Oh how I love this town!
Oh how I love this town! And here's my latest reason. In chatting with three local fashion impresarios, our conversations were substantive, ranging from the joy of upcycling, the politics of representation, access to capital, the nature of knowledge transmission and the responsibilities inherent in it...yes, you heard me.
And more. More, more, more. Because these three talents are among many others at work here in the field of fashion. There isn't time to tell of all of it tonight dear reader. You will have to go to some dance parties and some shows, and some shops. Mm-hmm. But sit with me some now and I will tell you a little bit of this beauty.
While growing up in his hometown of Newark, Tyrone Chablis discovered an old discarded sewing machine and it changed his life. What followed was a path of self-learning, hard work and innovation. A major influence on the local fashion culture, for more than twenty years, Chablis has been a fixture on the tri-state area fashion scene. He plays many roles - from commentator to show producer to master tailor to his most prominent and passionate pursuit - designing and making fabulous clothes.
His distinctive style is sultry, campy, and daring, and the use of carefully selected recycled t-shirts to create dresses ranging from simple to extravagant really caught my attention. This is the Green Tee line, and it is something else. The different cultural and subcultural meanings encoded in each design, and the way Chablis so freely remixes them into new pieces, is as dazzling as a great DJ set that makes everyone dance. You know what I mean. You NEED one of these dresses. NOW!
Chablis (You don't drink it!) also has a great willingness to share his expertise and work as organizer and mentor to highlight new talents- he gives back to the community from which he has emerged. He urged me to not miss the next of the annual fashion shows held at Essex County College and Newark Tech High School, and also says that Newark needs to launch a "real fashion week" soon. My ear to the ground tells me he's not alone in this desire. Let's make it happen people.
Hasan Love and I spoke at length, and it was enjoyable to learn more about his work. We first met about a year ago when artist Jerry Gant recruited different individuals from the community to "play themselves" in storefront windows downtown, quite literally performing their professions.
This was part of Gallery Aferro's Activate: Market Street project. Love sewed as passerby's stopped to stare at the speed of his workmanship, slippery fabric appearing to flow in and around his singer sewing machine, shears flashing like a samurai sword. He does all kinds of work, making clothing and costumes for "poets, politicians, entertainers, and prom..." He would like to work with more musicians.
A Newarker born and bred, Love describes himself as an artist first. In the mid eighties he was busy creating murals, drawing, and participating in theater as well as the city's graffiti scene, which by all accounts was a locus of creative energy. Many graff artists would customize a denim jacket or a leather coat, making the wearer a kind of walking billboard. He was dating a woman who introduced him to her grandmother.
With the idea of some custom clothes in mind, "I made a comment about her sewing machine. She asked me if I wanted to learn." This was the start of an intensive four-year relationship, wherein he was trained in the "old school" methods of hand and needle as well as machine sewing, on a vintage singer.
At this point in our conversation I was so touched, overwhelmed, thinking about the incredible impact that older folks can have on the young by listening, taking and interest, and sharing the skills of a lifetime. "In the 5th year, she passed away...She was from South Carolina, and she told me about her mother, the quilting they did." The powerful thread, the line, the link, that Love is making from her creative work to his is inspiring. "From quilting, to fashion, to doing things she didn't get to do."
What's the Newark style?
Know your history: "Mom brought us to the Museum and Library." "Be original. Be independent." We talk about how many of the young people here "may not be able to have the most expensive hat but can be outspoken, trendy...," working from thrift shops and other sources with sheer ingenuity to make their own look.
- Put on fur.
- Dye it.
- Bleach it.
- Switch out the buttons.
"...I observe things here that remind me of Paris, LA, Miami...The gay population here has serious style."
What's next for Love? "Reconstruction is really big right now. I'm working on a line based on the 20's and the 70's...The past is where I'm going." "It's homework...looking towards the future...it's history...it's documentary...it's who I am...."
The last person, I spoke with is new to this thriving scene, but like Tyrone and Hasan has a strong sense of community. Athena Barat's startup line New Ark consist of hand silk-screened (all at Newark Print Shop repurposed garments, purchases of which support the Creation Nation Art and Peace Parade she organizes annually in Newark. Barat only asks local artists and poets to model. Based around the ethos of the Peaceful Warrior, New Ark is also sponsoring African Martial Arts training in Newark. The clothing line reflects the same bold colorful vibrancy of the city, and utilizes a symbolic alphabet developed by Barat for the parade.
In the few months since New Ark's inception the clothing has been sold in Paris and Los Angeles, and worn on stage at the Jersey Club Awards in Newark. "By making it personal, and about a location, I think it becomes the story of every city and place that has fought to be free."
Evonne M. Davis and Emma Wilcox are working artists and cofounders of a Newark alternative arts nonprofit. Begun in 2003, Gallery Aferro offers exhibitions featuring local, national and international artists, a wide range of public events, a year-round studio residency program, educational offerings, group tours, a publication line, a gift shop and public art initiatives.
Photo Credits: Athena Barat (New Ark), Medhin's Photography, Chablis Designs