Photos by Julie Pavlowksi
I remember when ghetto fabulous wasnt so fabulous, it was just plain ghetto. I lived it, enduring roach-infested apartments in the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A. and Jordan Downs in Watts. My mother, three sisters and I felt downright upscale when we moved to a cramped apartment in South L.A. Ah, the glamour of growing up way below the poverty line on welfare, food stamps, Section 8 and AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children).
Back then ghetto fab was whatever scraps my mother could sew together for us, foraged from late-night Dumpster raids behind fabric houses, with the occasional discarded upholstery sample thrown in. If we wore something new, it was damaged and from a mega discount outlet. My mother had a unique fashion sense. She was doing underwear as outerwear way before Gaultier. Shed don multiple bras for that haute couture six-tit Romulus et Remus effect add some big white panties over a gingham housedress and tube sox worn over orthopedic wedgies and you had one funky Sunday going-to-meeting dress.
The early ghetto fabulous look that came out of New York in the late 70s and early 80s couldnt match the whimsy of my mother, but it had a spark that was its own one that was vested in equal parts earnestness and irony. In the beginning ghetto fabulousness was authentic and creative, taking material icons and trappings and adapting them to the urban American landscape, says Mr. Style, who formerly worked for Puff Daddy/P. Diddys clothing line, Sean Jean. For example, taking the Vuitton or Gucci logo off the bag and putting it onto a velour sweatsuit or high-top sneakers something beyond the designers scope of reason or reality.
No doubt the rappers in the seminal South Bronx and Brooklyn scenes, and to a larger extent the queens of the Harlem drag balls, admired the wealth of white society and strove to acquire some of it, but for the most part they were content, like me, to create their own distinctive and more interesting version. Everything looks good on dark skin, so black folks can get away with wearing some pretty tacky things. When I became a part of the early punk scene with my performance art group the Afro Sisters, I mixed my mothers outrageousness with blaxploitation fashion. My riff on late-60s/early-70s urban chic didnt always sit well with certain punk and post-punk snobs, plus a lot of my looks hadnt dated long enough to be considered retro. But that just comes with being a style pioneer.Boot-y call: These faux- fur-and-tinsel boots were big sellers at the holidays, says Alice Park of Star Shoes (Unit J-11), which also offers a wild variety of other footwear, including athletic shoes. Many stalls in the mall carry the community-supportive Fubu (For Us By Us) label in all its shrink- wrapped glory.
When rap and hip-hop developed into the dominant youth culture movement in the 90s, its idols began to become absorbed by the corporate world, and ghetto fabulous took on a dark undercurrent. With the loss of irony, ghetto fabulous surrendered itself to the capitalist system and sacrificed its radical voice at the altar of Mammon, says Glenn Belverio, former New York editor of the Paris-based fashion bible Dutch magazine. Now its just slavery to logos coming out of shapely assholes. It doesnt advance the cause of improved race relations or class differences it actually widens the class gap. Do these wealthy rappers help their brothers and sisters living in poverty? In the last few years ghetto fab has been all about being selfish, I gots mine, and I dont care about you.
That mentality is what has really been disturbing about ghetto fabulousness since the 90s. These nouveau riche rappers think that white wealth is great, and want to attain it no matter what the cost to their souls. They are overcompensating. Their attitude is very anti-revolutionary and an insult to people who are economically disadvantaged. How can anyone take hip-hop and rap stars seriously these days when they are busy promoting brands?Theyve got sole: Leather Express (Unit F-21) features more styles for men than any store in L.A., says owner Cristin Lah.
Ghetto fabulousness has become about taking prefabricated looks verbatim, notes Mr. Style. There is very little, if any, creative process involved. Excessive jewelry is still the look du jour, although gold has been traded in for platinum. Ghetto fabulous is also a lifestyle, beyond the fashion. Its about living loudly above your means having a closet full of designer wear, huge jewelry, along with an expensive car, but your credit cards are maxed out, you rent your home, and live check to check.
Which brings me to beyond ghetto fabulous. Super postghetto fabulous is all about bringing back the originality and creative impulse to urban dressing. Its still flashy and sexy that will never go away but it doesnt drag sorry asses into needless debt. Its about bargains, smart shopping, being anti-label in a way, or purposely buying an obvious knockoff of a designer. Beyond ghetto fabulous means having the courage to say that I look damn good in anything I wear, no matter what my size and the amount of money I spend be it $1,000 or two bits.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The Slauson Super Mall (formerly known as the Slauson Swap Meet) is the stadium-size spiritual center of super postghetto fab. Located in the heart of funkytown, it offers affordable fashion that lets your imagination take center stage and beyond. 16001680 W. Slauson Ave., South L.A.,(323) 778-6055.