Gorgeous black men styled to the max in vivacious suits, matching vests, contrasting pocket squares, and spit-shined shoes generate crazy amounts of clicks on street-style blogs and websites.
Impeccably dressed athletes such as Amar’e Stoudemire and our own Malcolm Jenkins command attention in sharply tailored, post-game interview ensembles. R&B singer Jidenna is building a solid fan base of people who like the look of this “Classic Man.”
So it makes sense that New York publishing house Aperture is releasing a coffee-table book Thursday overflowing with glossy photos of bloggers and celebrities — like Jidenna and Jenkins — clad in all manner of delightfully vivid pinstripes, florals, and African prints. And each of the 175 pages of Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style was curated by Germantown scholar Shantrelle P. Lewis.
“When I entered this project, I thought, I’m just looking at fashion,” Lewis, 38, told me from her cube-size Center City office wallpapered with images of her favorite inspirations, from W.E.B. Dubois to characters from Coming to America. “But there is so much social and political history about how black men see themselves around the world.”
Aperture’s printing of Dandy Lion authenticates Lewis, chief dream director for the national nonprofit the Future Project, as one of only two experts in the world on the study of black dandyism. The other is Monica Miller, who in 2009 released Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity. In Dandy Lion, Lewis, whose focus is on contemporary black dandies, picks up where Miller left off.
This Thursday, in conjunction with the hardcover’s launch, the prestigious Brooklyn Museum will host a night of film, fashion, and conversation centered on the black dandy.
In other words, Dandy Lion, available at select Barnes & Noble, Target, and Anthropologie stores by week’s end, is a big deal and it hasn’t even dropped yet. But in order to understand why it’s getting its fair share of preordered love — there have been thousands — one must understand how the book came to be.
It started in 2010, when Ngozi Odita, one of the owners of the now defunct Afrocentric clothing boutique Harriet’s Alter Ego, asked Lewis, then curator for the Caribbean Cultural Center, to create a pop-up museum at the National Black Theater in Harlem.
Lewis, a graduate of Howard and Temple Universities with degrees in African American studies and African studies, respectively, was also a student of all things vintage fashion. (Even her wedding photos went viral).
But she didn’t want to focus her pop-up on women’s wear. That would be too predictable. Not to mention, Lewis was starting to notice that men in her circles, like Ouigi Theodore of menswear brand Brooklyn Circus, were starting to dabble in fitted vintage looks.
These men, experimenting with Thom Browne-esque shrunken suits, were taking the time to coordinate pocket squares, and to post images on then-new blogs. Lewis decided to make these early adapters her focus. After all, a bunch of black men photographed in suits would certainly help send a message powerful enough to combat at least a few negative stereotypes. She put out an open call to her photographer friends to find and shoot these well-dressed men. It wasn’t easy.
“This look was far from mainstream,” Lewis explained. “But I was really conscious of the fact that these men were creating visuals of young black men that were challenging the long-held aesthetic of what black masculinity was.”
She named the pop-up installation the Dandy Lion Project — a clever salute to 18th-century Edwardian fashion plates personified by Beau Brummell and the weed most plucked from their gardens and thrown away.
In its infancy, the Dandy Lion Project featured 14 photographers and a little more than two dozen photos. That first show was so successful, Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) asked Lewis to curate a show there.
“From there, institutions kept reaching out to me,” said Lewis, who, within a span of six years curated Dandy Lions at museums in eight cities, including Open Ateliers Zuidoost in Amsterdam and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, which remains the largest to date, with more than 17,000 visitors and close to 200 images. Although the Dandy Lion Project is still curated by Lewis, it is now a traveling exhibit organized by the museum in Chicago. (Dandy Lion has yet to be shown in a Philadelphia museum.)
“Every iteration of the show got bigger and bigger,” Lewis said. “It got to the point where photographers were calling me. They wanted to be a part of the show.”
As menswear evolved to the point where custom blazers and bow ties were standard for black men-about-town, so did Lewis’ definition of dandy.
When Lewis began the project, she asked her photographers to find only straight men. Part of her work was to challenge the long-held beliefs of black masculinity, and a brother in skinny jeans definitely seemed to do that. She also stipulated that clothing must feature Edwardian tailoring (Ankara prints were OK, hence the inclusion of Philadelphia’s Wale Oyejide, founder of Ikire Jones). But there were to be no 1920s Cab Calloway zoot suits or Shaft bell-bottoms.
“In my mind, dandyism was all about the cut,” Lewis said.
Two years into the show, she decided to expand the definition, especially as dressy menswear began to infuse more casual looks. She also added gay men, transgender men, as well as lesbians, and any woman who gravitates toward menswear (think Janelle Monáe). Lewis calls them Dandy Queens.
“The modern-day dandy is a sampling of everything,” Lewis said. “It’s a manifestation of the hip-hop aesthetic and it’s also nostalgic to days that have gone by.”
In spring 2015, at the Chicago opening of her show, Lewis met Aperture executive director Chris Boote. It was Boote who suggested Lewis consider writing Dandy Lion.
For the book, Lewis wrote personal essays and examined the culture of black dandies around the world, including “rude boys” in Jamaica, La Sape in the Congo, and the social clubs in New Orleans, Lewis’ hometown. Dandy Lion will serve as a catalog for the traveling exhibit.
“This is beyond my wildest imagination,” Lewis said. “When I started this so many years ago, I had no idea I’d be on the forefront of the fashion phenomenon of dandyism.”