According to Jidenna’s “Classic Man” manifesto, being branded with the term of distinction is more about character than outer appearance – but Jidenna’s outer appearance is also sharp as hell.
“‘Sharp in mind, body and style’ is the style mantra,” he notes. “It means that I think your look should make it seem like you’re sharp in your mind, so it should have a certain level of sophistication.”
On a warm afternoon in New York City, VIBE invited Jidenna for a shopping excursion at Harlem’s Trunk Show Designer Consignment shop. Returning to his thrifting roots, the “Classic Man” himself talked style inspiration, gave tips for aspiring classic men, and scoured the racks for a ‘fit.–Iyana Robertson
A lot of people don’t know that your look has historical and political aspects to it. Talk about that.
Yeah, so I started by thrifting, but as I refined the style, it was and is still heavily influenced by the Jim Crow era. We’re talking about Antebellum South, post 1865, all the way through 1965. I do believe we live in the new Jim Crow everyday. The events in Charleston, S.C. obviously continue to prove that. And those are tragic events, and I think there’s definitely tragedy all around us. But the great thing that African-Americans and the entire diaspora has done for years, is continue to be dignified, continue to welcome people – even if it’s a guy like [the Charleston shooter], into a church. We continue to be compassionate and powerful people and dignified people. I do believe that in the Jim Crow era, there was a special dignity that came after the abolishing of slavery. And I wanted to represent that for the millennial generation, and really first and foremost, for myself. I want to remember people that came before when I look in the mirror. I don’t want to think I was just plopped down here as a boy that grew up in the ‘90s.
In what ways have you updated that 19th century look to 2015?
The suit is something that changes from decade to decade. So in the ‘70s, we had the flared bottoms like my father wore. Nowadays, we like to taper the pants; it’s definitely shorter than any other suit that has come before it. So in that way, there’s absolutely no break in the trousers. That’s one way. It’s also definitely cut to the body a lot sharper than any other suit that I’ve seen in that last few hundred years of the suits I’ve studied. And then the third element is the West African fabric. I work with a designer named Eleanor Kateri, and [stylist] Whippa Wiley, and they both help me pick out the right fabric for the pocket squares and the ties I wear. Sometimes I actually put that fabric on the lapel of the blazer. In those ways, I feel like it’s updated. It’s right now.
Do you believe that everyone should say something with their clothing?
I think everybody does say something already. I think every musician, every artist is conscious, all of them. They say something, everybody has a message. If I’m shopping at the Gap or Old Navy, I’m saying that I’m an ordinary person, I don’t want to be seen, I don’t want to stand out. That’s a statement. If I’m wearing a leather jacket, there’s something about me that’s kind of a rebel. So everybody says something, whether they want to or not.
Your look seems to take time and effort. Are there ever any mornings when you’re like, “I can’t?”
People say it takes time, but it really doesn’t. The reason I pick this is because it’s an easy uniform to put on. I know what I’m wearing every day; I don’t have to think, “What do I feel like wearing?” The only thing I think of is what color suit, and what pocket square or tie I want. It’s really easy. It’s the same thing every day.
That’s funny, because I read something that says that President Obama, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all have a uniform. It makes for one less decision.
Yeah. Well I read that great men and women tend to have uniforms as well. Steve Jobs is definitely one of the guys that we know who had the black turtleneck. One of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., wears a black t-shirt and jeans. Madame C.J. Walker had certain blouses that she wore. And of course, she was the first millionaire lady in our country’s history, regardless of color. And Ghandi wore his little loincloth. [Laughs] And then on the opposite side of the spectrum, greatness on the negative side of history, Adolf Hitler, he did the same thing. So if you look across the board, great men and women had a uniform. That’s why I tend to stick with three-piece suits, although, sometimes I do take it off, and I’ll just wear my suspenders and some pants. Especially in the summer when it gets hot.
When did your style transformation happen?
I’ve always been dabbling in suits, but like a lot of people in the neighborhoods I grew up in, I had my snapback, I had my v-neck. I still got them in the closet. I got my J’s, my Force’s; it was standard. But what happened was, my father passed away a few years ago in 2010. And ever since then, I made a sharp transition because I wanted to honor him. My name, Jidenna, means embracing the father. My nickname is “Chief” because my father was a chief in Nigeria. So I wanted to honor him. He had a stroke, so he used to walk with a cane. I figured I get a more fashionable one than they gave him in the hospital. [Laughs] And then the three-piece suits that he used to wear in the ‘70s. So this is all in honor of him.
And when you look back at old pictures of yourself, do have moments when you’re like, “What was I thinking?”
All the time. Some of the worst trends I ever had. I watched a Method Man video once when I was a little boy. It was an interview, and he had a baby toothbrush that he you get from a corner store. And he put that in his mouth and matched it with his cap and his shoes. So I looked at a picture the other day, I had a jersey on, a toothbrush, Air Force 1’s, and a Boston cap. So yeah, I have horrible trends. When we used to wear caps with the Chinese characters on it. But I also had print shirts with a big Buddha. And the sizes I wore – especially since I’m a slim guy – wearing quadruple XL shirts. That was a horrible era for me, looking back at it. But we all got that.
What’s the most dressed down you’ll get?
