An inside look at the fashion scene that was part and parcel of the early hip hop music scene PE

Urban Dictionary:

“Fresh” -  meaning, acceptable and highly approved by someone.

Origin: NYC Hip-hop Community Mid 1980′s 

Fresh is derived by the idea of seeing something brand new, attractive, cool, like new clothing or footwear. It is used to refer to anything highly approved by someone.

 e.g. “Those are some fresh shoes!” 

The hip-hop community define the word ‘fresh’ as the notion of having something new, something that will represent your worth and how much you can afford. Ultimately this says a lot about who you are.  Used as a term in a place and time of great inner-city poverty where music was the tool out of the ghetto and what you wore marked you worth.

The hip-hop style is often flashy, gold chains, pieces of clothing emblazoned with the name of a high-end fashion brand, and sports logos. But above all, hip-hop fashion is about looking pristine and always having something brand new, a symbol of wealth, credibility, pride and undeniable style.

“Looking clean and crisp is a big part of the urban aesthetic”, said Sacha Jenkins, director of documentary Fresh Dressed. The documentary offers an insight into the world of hip-hop and its ongoing relationship with fashion.

Starting from the cotton plantations, through to urban streets, into shopping malls and all the way to the pages of the glossiest of fashion magazine; it has travelled far in a short space of time.

  Fresh dressed trailer

The film interviews key style makers; a variety of style conscious artists from LL Cool J to Pharrell Williams via one of its kingpins in infamous Dapper Dan. Jenkins explores how hip-hop fashion began with pieces of clothing reserved for church or ‘Sunday best’ and in time became customised and highly sought after pieces of performance wear. Iconic and still looked upon for inspiration today.

Although style and clothing was a huge indicator of wealth and status, it was also an easy way to distinguish what area each person was from. Many said as hip-hop grew in popularity they could identify each distinctive trend and which neighbourhood it belonged to.

 The Five NYC Boroughs

Each look is so individual that Bronx resident and fashion designer April Walker said that during this time she could go to the Apollo, a music hall in the area and pick out exactly where each person in the room was from just by looking at what they were wearing.

Here are the codes of dress and the people from key areas:


“A guy from Harlem would dress in a velour sweatsuit paired with sneakers of a matching brand.”

Harlem – a large neighbourhood situated in the Northern section of the New York City borough of Manhattan and noted as a cultural beacon of black America.

Harlem was famously the home of fashion outlaw; Dapper Dan, also known as the originator of luxury streetwear. In 1983 Daniel Day opened his tailoring shop ‘Dapper Dan’s boutique’ in the heart of Harlem. At his prime, he created outfits for boxers, rappers and gangsters. Dapper Dan created clothing for those disregarded by high fashion, working with all manner of artists and celebrities producing ‘knockoffs’; custom hats, sneakers and outerwear plastered with luxury brand logos.

It wasn’t long before the luxury brands started to notice his work and that is when the copyright lawsuits began to come in with full force and with such legal pressure he had no choice but to close his Harlem boutique. He believes the labels did not want to be associated with black culture.

His notoriety spanned much wider than the confines of New York City and rapper Nas described him as being “Tom Ford before Tom Ford”.

After seemingly disappearing from the fashion world, in 2017 it was announced that Dapper Dan would finally be collaborating officially with a designer label; Gucci.

Dapper Dan

From one icon to the next, Harlem was the birthplace of rapper Tupac Shakur. A highly influential artist throughout his time who soon became an important face in street fashion. Karl Kani launched his eponymous hip-hop fashion brand in 1989, since then his designs have been worn by the likes of Notorious B.I.G, Diddy and Dr. Dre, but one very important Harlem resident helped Kani’s brand gain credibility along the way.When Kani finally met Tupac, he asked the rapper how much he would charge to feature in an advert for the brand. Tupac famously responded; “I ain’t gonna charge you;

you’re black, I don’t charge my people for nothing.” The ads were a huge success and assisted Kani’s rise to fame as Tupac was worshipped as the God of Harlem.

Tupac/Karl Kani



“A guy from Brooklyn would wear Clarks, sharkskin trousers, Cazal glasses without any lenses in and the Kangol crease hat.”



Brooklyn – Bordering the borough of Queen’s at the southwestern end of the same Long Island, is the most populous borough of New York City. Within the last ten years, the borough has become a booming hub of entrepreneurship, prosperity and start-up businesses. However, for a place that in time has become an area of potential wealth, many during the rise of hip-hop knew Brooklyn as a place of poverty and searched for an escape using clothing as a sign that they belonged elsewhere.In the early hip-hop scene, an artist’s clothing and jewellery was used as a status symbol, clothes were a way to transcend the poverty that surrounded most of those involved. Damon Dash who together with Jay Z set up the label Rocawear said “if you go home and you got roaches and ten people living in an apartment the only way you can … feel some kind of status is [with] what you have on your body.” Coming from a poor area the only way to show you have money is through your clothes, success must be worn.

