In the words of Lil’ Kim, ‘I’m warning ya, style waits for no bitch.’ I imagined this quotation, a fragment taken from ‘Drugs’ on Kim’s debut album, Hardcore (1996), as the title of my first solo show, at London’s Simon Lee Gallery, earlier this year. I soon trashed the idea, with a hope that the words would be put to better use – or better yet, embodied.
The verse suggests ‘style’ as a placeholder for more of a hybrid imperative: time, expression and production – all at once. More than just good clothes, style is a moving target.
More than being interested in the lyrics’ meaning, I wanted to open the exhibition with an aggression that would smack the viewer in the face: not as a ‘warning’ but an explicit gesture to protect the vulnerable works on display. A pre-emptive strike, to allow for the sensitivity of the pieces to be properly felt.
The appropriation of the line would fictionalize a kind of collaboration – using Kim’s words, with implied citation, of course. Those who know would recognize where it comes from. And those with the curiosity could find out. The quotation doesn’t take away or even encapsulate the mesmerizing seduction of the whole song, ’cause it’s that good. The song is measured by breathe – inhales and exhales. Not to forget the eminent, notorious, Biggie on the hook.
In the end, I named the show for Kim’s long-time collaborator, Misa Hylton-Brim. Hylton, as a scientist of style, tried every experiment on herself. Never far from complexity. My memory is struck by the black women who she dressed as platinum blonde goddesses. Dripping in Versace and colorful minks: Hylton’s styling of 1990s hip-hop royalty processed an era of Harlem street style directed through exalted fashion from Milan. Exchanges in the thoroughfares of Harlem lead south onto Madison Avenue to the department stores, boutiques and museums.
Misa understands the feeling of 125th Street and the importance of looking; she also knows the power of a singular stunt. Through the Gucci shades. Frames as rules being broken and reconstituted.
As Lil’ Kim also said: ‘I can rock a Fubu suit, a furry Kangol and some cowboy boots and still be the shit of the night.’ Meaning: it doesn’t matter what you wear. Or how you are restricted by money and resources. You can still make an aesthetic impact through vibrancy and an authentic perspective.
(Incidentally, a Fubu-branded ‘shorts set’ would be a very ‘now’ look. Likewise the cowboy boots – though, I admit, it would be challenging to pull them off together. Initially delivered as a gauche picture, this assemblage, too, can be appreciated as avant garde.)
For me, style is about the street. How do you frame the street? How do you feel the street? For me, style involves incorporating garments I’ve had for years in an everyday look. It has to be sentimental, felt, in order to communicate personally. Hip-hop brands that I coveted as a teen resurrected with great Marni trousers and python snake-skin ankle boot. A soft sweatshirt that I’ve slept in, painted in, bleached fabric in – all absorbed after 15 years of use.
As far as 125th goes, you could always take the side streets, but you’d be missing out. On the glances, the attraction. The pops of colour. The commotion. The pulse in pacing. The busted Ugg boots, crispy Tims, coifed head-wraps and denim jeans, gathered at the ankle.
In my work, as in styling an outfit, I am constructing something from selections to create a space of subjectivity. The rearrangement of sensibility, the mood board, becomes the subject. I’m interested in images that are located in multiple spaces: textured experience-images, images with pasts. On the mood board for my show named for Misa Hylton-Brim, a found poster of Mary J Blige.
Listening to Patti Smith’s song ‘Easter’ (1978): this song, for me, is about the procession. The exalted vestment. The track swings like a pendulum, sways like legs in loose harem pants. And the bell rings.
I’m interested in attitude. The task of making it to the train station in a rush, but allowing that haste to be expressed with a strut that can’t be shook. To covet effortlessness; and the look catches wind over a subway grate.
In thinking about a striking possessions of beauty, I often consider the everyday space of the street. The grid of the city, repetition in succession. The unfamiliar becomes intimate. The object for fashion is to orchestrate the rupture.