Journalist, author and downtown New York legend Glenn O’Brien first met Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1979 while researching an article on the city’s graffiti culture. Basquiat, then just 19 years old, was peppering walls and sidewalks with confrontational statements and cryptic aphorisms under the name of SAMO©. Immediately sensing Basquiat’s exceptional talent, O’Brien invited him to appear on his iconoclastic public access show, TV Party—an experience the young artist reveled in. It was the beginning of a long friendship that led O’Brien to write and produce the film
Downtown 81, in which Basquiat starred. O’Brien, who has worked as creative director of advertising for Barney’s and as the editor-in-chief of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, is currently known as “The Style Guy” at GQ. Here he ruminates on Basquiat’s status as a fashion pioneer.
It’s possible to be poor and really stylish, as long as it’s economic poverty and not poverty of the spirit. I’ve seen it in Africa and Jamaica, where the pockets are empty but the look is fantastic. In Senegal the ladies wrap their bodies in those fabulous print fabrics (oddly I think these are made in Holland), and often they wrap their heads to match. It’s a great look. The print may depict televisions or telephones, but the feeling is timeless. I was on the ferry from Dakar to Gorée Island, where most of the slaves shipped to America embarked, and I saw one woman dressed totally in fabric printed with the logo of 7-Eleven––it was the most Pop Art thing I’ve ever seen. All around Dakar you see kids dressed in clothes sent by the ton from America and they have fantastic style. They understand color and gesture.
For me seeing Tamra Davis’s documentary The Radiant Child
vividly recalled Jean-Michel Basquiat’s fantastic sense of style. He has it as a teen with a blond half-Mohawk, wearing a third-hand Air Force jumpsuit and dead banker’s cap toe shoes, having no fixed address. He could pick up a change of clothes just by making a wish. Without a dime he projected nobility. And we see an extraordinary progression of self-expression as success sets in and he goes through haute-thrift shop all the way to ritzy and avant-garde designer duds. The attitude stays the same but the look acquires subtlety and seasoning. The dreadlocks evolve; they are not Rasta, but his own twist on “natty,” a sort of dread-mullet mutating into baroque antler antennae, then into a crown of thorns. He discovers expensive European suits but treats them like coveralls, splashing them with the colored shrapnel of his paintings, treating Armani
like Dickies, Versace
He was a chromatic physicist who practiced an unspoken, unwritten theory of textile relativity. He puts a shirt, jacket and pants together like it would conjure the weather or influence the next day’s headlines. With a paisley tie eccentrically tied over a plaid shirt under a tweed jacket he worked colors and textures. His taste was a signature, and in every photograph he’s perfect, outside time and fashion, an eternal aristocrat. To see him in a pattern, like a tartan or kente cloth, is to understand the reasoning behind the Celtic system of colors. Colors represented knowledge. Only a king could wear seven colors, while a poet of the highest order could wear six. He could wear whatever he wanted, and as he worked and traveled and shopped everywhere with pockets full of cash he moved beyond the realm of haberdashery into the palace of the imagination. And then he discovers the artistry of the Japanese designers, Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake
, and he wears their clothes the way a prince or a king wears his regalia. He appropriated fashion, taking a look and making it look like the Africa of the future; he could put on MC Hammer pants and look like an Ethiopian king, or he could wear a stray hat, even one that looked like an inverted waste paper basket, and make it look like a crown from the Upper Nile.
Jean-Michel wore designer clothes but he was always the designer of his own look. He understood the magic of appearances. He once gave me a vintage orange T-shirt from an African-American fraternity. I assumed after that that I had been knighted, in a way, made an honorary member of a secret society. But that’s all I can say about that.