The Lure of the Shiny Suit and the Pursuit of Cool

As with so many other men, the quest for personal style charts a long and twisting path through my life

Isaach De Bankolé at the 66th San Sebastian International Film Festival in 2018. Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

I’ve watched the movie Limits of Control maybe 15 times since it premiered in 2009. In Jim Jarmusch’s zen-meets-travelogue-meets-hit-man feature, Isaach De Bankolé strolls through Spain in sharply tailored earth-tone suits and shirts that mirror the dusty elegance of Madrid and Seville. In Jarmusch’s own words, the film is “an action movie with no action.” De Bankolé spends the movie’s 116 minutes listening to a crew of international stars (and one naked temptress) spew stories and philosophy over cups of espresso.

As its 42% rating on Rotten Tomato suggests, Limits of Control is not a film for most folks. Which made me wonder why I’ve returned to it so often.

For sure, much of its appeal for me is tied to De Bankolé’s wardrobe of iridescent suits. Shimmering raw silk clothing designed by Dolce & Gabbana, Tom Ford, and other designers reflect off De Bankolé’s frame like medieval suits of armor. Back in the ’60s, similar-looking suits were labeled “shark skin,” and I convinced my mother to buy me a couple when I was in elementary school and junior high. They were as close as I could get to the soulful strut of singing stars like the Temptations and Otis Redding.

On a daily basis I’m far from a clothes horse, but I’ve always been partial to a bit of flash at public events. As a kid I picked up on the value of occasionally wearing clothes that stood out, things I’d seen from soul men and my mother’s cooler male friends. I was never comfortable wearing anything I considered over the top, but there’s a bit of the peacock in me.

Writing movie reviews for the Amsterdam News as a college student, I became enthralled with Paul Schrader’s 1980 film American Gigolo, which starred Richard Gere as the Armani-garbed Julian Kaye. The film’s noirish plot documents how Kaye’s arrogance makes him an easy pawn for a murderous gay pimp (played with sleazy charm by Bill Duke). For a film about a gigolo, though, the film’s eroticism is decidedly chilly — except for a sequence where Schrader deftly marries Motown and Armani. As Kaye carefully matches the shirts and ties smoothly on his bed, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Love I Saw in You Was Just A Mirage” plays. Soft, sensual fabrics tinted olive, gray, pale blue, and hazel fill the screen as Robinson’s velvet falsetto sings of the difference between real love and the trappings of affection.

For me, like most young men, clothes were intimately connected to the quest for “cool,” and cool was a supreme goal. Cool was a performance of restraint and control, a supple blend of attitude and action that, at its height, requires well-tailored uniforms to showcase the casual grace and steely concentration of this masculine illusion.

In press photos from that era I appear determined to look more like an R&B singer than an R&B historian. The medley of fabrics I wore on a daily basis — silk, leather, gabardine, and, sadly, a bit of polyester — were testament to an identity in flux.

For the first half of American Gigolo, Kaye embodies cool as he cruises down the Pacific Coast Highway in a sports car to the strains of Blondie’s “Call Me.” Key to Kaye’s character arc is that he’d shed the more utilitarian tight jeans and tank tops of the gay street hustler. His upscale wardrobe, along with his mastery of foreign languages and antiques, are shields against his past. By the third act, when Kaye gets dragged back down by the plot into clubs and streets he once escaped, the illusion created by his Armani suits are gone. By the film’s climax, Kaye’s desperately fighting for his life while dressed like a mechanic.

When I first reviewed American Gigolo, I was a nerdy bookworm with literary ambitions. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but in the ’70s New York of my youth, that persona gave me no street cred with the brothers or sexual sizzle with young women who read Maya Angelou. But when I saw American Gigolo’s blend of Black music emoting and Italian menswear craft, I figured that one day I too could concoct cool out of seemingly mismatched aesthetics.

By my late twenties, when I was a professional journalist and published author, I hid insecurities about my appearance in affordable fly gear. A mid-’80s trip to London, plus a very favorable exchange rate, allowed me to purchase three suits (one gray silk blend) with matching shirts that could be worn with the then-fashionable button-down-and-no-tie look. Though I was building my rep as a chronicler of African American music, my ’80s clothing choices were heavily inspired by the gear worn by punk and new wave English rockers, particularly the Clash and Joe Jackson, part of the legion of well-dressed English musicians with very bad teeth.

