“People from Atlanta have an air about them,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, the Creative Director of the Atlanta boutique wish, one of the four panelists hosting the Atlanta High Museum of Art’s January 8th event Conversation: ATL Streetwear. As I sat in the museum’s Rich Theatre amid the audience of impeccably stylish and well-dressed people, I was inclined to agree. The throng of people who filed into the sold-out event presented an impromptu fashion show, with enough sartorial eye-candy for their own exhibit.
Speaking of exhibits, Conversation: ATL Streetwear’s discussion of the impact of Atlanta streetwear, was inspired by the Virgil Abloh exhibit Figures of Speech that is currently on display at the High Museum of Art. In addition to Nehemiah, the panel included three other influencers of Atlanta’s contemporary fashion culture. Kenny Burns, designer, brand manager, and radio DJ, Creative Director of Rapper T.I.’s Trap Museum, Marina Skye, who has set-designed for Rapper Jidenna and the nightclub DayDreams Fantasy Lounge, and Kwassi Byll-Cataria, owner of the men’s boutique Moda404.
Burns, who moderated the discussion, kept the energy high. Besides identifying the quintessential features of Atlanta streetwear, like wearing Dickies brand jeans or Atlanta-based brands like All Friends Welcome, the discussion also noted the major change in the history and evolution of Atlanta’s fashion culture and streetwear. The panel not only explored what Abloh’s contribution to streetwear has meant to Atlanta fashion culture but also the impact of Atlanta’s fashion culture on mainstream fashion and luxury wear. The streets have inspired high fashion on a global level. Similarly, Byll-Cataria stated, “fashion in Atlanta has changed to where it’s more high fashion.”
There was a time when high-end streetwear was unheard of. Byll-Cataria and Burns both expressed the sentiment that street fashion in Atlanta has grown and changed with the times. Burns told the audience that “Atlanta fashion has grown into the metropolis that it is.”
“Atlanta used to be seen as a joke,” Skye reminded the audience, which elicited grumbles of disagreement. But the audience’s belief in Atlanta’s fashion legacy and influence is perhaps a sign of how the status of Atlanta streetwear has metamorphosized. Gone are the days when the streetwear culture in Atlanta was fashion’s red-headed stepchild.
Significantly, Burns played devil’s advocate and provided some pushback against Abloh’s statements that he made in an interview with Dazed magazine that streetwear’s “time will be up” and that instead, people are shifting to knowledge and personal style with vintage. The polarizing question highlighted an important issue about cultural responsibility and ownership. Why, after a certain level of success, do black designers remove themselves from the culture to which they owe their success?
The audience shared their concerns and asked several insightful and prescient questions, such as concerns about how can black fashion creatives develop a fashion house of our own? Why must black fashion brands attach to high fashion brands for validation? The discussion also stirred up an underlying concern about where do Atlanta streetwear and black fashion creatives go from here? Especially, like a couple of audience members brought up during the Q&A, how can indie designers compete with fast fashion or find their place in an industry that is seeing the decline of brick-and-mortar department stores. According to Burns, part of the key to overcoming these obstacles lies in “how you work the system.” Skye stressed the importance of “creating a world around the brand.”
The panelists also spoke about the importance of a creative community that supports its own. Nehemiah explained how that support involves “giving people their due.” He exhorted the audience to essentially put their money where their mouth is and buy from fashion creatives. Burns stood firm on a “each one, teach one,” motto he said those who are more established in their careers “can’t hold the info so close to our chest.” He mentioned that there is a belief that knowledge can’t be shared which prevents growth.
There’s no doubt that Atlanta has been leading the charge with its innovative music scene, but Burns, Byll-Cataria, Skye, and Nehemiah suggested that Atlanta’s next frontier is in fashion. It’s a new decade and Atlanta’s fashion culture got next. The sentiment seemed to be shared. The final comment from a member of the audience, club owner Josh “Scott Freeze” Peacock, served as a toast to the future of Atlanta streetwear. “The music popped, the film popped, and now it’s our turn to pop.”
– Makhalath Fahiym