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NYC Artist Derrick Owns His Style

September 2014

By Cacy Forgenie, New York

No Bar, the live music venue owned by “Captain America” actor Anthony Mackie in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York City’s new “It” neighborhood, is a hole in the wall frequented by artists, curators, musicians and designers newly gentrified to the storied hood. It’s also a sometime hangout of Derrick Adams, a Baltimore, Maryland native and multidisciplinary artist with nearly 20 years of NYC subway rides under his belt.  The Columbia MFA, former gallery director and DJ’s apartment is a mere five minute walk from Pacific Street and Nostrand Avenue where No Bar sits, near an intersection renowned as a drug dealer’s hangout and prime real estate for towering police watchtowers and head turning street style.

Bearded and faded, Adams, who recently launched a solo show of collage and sculptures that, will run through October at Tilton Gallery in NYC, strikes an interesting silhouette in contrast to the denizens of this formerly blue collar neighborhood of West Indians and African Americans.

His style and presentation is impeccable, a clash of colors one day, muted tones the next, indicative of his many years in Brooklyn as well as his international interests and travels.  His ebony beard, three years strong and growing, gleams, matching, lustre for lustre, his pearly white teeth.

“I think fashion resources in the neighborhood are very local and very much identifiable to this region of Brooklyn,” Adams told me recently in the living-room of his two bedroom apartment crowded with art from friends, books, bicycles, magazines, clothing and bespoke furniture.

 “Certain things are identifiable of this community that are in fashion, not in fashion as trendy, but are fashionable if you have the imagination to incorporate them into your ongoing style,” the Pratt Institute graduate said. “Things that are home-made produced locally, like heat transfer shirts and things that are rasta colors or camouflage (which are very popular in this neighborhood); things like belts to bags to things from the 99 Cents Store. The stuff in there is more limited edition than the stuff that say ‘limited edition’.”

Adams’ style is a cool mixture of the neighborhood and high end designers like Issey Miyake, Yoji Yamamoto, Costume National and New York menswear and street-wear designer Brian Wood, also a Pratt grad.

“I might wear something from around here on Fulton Street mixed with like, a Yoji Yamamoto jacket with a pair of two dollar shorts,” Adams offered casually from his black leather couch, adding: “I might wear a Brian Wood jacket or pants with something that may be high end or may not be. A  Jil Sander suit, Costume National; there’s so many different brands I wear. I do like to mix them up. Certain things I think are important based on the style itself not the brand itself.”

Adams makes art about identity, architecture, surfaces and their intersection with popular American culture; and it’s reflected in his sartorial choices.  His latest show at Tilton, “Live and In Color”, explores vivid colors, gestures, body language and emotions of African-American characters on national TV juxtaposed with their “psychological and mannerisms in popular culture.” Think Twan and Blaine from “In Living Color” for example.

Color, representation and identity are always center in Adams approach to dressing as well as his shows. 2012’s “Hillman U: A Dream Deferred; A Dream Fullfilled” reimagined fictional Hillman U and a romantic aspect of Garveyism as a present day fashion concept complete with tangible products like buttons, pendants, shorts, fitted caps and shirts presented in a pop-up shop and installation.

 “I’m interested in fashion in the sense of identity, trying to find things that are not based on being popular or in style but what is my style,” he said, “what I want to see myself in more than what is acceptable to be wearing.”

If you were to identify a brand you like a lot, what brand would that be?

Final Home by Issey Miyake is a brand I like a lot. It’s street-wear but it’s very minimal in a lot of ways, and it’s pretty consistent. The cut is really good.

Do you think the beard trend will last? It’s going on four years now.

I think things become trendy when you do things because other people are doing it versus you doing it because you like to do it. And the trend becomes more of the idea because, if you change it, other people are doing it. If you like how it looks then it becomes your personal style even if it’s trendy. Some people look comfortable in that look; some people look like they’re in a costume. So, I feel like having a beard, for me, and the way I present myself, is not a costume. It’s more like the things I like to have on and what I like to have on me.  For instance, I don’t feel like I am in a disguise. I believe a lot of us are in a disguise psychologically.

What about shoes? Are you into hard bottoms or sneakers?

It depends. I do have a lot of different types of shoes and I do wear them based on what I feel and where I’m going on that day. As an artist I am always doing things and running errands on the street. There are certain shoes I wear where I know I won’t be as mobile. If I were to pick a shoe, I like wearing Clarks because it’s a shoe that’s very flexible. Other times I wear dressier shoes if I am going to something more formal. I do like to wear shoes that are comfortable in my studio where I’m working as well as out if I’m going to a party.

You have a driver’s license but you don’t own a car. Why is that? Do you imagine yourself owning a car one day?

I don’t imagine myself owning a car but if I were to think about what type of car I would have it would be something to get out of New York for the weekend, as a fantasy, like people who leave town for their upstate house or summer house or whatever. I would want something like a Jeep or a truck, nothing that’s big. Something that’s compact to carry things out of town for the weekend. Something that’s least harmful to environment. I would look for something that’s environmentally sound versus a type of car.

What’s your favorite alcohol beverage?

It varies. I’m a beer drinker. If I’m drinking beer it’s a Peak Organic IPA. That’s my go-to beer. One of my go-to drinks is Aperol Spritz, which is a drink mostly found in Italy. It’s pretty much an aperol mixed with a Prosecco and some seltzer and an orange. It’s really refreshing. I’m not really into getting smashed but I do enjoy both drinks.

The bucket hat made a serious comeback over the last two years. What are your thoughts on it?

With any fashion, I think that things go round and round all the time. Some people wear them and it makes sense.  It becomes a classic look on certain people when you see them dressed in a bucket hat or a pair of Clarks. You see some people wearing it and it reminds you of something timeless. The person could be 20 years behind and it just make sense. But then you see other people wearing it and you can see how uncomfortable they are in that look.

How strong is the connection between how you dress and the art you make?

I think every artist work reflects their personal style and their choices. I notice a lot of times with my work, I’m very particular about certain things being next to things or attached to certain things. A lot of times it has to do with my own ideology about why those things relate to each other or don’t, or shouldn’t be in the same space with each other. The commonalities and differences. I think that how I make art really reflects my taste of what I wear or what’s around me in my space or studio. And the palette of things, the colors I pick are both influential to each other but they change all the time. Like, things could be very ornate or very colorful and vivid. Or something could be very muted or dull. I feel different ways when I get up every day so I think it definitely affects the way I make work and what I put on my body. I think they go hand-in-hand. It’s almost natural without any thought when it comes to either one. It’s more like responding to my environment than trying to control the environment.

Is there a person living or dead whose style influences you? If so who?

I like the way people dressed during the Harlem Renaissance. I like the way the 70s revolutionary dressed, the 50s style, the 90s. There are certain eras that are representational of a certain pride and self-esteem, a certain black culture I like to revisit. When I wear all black I think of the Black Panthers. I think of different things that relate to me culturally.

“Live and In Color” is on view at Tilton Gallery through October 18

 Tilton Gallery, 8 East 76th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 – 6 and Monday by appointment. For more information, please visit 

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