Write of Passage

By Alexandra Phanor-Faury 

Since Banksy launched his month long residency on the streets of New York, his much lauded and sought after stenciled work has everyone talking about graffiti, from Mayor Bloomberg, who deems it a sign of decay and loss of control, to art students defending its legitimacy, and landlords cashing in on their Banksy enhanced properties. But according to graffiti historian Sacha Jenkins, all the buzz about the world’s most prominent graffiti artist is riddled with misconceptions. “Real graffiti has always been about letters, and that’s the fundamental difference between Banksy’s figurative art and the people in the graffiti underworld,” explains Jenkins. “We call ourselves writers; the media called it graffiti.”

Jenkins is currently curating “Write of Passage” at Red Bull Studios, an exhibit (showing until November 23) commemorating the history of this American art form that he hopes will educate the public on the roots of writing and attempt to rid it of the unsavory reputation that has long plagued it. The exhibit features more than 100 original works that include a vintage subway door, canvasses, and photographs. “Because of this current graffiti hysteria in New York, I think people are more curious than ever to learn more about what the art they are seeing on the street really means,” says Jenkins.

The editor, TV producer (VH1) and author, who has penned a number of books on graffiti and co-authored Eminem’s autobiography “The Way I Am” took some time out of from the exhibit to school us on the language of graffiti, the effect it had on his life, how freight trains are the new canvas, and why Chris Brown’s attempt at graffiti is a colossal fail.

How did “Write of Passage” come to fruition?
I’m an Editorial Director for Mass Appeal Magazine and we took this idea to Red Bull. I wanted to educate the public at large and hip them to the 40 year long history and the tradition that has been passed down to the folks around the world. It’s a great American art form, like rock & roll, jazz, the blues, and everything else people love about American culture. Graffiti is part of that pantheon and the world at large recognizes it. Red Bull is not an American company and they see the value and understand there is a culture here that speaks to people around the world. If you understand the root of the language of graffiti that was born in New York and Philadelphia, you can go anywhere in the world and you’ll find people of all races who participate in this writing culture and you can understand where they are coming from. This is because a percentage of what they might paint is an extension of what was pioneered in New York.

It’s fair to say that most people believe anything painted on a street wall is graffiti. “Write of Passage” clarifies that is not the case. Is Banksy more of a street artist?
[Graffiti] was called writing because they wrote their names. In the writing subculture, it’s all about language, words and focusing on that. In street art there might be dolphins, a rainbow or a smile, things that are familiar to folks in everyday life. Graffiti is a language most are not familiar with and are intimidated by. You are not really considered a writer unless you focus exclusively on letters and your desire is to create a letter form that makes you stand out. You can be a graffiti artist that incorporates faces and smiles in your writing. In the case of a Banksy, he has writing in his work but there isn’t much attention placed on the detail of creating writing or a word that is stylistically important. The words in his piece are just there to help communicate the bigger idea. The big idea in writing is the letters and words.

You don’t hesitate to call out people posing as writers. You penned a pretty hilarious and direct open-letter to Chris Brown addressing him adopting the graffiti artist moniker.
I’m not gonna say he has no artistic talent because obviously as a recording artist he does. As someone who works in the medium of spray paint, which I’ve seen him do, that is no easy task. He has what people in the culture call “can control”. He knows how to handle a can but just because he is painting a horse or donkey doesn’t make it graffiti. You have to work on your letters. With all the paint control in the world and all the money in the world, it will still take him years to understand the aesthetic of letter forms and know what’s been done before and what it will take to improve on that. I heard he is getting mentored by Slick from the West Coast who is certainly a respected guy who completely understands what it takes. I just don’t think you come off the street and say, “I’m Chris Brown, I’m painting a horse and I’m down.” That’s not how it works. You can paint a horse if you want but if your letters aren’t tight than you’re a guy who can paint a horse.

Will it ever be possible to shake the negative connotation of graffiti?
As long as it’s illegal to write on other people’s property, it’s always going to look like vandalism in the eyes of those people who don’t want it on their property. That’s a clear fact. Some graffiti writers will argue they were painting trains and making them beautiful and they did it to be creative, and now the MTA will have an ad wrap around an entire bus. Guess what? It’s capitalistic America and for the right price I’m sure the MTA will let you paint whatever you want. When you see a Banksy on your property illegally, people wanna dance on the ceiling. They understand they are gonna make money. If a graffiti artist wrote on your property, you might not understand what is being communicated and there is no money in it. I think that’s the fundamental difference between how New York is reacting to what Banksy is doing and the reaction a writer would get. If you’re dedicated enough to still be doing illegal graffiti, good luck, ‘cause if you get caught you’re looking at a serious felony. There are a lot of positive outlets for young people who have artistic talents and are fans of this art form. It can be communicated in a number of ways that don’t involve crime or what one might view as vandalism.

