Photo of the columnist by Irving Johnson III
COLUMN NUMBER ONE:
In 1991, I retired the uniform I shared with all my classmates and transferred from the single-file lines and ’round-the-clock teacher supervision of Catholic school to one of New Orleans’s worst public schools. It was a free-for-all sprinkled with some soon-to-be violent criminals—but we didn’t have to wear uniforms, and that changed everything. When I visited my former school, I wore dark blue jeans and a fresh red, green, and blue plaid Polo shirt with Nike tennis shoes. My former classmates looked at me as if I had been reborn. It was in that moment that I realized the power of style.
Which is not to say I was oblivious to fashion before then. My mom says that as a wee child not yet in kindergarten, I would protest until she found the right thing to dress me in.
For me, there is no style without influence. The best reinterpretations, after all, can be as innovative as their original sources (think about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s take on “The Mona Lisa”). Because of that I see genius, not shame, in allowing yourself to be inspired by what or who came before you.
My older sister, Rahsanaa Ison, was an early style inspiration. She was always neat and collected—preppy—and she said I couldn’t hang with her if I looked sloppy. In high school, my love for jazz deepened, and this was a big influence, because with jazz, you always get style. I saw this firsthand when I began to hang with Delfeayo Marsalis, a jazz trombonist and record producer, whose penchant for bold colors and contrasting patterns seeped into my own wardrobe. I started to wear chinos with my favorite white-and-purple-striped turtleneck, and by my senior year, I was wearing white oxford shirts and plaid pants with dark-blue-suede saddle bucks.
This “Parish Chic” column covers New Orleans style, which is not a small or regional concept, because our culture has influenced the world while simultaneously being inspired by global customs. (That’s what happened here, after all, with jazz and cuisine.) Don’t let the frat-boy antics of Bourbon Street fool you; New Orleans is a city with the intestinal fortitude to rebuild after breeched levees and the ability, despite our own self-destructive tendencies, to march forward—in smashing clothes—against all odds...again and again and again. In short, New Orleans is about the people, and that’s why it matters. The people are distinctive and creative and free, and that’s why we have style.
This column will go beyond appearances and into the stories behind the style. I’m not here to say what’s stylish or not; I’m merely capturing New Orleans people who express themselves through their wares. Many of the pictures I take will be of strangers—dashing citizens who had no idea a man was walking the streets of New Orleans looking to photograph them. Other pictures will be of people I have already met but whose style I admire every time I see them.
So join me, please, as I use this space to peer into the unique community of New Orleans and do my best to locate and celebrate the chic, the stylish, and the unforgettable.
Photo by Irving Johnson III
Before I hit the streets to ask New Orleanians questions on style, The Oxford American wanted to hit me up with some questions of their own.
The Oxford American: Why is fashion important to you?
L. Kasimu Harris: I enjoy the way looking good makes me feel. I don’t dress for others, but I admit that I enjoy compliments, and when you look better, people treat you better. In most places in the world, we have to be clothed daily: Being well-dressed is taking an extra, joyous step in a required task. I appreciate people who, in a fast-paced world, take some time to think about their appearance.
The OA: What is your favorite item in your wardrobe?
LKH: A pair of chocolate desert boots from The Gap. I’ve had them for close to a decade.
The OA: What is your fashion trademark?
LKH: Juxtaposition and taking risks. I’ll wear shorts and ties, ascots with jeans, and, lately, a camouflage “Got Beer” hat with anything. But my approach to style is rooted in the blues, where you have a standard twelve bars, four chord changes, with improvisation on top. For the most part, in music and fashion, everyone is working with the same things, with a change to make it unique. While I love to be creative with my attire, it always has a foundation.
The OA: What style do you admire in others but can’t pull off yourself?
LKH: I can’t think of one. If I like it, I will try it.
The OA: What is your style inspiration?
LKH: My mother gave me a subscription to GQ when I was in high school, and I also read a now-defunct lifestyle magazine named Code that was targeted to African-American men. Planting those seeds of style in me at a young age is still paying dividends. Plus, I people-watch a lot—on the cusp of staring—okay, I stare at people. But I’m looking at how they put themselves together, cuff their jeans, wear a hat, and things like that.
The OA: Is there an item you own but haven’t worn yet?
LKH: Yes, a gray V-neck sweater. I haven’t worn it because I bought four sweaters at once and the temperatures have been mild here this winter.
The OA: What look do you despise on other men/women?
LKH: Clip-on bow ties and too-big heels.
Style on The Spot: Frenchmen Street
Antoine Bernard, Street Poet
Style on The Spot: Buffalo Exchange
Charlé Washington, Buffalo Exchange Clerk
Style on The Spot: Brooks Brothers
Tom Cianfichi (left), event planner & Bryan Batt, an actor best known for his role in Mad Men
Chet Pourciau, interior decorator & Jennifer Hale, news anchor
Style on The Spot: Canal Street
Lance Rautzhan, a visual artist from Brooklyn, New York, honeymooning with Megan Ronney
Style on The Spot: The French Quarter
Ernesto Sigmon, accountant
COMING SOON FROM PARISH CHIC:
Scenes from Fashion Week NOLA (March 21-25, 2012)
(From last year’s runway show for Blackout, a design company founded in New Orleans by Brandon, Mississippi–native Ashlie Ming.)