Johnson, 22, grew up in the Bronx and still lives along the borough’s Grand Concourse in the Melrose section. After graduating high school, he went on to Buffalo State College to become a speech pathologist at the behest of his parents. He went but changed his major to the school’s fashion program. “I lasted a week and was bored out of my mind and left…I don’t really believe in the rules,” he said. “You have a lot of people coming out of the Bronx. They’re passionate about what they’re doing and beyond sticking to the norms. We think outside the box and are acting on it.” He decided to act on his love of fashion.
From his home, Kadeem Johnson operates KJohnLaSoul.com, a fashion and culture blog, featuring his photography and the work of his friends. In February, he was a featured model in GQ magazine. He also holds down three jobs; one as a buyer for a consignment shop and two internships with The Fader, a national music, culture and fashion magazine and DNA Model Management in Manhattan. At Fader, he is the street style blogger, traveling the city to photograph and write about interesting fashions and trends.
Johnson can name a list of close friends and associates, all from the Bronx working just as hard to build a name for themselves in various creative industries, as people like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren did in past generations. One of Johnson’s friends Joshua Kissi, along with his business partner Travis Gumbs operates Street Etiquette.com, a popular urban style blog. It has been ranked the Best Men’s Style Blog by The Guardian UK and named among “40 Bloggers Who Really Count” by the Times of London. It is a success story among the Bronx’s young, Black and fashion-minded. Kissi and Gumbs have been featured in Essence, Complex, GQ and Vogue Italia for their work of bringing street style to the masses.
Last year, the site assembled “creatives” from around New York for the Black Ivy project. Johnson was one of many invited to participate in the multimedia, interactive presentation of the kind of style that is permeating the Bronx today.
“Black Ivy was amazing. It was us highlighting our style but also trying to show guys that you don’t have to sag your pants, that there are more professional and polished ways to express yourself,” said Johnson. “I was at work and this Hispanic guy came up to me like, ‘you were in Black Ivy, right?’ He thought it was a club and wanted to know how to get in.”
“When you grow up in the inner city, you get a very strong understanding of who you are through other peoples' eyes,” said 23-year-old fashion photographer and blogger Cleon Grey. It is that awareness that he says influences his work --some of which has been photographing Johnson, Kissi and Gumbs. “When you’re young,” said Grey, “you know you need to have this or have that to be accepted. To leave the house is a big to-do because you’re representing yourself and your family. I transitioned from trying to look good to wanting to stand out.”
Grey said that the Bronx has also inspired his visual aesthetic. His images reflect its general atmosphere. Sometimes he shoots there, but he says he constantly pulls from the old warehouses, abandoned buildings and closed subway stations, but also the color of the people.
“It’s always been colorful,” he said. “There is this big amalgamation of Caribbean, African, Latino culture so color is there. It’s present in the attire of the people. It shines through and always catches my eye. People there are fearless and wear what they want to wear.”
“The Bronx gets a bad rap, said Sophia Hyacinthe: “I could be at different fashion events and people would ask where I was from and I would say the Bronx. They would give this look and it made me wonder whether it was better to lie and say I was from Manhattan.” Hyacinthe produces and hosts a fashion styling broadcast called Savory Styles where she gives fashion advice online. She said stylist and Bronx native June Abrose inspired her. “When I was back in middle school, I saw a spread with her in The Source. I remember she was wearing this red and black Louis Vuitton jacket. I saw this fashionable Black lady and was like ‘who is she?’ I have to meet her.” Years later, Hyacinthe not only met but also interned with Abrose.
“Once I was with a crowd from Brooklyn and I asked ‘what about the Bronx.’ And a friend told me that it was my job to make the Bronx hot,” said Hyacinthe. “Ever since then, I wear it like a badge of honor. I’m fabulous and I’m from the Bronx.”
That becomes more difficult when Bronx stores have lost touch with their client base, according to Hyacinthe. She said that years ago, places like 149th and 3rd avenue in Hunts Point and Fordham Road were key locations to shop. They were Bronx versions of Madison Avenue. “Stores such as Planet Earth and Mony’s catered to a more upscale clientele selling brands such as Iceberg, Coogie and Moschino,” said Hyacinthe. “These pieces at the time weren't cheap and they sold very well…If you were to visit these strips many of those stores are no longer there and the ones still standing lack variety. Bronx businesses are suffering greatly because Bronx residents are traveling outside the borough to shop and find fashion inspiration.”
The ability to publish through blogs and personal sites then promote through social media has been a catalyst for the building of creative communities online among fabulous people who might be otherwise isolated or travelling outside of the neighborhood for creative outlets. Grey also notes that young people in between college and the work world are turning to the Internet primarily to explore their passions. He said he started his The Aveder Outfit project -- an online collection of street style photography after school to meet people, travel and do something that might lead to an opportunity. Since starting Aveder Outfit, he has done all of those things while managing to get mentioned in the New York Times fashion and style section.
“But the ease of technology ultimately is to fuel greater ideas,” he said looking toward the next phase of the growing interest in fashion and media. “Now anyone with a camera can shoot a nice photo. It’s good that taking a photo is easy, publishing it is easy so let’s make the ideas hard.” Johnson seems to agree and plans to continue experimenting with mediums like layout and writing in hopes to advance in publishing, while working for outlets like Fader.
Hard work is a common theme among those interviewed.
“Sometimes being Black, you have to work ten times harder,” said Kaysy Gotay. “Some people get into fashion and forget about education, but when you’re Black you have to be educated. People can respect you for your work and your education. It’s not like ‘woe is me’ because I’m Black but it’s a reality that you have to work harder still.”
Gotay operates the Black Wintour, a fashion site in honor of one of her fashion idols, Vogue magazine’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Gotay is from the Bronx and pursuing a college education while working multiple internships. She started working for designer Billy Reid and has since done stints at Hermes, Nicole Miller, Louis Vuitton and Harper’s Bazaar. Gotay has taken what she has learned working for fashion heavyweights and applied the lesson to her site.
“There are not a lot of people of color, especially African Americans in these magazines. My blog is catering to a market that has been forgotten,” said Gotay. “There are beautiful Black models but not many on the top runways. I love Essence [magazine.] I also love Vogue, Elle and Bazaar but I want to see my people in there. Right now, when I look at the beauty editorials and they have tips to match skin to lipstick, I don’t see my shade.”
Gotay said that people might not think fashion is so special there must be something to it. For Kadeem Johnson, Cleon Grey, Sophia Hyacinthe, Gotay and others it has turned into opportunity. Fashion, long relegated to the avenues of lower Manhattan, might have to move to the Bronx. By taking what interests them and giving it life on the web, these four young people have opened up expectations and opportunities in fashion for their borough. Harlem had its renaissance. They hope the Bronx will too.