22 February 2019

God Is Black (Part 1) - Umit Benan SS19

"God Is Black Part 1"
Spring/Summer 2019

This look = 10/10

I love designers who are story tellers, because in a way I think it is one of the purest aims of fashion - simply sharing a story. Umit Benan is one of those designers who shows each and every season his incredible ability to share stories, creating colourful fictions to immerse yourself in. And yet those fictions still manage to translate into wearable pieces that you can comfortably incorporate into your wardrobe. The starting point for his Spring/Summer 2019 collection, God Is Black Part One (Part Two debuted earlier this month in Barcelona), were takkes (otherwise known as topis or kufis) hand-knitted by his mother, that took him back to living in the Bronx as a young child. He said he remembered seeing African-American Muslims leaving the mosque, and thinking how stylish they were. And so for this collection he explored the ideas of religion and racial identity, looking towards an array of African-Americans including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most obviously from the styling of the collection, Tupac Shakur.

If you are wondering why you may have not seen much of Umit before this collection, it is because he actually took time away from designing. During this hiatus he underwent therapy and says that process allowed him to reconnect with his Muslim identity and belief in God, a journey which led him towards creating this collection. The result is a collection that resonates with me on a personal level and that reminded me of just how meaningful Umit's work is for me. There are multiple threads in this collection that hit home for me, and a lot of it is admittedly not even intentional on his part. Instead, as with most forms of art, it is what I connect to within the collection, and how I interpret those ideas. And that is one of the reasons I am always so impressed with Umit's work, in that he creates these highly stylized fictions each season, which you think would constrain your interpretation, but for me there is always something there that I see which gets me hooked and then flowers in my mind.

I am fascinated by this collection primarily because of the very simple question - what does a Muslim look like? As regular readers will know, I do not discuss religion here, mostly because I subscribe to the Ron Swanson belief that I am a practising none of your ****** business. However, I am a Muslim, and what with my name I am sure that some can work out which sect. Given the dominant narrative surrounding Islam in the media today, I think the idea of dress and identity where being Muslim "in the West" is concerned is a truly intriguing topic. The most often spoken about article of dress when Islam is mentioned is the "hijab", although in fact people are usually discussing the niqab, which is the face covering worn by a small minority of women. Hijab is actually an umbrella term, referring not only to dress codes, but also behaviour, which applies to both men and women. However in colloquial discussion hijab usually refers to the simple headscarf for women that covers their hair. People seem to throw the term burka around a lot, but that is actually a full on long loose robe worn by women, whereas the niqab is the aforementioned face covering.

Umit took for his inspiration the idea of the Black Muslim, but this collection is clearly not a take on the stereotypical attire one might associate with a member of the Nation, which I assume most Americans would think of when given the combination of Black and Muslim. Rather it fits nicely into a wider discussion of Muslim representation as a whole, and what it means to be a Muslim today. An interesting aside at this point is that the Hispanic community is actually the fastest growing group of Muslim converts in America today. As much as the media like to portray a singular conservative image of Islam, Islamic history is actually one of a cultural melting pot, where one can find a wealth of diversity when it comes to architecture, artistic styles and indeed dress history. Here we see everything from a hoodie and bandana, to more formal tailoring, but all tied in together seamlessly. Remove the topis, and you would likely not necessarily even think the word Muslim, which I think is the power of this collection. What does a Muslim look like? Well, like everybody else. But even so, Umit's mix of sportswear alongside kaftans seemed wholly organic for me.

You see, I have my own childhood memories of topis, having attended Saturday school until my late teens. Even now I am fascinated by what people wear to the mosque, and how this has changed over the years - the most notable difference is actually just in the shift from working class to middle class, and the pecuniary freedom that comes with it. Whereas people used to wear discount high street brands, you now see far more higher end store brands and even a number of designer pieces. And where more traditional clothing is concerned, you used to see shalwar kameez that were ill-fitting and imported on the cheap, but now you are much more likely to see tailored pieces bought while travelling "back home". My local mosque was home to first and second generation immigrants as I was growing up, although now it has a far more diverse attendance. For those of us whose parents had come to London from abroad before we were born (primarily South Asia and East Africa in my local community), we grew up with a stark clash of cultures, and you would see numerous attempts to resolve that nebulous sense of identity through clothing.

