The air is thick with smoke at DepArtment, a club located at the end of an alley off of Auguststrasse is Berlin's Mitte district. Vans is hosting an event to kick off the launch of their Spring OTW collection, a mix of dressy silhouettes and new spins on old classics.
Speaking of which, Yassiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def, is putting an old spin on a new classic. Wearing a tucked-in shirt, a tie with tiny hearts embroidered in a contrasting stripe pattern, and slim trousers with no break, he is performing his sound check to his own rendition of "Ni**as In Paris," a decidedly less luxurious track called "N**gas In Poorest." As the breakdown comes, the rapper queues the hypothetical audience "Who the fuck is Margiela?"
Ironically, those who have followed his style know all too well he is quite aware of the Belgian designer and the fashion house that bears his name. Complex talked to the rapper backstage about fashion, brands, role models, and what designers and rappers can learn from each other.
Here's A Conversation On Style With Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def.
Interview by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)
You look great. I really gotta compliment you on those pants. Who makes them?
These are my wool 120s pants from New Orleans that I got on Tchoupitoulas Street.
Are they bespoke?
This is off the rack in New Orleans actually. My man is a tailor and has Italian fabrics and suits on Tchoupitoulas. I’ve got a lot of good shirts from him, I just did the alterations on the pants.
On a recent Jimmy Fallon appearance you were rocking an ISAIA blazer. What kind of brands are you feeling right now?
They’re on the Lower East Side right?
Fashion has always been an integral part of the arts, but it’s also an integral part of everyday life.
Yeah, we’re partnered up actually, so I’m doing marketing for the brand. A lot of my ties, hats, a lot of my suits, and denim are from Ale et Ange.
The leopard print hat too?
Yeah, that’s Ale et Ange.
That’s dope. Do you feel a connection to New York-based brands because of your roots, or is it just because a lot of them happen to be putting out stuff you’re really into?
Well, really people just doing things that I like. I’ve been a longtime Paul Smith fan. He’s a New York staple. I’ve had great suits and hats from him. Marc Jacobs — early Marc Jacobs, like late ‘90s-early 2000s — that was stuff I had on in the “Oh No” video. Nom de Guerre is another great brand I frequent a lot, and of course stuff from Union.
You know, there’s always been a culture and craft around New York, so you can always find well-known designers and also just local designers — people with a storefront that are doing good work and have good cuts and fabric, and even handmade clothes.
In the context of hip-hop, we’ve seen rappers like Pusha T make the jump from streetwear brands to rocking fresh-off-the-runway pieces. What kinds of things do you think led to this intersection of high-fashion and hip-hop?
It’s creatives connecting with other creatives, appreciating form or beauty, or imagination or technical application. I think it’s just an appreciation of craft.
I mean, fashion has always been an integral part of the arts, but it’s also an integral part of everyday life. Besides providing a real function: keeping you warm, and keeping you (laughs) legally clothed out here, it’s also expression of personality, and also art, and beauty, and form. So, I think it’s just a natural relationship.
Beyond any one idiom, you know? You find Picasso was a phenomenally stylish artist; you look at pictures of him from the 1920s…
Where he's wearing the Breton-stripe shirts?
Yeah, amazing. So I think it’s just a timeless thing, and hip-hop has clearly very much influenced the world of style and application of style. Everybody from Slick Rick to Chuck D, there’s been some real icons for us.
Are there any designers that influence you as an artist?
Paul Smith is a big inspiration in terms of fashion. In terms of architecture, I like Zaha Hadid very much. But fashion designers in particular? Definitely Paul Smith. Ale et Ange completely has my imagination right now. I’m really a huge fan — clearly, I’m in so much of it.
But it depends on the era — in the late ‘90s/early 2000s I was rocking ‘Lo Gooses, Timberlands, and cargo pants and then started rocking Marc Jacobs leathers and his variations on sneaker culture in New York.
Like the Vans collaboration?
Even before that! When he had the brown leather sneakers with the white laces, and thick white bottoms. There’s a lot of inspiration out there. I’m inspired lately by Martin Greenfield’s tailoring game.
For me, Slick Rick is the archetype. Period. He’s my favorite MC.
Yeah! His stuff is so on point! Having been around musicians and fashion designers for so long, do you think there are ways that they can inspire each other?
I mean, for artists in different mediums, the key is always inspiration. I couldn’t say any specific ways, per se, because everyone’s process is so different and what inspires people is so varied, but yeah, just an appreciation of form, beauty, and application — as well as character and personality. For instance: Paul Smith with his stripes, or someone who can create a staple. I’m inspired by people who can say something over and over again but say something new every time.
We've talked a lot about European brands, especially ones with a strong focus on tailoring. Do you think this is something we'll start to see more of in the hip-hop world?
It’s understandable. I mean; I’m certainly not the first. Kanye has been out here in all types of custom tailored gear, kilts, all that. It’s really not unusual, it’s actually quite commonplace. There’s shots of Cam’ron in houndstooth check double-breasteds with the shirt out. There’s a still of him in an editorial he did in suits, so it’s not unusual.
For me, Slick Rick is the archetype. Period. He’s my favorite MC; he’s the MC that had the earliest influence on me. Not even the fur and the multiple rings, but his style was just — man, just so clean, and it also has roots in early hip-hop culture — where you see the suede fronts, the Bally boots, the Clarks, the sharkskin pants, the Kangols, the Jamel Shabazz era you know?
And even before that, you had groups in Africa like Les Sapeurs dressing head-to-toe in European brands. Is your style influenced by that subculture?
