BlackBook’s 2008 Style Gallery

Designer Jean Paul Gaultier once said, rather famously, “It’s always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting.” Here, a style gallery that begs to differ, filled with artists, eccentrics, beatniks, showgirls, gypsies, hipsters — and one very dapper man of the cloth.

DITA VON TEESE, actress, model, burlesque queen, photographed at The Way We Wore vintage store in Los Angeles. (See our extended interview with Dita.) Dita Von Teese speaks with a blue-collar lilt, which does little to suggest the curvy, reigning empress of burlesque who controls gaggles of fans while splashing around in Brobdingnagian champagne glasses, sponge in hand. But then she says, revealing her circean charm, “I’m sitting here, having just rolled out of bed, wearing a vintage slip. I don’t have any makeup on, my hair is probably a disaster, but that doesn’t mean I’ll put on a tracksuit simply because no one’s looking. I don’t know why everyone wants me to wear jeans so badly.” Born Heather Renée Sweet in Rochester, Michigan, Teese trained to become a professional ballet dancer before landing her first strip-club gig. “Ten years ago,” she says, “you could have paid $20 for me to sit on your lap any night of the week. So it would be rude of me to say, I’m not a stripper, I’m a burlesque queen.” Today, however, the self-styled, 35-year-old star is more likely to be found working the red carpet than a greasy pole. “I never wanted to be a little girl, ever,” says Teese, of her Old Hollywood look. “A lot of my friends were into the whole schoolgirl fantasy — ponytails and the whole thing. I wouldn’t be caught dead! I’m a grown woman. I know who I am and I’ve known for a long time.”

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SARAH SOPHIE FLICKER, trapeze artist, filmmaker, founding member of the Citizens Band, photographed in her Canal Street office, New York City.

Deep within Sarah Sophie Flicker’s palatial apartment in downtown Manhattan, amidst the hoards of rare showgirl costumes and shimmering accessories, hangs a trapeze. Its owner, a trapeze artist and founder of New York’s burlesque troupe the Citizens Band (supermodel Karen Elson is a member; actress Zooey Deschanel has performed with them), often dons a sequined cat mask that sits cocked atop her head — it’s one of her many extravagant headpieces. “I have this really amazing showgirl costume with a matching star headband,“ she says. “I found it on eBay when I was pregnant, like, outrageously gigantic. And it just happened to come in the mail right when my daughter was born. So I connect the two. It’s stupid, but I do.” Overrun with vintage pieces — chorus girl bloomers from the 1920s and suffragette costumes — the storage space that houses Flicker’s theatrical wardrobe reflects her fertile imagination. “I’ve always had a really rich fantasy life,” she says, “and I only like wearing things that make me feel like I’m in another time, from another place — the star of my own fairy tale. I’ll wake up and think, I want to be a farm girl from the 1930s.”

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REVEREND AL SHARPTON, TV personality, radio host, social justice activist, photographed in his office at the National Action Network in Harlem, New York City. (See our extended interview with the Rev.)

Reverend Al Sharpton seems an unlikely style icon, to be sure. In his youth, the Brooklyn native was often photographed in tracksuits, heavy medallions dangling from his substantial neck. Today, the 53-year-old civil rights activist and Democratic candidate for the 2004 presidential election has embraced a more subtle, distinguished look. And he’ll be the first to admit that clothes, even if they don’t quite make the man, can leave lasting impressions. “I try to wear outfits that make the statement I’m looking to make,” he says. “If I’m going on Larry King Live to make a point about Obama, I might wear a very plain suit and tie — best not to get in the way of your message. At a march, however, I might wear a flashy walking suit because people are going to see me leading the way. I may want to give a statement of anger, so I’m going to dress in a safari-like number. I sometimes want to appeal to mercy, in which case I’ll dress more ministerial. Anyone in the public eye who doesn’t think about their physical presence is inept.” Despite changes to his look, one constant remains: that lush, iconic head of hair, an homage to his mentor, the late James Brown. “I kept my hair like Brown’s when a lot of my Black Nationalist friends felt that was inappropriate,” says Sharpton, who stars in this month’s HBO documentary, The Black List. “I’ve always defined myself.”

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TERENCE KOH, artist, photographed at his studio in Chinatown, New York City.

