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In New York, 'Black Style' Spins the Color Wheel

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The exhibit expends most of its energy on a simpler topic: hip-hop. But even that is not fully considered.

It moves briskly from the sepia-tinged era of the 1920s to the days of disco, where it lands briefly on the groundbreaking work of designer Stephen Burrows. It acknowledges landmarks, such as the launch of Essence -- one of the exhibition's sponsors -- and the first black models to appear on the covers of Glamour, Vogue and GQ. It moves on to the 1980s and a visitor can see examples of work from designers including Willi Smith and Jeffrey Banks. But it does not tackle the more controversial work of Patrick Kelly, who incorporated pickaninnies and golliwogs into his designs.

All of that history, however, is presented as a mere prelude to the arrival of hip-hop and its celebrity frontmen.

In this exhibit, black style is defined as hip-hop style. It argues that the designers who preceded its arrival prepared the way for its birth. Those who came after it -- or who do not work in that aesthetic -- are rebelling against it. Without hip-hop, there would presumably be no way to define black style. The "authentic" black experience is inextricably linked to hip-hop.

This argument is akin to suggesting that the "youthquake" of the 1960s is emblematic of "white style." Could love beads, miniskirts and go-go boots accurately explain the range of "white" fashion -- from the New Look to grunge?

The exhibition suggests that black style and hip-hop style are essentially the same. It perpetuates the prevailing sense that an insult to hip-hop and its adherents -- as in Jay-Z's dispute with the producers of Cristal champagne -- is an insult to blacks in general.

The exhibition does not give time to non-black designers Tommy Hilfiger or Marc Ecko, both of whom have been influential in creating and popularizing the hip-hop aesthetic. It was Hilfiger, after all, who in 1996 put Coolio, Naughty by Nature's Treach, Method Man and Sean "Diddy" Combs on his runways. That was way back when Combs was still Puffy and before he had become a fashion mogul in his own right.

The curators argue that black style is not simply a garment but the way it is worn. And this is certainly accurate in the case of brands like Kangol and Adidas. The clothes remain essentially unchanged from the original design. Instead, it's the attitude, the swagger, the creative combinations that link it to black men.

Gone missing from the exhibition is emphasis on the critical concerns raised by the wearing of ostentatious diamonds, expensive sneakers and styles inspired by prison inmates. Those areas are only briefly discussed, and while Adams hopes that they will be dealt with more fully in public programs associated with the exhibition, one leaves the museum galleries with the sense that there is no controversy, that there is no debate over whether style and swagger have surpassed education and personal responsibility in importance.

At the entrance to the exhibition, there is a gallery lined with black-and-white portraits of icons including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sidney Poitier, Satchel Paige, Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson. It's impossible not to notice the way they wear their clothes. Back in their day, attire -- the tailored suits, the crisp pocket squares, the church hats -- was equated with dignity. In the hip-hop era, the overriding message of clothing is bravado. The exhibition doesn't look below the surface of all the ghetto-fabulous bling on display to examine the question of how that transition occurred and why.

"Black Style Now" tells a story about the evolution of a black aesthetic. Hip-hop is the central element in that tale. The main characters are celebrities -- Diddy, Beyonce, Kanye West, Jay-Z and a host of other entertainers. They are the ones imbued with the power and the creative influence. Tracy Reese is included in the exhibition because she is a black woman. But she is not a practitioner of hip-hop design. And so in this tale, she is merely -- and unfortunately -- a footnote.


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