could identify what neighborhood a person came from purely from their clothes. As hip-hop got more and more popular, whole neighborhoods started cultivating distinctive trends.

A guy from Brooklyn would wear Clarks, sharkskin trousers, Cazal glasses without any lenses in and the Kangol crease hat. A guy from Harlem would dress in a velour sweatsuit paired with sneakers of a matching brand. If you lived in the Bronx, you probably opted for a mix between Harlem and Brooklyn’s aesthetics. And Queens, well, “Queens had its own flow.”

The different looks were so distinctive that April Walker (a fashion designer and longtime resident of the Bronx) claims that during this time she could go to the Apollo, a music hall in the area, and be able to pinpoint exactly where someone in the room was from just by looking at them. Now that’s some serious neighborhood pride.

3. Tommy Hilfiger gave out his clothes for free in the projects.

Given Hilfiger’s boarding-school-and-ponies aesthetic, you’d never expect that the designer would have wanted his clothes to be associated with some of New York’s most impoverished areas. But Hilfiger was a savvy businessman and as he saw hip-hop’s popularity reach fever-pitch, he saw a business opportunity. He’d go to the projects with a trunk stuffed full of his clothing and he’d hand it out for free.

This was a smart move. Getting musicians to officially endorse your clothing line can be pricey – but Hilfiger saw the amount of talent coming out of the projects and cottoned on to the fact that if he handed out enough clothing, artists would wear his clothes without him having to spend a cent. Free promotion, baby.

Besides which, he reached a whole new target audience. And once he got them hooked, one free T-shirt could lead to a lifelong customer. As Ralph McDaniels (the co-creator of Video Music Box) put it, “It was like the drug dealer giving you a free hit. And then you’re like, I want more, so you’re looking for it and buying it.”

4. However, hip-hop fashion reflected both high-end brands and the reality of the projects.

Say you were out of town visiting your grandma when Tommy Hilfiger came by with a trunk full of clothes channelling Santa Claus. What then?

Enter stage left: the boosters.

Boosters were people who went in groups to the high-end stores and stole clothes from designer brands, brought them back to the hoods and sold them at a heavy discount: a $600 pair of jeans might be sold for $100, for example.

The boosters didn’t just offer great prices, but desirable locations, bringing the clothes to somewhere where they’d never normally be sold: the projects. But not everyone in the projects was so interested in aspirational fashion. The local fashion brand Shirt Kings made graffiti-inspired clothing that drew on things they saw in the community around them which they remixed and turned into a joke – like a shirt showing Mickey Mouse smoking crack.

Despite this radically different vision of fashion to the Tommy Hilfigers of this world, it wasn’t long until they hit the big time, with LL Cool J wearing a shirt with a picture of himself spraypainted on as a b-boy in Black Beat magazine in 1989. This gave the brand worldwide notoriety.

5. Hip-hop stars did black designers some seriously big favors.

Speaking of LL Cool J, this wasn’t the only time he did some free marketing for black designers. Most notoriously, his $30 million Gap advert ended up being a commercial for an entirely different brand: FUBU.

Legend has it LL Cool J decided that the Gap didn’t respect him or African-Americans in general and as such, was easily persuaded to sport a grey FUBU cap during the advert. The advert shows LL Cool J rapping against a white background, clad in a plain white T-shirt and jeans. The only item of clothing that stands out at all is the FUBU headwear.

As one pundit put it: it didn’t end up being a commercial for the Gap, at all. It ended up being a commercial for FUBU. This said, LL Cool J later ended up taking FUBU to court for “inadequate compensation” for his part in helping FUBU get so popular…so maybe the old saying’s right: nothing’s for free in this world.

Unless that is, you happen to have had access to Tupac. He didn’t do a commercial to spite another brand, but to big up one of his own. When designer Karl Kani went to visit him, he plucked up the courage to ask Tupac how much he’d charge to pose in an advert for him. Tupac said astonishedly, “Man, I ain’t going to charge you. You black. I don’t charge my people for nothing.”