Leather became my next fixation. By then I was living in the Black bohemian neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I made the acquaintance of two designers who specialized in leather goods. They made me two pairs of leather pants (one black, one brown) and a female friend gifted me a black leather fedora, since I’d taken a liking to brown felt Borsalino hats. In press photos from that era I appear determined to look more like an R&B singer than an R&B historian. I was aware of Tom Wolfe’s patrician white shirts and Gay Talese’s old-world elegance, but most of the writers I encountered while contributing to the Village Voice and Billboard favored band T-shirts and unfortunate haircuts. The medley of fabrics I wore on a daily basis — silk, leather, gabardine, and, sadly, a bit of polyester — were testament to an identity in flux.

The interior of one of the author’s suits

However, the better I came to know myself the less important my quest for cool became to me. Testament to that evolution are the author photos on two of my best nonfiction books. The hardcover of 1988’s The Death of Rhythm and Blues features me in that black leather fedora, standing in front of a Brooklyn brownstone. On the back of the paperback edition I’m sporting a black porkpie hat and a gray top coat on a London rooftop. Ten years later, on the hardcover and paperback of 1998’s Hip Hop America, I’m in a white short-sleeved shirt with a checkered pattern posed in front of an innocuous white background.

That 10-year difference reflects the fact that I’d turned 40 when Hip Hop America was published, and I’d tired of cool poses. It’s not that I didn’t want to represent myself well, but I by then had much more confidence that my work spoke for itself. More casual. Less cool. But more secure.

By my forties, I understood that cool was an ever-shifting target. Men like Miles Davis, Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, and basketball star Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier represented mid-20th-century cool as a refined combination of sartorial choices, elegant movement, and a limited range of facial expressions. Back then the turtlenecks worn by Roundtree (and his White counterpart Steve McQueen) resonated as subtle nonconformity in a world where the white shirt and tie still defined mainstream acceptance. Of course, ties can be employed as a weapon of cool, but they are literally a rope around your neck — and that subliminal message has never sat well with me.

Where cool once meant being as chill as the tip of an iceberg, hip-hop popularized a loud, in-your-face cool. During the ’90s no one was cooler than Tupac Shakur, a verbose, high-spirited man-child reared on radical politics and Black Panther bravado, who graduated to his own “thug life” brand. Tupac’s cool was fiery, strident, short-tempered, and as propulsive as the music he rhymed over.

Tupac’s iconic look was elemental. A bare belly bearing a “thug life” tattoo which, in his telling, was a way to contextualize the life young Black men embraced for survival. The blue-and-white bandana he often sported was adopted from a teenage Marin City posse he’d run with, but Tupac turned it into a personal statement by turning the knot toward the front, where the bandana ends pointed up like an exclamation point or a middle finger.

Hip-hop was my style turning point. Initially I dove into the baggy jeans and oversized, logo-filled sweaters and jackets, wore tons of African kente pieces (even had a tuxedo tie and belt of the fabric), and indulged in leather-sleeved jackets I had acquired from Def Jam, Uptown, and Flyte Tyme records. There was a time in the ’90s when I wore my oversized black New York Knicks sweats for weeks at a time. I wore Timbs (Timberland boots) too — but black ones, not the cooler beige work boots.

Finally, I liberated myself from slavishly following that definition of Black male fashion and found a combination of shirts, pants, and shoes that felt like me — and who I wanted people to see me as. I had some profound stumbles (I wanna thank my early-2000s girlfriend Vanessa for suffering through my sad period wearing Merrell loafers) before finding a combination of straw and paperboy hats, throwback sneakers (Converses and Pumas), turtlenecks, and zip-up sweaters that made me feel comfortable, coherent, and not like I was still chasing cool.

Despite these developments, I still fall victim to the lure of a shiny suit. Perhaps reinfected with the bug after (over-)watching Limits of Control, I would in the following decade buy not one but two bronze, Swiss-made rayon suits, one with a supple thin pinstripe design. I really didn’t need two suits of a similar color by the same designer. Moreover, the very straight up-and-down cut of the jackets feel a bit old-fashioned in an era of severely clinched waists.

Still, every now and then, I walk into my closet and gaze at them. I rub my hands on the lapels, fondling the sleek brown lining. I slide on one of the jackets, feeling connected to the generations who sought secular satisfaction of the shiny suit. And, inside my head, I hear Smokey sing.

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific) www.pacificpacific.pub.

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