Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The guys who made names off of boostin’ from high-end stores in the 1980s, like Dapper Dan and the Lo-Lifes, are now getting props, but women boosters have not enjoyed the same embrace. Artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards hopes to change that with her new exhibit, “Fly Girl Fly.”
There were cliques of black youth in the 1980s who were tomb raiders in urban jungles like New York, D.C., and Detroit. These were groups of black teenagers who were their own kind of urban anthropologists, ransacking high-end retail stores for Gucci belts and pocketbooks.
They were a bunch of Lara Crofts and Indiana Joneses invading otherwise off-limits terrains in fashion districts from Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to Detroit’s Livernois Ave, seeking exotic items like Fendi sunglasses, to swipe off counters, and then, taking off through an obstacle course of security detectors and mall cops.
Once they made it back to their home bases, they told the stories to their peers of how they claimed their prizes, flaunting their unpaid-for wares all the while. They were called “boosters,” and perhaps understandably, mainstream society has never had much nice to say about them. Yet, they are as integral to the urban landscape as are graffiti artists, DJs, and skateboarders, but with far less representation in pop culture celebrating their existence.
The artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards—named in 2013 as one of Huffington Post’s 30 black artists under the age of 40 to know—is hoping to change that. Her new exhibit, “Fly Girl Fly,” which opened last month at the Kravets Wehby Gallery in New York, is an ode to the boosters she grew up with in Detroit. It’s a series of collages crafted from acrylics, spray paint, glitter, tulle, lace, and watercolors, showcasing dark-skinned girls in cornrowed hair draped in and surrounded by presumably stolen threads. Richmond-Edwards says her exhibit honors “the complex relationship between black women and luxury clothing.” The exhibit runs through April 28, 2018.
Of course, the fashion companies on the receiving ends of these boosting rituals didn’t find any of this cute … until now. This year, Ralph Lauren re-released its classic 1995 Snow Beach clothing line and included the infamous Lo-Lifes in its rollout. The Lo-Lifes were notorious throughout the 80s and 90s for boosting Ralph Lauren Polo gear from department stores and flooding the streets of New York with these otherwise unaffordable items Robin Hood-style. Gucci, also this year, has embraced Dapper Dan, the highly revered street designer who would take questionably obtained Gucci-logo fabrics and re-fashion them into designer jackets and jeans that became the uniforms for any serious young black street entrepreneur of the Big City.
Women who came up boostin’ have historically not been deified in the same way, though. Instead, their activities have been cast off as the work of “chickenheads”—a derogatory label given to girls whose behaviors tend to deviate from middle-class standards. But today there are venerated black women artists such as Tiffany Haddish and Cardi B. who, instead of being scolded for tawdry or unladylike antics, are now respected as hustlers—no, business-women who’ve been able to game the system that was otherwise rigged against them. They are, to borrow from Joan Morgan, the chickenheads who came home to roost, and the booster girls are a critical part of that revival. CityLab spoke with Richmond-Edwards about how her “Fly Girl Fly” exhibit is a part of that reclamation.
What led you to create an entire series around boostin’?
What typically happens is I focus on more autobiographical things related to my mom or just women in my family, but I've never sort of addressed the clothing or the aesthetics that I would have in my artwork. Coming up in Detroit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I'm speaking from a very Detroit perspective. Detroit is known for its flamboyant styles—like you’ll have someone in a red Cadillac with the red suit, and the red gators to match. Detroit was this middle-class city, where luxury brands were always present. People who worked hard, spent their hard-earned checks on going to the mall and to these luxury boutiques to acquire these things. But then you had the boosters.
There were two types of boosters: You had the boosters who steal things and then sell them out their cars or at the beauty salons and barbershops. And then you have boosters like my close friend's father who would go to China and bring back knockoff Gucci bags. There are levels to the game. I was just thinking about the aesthetics and the politics around luxury fashion growing up in Detroit and that inspired the exhibition. In some of the pictures, these women look like they're in a boutique, but they're really in a booster's home trying on luxurious items. It's this idea of the pursuit of status, and what that means within the black community when you have structural boundaries that exist. Fashion is a sense of empowerment. It could be viewed as problematic, but I'm a product of that.
Your exhibit comes at this interesting time when black women-behaving-badly is now kinda en vogue—is that something you intentionally were trying to tap into?
I think that's part of it. Dapper Dan was tapping into a market that was often overlooked: the black consumer. He was able to put that black finesse or that black stank on it. I remember I saw a black woman who had a shirt on and it said something like, "This is ghetto until it's fashionable." It’s this idea that when [certain trends] are viewed as low-brow or kitsch, you were just looked down upon. I think that is part of the conversation, so this is just about celebrating our aesthetic.
Also with this exhibition, I'm talking about respectability and us being OK with quote-unquote ghetto culture. This is an ode to that culture. But it's not unique to the black community. I remember watching an episode of “Sex in the City,” the episode where Samantha acquired a knockoff Fendi bag, you know? It’s not unique to the black community, but what is unique to us is the aesthetics and the politics associated with our community.
Let’s look at some of your pieces, starting with “7-Mile Girls,” which is a reference to the street in Detroit right?
I'm from the west side of Detroit, and I lived off of 7-Mile Road and I created a series of about 30 different drawings that [depicted] all of the girls reminiscent of the women that I grew up with around 7 Mile. When blacks first migrated to Detroit from the South, those who had upward mobility moved to the west side and so there's this sort of elitism that exists there. Growing up in the 90s one of the popular brands was Coogi. We would have the Coogi sweaters, the Coogi dresses, the Coogi jogging suits. My brother, who passed away in 2014, was obsessed with Coogi. So, I've been thinking about that, and I remember when I first went down to Jackson State, in Jackson, Mississippi. I was in the band and I came to band practice in a Coogi jogging suit once and they clowned me for it, like, “What the hell is that? You got a Hawaiian sweater on?” So, I was like OK, I have to hang this up now, because I just didn’t want to be clowned. Now in recent years, I've been re-embracing that side, and embracing the styles and aesthetic of my city.
“Archetype of a 5 Star”:
When I work, it's a very organic, intuitive process. I let the work tell me what's what and what it needs to be. After I created a bunch of large scale pieces, I saw her and I said, “She is what everybody wants to be.” Like when [black women] shop, that's who they're thinking about. And I was thinking of Trina’s verse on the song “5-Star”and how it's about rating yourself. You are the epitome, you're the archetype of what it means to be black. The exhibition is called "Fly Girl Fly," and often times my women or girls have wings or appear to have wings on them to indicate their flyness. So she’s somebody who is confident. She's super fly. She's front and center and that's what we aspire to be.
“Girl Standing with Green Alligator Bag Next to Manneqin”:
I have this girl standing, next to a mannequin that is white and headless. The mannequin is symbolic of this white barometer that we tend to hold ourselves to. I hate the term “white supremacy”—I like to call it a white mediocrity—but it’s that white standard, but in relationship to respectability, because I hate respectability, but I'm also a victim of respectability. The mannequin is headless because I want to illustrate that this is all an illusion. And I wanted to emphasize the alligator bag because again, in Detroit gators are the standard.
When I'm thinking of clothing I'm thinking of couture. When I was growing up, my first introduction to couture fashion was by way of Ebony Fashion Fair. It's the part of Ebony magazine in the last pages where they would have a fashion show, and it was going around for like 30 or 40 years. That was a huge inspiration for me because you just didn't see us. I would get the Bazaar magazines, the Vogue magazines, and of course, you know, black women and black bodies were completely omitted from them. So, that's what this piece is about.