Manhattan galleries brim with characters, none of whom come close to capturing the eccentric magic (and sartorial insanity) of Canadian artist Terence Koh. Formerly known as “asianpunkboy,” Koh has exhibited his work — everyday objects covered in his bodily fluids; a neon rooster titled “Big White Cock” — throughout the world’s most hallowed art halls. And while his controversial creations have won praise from critics, it’s his inimitable personal style — improbable costumes made from human hair, Cossack fur hats and iMac cable cord scarves — that sets him apart from the black smock set. When asked about the relationship between high art and high fashion, he says, “The sun lights the moon as the moon lights the sun.” Okay, but how does the 28-year-old provocateur express himself through the clothes he wears? “I repeat, when you clap your hands, they make an impact.”

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LOU DOILLON, model, actor, designer, musician, photographed at her apartment in Paris, France.

Lou Doillon’s corporeal list of role models includes empowered icons like Queen Elizabeth I, Dorothy Parker and Mary Queen of Scots. (“Mary had a crimson petticoat made for her execution, so that it would match her blood,” she says. “I live for those kind of anecdotes.”) The 26-year-old daughter of Jane Birkin and French film director Jacques Doillon, who became famous at the age of 15 for her piercings, dreadlocks and petulance, has recently retired from the spotlight to indulge her creativity. “I have a strict policy in my home — no television and no press. I’d rather stay isolated and dream away the next collection.” Having recently wrapped Lettres Intimes, her one-woman theatrical show throughout France and readying herself to start filming a movie in September, the former face of Givenchy and Miu Miu has also begun designing her own clothes, the Lee Cooper by Lou Doillon collection. Inspired by tomboys, train tracks and Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, her pieces range from cheeky high-waisted shorts to long T-shirts fitted with thumbholes. “I never wanted to create clothes just for skinny girls with no boobs,” she says of the line, adding, “I always have a hard time keeping a style once it’s become ‘trendy.’ I feel like all the personality slips away when everyone is doing it. But that’s because I’m egotistical and I always like to be somewhat off.”

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THE WATSON TWINS, musicians, photographed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When Chandra and Leigh Watson (known professionally as the Watson Twins) were asked to dress alike for their BlackBook photo shoot because, well, symmetry seemed cute, they balked at the idea. Chandra, describing their stint as back-up singers for Rilo Kiley songbird Jenny Lewis, says, shuddering, “When Jenny told us that we were going to be wearing the same costumes, we were mortified. We were like, You can’t do this to us!” But as they quit Los Angeles this past summer for a brief American tour in support of their latest album, Fire Songs, focus shifted toward having to reinvent their look. On their first tour they dressed in white, exclusively, but this time around, Leigh asks, “How can you wear the same three items of clothing every single day and still look fresh?” Their aesthetic, inspired by singer-songwriters like Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon and Belinda Carlisle, stems from a mix-and-match indifference about wearing “a really high-end designer or something we found in a store for five dollars,” says Chandra. How best, then, to move past their obvious similarities? “It’s a fine line,” she says. “We want people to recognize us as individuals, but also as a duo.” Might they avoid the whole twin thing by parting ways and going solo? After a few seconds of silence, Leigh says, near whisper, “Never say never.”

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SIGUR ROS, musicians, photographed in Reykjavík, Iceland.

They cut dashing figures as a kind of gonzo marching band, but such was not always the case for Sigur Rós. The minimalist Icelandic quartet was once, in fact, pure grunge. “We used to wander on stage in whatever we’d been wearing for the previous day or two… and not just from one day to the next, but from one year to the next,” says Georg Holm (top left), the band’s bass guitarist, now revamped into a foppish 19th-century milliner. Tired of the routine — and suspect hygiene, perhaps — they began retooling their live show from the ground up, which meant taking a critical look at their collective style. They even chose to trade in their ratty T-shirts for flamboyant costumes created by Icelandic designer Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir. When asked to describe the new aesthetic, a rather perfect if unexpected reflection of their ghostly sound, Holm stops to think. “Let’s see,” he says. “Jónsi [Birgisson, guitarist and vocalist] looks like a Victorian chimney sweep, Kjartan [Sveinsson, keyboardist] adopted a kind of classical composer garb (or sometimes a super sleek Helmut Lang skintight affair) and Orri [Páll Dýrason, drummer] has a variety of outfits stretching from The Karate Kid to The Lost Boys.”

