An Interview With Brooklyn Photographer Jamel Shabazz

Jamel Shabazz

A Brooklyn street style photo from Jamel Shabazz's collection.
Photo: Courtesy of Jamel Shabazz

Before fashion bloggers flocked to Lincoln Center matching outfits with Canon cameras, Jamel Shabazz roamed Brooklyn in the '70s, '80s and '90s capturing the roots of street style from the borough’s graffiti covered corners. What we remember of the bygone time is a bunch of Kangol hats and adidas shell toes with all the cool kids peering over gleaming Cazal shades, but much like what makes street style so interesting now, it wasn’t about what you wore but how you wore it. “Back in the 1970s, we made do with what we had,” writes Shabazz in an email. “If you had a pair of Pro- Ked or Converse sneakers they were to last you until you started seeing holes, and for the most part you only had one pair. Many of us were self-styled and we took great pride in being original; never really wanting to look like the next person.”

Shabazz’s analog pictures may have faded over the decades but it’s unmistakable that the swag of the era—the fastidious attention to detail in personalized fit and accessorizing—continues to define what inspires us. Girls dripping in gold chains, sporting distressed, bleach-splattered jeans, (ripped just so) is as timeless as it is unmistakably fly and even the Borsalino black hat that may have seemed so fresh on Theophilus London two years ago is just a reincarnation of a look Shabazz captured almost 30 years before.

Jamel Shabazz

A Brooklyn street style photo from Jamel Shabazz's collection.
Photo: Courtesy of Jamel Shabazz

While contemporary Brooklyn style may be epitomized by the hyper-stylized Williamsburg hipster with their various clashing fashion anachronisms, what Shabazz loved about Brooklyn was much more about the ethnic interplay. “What made Brooklyn unique back in the day was the mix of cultures we had living in the African-American and Caribbean communities in Flatbush; each group added something special to the mix,” he says. “African-Americans were known for wearing nylon shirts, gabardine slacks, mock turtlenecks and playboy shoes, along with Pumas and adidas.”

Jamel Shabazz

A Brooklyn street style photo from Jamel Shabazz's collection.
Photo: Courtesy of Jamel Shabazz

Colonial influences also played a role. “[People] from the islands were inspired by the British,” he says. “They brought the Kangol hats, British walkers, Clarks, along with the London Fog, three-quarter-length trench coat. They were inspired by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Peter Tosh, so you started to see people from Jamaica and Trinidad, wearing hats and straight-leg pants. Young men from Haiti took great pride in wearing tailor-made suits influenced by the fashion in France.” As for accessories, while some people credit the southern hip-hop for bringing gold fronts to the East Coast, Shabazz contends that the influx had another source entirely. “Gold teeth were very popular amongst young men from Panama, so when they starting arriving that particular style was introduced to youth.”

Jamel Shabazz

A Brooklyn street style photo from Jamel Shabazz's collection.
Photo: Courtesy of Jamel Shabazz

Shabazz’s fondness for the era stems from how empowering it was to witness entrepreneurs creating clothes and launching urban fashion companies to represent the burgeoning hip-hop culture and he admits to a little fatigue when looking at the pop-culture fashion landscape today. “Everyone looks pretty much the same: baseball hats, jeans, white t-shirts, and Jordans,” says Shabazz. And when Kanye West—an internationally regarded style forecaster— ascribes to the white tee trend too, the statement might not be entirely off-the-mark. Though we all know Kanye West’s “plain white tee” may have a lot more to it than initially meets the eye, we can all agree that the inclusion of an iconic image often improves the staple.

Koe Rodriguez, who works with Shabazz to license his photography and a photographer and visual artist in his own right, launched A Thousand Words to do just that. The company uses images from throwback street style photographers, like Shabazz (among others like Joe Conzo and Martha Cooper) to create exclusive shirts. He works with the artists to collaborate on a collection of rare street and graffiti images, and reprints them on super-soft, 100% ring spun cotton, Next Level tees (available in mens XS so everyone can wear them).

Jamel Shabazz

A Brooklyn street style photo from Jamel Shabazz's collection.
Photo: Courtesy of Jamel Shabazz

“We’re talking about images that have gone on to influence the careers of guys who have defined style, attitude and what we’ve built from an underground culture to a global force,” Rodriquez says. “The visual component is so important because it still defines what this culture really is all these years later.” Case in point: a rare, never-been-on-a-shirt Martha Cooper picture of late Brooklyn graffiti legend Dondi (né Donald Joseph White) straddling two trains—what Rodriguez calls “The Mona Lisa of graffiti.” It’s dedicated pop culture historians like Koe who ensure that these eye-catching images continue to thrive and be properly credited to the OGs.

Jamel Shabazz

A Brooklyn street style photo from Jamel Shabazz's collection.
Photo: Courtesy of Jamel Shabazz

Shabazz has witnessed and documented the cycle of fashion as Brooklyn’s original street style photographer, but he contends he was just lucky to create a collection of iconic images that contribute so significantly to the canon of New York style over the years. “I am by no means a pioneer,” he says. “The work that I have been blessed to create is all part of a visual diary of my life and journey. I just happened to photograph a generation that took great pride in how they represented themselves.” And we’re blessed that he did.

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