Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style

THE best posts on the style blog Street Etiquette find its principals, Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi, in motion. As opposed to the fascistically frozen street-style snaps of The Sartorialist and others, these pictures are styled and plotted fictions but also affecting ones, depicting a pair of young black men taking ownership not just of the body and what goes on it, but also of the environment it moves in. No one ever smiles on Street Etiquette: there’s business to attend to.

Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

Joshua Kissi, above left, and Travis Gumbs, both of Mount Vernon, N.Y., founded the blog Street Etiquette. More Photos »



Most days, the actual business of Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs takes place in a work-space-cum-clubhouse on Bergen Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. With vintage sweaters hanging from the ceiling and art books lining the walls, this is the nerve center of the Brooklyn Circus, whose flagship store is just a few dozen steps away, and which is a key collaborative partner for Street Etiquette, which began as a basic beautiful-things blog in 2008 but is now one of the foremost online repositories of black style.

The posts on Street Etiquette straddle the modern and the historical. Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi, both 22, highlight specific themes — floral prints, the saddle shoe and so on — modeling them and detailing their history. They are careful caretakers, respectful students, tailoring loyalists and handsome models.

And they have become Internet-age fashion polymaths: stylists and models, but also writers, preservationists, photographers and editors — and soon, designers and retailers.

Already they have wide reach: Street Etiquette receives 20,000 page views a day. The two men are the most prominent public faces of a new burst of black dandyism taking root in small retail outlets, niche fashion lines and thoughtful style blogs.

“There’s more than one cool now for black people,” Mr. Gumbs said on a recent Tuesday at the Bergen Street studio, wearing a slight wisp of a goatee and dark glasses that sharpened his round face. “When we were growing up, it was just one kind of cool.”

That was hip-hop, with its hegemonic style. But the men of Street Etiquette and their peers practice a deliberate elision of hip-hop style (except in the site’s early days, when the two were still shaking free of their Air Jordans). They even eschew the prim eccentricity of an Andre 3000, or the cosmopolitan flamboyance of Kanye West.

Instead, this generation emphasizes the basics: great fabrics, aggressive tailoring, thoughtful accessorizing. It’s a return to style as a source of dignity, a theme that has run through generations of black American style, from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights era to the mixed messages of the hip-hop era.

“I used to wear size 42 jeans,” Mr. Kissi said. “Coming from that to a tie and shirt, people perceive you in a whole different way.”

Fonzworth Bentley, hip-hop dandy, motivational speaker and author of “Advance Your Swagger: How to Use Manners, Confidence and Style to Get Ahead,” echoed that sentiment in recalling his efforts to get Sean Combs into more-elegant clothing: “He had to walk with his back different,” Mr. Bentley said. “He had to talk different. To bring class to hip-hop, that was the specific singular goal I had.”

Making a strong statement about cultural pride is central to the Street Etiquette mission. “It shows people of African descent in a good light,” said Mr. Kissi, whose family hails from Ghana. With Ouigi Theodore, the owner of Brooklyn Circus, Street Etiquette is collaborating on college speaking engagements under the “style and character tour” banner. Said Mr. Theodore: “Where they’re from and where I’m from, self-refinement isn’t welcome in a sense. If you’re hood, you’re hood forever.”

The musician and actor Mos Def was turned on to Street Etiquette by a friend, and was taken by the founders’ direction. “They want to elevate the awareness level of young people in their communities,” he said. “As opposed to ‘We’re better than y’all,’ it’s ‘You can be this, too.’ ” He now serves as a mentor to the duo. “All of it is a political expression,” he said. “White people have all kinds of archetypes, from Brad Pitt to Al Bundy, everything in between. The cultural paradigms that are aggressively promoted to young black people and young poor people are extremely narrow.”

A new generation of black fashion entrepreneurs is emerging to fill this gap, among them Mr. Theodore of Brooklyn Circus; Brian and Autumn Merritt of Sir & Madame in Chicago; Ontario Armstrong and Clifton Wilson of Armstrong & Wilson in Philadelphia and several others.

“We wanted to give a different perception of the young black man,” said Mr. Armstrong, whose company specializes in pocket squares made from outlandish fabrics and embellished with buttons.



The new dandies are found on sites like Guerreisms or Aveder Outfit, the site of Cleon Grey, a frequent photographer for Street Etiquette. Since its March introduction, Aveder Outfit has quickly become a thrilling repository of bold and natty black styles. Mr. Grey first came across Street Etiquette while in college. “My initial reaction was, ‘This makes me proud to be a black man,’ ” he said.

Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs stumbled upon their calling in high school. “We was too cool for Evisus,” said Mr. Kissi, his hair fashioned into a field of twists and knots, recalling the dominant hip-hop denim of the day.

He and Mr. Gumbs, who was born in St. Kitts and moved to the United States at age 8, met as students at Mount Vernon High School, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and bonded over their shared aversion to the style of their classmates.

First came streetwear: skinny jeans, complemented with brands like Stüssy and Supreme. As the only ones in their high school who favored that look, they turned online to find peers.