Culture and religion are two very different things, and yet the overlap in this instance is difficult to divide neatly. Dress was the site for negotiating identity and exploring what it meant to be British, while also being South Asian (or East African, or Iraqi, or Syrian, etc.) and Muslim. It was, and still is, common to see a dishdasha worn with the latest Air Max sneakers, or a shalwar kameez with the pyjama swapped out for sweatpants and some Air Force Ones. My mother actually came to the UK as a child and went to school here, and she remembers wearing flared jeans with kurtas as a teenager. Combining styles and combining garments was a way of fitting into and attempting to resolve two parts of our identities, that to the outside world may have seemed entirely incompatible. But that is the beauty of dress, in that you are able to create something that reflects who you feel you are, and thus allowing you to celebrate the beauty in that. I have always thought of it as getting the best of both worlds.

Then again, I have been asked on a number of occasions when simply wearing a Yohji blazer and trousers with the hems rolled whether I was dressed that way "for religious reasons" (the answer is yes, you should accept our Lord and Saviour Yohji Yamamoto into your life, and I am happy to take cash or PayPal donations directly for the Church). I am a brown man with a beard, and here in the UK that generally seems to mean Muslim for most observers. I remember being stopped and searched by police on a number of occasions at the train station when I started university. I was always told that it was a "random" search. They would take me into a side room where, lo and behold, the only other people being searched were also brown men with beards. No matter that one person could be in a suit, another in sweats, and someone else in their work uniform. And obviously it goes without saying that not everyone there was even Muslim. But once I remember catching someone's eye as we were both being searched, and we gave each other a sad smile and a nod.

Even as a teenager being brown was enough to get Islamaphobic abuse hurtled your way. I remember shortly after the Iraq war began being pelted with hamburgers and a milkshake while in a shopping center. I was repeatedly called a "dirty Muslim" and told to go home (in actuality they had Northern accents, I have a London accent, and so clearly they were the ones who could do with going home). But no matter what happens, how I might be negatively judged for my skin colour and appearance (to say nothing of my religion), I am proud of who I am. I see the meeting and mixing of these different backgrounds and identities as an opportunity to find the best in each world and use that to celebrate what makes each and every one of us individual.

And so, while I obviously cannot relate to the Black identity or experience presented in this collection, the pride and celebration of racial identity in itself is something that most certainly resonated with me. Umit celebrated race and religion, I mean just look at the title of the collection, in a way that really hit home for me. I enjoyed how luxurious the clothes were, what with a workwear jacket made of velvet, or crisp white pyjamas presented alongside white tailoring, and the fact that there was such an effortless elegance and beauty to the garments. The hand-knitted topis really were the icing on the cake, and made me instantly smile. Here being Muslim and being Black are truly things to be celebrated, and I really do think we need more of that these days.


31 January 2019

January Pick Ups

Arket - Thermore Padded Nylon Blouson
(Size 46 - 184cm - 68kg)

The sleeve pocket is unfortunately a touch too narrow for my usual notebook.

Fred Perry - Twin Tipped Polo

Hoka One One - Hupana Slip
(second image not very colour accurate)

I have been the process of clearing my wardrobe out, but I still managed to pick a few things up in the end of the year sales. I thought it might be interesting to write about my impressions of, and experiences with, each piece thus far.

Arket Padded Blouson

I wanted to pick up a lightly padded jacket for the in-between seasons, because I sold my previous jacket. I actually had my eye on this jacket for around a year, because it had been, and apparently still is, languishing in the Arket sale section for several months. Now when a garment has been in multiple seasonal sales and is still not sold out, I do get curious as to whether it is actually just hot garbage. But I thought that it was worth trying out, because I could simply return it without any issue if it was indeed basura. And I am most certainly glad that I did, because I really like this jacket.

