My personal style signifier is an ascot [a cravat-like necktie]. I make them myself and I wear one almost every day. I can’t just wear a shirt and put a tie on it because that’s not inspiring, so I’ll wear my tie directly against my neck, inside the shirt. I like to encourage young guys to dress up in a way that’s more mature but still cool enough for them to identify with.
My earliest fashion memory is watching Moustache Bobby – that was his street name – walking to work. Every morning when I was growing up, my older brothers and I would get up in the window to watch this guy walking towards the Subway, just to see what he was wearing. One of the most amazing things he wore was a black leather Aquascutum trench. I had never seen anything like that. I was maybe 14 before my parents could afford to shop anywhere else but Goodwill. Goodwill was our Macy’s. That’s how poor we were.
The last thing I bought and loved was African fabric from Nigeria. My whole thing with fashion is symbols – like the way I’ve made use of the Gucci logo and other brand logos. My quest with my brand, which I’m launching in spring 2022, is to have my own iconography. When I visited Lagos, I learnt how to print on African cloth. I also like the tribal fabrics created by the Maasai, who fluctuate between Kenya and Tanzania, and all through east Africa.
And on my wishlist is my father’s birth certificate. He was born in 1898, 35 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and there is no history of his birth other than that we know he was born in Emporia, Virginia. He left home in 1910, when he was 12. He didn’t get past the third grade, so was in the process of teaching himself how to read and write.
And the best souvenirs I’ve brought home are artefacts from Liberia, which I have all through my house – some hammered copper pictures that I picked up in the marketplace in Monrovia when I traded some of my clothes for them. There is also a big painting that I picked up of a huge tree in the middle of a village on a lake, with people swimming in the water all around, and it reminds me so much of Harlem.
The fashion moment that changed everything was logomania, with the additional footnote that Dapper Dan is the father of logomania. Major brands using logos on their outfits is the most significant thing in fashion today. It has revived the whole fashion industry.
The site that inspires me is the Harlem River. I was born in the last house before you get to the river. We swam in it in our underwear. It was amazing that I didn’t drown. We used to throw a popsicle stick in to see which way the current was going and work out where to dive in so that we didn’t have to swim against the current, which could be very strong. As I got older, I realised how symbolic and significant that was. Life is like that – you have to know when to get in and when to get out. You have to understand the current.
The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Basquiat. He makes me think. When I look at his work I am always trying to figure out what he was thinking about, how he reacted to the world.
My style icon is Miles Davis. Fashion and music are opposite sides of the same coin. What I admire about Davis is the way he rebelled against the musicians who came before him, the black musicians who during the Harlem Renaissance era were required to wear what they called “jungle clothes”, or clothes that were symbolic of Africa. Miles Davis and John Coltrane were the first to develop their own style of dressing. What really stood out for me was that when he changed his style of music, and started playing acid rock instead of jazz, he also changed what he wore.
The best gift I’ve received recently is a pair of dice, because they are a reminder of the guy who taught me to gamble and how to play craps. My fame and everything I have today, in addition to the things I’ve done, probably comes from that ability. One of the most misunderstood words ever to be printed in the dictionary is “gamble”. A lot of people take gambling as a game of chance, but it’s based on the law of probability. And dice have such an interesting history. Craps came about when the slaves on the gambling boats sailing up and down the Mississippi River took the dice off the baccarat table and created this game that is so popular in the world today.
In my fridge you’ll always find vegetarian food. I like MorningStar Farms vegetarian burgers and nuggets – they do a pretty good job. And almond milk. I started out in vegetarianism for health reasons. I began by going to a Quaker restaurant in Greenwich Village, and I would take my carnivore friends – they’d ask for hamburgers and French fries but get a plant-based version, and you couldn’t tell the difference. Oh stupid me, though… I went to that restaurant one day in a python jacket and python boots that matched. So I go to the bathroom, a guy comes in and stands at the urinal right next to me and starts chatting. He says, calmly, “That’s such a lovely jacket and boots you have there. But I just got to the point that I couldn’t take the suffering of the animals any more.” I felt like I wanted to be flushed down that urinal too. How could I be so stupid? That began to change me.
The grooming staple I’m never without is cologne. I like that feeling of looking sharp, and smelling like a flower. All the women say, “Why, he’s such a great guy and he smells so good.” I’m usually gifted colognes; I like the fragrance of the one I’m wearing presently, which is called Throne [by English Laundry]. $85 for 100ml EDP, englishlaundryfragrance.com
When I need to feel inspired, I walk the streets of Harlem. That is where all my inspiration comes from. Every day, I stand on the corner outside my atelier so that I can greet all the people coming back and forth.