The pair honed their writing skills not in the classroom but on Internet forums, particularly the ones on Hypebeast and NikeTalk. “It was like a high school within a high school online,” Mr. Kissi said. “I felt like I had a voice, and a lot of people followed me.” This was in stark contrast to the reception the pair got in real life: “It was like, ‘Why can’t I think outside the box?’ Our peers, in our neighborhoods, they’re the ones who hated us the most.”

That online training ground was also responsible for the signature Street Etiquette mood: Even a dig deep into the site’s archives fails to turn up a single grin. “In the forums you post what did you wear today and you don’t smile because it’s cheesy,” Mr. Gumbs said. Added Mr. Kissi, “I can be silly, but I don’t want to look silly.”

Street Etiquette began mostly as a way of cataloging the duo’s taste; it was several months before they appeared on it themselves. Now, though, the Street Etiquette aesthetic is finely honed: echoes of civil rights-era style, the Malian portrait photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé and images of historically black colleges in the mid-20th century. Each shoot is treated like a magazine spread, with hundreds of photos winnowed down to a select few for the blog. And while the two men are often shot individually, the photos gain power when they are united.

“It’s the mise-en-scène, the whole package,” said Monica Miller, a Barnard English professor and the author of “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity.” “It’s not just the clothes. It’s the body that’s wearing the clothing and the disposition of the body, how the body inhabits the clothes. It’s asking the viewer to construct a narrative about that black male body.”

Last September, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi orchestrated the site’s most involved shoot, and narrative, to date: Black Ivy. A dozen or so of their friends posed in classics worn with a twist: a tweed jacket over a green shawl-collar sweater with purple pants rolled up just so, and so on.

“They wear it with such respect,” said Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ, which has featured Street Etiquette in its pages. “But it washed all that heavy blue-bloodedness out.”

If the hip-hop generation’s embrace of prep fashion signaled the style’s move from tradition to subversion, Black Ivy qualifies as post-subversion, the full-scale embrace of prep heritage filtered through an outsider’s lens. It was also timed perfectly with the resurgence of interest in prep fashion.

“They’re bringing things back a little ahead of the curve,” Mr. Moore said. “They were the first ones that legitimized the summer scarf for me. These guys featured it, and I was like, ‘That’s going to be huge, not just some Euro trend.’ ”



When it comes to style, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi dine widely. They’re expert vintage thrifters — Mr. Kissi manages about 200 eBay alerts in his quest for unique pieces — and inadvertent frugalists, often making clothes from stores like Club Monaco look dangerously expensive. The two also have an instinct for great juxtapositions: The most notable element of a recent post about guayaberas wasn’t the shirt, but rather Mr. Gumbs’s hat, a variant on the Greek fisherman style that looked like an implied retort to years of fedoras and trilbys.

“I enjoy the range of masculinities they’re trying to portray,” Professor Miller said.

The ease and rapidity of the Internet helps keep that range wide, and frequently updated. Of the two, Mr. Kissi is the talker; he manages their social media presence, including Tumblr, Facebook and a sometimes pugnacious Twitter.

The Internet has also created a virtual community for this new generation. No longer do style outsiders have to rebel in isolation.

“Prior to the last couple of years for me, the only source of information would be magazines,” said Mr. Armstrong of Armstrong & Wilson. “Now it’s everywhere. It’s giving people the heart to step up and express themselves even more.”

Mr. Bentley recalled: “When I moved to New York, I had to go Hudson News to look at international magazines to see what happened at the fashion shows. Now a teenager can get it online 10 minutes after I see it in real life.”

And for some of those teenagers, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi are stars. Classmates of Mr. Gumbs get choked up when speaking with him; Mr. Kissi receives notes from fans in Ghana and Nigeria who have Street Etiquette pictures on their walls. Meanwhile, they’re still learning how to generate more than just fame from the blog. Mr. Gumbs works part-time at Opening Ceremony while studying at Baruch College, and Mr. Kissi works at the J. Crew Men’s Shop. Both still live with their families in Mount Vernon.

“The hardest thing has been learning what our actual value was,” Mr. Gumbs said. The pair have done some marketing work, including a recent promotional video for the Nike Air Force 1. In that video, Mr. Kissi wears a vibrant Aztec-print jacket that’s one of the items on sale in the Street Etiquette-branded store on the new men’s wear site Park & Bond, a spinoff of Gilt Groupe.

Their branded vintage section shows 16 pieces unearthed by Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs, and modeled by them. “They think like editors,” said Andy Comer, the site’s director of editorial content. “That’s not a slot that’s just for a blogger. We’re more concerned with the message it sends, which is that we’re a place that values point of view.”

Last year, Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs collaborated with Sebago on a limited-edition boot and a tasseled moccasin (red on brown), and are planning a Street Etiquette branded line: the first piece will be a varsity jacket inspired by the Black Ivy shoot.

They’re now making the clothes they want to wear from scratch, instead of having to fine-tune what they find in the world. In a Street Etiquette post from early 2009, Mr. Gumbs wrote about seeking a reliable tailor. They’ve found one, though they’re cagey about who it is.

“I’ve definitely tailored something four times, one item,” Mr. Gumbs said, not embarrassed at all. But not every attempt is a success. “There’s a lot of items laying in my room that are just fails,” Mr. Kissi said. “You just got to deal with it.” And finally, here, he laughs.



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