Les Sapeurs! Yeah, I have a book about them. They’re a very interesting group. And there’s another group in South Africa, photographed by Nontsikelelo Veleko. This amazing design collective —these young people in South Africa who just… they don’t have money, and they got so much style and swag. They’re incredible. That collective is really, really amazing. To quote Paul Smith: “you can find inspiration in everything.”
Hip-hop fashion has evolved a lot from where kids rocked their sneakers laceless and ironed-on the letters of their crew’s name on Screen Stars T-shirts to people like Kid Cudi designing jackets for Surface To Air and Riccardo Tisci providing creative direction for Watch The Throne. Is the hip-hop and high-fashion crossover a status thing, or a further validation of hip-hop as an art form?
Malcolm X is one of the most, if not the most stylish man of the 20th Century.
For me it’s less of an expression of social status, and again, more an expression of taste, style, beauty, and balance, you know, and drawing relationships. Some people are great at putting patterns and colors together — it’s artistry.
When people see it applied well, it has a positive impact. It makes the active participant — the person wearing the garment — feel well, and brings aesthetic pleasure to the person viewing the garment, and it provides a practical function.
It’s not unusual, Harry Belafonte, Malcolm X — El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz — is one of the most, if not the most stylish man of the 20th Century, and that’s the era when John F. Kennedy was running around! So I mean, [style has] been there: Martin Luther King, Paul Robeson, it’s not unusual — everybody from Poitier to Puff.
Building on that, what’s your take on this new generation of kids in areas like The Bronx and Harlem veering away from a streetwear aesthetic and gravitating towards a more tailored look?
Those types of classics and staples are not going anywhere. They’ve been around for the last hundred years, pretty much not very modified at all. Just different fabrics, cuts, and that’s really it, it’s just variations on a theme.
Both of them are always gonna be around anyway — what people consider sportswear, streetwear, they’ll be around. There’s room for all of it. What I see happening, and am encouraging, is those worlds merging together in a retail or online sense: a place where you can get tailored, disciplined clothing, and tailored clothing that’s not formal — in a menswear sense, at least.
Are there any spots you think are doing that well?
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of stores that I go to. I’ve always shopped at pretty much the same places, like Union. Of course, while traveling you pick up things, but I can’t pick out any new shops, but Union’s been there for a long time.
You obviously travel a lot, what are your style essentials on the road?
I just wear what I like, what feels good, what looks good to me.
I think more in terms of function: what’s the temperature gonna be like? Do I have enough undershirts? That type of thing.
I always keep a pair of 501s with me, crisp white shirts, a dark shirt and darker colored suit, right now I’m traveling with my Ale et Ange grays, but I got mostly whites and a basic blue oxford.
How would you define your approach to style?
Man, I just wear what I like, what feels good, what looks good to me, what works and is durable. I’m out here, and you know, I’m using my clothes (laughs). They gotta be able to stand up, portable, and you know, affordable to keep.
I tend not to wanna get shirts that are dry clean only in terms of my whites, which is why I love Ale et Ange so much because I can just cold-water wash my shirts, hang ‘em to dry, steam ‘em, iron ‘em, they’re good to go.
So it’s a lot of different things I’m thinking about when I buy clothes, but I’m also thinking about not having to thinking about it too — just being able to go boom, boom, boom, (claps), I’m ready to go!
Right, like the ideal men’s wardrobe is the one where you could just take out any five pieces and they go together…
Yeah, right. You know what I’m sayin’. And I keep my loafers with me, in the winter it’s my zip boots. And I keep some Vans with me, I also have some Chucks with Gucci laces.
Any particular Vans that are your go-to?
I got some Syndicate joints, but I like the classic slip-on the most — the black with the black bottoms. The Pritchards from Vans OTW are good too, I like those a lot.
Lastly, a lot of guys aspire to your style, but don't necessarily have the same means. What advice would you have for a dude who wants to step up his game in an affordable way?
The basic thing is to just pick a uniform, and just go with it.
The best advice, or the best applications that I’ve seen has been from my man, one of the partners from Armstrong & Wilson. They make pocket squares; I rock almost all of their pocket squares. Him and his partner won Esquire’s “Best Dressed Real Man” in like 2008 and 2009, young brothers from Philly. Anyway, he said he would go to vintage stores, get a $200-$300 suit, and have it fit for him. He said he did that for years.
The basic thing is to just pick a uniform, and just go with it. I think men and women should have a uniform: something that’s a staple that they go to, but men in particular. Especially if you’re out here living and working and got things to do, you don’t wanna waste a whole lot of time. You wanna be presentable, but you also want it to be affordable too. You don’t have to break yourself — and you don’t, you don’t at all. There’s ways to do it, but it really just comes down to picking a uniform.
I would say, as a good starter, is to get a good pair of 501s, some good white long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts, the right tie, and maybe 2 or 3 blazers: a navy, a black, a gray, and you good. Even if it’s just a navy and a black, just to start. Also a dark tie, a navy tie, maybe a green, or even a yellow for the spring or certain formal occasions, and a great pair of shoes. You gotta have a great pair of shoes: the right boots for cold weather. Everybody’s not a loafer person, but I love loafers because they’re reliable and dependable. You need a good pair of oxfords, and the right pair of kicks — whether they’re Js, Chucks, or whatever, and a good denim jacket. I was lucky enough to get the Visvim denim jacket. Oh, and good chinos: navy, khaki, and you’re good to go. You can rock.