Adams Morgan's Commonwealth Is Fashion-Forward and Music-Conscious

By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 1, 2008

The music is always on, and it's always loud. Never earsplitting but loud enough that the teens and 20-somethings who frequent the place occasionally have to shout as they navigate racks of limesicle-colored denim and T-shirts adorned with fornicating silver skeletons. Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" comes pumping over the stereo, as if trying to drown out the store's more eye-popping garments in some kind of synesthetic coup.

This is a Saturday -- though it could be any day -- at Commonwealth, Washington's premier street-wear retailer, a buzzy boutique on a sleepy block in the armpit of Adams Morgan. Since the store opened on Florida Avenue NW early last year, Commonwealth's selection of kaleidoscopic footwear and exclusive name brands has drawn a broad clientele of skaters, prep-schoolers, DJs, undergrads, sneaker fetishists, even the occasional rap star. At this particular moment, business feels brisk, but soon Nikes will be boxed up, Visas will be swiped, receipts will be signed, fists will be bumped and then . . . nothing. The stereo stays cranked, leaving poor Kanye to rap to an empty sales floor for the next 34 minutes.

Such is the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Commonwealth. Ebb and flow is typical of any retail operation, but this place goes from the hottest of hot spots to a dead zone and then back again. Downtime can feel particularly surreal: The blaring beats and motley togs call out to no one in particular. Yet when Commonwealth -- along with its two neighboring spinoff shops, Stussy and For the Greater Good -- is bustling, the block feels like the city's most exciting cultural hub.

"You can mingle and make friends, and you never know who's gonna fall through," says Darnelle Hines, a computer programmer who spends his evenings and weekends producing music and publishing an indie hip-hop magazine called the Kapital. He finds time to visit Commonwealth about three times a week: to browse, to shop, to chat people up. "We can all talk about music here. It's just a good place to be."

Sometimes it's the place to be. Many of Washington's premier DJs, rappers and go-go musicians shop here, as have other rap celebs: Lupe Fiasco, Bun B, Ja Rule among them. The store has hosted appearances by Q-Tip, DJ A-Trak, Wale and renowned rap duo the Clipse, who are scheduled to visit today to unveil a fashion line and a mix tape. (Get there early; expect a throng.)

This particular afternoon, young professionals and University of Maryland students are riffling through Commonwealth's autumn gear: color-block bubble vests, lumberjack-plaid shirts with embroidered epaulets, hooded sweatshirts patterned to resemble the topography of a waffle. The T-shirts are even splashier, some emblazoned with all-caps mantras that range from cryptic haiku ("NEVER NOT WORKING CLASS HERO") to youthful declarations of purpose ("PARTY WHILE YOU'RE STILL LIVING"). Other designs tweak pop-culture images into punny, visual gags. One T-shirt pastes the word "Malcolm" over an album cover belonging to the '80s punk band X. Another simply reads "Apocalypse Wow!"

High school kids hover around the shoe rack, Commonwealth's main artery and pleasure center. There's an odd, puffy sneaker on display (available in both Nintendo-cartridge gray and safety-cone orange) that looks more like a sleeping bag for your foot than a functional shoe. On the opposite shelf is a series of high-tops that look like cosmonauts' boots made from canvas scraps. And there's an entire spectrum of candy-colored Nikes so vivid, one might start to conflate new-sneaker-smell with something more confectionary. It all feels as if Dorothy woke up at Foot Locker.

Taylor Jones, 16, and his friend Sam Lazerwitz, 17, both of Northwest Washington, visit Commonwealth about once a month, searching for new ways to buck their high school's dress code. "We have to wear a polo and khakis," says Jones of the policy at the Potomac School in McLean. "But we can wear whatever shoes we want. Shoes are a huge thing. I think [Commonwealth] is top of the line."

Wale, the emerging local rapper who's given Commonwealth the nod in a couple of his songs, can relate to that sentiment. "I think for kids in D.C., to look at that row of stores and then be like, 'This is kind of like Fairfax-in-L.A. -- D.C. is coming up' might bring a sense of pride when they see correlations to other cities that are 'on the map,' " the rapper says via his manager.

Wale has made official and unofficial appearances at Commonwealth in the past year, and the store seems to relish giving its customers the opportunity to interact with the artists who normally live only in their iPods. And even when rappers drop in unannounced, most of them seem happy to chop it up with the clientele.

"Whenever Bun B comes in, he always gives everyone a pound," says J. Bynumb, a sales associate at Commonwealth. "Real respectful, real chill cat. One day he came in and said, 'What's up?' to me and this customer I was helping out. My man was like, 'Yo, who's that?' " When Bynumb told him it was the Texas rapper, the guy dashed out to his car to yank the Bun B disc out of his CD player. "It's really cool," Bynumb says. "This guy comes up and says hi to you and you got his album in your car."

It's not just unannounced rappers dropping in. It's also unannounced, overzealous young skateboarders. "We actually had this little 9-year-old here last week just busting kick flips in front of the store asking us for a sponsorship," says Lucas Pierce, an assistant manager at Stussy. "That's the kind of stuff that happens around here."

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