As the nation’s capital emerges post-COVID, it’s essential to consider the reestablishment of local and ethnic urban culture and precisely what that means. More than ever, the District’s penchant for using fashion industry entrepreneurship as a link to self-expression will be critical.
Before 2020, the city — amid its second wave of mass gentrification in a half-century — saw its population grow as its one-time core African-American demographic declined. Even so, Black youth retained who and what defines D.C. by continuing to wear clothing designed by and marketed to a population composed mainly of people who share zip codes as much as they do racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
This isn’t to say this holding on to this sense of identity was easy.
With fewer Black people than ever occupying fewer — but more socioeconomically diverse — Black spaces in D.C., it’s difficult to create clothing inspired solely by a monolithic African-American experience. Universal Madness’ iron-on decal decorated bucket hats and monogrammed sweatshirts lent themselves well to peak hour at Uptown go-gos. HOBO and Shooters’ sweatsuits and tracksuits were ideal for flossy street hustling, leaving just enough legroom to highlight New Balance’s 993 edition sneakers and bloused slouching sweatsocks.
“D.C.’s culture was in its clothes,” says Abu Timbo, the creator of locally significant modern-era cut-and-sew fashion brand Fortune and umbrella brand Mad In America. “The style of brands like Madness Connection defined [D.C.’s] street culture,” he adds.
These days in the urban environment, D.C.’s African-American youth and adult cultures are as much baked in the traditions of club life and street politics as they are in more white-collar pursuits. As well, D.C.’s one-time solid entrenchment as a city can exist within the top-tier of America’s Black cultural hierarchy, but no longer sheltered from its influence.
“As for myself, I’m a believer that we’re looking at an environment where blending gritty, raw streetwear with quality, polished high fashion is the best scenario for D.C.’s fashion future,” Timbo notes. “We’re talking everything from selling cut-and-sew clothing to offering clothing as [bitcoin-only] clothing as non-fungible tokens.”
Timbo’s Mad In America brand name comes from a mistake made on the tagging of one of their initial shipment orders that read “Mad in America” instead of “Made in America.” Instead of looking at the misprint as a slight, Timbo and his colleagues embraced the problem, as it also reflects D.C. fashion’s evolving sense of merging capitalism with progressive social responsibility.
“As [young Black entrepreneurs] in America, we don’t like some of the systems in place here, so ‘Mad In America’ actually was a great fit,” Timbo says.
The shrinking of the city’s African-American population has had a fascinating impact on the city’s Black fashion entrepreneurs and their inspiration. They’ve grown in number, and because of the digital age, the inspiration behind D.C.’s expanding fashion footprint has grown exponentially.
“There are so many young designers out here now. There are more than ever before. However, newer brands reflect less of the city’s culture but are internet-popular and gaining nationwide recognition,” Timbo says.
It is essential to consider how this affects a city where urban real estate and communal space that is predominantly Black Washingtonian owned or defined exist in lessening amounts than before. The impact of D.C.’s culture is in its clothes and fashion sense, and those clothes and that sense defining the streets has waned.
Now, the drive to define space as Black and D.C.’s own has emerged in importance in the digital realm. Thus, on the one hand, it allowed for D.C. designers to have global points of impact and inspiration. While beneficial, there is still a street-level, classic core to D.C. fashion that remains, though it’s not immensely as potent.
“I remember the days when our culture wasn’t accessible by cell phones or defined by social media. You had to hit the streets and see your stuff always on people’s backs — certain artists, people who defined what the city was about — to feel like it was popular,” says Timbo.
His comment reflects the past, present, and future of D.C.’s Black entrepreneurial urban fashion industry. “Now, while getting co-signs from tagged photos and likes on pictures is cool, there’s still no better feeling than seeing a D.C. native, face to face, know — maybe without having ever seen your brand before — that [your brand] is it, that’s still the feeling you’re [chasing after].”
“Ultimately, the internet is important so that people from other areas can engage with and potentially purchase your product,” Timbo offers. However, he adds an emphatic point. “In D.C., though, the streets will always be the streets, and the streets will always define our culture.”