The Politics of Donald Glover's Style

Art can make a statement like a riot; hosting Saturday Night Live, Donald Glover dropped a record.

‘This Is America’ was released onto YouTube. A gospel choir sings in an upbeat, joyful rhythm: 'we just wanna party, party just for you'. A black guitarist supports with a gentle melody. Then Glover pulls a gun and shoots him dead. This is America. Gospel turns to trap. The choir is gunned down. The set is strewn with abandoned cars, with hazard lights and doors-a-jar. School children run from a gun. The video amassed 12.9 million views in 24 hours. ‘I’m sitting here trying to analyse what the hell I just watched…’, reads one comment. Critics talked of gun violence, of ‘Black Lives Matter’, of Charleston, of Jim Crow, and traffic stops. ‘Stay woke’, Glover had pleaded in ‘Redbone’. Open your eyes. Wake up.

 A still from the music of video of ‘This is America   Image credit

A still from the music of video of ‘This is America

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But has fashion woken up? Demands for racial justice have led to changes. Last year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) announced their New Year’s resolution: ‘diversity in fashion companies, and on runways.’ Last September, New York Fashion Week was hailed as ‘Its Most Diverse Season Yet’ by Harper’s Bazaar. The Fashion Spot released an official diversity report- nearly a quarter of all shows included more models of colour than white models. And overall, 44.8% of models were of colour, an increase by nearly 40%. But the situation on the catwalks does not reflect diversity in the industry. Of the 79 designers in NYFW, three were African American. And in 2015, The New York Times reported the number of African-American designers on the CFDA: 12 out of 470. As Mellody Hobson, president of a Chicago-based investment firm, told The New York Times: ‘It’s a paradox, really. African-Americans have generally been the purveyors of style in our country for much of our history, and yet African-American designers have such trouble breaking out’.

Critics talked of gun violence, of ‘Black Lives Matter’, of Charleston, of Jim Crow, and traffic stops. ‘Stay woke’, Glover had pleaded in ‘Redbone’. Open your eyes. Wake up.

Glover’s clothes serve to celebrate black designers, to give African-American culture exposure. He arrived at his premiere for 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' last year in head-to-toe Gucci: leather loafers, a brown V-neck sweater, and a two-button Heritage suit. The V-neck is from the recent Gucci collaboration with Harlem couturier Daniel Day – better known as ‘Dapper Dan’. In 1982, Day opened Dapper Dan’s Boutique, adapting luxury brands to create custom clothing. Glover’s V-neck looks almost identical to one worn by Day himself in the ‘80s: light-brown, patterned in Louis Vuitton logos, with a thick, dark brown trim at the neck and hem. Glover and Day are a natural pairing. Day ‘curated hip-hop culture’, says the rapper Darold Ferguson, Jr. (ASAP Ferg). Samira Nasir, the fashion director for Elle magazine, has likened Day’s work to innovative hip-hop D.J.s of the era: ‘Sampling was taking existing music and slicing it to recreate new sounds for original lyrics’, she told The New York Times. Day ‘was sampling in a way. He was taking existing fabrication and breathing new life into them.’

 Wearing Gucci at the premiere of 'Solo: A Star Wars Story’   Image Credit

Wearing Gucci at the premiere of 'Solo: A Star Wars Story’

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Day’s collaboration with Gucci is a significant moment in opening up luxury-fashion to African-American designers. ‘We created this universe of culture that came out of Harlem,’ he explains, ‘and it was parallel to this universe that was coming out of Europe’. The collaboration has ‘made it possible for these parallel universes to come together.’ When actress Salma Hayek wore a pink top and skirt with ‘Dapper Dan’ embellished on the back to the Vanity Fair Oscar’s Party, Day posted on Instagram: ‘@SalmaHayek wore the most important outfit of the night. It sent a message to […] every ghetto in the world where people are trying to “make it from The Corner to the rest of the world. If someone of Selma’s stature could wear something of mine, then they, too, can be a designer.” Glover wearing ‘Dapper Dan’ to the Star Wars premier makes the same statement.

 Channeling the 70s at the series premiere of ‘Atlanta’ season 2   Image Credit

Channeling the 70s at the series premiere of ‘Atlanta’ season 2

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Glover also champions designers of the past. Fashion writers have not missed his nostalgia for the Seventies. On his outfit for Saturday Night Live, he wore a light-brown blazer with shoulder pads and wide-lapels. GQ writes that ‘the Seventies’ is ‘a winning era.’ But no one has asked why. Bethann Hardison, the founder of the Diversity Coalition, gives a reason: ‘There were more high-profile black designers in the 1970s than there are today,’ he told the Times: ‘We’re going backwards.’ The Times explains that, though the numbers have stayed steady over time, the percentage has changed. There were fewer designers in New York in the Seventies. The few African-American designers had a greater impact. Glover’s taste for quirky patterned shirts is perhaps a nod to Jon Haggins and his eccentric statement Tees - first designed in the Seventies. A search result for Jon Haggins yields little: a memoir, some interviews, but no articles or pictures. He designed clothes for Diana Ross.

 Wearing bright jewel tones at the premiere of ‘Black Panther’   Image Credit

Wearing bright jewel tones at the premiere of ‘Black Panther’

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Glover’s bright, clashing clothes may also hint to the influence of designer Stephen Burrows. Unlike Haggins, he has not been forgotten. He has been called the first internationally successful African-American designer, after participating in the 1973 Battle of Versailles. Pitting five French designers (including the original Dior, Saint Laurent, and Givenchy) against five Americans, Burrows was the only black designer on the American team. His designs for the show included dresses segmented into ultra-bright colour clashes: orange, red and blue on one; red, orange and lilac on another. It’s a design he has continued. His Spring 2013 Ready-To-Wear collection featured the same jolting volts of colour. Glover has worn similar designs. A rich, dark red suit was paired with a bright red, unbuttoned shirt. His shoes were pristine white. He has worn bright red chinos, with an orange belt, and a blue and green zig-zagged shirt. Like listening to his music, we are woken up- jolted awake. Glover’s style is not just the ‘coolest’. It is loaded with racial and cultural justice.

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Style, MusicTony WilkesComment