Head to the movies this week, in the lull before the Fourth of July mega-blockbusters arrive, and there’s a halfway decent chance you may leave with a hankering for a pair of Air Jordans or some fat-laced Adidas. First we have Rick Famuyiwa’s nineties-hip-hop-revering, coming-of-age story, Dope, which came out last week. Then, there’s Fresh Dressed, Sacha Jenkins’s documentary about the history of hip-hop style.
Fresh Dressed is narrated by a cast of talking heads that includes rappers like Nas, Kanye, and Sean “Diddy” Combs; designers like Karl Kani and Ricardo Tisci;and a handful of fashion experts, including André Leon Talley. It begins in the late seventies and early eighties, during rap’s nascent years, and gives a whirlwind tour of the next three decades. We see the rise of the Kangol hats and Pumas beloved by early b-boys, the birth of Easy Rider–inspired embellished denim vests and graffiti-painted jeans, and the wild luxury logo–emblazoned designs of Harlem’s Dapper Dan, who eventually got sued out of business for copyright infringement (and who is fascinating enough to be the subject of his own documentary).
In the late eighties, hip-hop artists began to appropriate classic American sportswear brands like Polo and Tommy Hilfiger. The documentary asserts that Hilfiger actually drove to poor New York City neighborhoods with his clothes to spur demand. By the early nineties, streetwear pioneers like Cross Colours and Karl Kani were carving out their own piece of the market, embracing baggier silhouettes and dressing icons like TLC, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Will Smith(then starring on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). Department stores had been quick to ignore urban labels, but suddenly they were forced to take heed. The space grew saturated. Brands like FUBU, Russell Simmons’s Phat Farm, and Combs’s Sean John were born; the latter ended up winning the CFDA award for menswear.
The free-for-all mentality eventually led to some less memorable ventures (anyone recall Eminem’s Shady Limited line or Outkast Clothing?). And though many brands were short-lived, they edged out more established designers like Kani in the fight for department-store real estate. As the market became increasingly competitive, some of the labels born in the boom years began to disappear. Hip-hop style, always evolving, moved on. By the early aughts, fashion’s perpetual loop cycled back to the same luxury brands—Gucci, Versace, and Louis Vuitton—that Dapper Dan was remixing back in the eighties. More recently, new streetwear labels like Public School have made fresh bids for the high fashion market. And in the age of the Internet, street style reflects more individuality than ever. As Nas tells the camera, “The new guy, he’s wearing stuff that’s out of the box.” Kanye echoes the sentiment: tolerance for difference is key. “People were afraid to express themselves. Certain people assumed because I liked clothes, I was gay. Now we’ve learned to just accept each other’s cultures.”
If that sounds like an overly simplified summary of a lengthy history, you’re not wrong to think so. But it’s also a good reflection of the film, which, as others have noted, at under 90 minutes, doesn’t take enough time for a deep dive into its subject. In other words: If you want a graduate degree in the history of hip-hop fashion, look elsewhere; if you’re looking for an entry level course, Fresh Dressedis a great primer.
And for a lesson in applied style, turn to Dope. When I asked the film’s costume designer, Patrik Milani, who tends to drop the word “fresh” into every other sentence, if he’d caught a screening of Fresh Dressed at Sundance (where Dopealso premiered), he told me he couldn’t get a ticket. But when he watched the trailer, he saw many of the same images he’d collected in a “huge folder” to present to director Rick Famuyiwa.
There are plenty of reasons to love Dope: breakout performances by Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, and A$AP Rocky; a soundtrack curated by Pharrell Williams, a producer on the project; an irresistible, caper-filled plot that’s perfect for carefree early summer. But the film’s spot-on reinterpretation of late eighties and nineties fashion is also a major draw.
When buzz about the movie started to build this spring, I read a handful of stories that mistakenly assumed the movie was set in the nineties. (In fact, it’s about three nerdy nineties-hip-hop-obsessed friends growing up in present-day Inglewood, California, who accidentally get involved in a drug deal gone wrong.) That misapprehension is due in part to Milani’s excellent work; he created nineties-inspired looks for the central trio of friends—Malcolm (Moore), Diggy (Clemons), and Jib (Tony Revolori)—so convincing that he had us fooled.
For Jib, Milani cribbed the “almost military” style—think Adidas, bomber jackets, and bucket hats—of early rap acts like Run DMC and NWA. “That was before rap music even had a Grammy category,” says Milani. “It was kind of like outlaw music. It was really, really fresh.”
Diggy acts like one of the guys, but Milani wanted her to feel feminine, so he looked to Aaliyah’s oversize-yet-sexy silhouettes. “I really wanted Diggy to wear Cross Colours,” he told me. “It was created [originally]as a way to have peaceful gang relations,” a concern that arose while shooting in neighborhoods in which wearing the wrong color can get you in trouble. But the Cross Colours pieces that Milani unearthed on eBay came in enormous sizes and were few and far between. “I found out later that there’s a guy in San Francisco who has every piece of Cross Colours that was ever made,” Milani told me wistfully. “He will fly down if you buy him a ticket and let you use his stuff. He’s a total fan.”
Malcolm, played brilliantly by Shameik Moore, has the most eclectic vibe. He rocks a Fresh Prince–style flattop, short-sleeved shirts buttoned all the way up, and a sleeveless denim vest. “My references were late eighties,” says Milani, though he also points to the style of Kendrick Lamar and the Instagram feed of a particularly stylish current student at Inglewood High, whom he discovered through some creative hashtag searches. “He would wear this fifties letterman jacket and these nineties shirts underneath,” Milani explained. “I had a huge binder on him. His girlfriend was cool [too]but I couldn’t follow her. She was private.”
So does this mystery teenager know that his style is currently appearing on big screens across the country? Only if he recognizes it himself. “I couldn’t really befriend them,” says Milani, who is 45. “I would look through their [Instagrams], and print out [looks]. You have to be careful! They’re kids!”