Erik Honesty relishes the art of menswear — the blazers, topcoats, cufflinks, ties, bow ties, pocket squares, tie clips and capes — "the whole gauntlet of getting dressed up.”
When he’s not manning the counter of Cultured Couture — his modestly sized menswear boutique in Germantown — he’s scrounging trunk shows, estate sales, and leads from colleagues to secure the highest-quality vintage garments he can find.
“I may be selling Hermès from the 1960s or ’70s, or an overcoat from the 1800s. But menswear and designer labels are the focal points of selection,” Honesty said. Cultured Couture’s biggest draw, he adds, is the styling. "We sell the entire look,” from furs to cloaks.
Honesty’s reverence for fashion history inspired him to create an enterprise that honors the roots of black American culture and corners the men’s designer vintage market in Germantown.
Before the 33-year-old opened the doors of his business eight years ago, he made a living by selling CDs, studio time to musicians, and any other sundries he was able to get his hands on. In November 2005, Honesty traveled to Paris alongside his furniture-designing brother and his mother, the noted, Philly-based jazz guitarist Monette Sudler, who was on tour at the time.
“I was just struck by the essence of Paris,” Honesty said, adjusting the cuff to his navy-blue, Japanese-designed Comme des Garçons blazer. “In the window of one boutique, I saw two sweaters. One had a large shawl collar, and the other was a cream cardigan with pockets and toggle buttons.”
Over a murmur of cool jazz in his store at 6379 Germantown Ave., Honesty described how he returned to the Paris boutique and bought both sweaters. At the time, such styles were not easily available, especially in North Philly, where he came of age.
Research "took me down a rabbit hole, and then I discovered the black jockeys,” Honesty recalled as he told the story of how research informs his aesthetic. The silk jockey shirts and hats stood out to him.
A cohort of about 15 black jockeys dominated horse racing in the first three decades of the Kentucky Derby in the late 1800s. Because of their growing celebrity, they were consequently exiled from the sport by white officials. These former slaves and sons of former slaves were not only known for their athletic achievement, they were also admired for their style, as it was a departure from the enslaved or working-class presentation that was expected of black men during that time.
Throughout history, black men have had to learn to be innovative in the way they approach personal appearance and style, especially since they often had limited resources compared with men of other backgrounds, said Shantrelle P. Lewis, a Philadelphia-based cultural critic and creator of the Dandy Lion Project, an in-depth analysis of black dandyism.
Lewis noted how Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and statesman of the 19th century, understood the power of portrayal, and always presented himself in a manner aimed at counteracting the negative image of black men in the American imagination.
“When we think about [Douglass], who was the most photographed man of his time, it was very deliberate that he was always dressed nicely," she said. "You don’t see any images of Frederick Douglass, even though he was formally enslaved at one point, wearing shabby clothes or clothes of a working man.”
Douglass’ sartorial panache resonates through the generations.
“During enslavement, black men had to wear the clothes that their owners set out for them, which tended to be [made from] cheap fabrics like denim and osnaburg," a coarse cotton used in grain sacks, said Tanisha Ford, associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware.
Having the opportunity to choose one’s own attire mattered, she said. And that autonomy opened up possibilities for how black bodies could be adorned. Clothes were a way for black people to express the fullness of their humanity and “reimagine their place in the social order.”
Lloyd Boston, style guru and author of Men of Color: Fashion, History, and Fundamentals, said black people in postbellum America styled their hats at an angle and made sure the clothes were crisp, starched, tailored, and pressed. “They made hand-me-downs look just as good as the clothes on the rack," Boston said.
Honesty’s curated selections reach well beyond clothing. He also offers abstract paintings by local artists, accessories, and vintage furniture. For lovers of affordable luxury, Cultured Couture presents a lifestyle, a dream realized. It’s possible for the shop’s layout to change up to three times a month, but fashionable finds at good deals are a mainstay.
“You might get an Armani suit for $150, or if it’s something from the 1920s, I may want up to $200 for it. But I might say, 'Here’s a [complementary] pocket square," Honesty said, using his hands for emphasis, exposing an emerald stone on his pinky finger. “I’m going to dress you to the T, down to the chain.”