The reason that I had not pulled the trigger on it sooner, was because of the colour - I kept going back and forth between thinking it was a beautiful colour, but then thinking that it was too much colour for me to wear. Once again, it was that "insecurity black" way of thinking, and so I knew that I had to try it. The matte nylon plays with the light quite nicely, giving this piece an almost metallic sheen. In fact it almost reminds me of a 3M reflective material, without actually being properly reflective. And it might just be me, but I get a bit of a Haider Ackermann vibe from the colour, if not the garment itself. What I will be interested to see is how the colour changes when the jacket gets a little wet, because I can imagine the fabric getting darker as rain hits it, giving the colour an even greater depth.

I like the way that the material sounds in movement, because while there is a lot of rustling as you would expect from nylon, it is quite smooth rather than overly obtrusive. The Thermore lining makes it nice for cooler days, although with the weather here in London right now being so cold, I am waiting for milder weather before I break this out properly. The padding is lightweight and thin, as you would expect from Thermore, and given past experience with the material, I know how insulating it can be. I was pleasantly surprised with the fit, simply because I have tried on quite a few Arket pieces and found the cuts inconsistent. I went true to size with a 46 (Small), and was happy with the fit - it feels snug, but you could still rock a hoodie or slightly thicker jumper underneath without too much issue. The sleeves and waist have two button adjustment, so you can get a tighter cuff and waist accordingly, which is always nice.

I thought the notebook and pen pocket on the sleeve was an interesting touch, especially against a folded collar, rather than the elastic ribbing of a flight jacket where you would usually see this detail. I do actually carry a pen and notebook in my jacket or coat at all times, and while the sleeve pocket is a touch too narrow for my everyday pocket notebook (a Rhodia mini 75mm x 120 mm), I was not really expecting it to fit anyway. There are two internal pockets, along with the two waist pockets, so storage is not an issue. Overall I think it is a really nice piece, especially at the sale price.

Fred Perry Long Sleeve Polo Shirt

I have had a long sleeve polo shirt on my shopping list for about three years now, but kept putting it off after trying out some generic store versions and being disappointed with the fit and quality. I do not wear short sleeve polo shirts, because they remind me too much of a PE teacher, which is not really my style (then again fleece reminds of Geography teachers, and I wear that, so I am not against all teacher-inspired swag). The right polo shirt really can be a truly versatile piece, and given the smaller size of my wardrobe, I do prefer pieces that can pull double duty. What surprised me is that my father saw me wearing this and remarked on how smart it looked. He never usually compliments my clothing, so clearly this has dad certification too, which is not to be sniffed at.

Once again the price on this piece was really good, and so I thought that I might as well pull the trigger and see. I went true to size because I wanted to get a proper idea of the cut and fit of Fred Perry, not having really bought much from them before. I usually struggle with sleeve lengths, because I am narrow but tall, however these fit spot on. I like the cuffs because they hold their elasticity, allowing them to be pulled up and down frequently throughout the day without them bagging out. Personally I wish they had a split side seam, just for a bit of room around the waist when pulling it over a belt (I wear my trousers pretty high up), but the fit is fine overall. I like the pique fabric, which has a surprisingly smooth and soft feel on the interior side that touches the skin, and the collar has a nice shape to it. I went for the all black, because I do not particularly like obvious logos, and thus far the colour has held up well with two washes.

Hoke One One Hupana Slip Trainer

A Crohn's flare means inflammation, and for me that means grating knee pain on top of everything else. I have been on the hunt for some comfortably cushioned shoes that I can wear on bad knee days for a while now, and finally settled on these from Hoka One One (apparently pronounced "Oh-nay oh-nay") that I picked up for a good sale price. Hoka are known for their more extremely cushioned running shoes, to the point that some of them look like platform shoes to me, but these slip ons are relatively sleek and super lightweight. The midsole is made from a foam and rubber material by Hoka called RMAT, which provides a smooth ride with high-rebound. I have been wearing these for around three weeks now, for everyday walking rather than running (although hopefully within in a few months I can run!), and have to say that they have been an absolute delight on my feet and knees.