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RITA ACKERMANN, artist, photographed at her studio in Chinatown, New York City.

“I’m an exquisite walking corpse drawing,” says Rita Ackermann. The Hungarian-born, New York-based artist, who was featured at this year’s Whitney Biennal, has created buzz for her idiosyncratic renderings of pubescent girls, her audacious ensembles and, of course, the red ballpoint pen she’s applied to runway models’ faces (“I’m still surprised that I don’t see more people wearing ballpoint pen makeup,” she shrugs). Known for her singular, rococo brand of style, she says, “There are no clothes that I consider outrageous. My favorite page in tabloids is ‘When Bad Clothes Happen to Good People.’ I have a funny bikini that I wear all summer with popsicles on it saying ‘Lick Me.’ Is that outrageous?” Her most prized possession is a custom-made, pink couture suit she bought for $30. The two-piece costume once belonged, appropriately, to Ilona Staller (stage name Cicciolina), a Hungarian porn star turned democratic politician who was once married to artist Jeff Koons. Ackermann says, “She had put it up for auction to bail out her pop singer girlfriend from jail.”

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JACKSON POLLIS, musician, model, deejay, photographed at his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Jackson Pollis, 18, has a thick nest of blond hair. He often wears clunky, black glasses. These two facts, more than anything, have come to define the Brooklyn-based drummer for rock quartet Frankpollis, once known as “Action Jackson,” an honorary member of New York’s raven-topped deejay trio the MisShapes. And despite close friendships with fashion types — “Ag [supermodel Agyness Deyn] is probably the sole reason I know anything about what is happening in the fashion world” — Pollis pays little attention to what transpires under the tents at Bryant Park. Of his look, and the inexorable comparisons to late pop art icon Andy Warhol, he shrugs, “Warhol’s cool, but I like Keith Haring more. I also like simple, early ’90s stuff, the style of Pavement or Sonic Youth.” When asked to predict the evolution of his own aesthetic, he says, “Maybe I’ll start wearing JNCO jeans again, or UFO pants. At some point in the future, I’ll be wearing white cargo shorts, sandals with white socks and a golf visor. That’s inevitable.”

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RINKO KIKUCHI, actor, photographed in Nakano, Tokyo, Japan.

Rinko Kikuchi is a woman of few words. But, as the 26-year-old Japanese actress proved in her Academy Award-nominated turn as a deaf-mute in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sprawling 2006 epic, Babel, reticence is a virtue. Kikuchi conveys more unfettered emotion with her haunting, deep-set brown eyes, framed by that angular black mane, than any inflected, histrionic actress of her generation. In next month’s rollicking crime caper, The Brothers Bloom, starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz, the seasoned motorcyclist and sword-fighter again minces few words as Bang Bang, a feisty con artist who, appropriately, loves to blow things up. Taking a break from filming her next movie in Bangkok, Thailand, the face of Chanel’s 2008 Cruise collection says of her style, “I wear what I want to wear depending on how I’m feeling. I love YSL, Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela.” And despite wholly embracing vintage outfits from the 1960s and 1970s, she looks equally stunning in more quirky fare. Of her most outrageous ensemble, she says, smiling, “That would have to be my red and white bodysuit.”

Al Sharpton: Papa Don’t Preach

He’s a veteran of the “confrontation business,” but you’d never know it talking to him. Reverend Al Sharpton, who stars in this month’s HBO documentary The Black List, puts down the cause for a few minutes to talk tracksuits and track records. Sharpton has long been a fixture in the world of racial politics. Conservative, flamboyant and bombastic—his description, and ours—the reigning father of American social justice reform takes the hot seat to discuss growing older and wiser, all the while pushing onward with his tireless, insatiable war against inequality.