In the summertime, I can’t go to the beach in a suit. I actually have a 1920’s vintage bathing suit I wear to the beach that’s really dressed down. But when I’m walking on the street, I just take the vest and everything off. I take the tie off. I’ll wear a shirt, probably some slacks, and some Chucks. That’s probably the most dressed down I’ll get. Short-sleeved, but I’ll still have a collar. I like a band collar.
Do you have a style icon?
Well, my father was the first. The second was definitely Malcolm X. The third was Toussaint Louverture. Toussaint’s style in the middle of the Haitian Revolution, to me, was amazing. They used to get dressed to go to war. The French had amazing outfits, but Toussaint, to be in the conditions that he was in the 1700’s, to fight but still carry an elegant swank, I love it.
You always use the term “swanky.” Is that always the goal? To be “swanky” at all times?
Yeah, man, that word feels right, right now. So I’m gonna use it every day, day in an out. For me it represents our whole crew Fear & Fancy. We always talk about “Swanky David Jr.,” “Swankamente,” “Alright, swank. Cool.” For us, it’s just that elegant funk that we feel like we have, that you don’t see in a lot of hip-hop. But I think some people got it.
What would be in the “Classic Man” starter kit for someone who wanted to emulate your look?
I wouldn’t tell them to buy anything. I’d talk about character more than anything. I don’t think a “classic man” has a particular dress. I think you can wear a sanitation worker outfit and be a “classic man.” I think you can wear a t-shirt and jeans and be a “classic man.” I wouldn’t say that any of them have a starter kit. Now, if they wanted to roll with the chiefs in Fear & Fancy, we have a certain protocol. Our collar denotes our rank, actually. If you’re younger, you have a band collar. The higher you get, you’ll get a high imperial or double round collar, or an Arundel collar. Same with the women. The women have a certain type of elegance, and certain types of blouses and collars they wear as well. It just depends on your maturity within our crew. So if you wanted to emulate this, then your starter kit would definitely include a pocket watch, the suit, and a flask in the briefcase.
Fit is a cornerstone of fashion. What kind of tips can you give guys to make sure their clothes fit them correctly?
First of all, having an amazing tailor is one of the most essential things for anybody, but definitely a man who wants to wear a suit. Some of the best tailors in New York City are actually on 116th Street, the Senegalese. Dakar is one of the fashion capitals of Africa, so all my tailors usually are Senegalese. I definitely have Nigerian/Ghanaian tailors, but man, the Senegalese, they got the cut down. My first tip is to love your body. Again, everything is about principle more than the outer appearance—it’s always an extension of self. So loving how you look is important so that when you talk to that tailor, you already know how your legs are, your arms are, your torso is. So I would say, for right now, make sure you taper the bottom of your pants. That’s gotta look right. That’s gotta go in. We not flaring anything right now. For the sleeve length, make sure that’s coming all the way up to [the wrist bone]. And some guys I see, they get their jackets a little too tight. So just love your natural physique because a good tailor is like a trainer. They cut right into the physique that you already have. That’s honestly the biggest principle. Everything else, the tailor can get to.
Tell me about the hair. When did you go from a regular cut to this style?
It was a natural evolution. I worked with one of the designers with Fear & Fancy, and stylist, who also serves as my manager, Whippa Wiley. Working with her on multiple shoots, we found a way that was easy for me to go out of the house. It looks like it takes a long time, but it’s like 15 minutes of work. Everything is. I mean, obviously, I have to hop in the shower, but after I get out the shower and put the juices and berries in the hair, it’s about 15 minutes. Because I don’t have the time. I don’t like taking a lot of time with these things. So we found the comb over that worked. I have a great barber. That’s probably another tip: make sure you find one that understands your type of hair. For me, being “Halfrican” (it’s a new term I learned), Dominican barbers are good with my type of hair. For me, it was just looking at pictures of Nat King Cole, and some of the old guys in the Rat Pack. I found the nice comb overs and finger curls in some of these guys’ hair and I was like, “Okay, we want that.” To modernize it, we put the taper and the lines. They didn’t really have beards and all these electric razors we have now, so we can do fancy things. If you’re going to do a part, my suggestion is have your barber actually cut into that part.
And beard grooming?
There’s a lot of beard oils. That’s like the trendy thing now. For me, people are throwing them left and right, so I’m trying different products. I don’t have a particular product that I use. What I do know is that hair likes to be touched. So if you massage your hair, it tends to grow and it tends to be moisturized.
You started in a thrift shop, so what tips do you have for balling on a budget?
Thrift in very particular locations. You might have a friend that knows your style, so get to know the man or lady running the shop. Two, one of the tricks that even people that own trunk shows and thrift shops know, is to shop outside of the city. In the Boonies, you can get some great pieces out there for cheap, whereas if you go somewhere like the Lower East Side or Soho, you might as well go to a department store. That’s the thing—I’m all about budgeting. Always been. It hasn’t changed with the success of “Classic Man,” I’m still like “Nah, I’m not spending that much.” I think it’s my Nigerian roots. My father always told me, “Put that money in your mattress.” The best way to double your dollar is to fold it back in half and put it back in your pocket.
Graphic Design Credit: Iyana Robertson