In a sea full of well-tailored but boring black tuxedos, 21-year-old Moonlight star Ashton Sanders has diverted all eyes to him. For the past year, he has owned the red carpet, wearing everything from a Public School camouflage tux at a pre-Golden Globes party to a three-piece Louis Vuitton military suit at the Gotham Independent Awards, and even a Fear of God kilt at the Vanity Fair Oscars After Party. Yes, a kilt.
The actor, whose big break was playing Chiron in the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, has a boundary-pushing style that has quickly made him one to watch. He has a turtleneck game that rivals Steve Job’s, a penchant for ‘60s high-water trousers, and an affinity for the Black male fashion vanguards, naming Pharrell Williams, Tyler The Creator, Jimi Hendrix, and Andre 3000 as his style influences. In a recent Instagram post, in which he was shirtless under a pink fur, Sanders referred to himself as “Ashton 3000.”
But with Sanders, it isn’t just about the clothes he chooses to wear. It’s the way he rocks even the most basic or the most over-the-top pieces effortlessly. His designer garments practically drip off of him, as if they were an extension of his lanky, six-foot frame. “I like to dress the way I like to dress. I kind of like rebelling against the social norms... I feel uncomfortable wearing just, like, regular stuff,” Sanders said in an interview with Vanity Fair.
In Rebecca Walker’s anthology Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, photographer Dawoud Bey writes in his essay “Swagger,” “Swagger can be seen as a way to reclaim and celebrate what was forcefully repressed, even as that deeper swagger—that inner sense of cool and self assurance that is the deeper swagger—was never completely eliminated from our racial DNA.” Through his head-turning style, intentional or not, Sanders is expanding the idea of what a black man is allowed to be and how a black man is allowed to look by just being himself, immersed with “Black swagger” or what we’d call in 2017 “black boy joy.”
Sanders, an L.A. native, was exposed to style as a child. His dad, Rodney, was a menswear fashion designer for his eponymous label until the early 2000s. “The stuff we see now on the runway for high fashion in terms of two-piece suits or what have you—my dad was creating that stuff back then,” he told Vanity Fair. “My pops did that when I was in, like, fifth grade.”
But while it was his dad who introduced Sanders to style, it’s his current stylist, Jessie Jamz, who’s helped him further develop his look. Jamz, a Los Angeles-based 31-year-old, previously worked as a designer for Ed Hardy and a stylist within the advertising industry. Jamz has helped lead Sanders’ style to a ‘60s U.K. mod look with a mix of streetwear, irregularly proportioned silhouettes, and nods to punk culture and the Black Panthers. He’s been known to pair a Calvin Klein tux with his a kilt or Dr. Martens boots with a tuxedo and, he’s also worn gold hoops and fishnet tights. “We decided early that if a designer isn't going to let us be as free, we don't have to work with a label just because it's a label,” Jamz told Fashionista.
In many ways, Sanders’ style, like his idol Andre 3000’s, can be seen as a new-age interpretation of black dandyism, but without the complicated respectability politics. A man who practices dandyism is “unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionably”; a black dandy is seen as someone who is redefining what it means to be masculine and black. In an interview with i-D writer Ekow Eshun, who previously held an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London last year about black dandyism called Made You Look said, “When you place this idea in relation to the black man, you introduce a definite politics to dressing up. It's a politics of social opposition that states that we want to be seen on our terms, but also a politics of gender that deliberately blurs accepted conventional notions of masculinity, taste, and acceptable style. It's about shaking things up, fucking things up.”
Sanders, who dresses for himself and not the comfort of anyone else around him, is surely rebelling.