I find the soles cushioned and responsive, with none of the mushiness I experienced in the other cushioned shoes that I tried. I appreciate the fact that the cushioning is also not so much that I lose ground feel entirely, which actually helps me feel a little more stable on my feet. They have a good bounce to them, and feel great even after long walks and a full day on your feet. They provide a neutral ride, with a heel-to-toe drop of 5mm - apparently other people have had issue with it being far more than that, but I would say there is a noticeable difference to other shoes I tried with an advertised 10mm drop. I most certainly prefer this sole to the React cushioning by Nike (I tried the Epic Reacts and was not sold) for everyday wear, just because it does not feel as unsteady to me. I have found the wearing shoes that do not provide sufficient stability actually help to gradually increase my anxiety over the course of the day. Please do bear in mind that I am using these for walking thus far, and not running, so obviously your mileage will vary.

I went true to size with these (UK 10/US 11). The fit of the shoe is narrow, but given how narrow my feet are, I actually find them one of the better fitting shoes I actually own, which I was not expecting from a slip on. I would say people with a wider midfoot might not be too comfortable. But otherwise there is a decent amount of room in the toes, and generally slipping my feet in and out of these is easy, especially with the pull tabs. I was also surprised by how well locked down my heel felt, and have not experienced any slipping or rubbing when walking. The stretchy upper is breathable without making my feet feel particularly cold in the current Winter weather, and I assume once I switch from thicker socks to thinner socks that these will be equally comfortable as the weather warms up. Thus far these shoes have done nothing but impress me, and my knees are certainly thankful.


17 January 2019

Bliss On HBA

Hood By Air
Spring/Summer 2014 (Look 36)

Bliss has me wanting to deep dive into Shayne Oliver's work.

I absolutely love this Swiss Army knife of a garment - it seems to do everything at once in a way that is not taking itself too seriously. It really is a fun piece, so please do be sure to watch the videos above. I will admit that I have never paid all too much attention to Hood By Air, because my overriding image of it was the printed slogan tops that used to be the fuccboi uniform de rigueur (perhaps we can get into a few theories about what it is nowadays in a future post?). But seeing this garment made me appreciate just what work Oliver was actually doing, away from the Instagram- and streetstyle-friendly pieces. I always love going back and being able to explore a designer's work, and because Hood By Air is now essentially defunct, there is a neat body of work to be studied. This is exactly the type of content I want to consume more of this year. Check out the full channel here!


7 January 2019

New Year, New Wardrobe

Well, at the very least, a better wardrobe.

2018 was a difficult year for me, what with health issues and immense pain to contend with, and the year ending like I had the rug snatched out from under me. However, the magic of falling so far down that even rock bottom looks like an improvement, is that the only way is up (lateral movement notwithstanding, but I see that more like an attempt to find the right foot holes to head up). New Year's is a period of reflection for most of us, and indeed I used those few days to focus in on what work I want to do in order to tackle the goals that I have set myself for this year. In order to do the job correctly, you have to use the right tools, and for me, as ever, part of that is contained in how I dress myself and how I present myself. Our clothed self is our social skin, but it is also how we tend to perceive of our selves, and I could most certainly see the toll that a major depressive slump had taken on my wardrobe and general appearance. I do find it interesting to see how I can track the general state of my well-being according to the state of my wardrobe at the time, whether it be through compensating with super colourful clothes, or hiding away with oversize black sweats.

Several months ago my therapist asked me at the end of a session whether I was wearing "insecurity" black or "fashion" black. It was meant to be a throwaway comment as I was leaving. I remember replying instantly that they were the same thing, but it was a question that burned in my mind for weeks. I came to realise relatively recently that I was indeed draping myself in insecurity black, in depression black, in hide-away-from-the-world black, but when had I made that transition? Why had I not noticed until long after someone had pointed it out to me? My knee jerk reaction at the time was to look into colour, and so I bought a pink shirt a short while later as a way of experimenting. But as soon as I put it on, I knew that something was not quite right. I had bought a piece not because I liked the piece, but purely for the colour, which is to say, I wore it all of twice and resigned it to the back of my wardrobe. Having said that, I did enjoy seeing the millennial pink trend recently, because dusty pinks actually really suit my skin colour, and used to be my favourite colour to wear in my Crayola days (even though at the time I was using acid bright colours to distract people from seeing me - I thought if I could make them just see the clothes, they would never see the person beneath).