The best gift I’ve given recently was the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which I gave to my friend Russell, the guy I used to gamble with.
The tech I couldn’t do without is CorelDraw [graphic design software], which my son taught me to use. I was fascinated by moving from one generation to another, from relying on sketching by hand with a pencil to sketching on the computer. It opened up a whole new window of creativity for me.
My favourite website is ScienceDaily. Ever since I read about Galileo Galilei and how science triggers the course of history, I like to keep up.
An indulgence I would never forgo is ballroom dancing. I love the romance it has, which is missing in dancing today. I like to dance to Afro-Cuban music and to see the different ways it has developed. Depending on the Latino group that has emigrated here, you can feel the different tempos of the music. I go to a place called El San Juan, which is where the Puerto Ricans go, and it’s all really smooth and slow. But in New York we also have a heavy influx of Dominicans, and so I also go to Club Deportivo in Washington Heights on Friday nights. It’s the same music but very uptempo, what we now call salsa; everyone’s excited to be there and you can feel it. I go to both places – and get a taste of two worlds. Watching a person dance tells you a whole lot about them. El San Juan, 5th Avenue between E 116th and 117th. Club Deportivo, 2088 Amsterdam Ave between 163rd and 164th
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was Gucci loafers, in four different colours. I grew up with holes in my shoes, so imagine me with the 40 or so pairs of shoes I have now. I’m most attached to a particular red pair because they are such a departure from the conservative world.
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be a writer. I used to write for a radical student newspaper called 40 Acres and a Mule. I like storytelling. We got to speak to people like Dr Henrik Clarke, the scholar who was instrumental in changing Malcolm X’s attitudes about racism and African-American history.
This year I’ve been thinking differently about politics. I’m sure you know why. I never thought that the political situation in America could turn the way it did turn, that we could revert back to times I thought I’d never see again. Trump opened my eyes to how dangerous not fully participating in the political structure of the USA can be.
I have a collection of esoteric books. When I first started changing my life, at 23, I went to a famous Harlem bookstore, The Tree of Life, where [comedian and civil rights activist] Dick Gregory and all the black scholars used to go. It was the most popular place in Harlem, next to the Schomburg Library, for Afrocentric literature. I was looking for a book on holistic health called Back to Eden that was popular with my family. They didn’t have a copy of that so a brother – he looked like he had a halo around him – said, “Well, we don’t have that but could you try this book here?” The title of that book was Man’s Higher Consciousness by Hilton Hotema. That was what started my reading into the connections between ancient religions and spirituality and why vegetarianism was important. It’s amazing how a bookshop can do that – the book was there waiting for you. It knew you was coming.
The music I’m listening to is Afro-Cuban jazz – and that’s pretty much classical. There is a strong musical connection between African-Americans and the Latinos, which goes back to the Yoruba people’s religion in Nigeria. One of the symbols I’ll be incorporating into my label is a Yoruba phrase meaning “look back”. I feel that as African-Americans we need to look further back than the 400 years we’ve been here – we need to look all the way back to our origins in Africa.
The last meal that truly impressed me was at a restaurant right up the street in Harlem called Chaiwali. It’s vegetarian Indian cuisine and it’s excellent. I had the Green Rani Cobb Salad. chaiwali.com
A place I long to go back to is Ethiopia, because of its historical significance for African-Americans and Afrocentric interpretations of history. I was in Addis Ababa in 1968, when I was 23, but I didn’t get to stay as long as I’d have liked. It’s an important place for me to learn more about and I feel like I could take in more understanding at the age I am now, which is 77.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is Man: the Grand Symbol of the Mysteries, by mystic Manly P Hall. I’ve also read his 1928 book The Secret Teachings of All Ages, which I love. He points out how all the ancient religions and cultures have within them all the secrets associated with man. If I was to sum it up in one sentence, it would be: man is the microcosm of the macrocosm.
I’ve recently rediscovered youth culture. It’s always there but you don’t always see it. You have to immerse yourself in it. I like to have somebody young around me – like my intern, Bara Ndiaye, whose family is from Senegal – so that I can understand culture from their perspective. I need to know what certain slang words mean. Most designers create from their mind; I create from subjects that are part of my culture, so I need to be able to read what is going on in their lives.