What about The Black List: Volume One appealed to you? Well, I thought it was important, the whole concept of blacks talking from different vantage points about what brought us to be what we became. I think much of the world—including a large percentage of the African American community—doesn’t realize that there are different lanes within the black community, even though there may be only one highway. This film shows that commonality, regardless of whether or not you’re a leading artist, a leading CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a leading civil rights speaker. There is such an eclectic mix of personalities in the film; Sean Combs and Russell Simmons come from the world of hip-hop, which you’ve attacked for its embrace of various derogatory terms. Then there is Zane, who writes erotic fiction, which can’t help but seem anathema to your value system. Is there something inherently worthwhile about including not just different, but also conflicting perspectives into this dialogue on race and identity? Well, we can all disagree while still appreciating the artistry and the contribution of others. Maybe I’ll disagree with somebody in hip-hop, but I can still talk to them. I’ve had a lot of hip-hop artists adamantly disagree with me about my personal views on lyrics and religion. But I think it is important that people understand that we’re not monolithic. We can still come together with divergent opinions. Is there something in particular that this documentary adds to the ongoing dialogue on race and identity? I think it adds a lot. For the first time, people are talking about themselves and how they became what they’ve become—who they are, who we are in Black America. When I got a chance to see the DVD, I even said, “I didn’t know that about Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I didn’t know that about… ” We were all born to a mama, raised as a child and grew up in America. We were given what the world was ready to hand to us. And I think it humanizes us, without trying to rationalize or testify something. Where does your drive to champion social justice emanate from? My energy came from the black church. I grew up there and started preaching there. And it gave me a sense of meaning, a sense that I was operating within causes bigger than me. I was never particularly distracted by or interested in political opinion. I’ve always been very secure. When I got out into the broader political arena, into the controversy, I was already so secure that I was energized to go forward. In my teens, my father-son relationship with James Brown had that same kind of self-identity, the same kind of energy. So, it’s a combination of the church and my mentorship with people like Brown, who’ve changed what they’ve found in the world, rather than have the world change them. How do you deal with criticism? You certainly haven’t been immune to personal attacks. No one in the history of social justice movements in this country, or any other country, has gone without receiving criticism. I am, for lack of a better term, in the confrontation business. I confront institutions and I confront people when somebody is being accosted. There is no way to do that without dealing with the downside of controversy. I was surprised when, two weeks ago, a major magazine had done a Gallup Poll on blacks and I was given a favorable rating of about 50. I remember a time when the numbers in my favor were one-tenth of that. What I do is meant to stir things up. Martin Luther King, Jr. did the very same thing. Who would you say has been your most formidable opponent to date? In my career? I would probably say the most formidable situation, wow, was the… I don’t know. I can’t single out just one. It’s unlikely to think that people can possibly win every battle they fight. How do you react to losing? I always try to extract gain from loss. Sometimes you win by fighting, period. How does it feel when you’re fighting specifically for social justice and then critics suggest you harbor your own prejudice? I’ve learned not to take it so seriously. The people who say stuff like that are just looking to get a rise out of me. Also, if anyone believed naysayers, the next victim of social injustice wouldn’t call me. And that’s one of the things I tell the rappers: These kids who call me are 17 and 22 years old, and while they may be entertained by you, they call me when they get in trouble. That ought to mean something. Do you ever worry that the way that public personalities dress overshadows what they are trying to say? I think you’ve got to be careful. I stopped wearing the big medallions and tracksuits because the whole look got in the way. People were so surprised when I stopped wearing the tracksuits and started wearing conservative suits. You have to be conscious of not letting your clothes get in the way of your message. But you also can’t let people force you to wear certain things, or else we’d all be sitting around in our underwear in the dark somewhere. Was the shift to more conventional clothing suggested to you by other people? No, I made the decision when I went national. Also, I’m 53, so I can’t be dressing the way I was when I was 33. People mature, as they grow older. I think it comes from a very privileged perspective to suggest that clothing acts as a pure reflection of someone’s personal style. In many cases, I believe, the things that people wear become socioeconomic markers that define where they come from, their lot in life. I think you need a certain amount of income to even be in a position to “define yourself.” Some people just dress in clothes they can afford. Only those who become very successful can decide how they are going to define themselves with clothing. Only a small percentage of the world can wake up every morning and say, “I’m going to wear this because it makes the statement that I want to make.” With everything you’ve accomplished, all the wars you’ve waged against social injustice, what is your ultimate goal? My ultimate goal is to have a national social justice movement that literally changes, from the bottom, equal protection under the law, which is considerably disproportionate. If I can go to my grave knowing that there is a continued national movement to make America equal then I will have done what I was born to do. I may be bombastic and flamboyant and conservative, but that’s just a means to an end. This is what I’m trying to do. As a nation, are we the closest that we’ve ever been to this goal? I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been, but it almost doesn’t matter, because we’ve been so far away for so long. We’re closer, it’s true, but to be closer does not mean to be close.

(See our full Style Gallery.)