As you might expect, the worse my mental health got, the worse my wardrobe and general appearance seemed to get. Hardly surprising, but even so, it was a gradual change for me, and so I did not notice as it was happening. I have actually taken a photograph of myself daily for the past few years, and so it was only recently when I was going through the images for the past year that I could see so clearly that decline. At some point, I just stopped caring. And yet, I actually spent the past year getting back in touch with all the things that made me fall in love with fashion in the first place. It is something that I will hopefully cover in an upcoming podcast episode, but I think that this year I want to start acting on it. Here is this field that drives me, that fascinates me, and, when I talk about it, makes me feel more like me than anything else, and yet my daily reality was not reflective of that. But now I want to get back into the fold, organically, slowly, but in doing so I know that I can come to reflect the journey and growth that I am undergoing as a person. Lofty words for something so simple as the clothes on my back, but all the same, those clothes are how I choose to present myself to the world.

'Fashion' black is still what excites me, and so I do not think that I will be exploring colour to any great extent at anytime soon. But I now know that there is a world of difference between 'insecurity' black and 'fashion' black. Not in the colour, but in the use of that colour. And so to kickstart a positive reframing of that relationship once again, I decided to do what a lot of people seem to be doing right now, apparently because of Marie Kondo on Netflix, which is clear out my wardrobe. I have not actually read or seen any of Marie Kondo, but my sister got the book last year, cleared out her stuff, then regretted it a few months later. I can most certainly sympathise, but for me, clearing out my wardrobe and possessions is something that I try to do relatively frequently, and I am more than comfortable with letting go of my things. In fact for the longest time I have been toying with the idea of getting into the habit of giving my favourite piece of clothing to charity every year or so, just to see how that might change my relationship with my own personal clothing. If anyone has seen the Marie Kondo show and recommends it, please do let me know.

I think that I essentially did the equivalent of gorging myself on fast food. Not that I bought a ton of fast fashion, but rather I bought quite a number of cheaper items that I would never have otherwise bought and worn, simply because for a long while I just did not care anymore. I lost that confidence in myself, and so I thought that I was not worth nicer clothing. Again, one of those gradual declines, rather than an overnight decision, and so it crept up on me. But that is essentially what I plan on working on in order to correct this year. Obviously the issue is greater than clothing, but it is for me a good way to frame that experience. A clear outward manifestation of internal struggles I suppose. Indeed I think it is fascinating to observe the way that psychological trauma manifests itself in the body physically, and I would argue that this is carried across to how we choose to dress and adorn ourselves, especially as the majority of us do not spend our days in the nude (more power to you if you do though). I actually talk to my therapist about this from time to time, and he tells me that he is so well versed in how a person struggling with depression or anxiety carries themselves, that you can often tell when walking past people, not just in their posture, but even in the way that they are dressed. When pressed he was unable to give specifics, but he simply knew that there was something 'off' about the clothing, whether they were trying to hide themselves or distract from themselves, both of which I have experienced personally.

I feel lighter whenever I clear out my wardrobe - here is an opportunity for a fresh start, to become the person I know that I am. I am reminded of the mantra - "fail fast and fail often", because that is the best way to learn and grow, and I very much see the evidence of that in how my wardrobe has changed over the years. I have not been as dramatic as I once was, when several years ago I reduced my wardrobe down to two outfits, one that I could wear while the other was in the wash, but I did not need to this time around. I have a better understanding of my relationship with my clothing, even though this time around it took me a while to see what was right in front of me. And so I have cleared out the things that were not quite right, that were filling the gap, that allowed me to hide, that were me resisting (to quote Jung, "what we resist not only persists, but grows in size"). It seems simultaneously like a grand move and an utterly meaningless one to gut out my wardrobe, but I like that reminder from time to time. I want a wardrobe that I love and makes me feel comfortable as I am, not one that serves to deflect from what I wish I was not.

TL;DR - I donated a ton of clothes, and am working on getting back to having a fire wardrobe this year, because I am worth so much more than baggy black sweats. Learning to respect myself again.