Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, Sacha Jenkins’ documentary film “Freshly Dressed” looks at Hip Hop style through the lens of photographers, fashion designers, and performers to chronicle the history of fashion and culture at large. Featuring Kanye West, Andre Leon Tally, Riccardo Tischi, Dapper Dan, and Karl Kani, the film demonstrates that it is not how much money an item or outfit costs, but the power ascribed to the pieces through Hip Hop. According to Jenkins, the film presents a narrative that “begins with slavery and ends with what is being rocked today—and what the social implications attached to it are.”

Produced in partnership with Mass Appeal and CNN, “Freshly Dressed” will feature the work of Jamel Shabazz, whose first monograph Back in the Days (powerHouse Books) has become an benchmark in contemporary photography, fashion, and art. Combining portraiture with street photography, Shabazz’s photographs have become the premier record of an earlier era, a period that Shabazz calls “a time before crack.” It was a period of self-love and self-invention that deftly combined the spirit of the Black Power movement with the ethos of D.I.Y. culture.

Shabazz’s photographs selected for “Freshly Dressed” are centered on his work documenting Delancey and Orchard Streets on the Lower East Side of New York, which was one of the main shopping hubs back in the 1970s and 1980s, and became synonymous with Hip Hop style.

As Sacha Jenkins observes, “Mr. Shabazz's images represent a time in New York City that is long gone; when I see his images I am instantly transported back to my youth. We didn't have distractions like the Internet and your average email has more memory than the gaming systems we played back then. Mr. Shabazz had a strong eye for style at a time when style was off the chain, when every subway line was like a runway show. His photography didn't just capture the wares, but the minds that were fly enough to compose such magnificent outfits. Here, we see that it's not the clothes that make the man--that it's the people who bring value and life to the garments.”

Indeed, one of Shabazz’s many gifts is the way his portraits both capture and transcend the times in which they were made. They are portraits that show the heroic side of the common man and woman, the inherent self of pride that comes from being fresh, fly, and bold. Shabazz speaks with The Chic about the way in which fashion and style are inherently intertwined with his work as a photographer.

Shabazz observes, “The cornerstone for my knowledge of fashion came from my father who took great care in always being meticulously dressed. He had his own unique style that was a mixture of casual and conservative. So it was he who pretty much set the example for me; making sure my clothes were clean and properly pressed, and shoes shined, while stressing the importance of standing erect. Those basic life lessons provided me with tools that helped me to be the man I am today. 

“The clothes that I wear are oftentimes a reflection of my inner self, as I strive to the very best of my ability to be an upright man, despite my many flaws. I found that dressing a certain way gives off vibrations, both positive and negative. As a person who spent a lot of time in the street as a photographer interacting at times with complete strangers, I learned early on that the way you dressed could impact how people perceive you. Opting to dress in a manner that reflected culture and refinement, many people I encountered as an aspiring photographer picked up on my vibe and entrusted me to record their history.

“Being freshly dressed in my humble opinion is a matter having self respect, and style. However, I will never disqualify a person who is unable to dress with style, for I understand the struggles of the poor who are unable to afford the latest clothing. Foremost, I strive to look at the inner soul of a person.

“From my personal perspective, culture had a lot to do with the development of ones individual style. During my teens in the 70’s I lived in East Flatbush, Brooklyn; an African-American and Caribbean-American community. The synergy of both cultures created a unique style within itself. Many of us African-American youth favored a traditional style of dress that was popular at the time and inspired by older guys in the neighborhood, who oftentimes were the ones who were making money.

“No one really wanted to, as we called it ‘bite’ someone’s style, but if you saw a particular look that you really liked all you had to do was go to Delancey Street on the Lower East Side and purchase it. Back in those days, that particular area was our central shopping hub where you could get the latest sharkskin or double knit trousers, along with Italian knit sweaters and mock necks. On ‘D’ Street there were popular clothes for all the four seasons; from summer nylon tee shirts, to leather bomber and sheepskin coats during the colder months. Much of the clothing sold on Delancey Street was geared towards inner-city youth. So I can honestly say that the clothes you saw there were in vogue at the time.

“In regards to East Flatbush and living amongst those from the Caribbean; it was due to many of the newly arrived immigrants that our scope of fashion and culture was enhanced. This was my introduction to the whole rude boy style and swagger. One of the most noted representatives of this particular style came from a legendary crew called the “Untouchables.” Known for being gunmen, they would not hesitate to “bring it to you” if you violated them and were often recognized by their unique clothing; from straight legged sharkskin pants, to oiled beaver brims, along with classic Clark shoe wear. The infusion between Caribbean and African America style gave way to a whole new level of urban fashion in that section of Brooklyn and Kangol hats, British walker shoes, and London Fog ¾ coats became the official trade mark. Much of that style can be seen on some of the early reggae album covers emanating from England and Jamaica.”    

Speaking about his connection to Sacha Jenkins, Shabazz notes, “I and a recording artist he was representing at the time, worked on a film project with Sacha a couple of years ago. That connection helped him to learn more about my journey as a recorder of history and culture. Not too long afterwards, he shared the concept of ‘Freshly Dressed’ and invited me to lend both my voice and imagery. I immediately agreed without hesitation.

“The majority of the photographs I have in the film are from the early ‘80s, highlighting the fashion of that era. Many were taken on/around Delancey and Orchard Streets and collectively each image of mine that is included in the film is a part of a larger narrative centered on the look and feel of that particular time period. The architectural backdrop to practically every photograph in the documentary has drastically been transformed over time, making the images now historic in nature. The main benefit in participating in a project of this magnitude was to contribute to the preservation of a very important oral/visual history of a time that no longer exists.”

When asked why he thinks there is such a strong interest in this period of time, Shabazz says, “With all honesty I am perplexed! I've been documenting everyday life both here in New York and around the world for over 40 years, and it seems to me that the only body of work that I captured which really draws attention and curiosity are my images from the 1980s. It's possible that some folks view the ‘80s as a time of high fashion, innocence, or just more pleasant times, as we live in a very different world today! Countless conversations with mainly younger people, include discussions about how they wish they could go back in time and live in the ‘80s. I believe that this may largely be due to fashion and the overall perception that the 80’s was a period in time that was in some ways more joyous and less troublesome.”

Shabazz concludes, “Chic to me is style, finesse, and a touch of class. How do I know when I see it? Simply by the magnetic attraction it possesses.”

Photographs courtesy of Jamel Shabazz
See "Freshly Dressed" at Sundance
Curated by Miss Rosen