He kept to his word and they shot the pictures in New York a few weeks later. Kani claims that without Tupac’s support his brand never would have had the worldwide acclaim it later enjoyed.

6. A California surf-fashion executive brought New York hip-hop style to the mainstream.

Unlikely, but true.

The first streetwear brand to make some serious money, Cross Colours, was actually started in California by Carl Jones, a black fashion executive who was inspired on his trips on the New York subway. He noticed a trend he’d never seen before: young men wearing trousers that were four or five times too big belted tightly at the waist. He decided to design clothes with a baggy silhouette but with a waist that would fit the person’s body with no need for a belt. A few tweaks here and there and Jones’ clothes had the same measurements as the clothes found on the New York subway: “My medium was a large. My 32 was a 36 silhouette with a 32 waist.”

Carl would later be told, “You changed the whole spec of the young men’s market” and reports in Fresh Dressed with a smile: “So then the industry started changing…everyone started doing larger sizes.”

7. Cross Colours had a little help from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Carl Jones suggested to his marketing executive that he try calling up the team behind everyone’s favorite ’90s show to see if Will Smith might be interested in wearing some of their clothes. The marketing guy reported back breathlessly: “Carl! They love your stuff! They’ve been looking for something like this the whole time but didn’t know it existed.”

Just a few nights later, Cross Colours was live on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. And that was the beginning of their rise to the big time: a few days later magazines, music shows and musicians were clamoring for Cross Colours clothing.

8. Dapper Dan’s work ethic was second to none.

OK, we all like hip-hop, we all like fashion, so we’ve all (probably?) already heard of Dapper Dan, the Harlem fashion wizard who restyled logo-strewn garments for the street. But until watching this documentary, we had no idea about the sort of hours he was working. This guy was really owed some holiday leave, huh?

“I was open 24 hours a day for eight years. Sometimes I’d take a little three hour break.” This puritanical work ethic makes us agree with Nas, who claims “Dapper Dan was Tom Ford before Tom Ford. He should have been hired, not shut down. He should have been hired as the designer for an elite brand as he had the foresight to do back then what they did 10 years later.” Seriously, though.

9. Once in a blue moon Kanye can be humble, too.

Look, I get it. In a world that’s profoundly prejudiced against black men, sometimes you’ve got to do some extra bragging to make sure you get the respect you deserve. But, let’s face it. even within these parameters, Kanye’s not exactly, err, the most self-deprecating of individuals. So when Kanye reminisces about the humbling effect watching a hip-hop artist perform had on him, it’s a pretty special moment:

“He had on the allover print polo with the camel pants…with the fedora and…a gold chain and I was still sewing eyes onto my shirts and stuff. I remember just that moment moved me so much and I had to get my fresh up to a whole other level. I realized at that point I wasn’t in a suburban high school anymore.”

I can’t imagine the man who wore a colorful women’s blouse ripped open to the waist while performing at Coachella ever dressing like he was in a suburban high school. If Yeezy’s reading this: don’t be shy about putting out some Throwback Thursday snaps, OK?

10. Looking fresh can be deadly.

One deeply troubling moment in the documentary focuses on how young New Yorkers can be murdered for their very freshest items of clothing. The most notorious of these is an inconspicuous looking black parka: a Marmot, which costs $600 and is fashionable in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. In 2013, teenager Raphael Ward got murdered wearing one, due to a fight that broke out over the coat.

Lorne Padilla, a longtime Bronx resident raises the issues that high-end fashion creates in an area where not everyone can afford such fancy things:

“If I buy my son a coat that costs $600, I’m going to send him to school in a bulletproof vest.”

Yikes.

Got any other unexpected facts about hip-hop fashion that we – or Fresh Dressed – missed? Drop us a line in the comments!

Written by Sophie Atkinson for Highsnobiety.com

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