I will not lose Rocawear

Jay Z was born and raised in a housing project in Brooklyn and went to high school with future rappers Notorious B.I.G and Busta Rhymes. Created in 1999, Roc-A-Fella records co-founders Damon ‘Dame’ Dash and Shawn ‘Jay-z’ Carter, created clothing retailer Rocawear. Like Karl Kani, the brand signed famous faces to support the campaign and help bring the brand to success with Ciara, Chris Brown and Three 6 Mafia all part of their 2007 ‘I Will Not Lose’ campaign.

The Bronx:

“If you were from The Bronx you usually had a mix of Harlem and Brooklyn’s aesthetics.”

 KRS one/Bronx

The Bronx – The northernmost of the five boroughs of New York City.

During the 70’s and 80’s many residents of The Bronx were living in incredibly harsh conditions. These harsh realities of life in the borough, were what led to the original voice of hip-hop, one of both frustration and protest.

 Hip-hop’s foundations were being laid by DJ’s in the South Bronx during the 1970’s. These pioneering artists included; DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore, they among others were pioneers of ‘sampling’ which was when a DJ isolated one sound and reused it in another song, this was through trial and error and mostly came about when messing around with records at home. 

The Bronx’s style alludes to this idea of taking from one and reworking it into another, evident when it came to fashion and style in the area, people from The Bronx took inspiration from both Harlem and Brooklyn. As a result, their look would include nods to Brooklyn’s oversized style and Harlem’s sportswear craze.

Slick Rick

As all things fashion and music often come full circle, those who once sampled tracks from other great artists have become those sampled and idolised by new, young artists in the industry. Rapper Slick Rick emigrated to The Bronx as a young boy and began performing at school contests and in parks, he has since released four albums and his music has been sampled over six hundred times by artists such as Beyoncé, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg.


“Queens had its own flow.”

Queens – The easternmost and the largest in area of the five boroughs of New York City. When it comes to hip-hop, Queens is often overlooked by neighbouring Brooklyn. Arguably, Brooklyn has produced some of the finest rappers of all time and over the years has had a significant influence on hip-hop. However, Queens is for sure not far behind. This is because Queens is said to have “had its own flow” and set trends rather than just following them.

One of the most important acts to hip-hop culture and Queens was Run-D.M.C, a trio that broke onto the musical scene in 1983 they quickly became recognised for the cultural symbolism and social commentary within their lyrics.As they became known for their music they also became known for their look which became a reflection of their music. When Tougher than Leather was released in 1988, their look consisted of leather suits, matching hats and gold chains. This look went on to become a staple in hip-hop culture. Other trends that also inspired their look included a song about popular sportswear brand Adidas. The trio were big fans of Adidas’ famous ‘Superstar’ sneakers. Popular at the time, the sneakers were often referred to as ‘shell toes’ and were worn without laces, with the tongue pushed out of the shoe. The popularity of the sneaker grew after Run D.M.C held the shoe up at a concert in front of 40,000 fans.

My Adidas Run D.M.C

Other famous rappers from Queens include Nicki Minaj who openly supports female empowerment through style and music.Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, hip-hop fashion for women was very like fashion for men including the same baggy clothes, sneakers and hats. Among other female trailblazers on the hip-hop scene, Salt-N-Pepa a female trio from Queens represented the typical ‘b girl’ of their time.Almost two decades later, at the start of her career Nicki Minaj sports an alternative look featuring brightly coloured wigs and extravagant costumes on and off stage.

Minaj has stated she originally felt obligated to mimic the provocative style and behaviour of “female rappers of [her] day”, and went on to say she wants “people, especially young girls, to know that in life nothing is going to be based on sex appeal, you’ve got to have something else to go with that.”  Becoming an artist referenced by The New York Times as “the most influential female rapper of all time.” Marking an important time as women in hip-hop become increasingly important and more frequently recognised for their work.

Nicki Minaj

The fashions grew not just on the NYC streets but as hip-hop made it to clubs in Central New York, London and other major cities, the fashion and the ideas were adopted too. It was not uncommon in the mid 80’s in London to see club kids supporting Dapper Dan inspired logo emblazoned items.

The relationship with rappers and their brands has changed drastically as fashion commerce gets in on the game.

LL Cool J once backed FUBU and went as far as wearing a cap of theirs in a Gap commercial to recent Dior Homme campaigns featuring present day rapper A$AP Rocky.

LL Cool J 

 High profile fashion houses reference sportswear and street style in turn triggering a major trickle up effect.Most interesting is the history of Dapper Dan. Once the bad boy street designer who took designer logos and transformed them into bootleg t-shirts, worked with brand logos across clothing and who was threatened with being sued, has become the darling of the designer world. His Harlem boutique has reopened in collaboration with Gucci and he now creates custom pieces for all manner of high profile icons.

A$AP Rocky


Trends are sampled from both ends of the spectrum, elsewhere Kanye West hopes his Yeezy line will reach “Ralph level”.The lines have blurred between runway and street, the Hermes ‘roadman’ bags and oversized Vetements hoodies we sport today make reference to these New York native – trend setting pioneers.

Fresh Dressed on Netflix Here
Instagram @freshdressedmovie