So are there still writers who bomb trains?
There are still people keeping it real, as they say. A lot of these people are older and whiter. Many think that graffiti is done exclusively by poor Black and Latino kids. A lot of the practitioners right now are white men in their thirties. There is burgeoning subculture of freight train graffiti that’s happening now too. You paint a train New Jersey and it ends up in Ohio.

How did you discover graffiti?
I moved to New York from Silver Spring, Maryland in 1977 and my mother told me to go outside and play. I had a football looking to make friends and everyone else had a magic marker. I learned that everyone had an alias and a graffiti name. Even my sister who is six years older than me had a graffiti name. She wasn’t a serious artist but she could write her nickname in a very stylized way. I stuck with it and then crack hit and most of the kids began to sell drugs. They would say, “Why are you still doing this? I’m gonna go make $1,000 a day. Graffiti is so passé.” That was in the ‘80s.

Graffiti kicked off your career in media…
I ended up publishing a graffiti ‘zine when I was 17. It led me to publish other magazines, write for establish publications, write books, and produce television shows. Graffiti got me started on my media career. It’s been a very positive happening in my life and I was never the best at it. I was able to take away the power that lies in saying I’m a writer at 12 and as an adult, I literally became a writer. There is something very narcissistic about it. It comes out of an environment where people have very low self-esteem and are looking to channel emotions and energy. It’s about saying I’m someone and you are gonna recognize me. That confidence helped a lot of people apply it to other mediums.  Many of these kids who started this are now pushing 50 or 60 and they were essentially doing an exercise in branding through perfecting their names. You can choose to look at all the negative attributes, but if you strip away all the positive attributes you can channel that energy in a smart way.

I interviewed Lady Pink [an iconic writer] years ago, and she was adamant about separating the art from hip-hop culture, whereas many other artists see it as one of the elements of hip-hop. What are your thoughts on it?
In 1980 there was a pretty definitive Village Voice article that kinda put graffiti, breakdance, DJing and rapping all in one article. At that point, in 1980, graffiti was happening for 10 years, breaking was around 10 years, DJ for seven and eight years, so these cultures already existed. What they had in common was this energy of young people. It just so happens many of those young people were renaissance and they were involve with all these elements at once. A lot of the writers who started in out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had nothing to do with hip-hop because hip-hop did not exist. One of the well-known early writers in New York was this Greek kid called Taki183. Maybe he liked some black music but hip-hop had nothing to do with his existence in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The attitude that comes with being a boisterous writer and saying “look at me” is very in line with an average rapper. I am not gonna correct somebody who says it is part of hip-hop, because it is in a sense. But it also predates hip-hop.

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Life, Faith, & Jewelry: Meet Vita Fede Designer Cynthia Sakai

It’s the day before the Billboard Music Awards, and Cynthia Sakai has been hard at work pulling pieces from her wildly popular jewelry line, Vita Fede (life & faith in Italian), to adorn the likes of Selena Gomez, Alicia Keys, Avril Lavigne, Ke$ha, and Jessica Alba for the big event.

“They are such a diverse group of women, but the beauty of Vita Fede is anyone can take our pieces and mix them into their own style,” says Sakai over the phone from her L.A. office. The number of famous women photographed in her pieces read like a laundry list of who’s who: Rihanna, Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Nicki Minaj, Mindy Kaling, and Anne Hathaway, to name a few. 

Vita Fede’s Italian-made creations have amassed an army of celebrity du jour devotees any designer would kill for. And just imagine: these priceless endorsements were acquired without a powerhouse PR team behind the brand wooing these sought-after clients. Sakai’s understated and timeless collection is enough to have celebrities contacting her office.

“Probably eight out of 10 calls or emails we get is about pieces they wore on a photo shoot,” she notes. Like the time Victoria Beckham’s assistant called from a magazine shoot to buy a ring Beckham just had to own.

Sakai insists that she doesn’t put more weight on her rich and famous fans than she does her average customers (“It’s all exciting, really!’). She often searches Instagram’s Vita Fede hashtags to see how people are stacking the different pieces, and often leaves comments.

“Social media has played a big role for us. It was really organic and nothing that we even planned,” she says when talking about the company’s substantial social media presence. “As opposed to magazines where an editor or a stylist curates the pieces, social media is just normal customers showing you what they like. It’s real genuine.”

But when she got an email about styling Gwyneth Paltrow for the Iron Man 3 premiere and the actresses’ book signing event, she admits to being very thrilled at the opportunity to work with the red-carpet veteran. “I just love her and her style. She is so chic.”

In the last two years, Vita Fede has been the first name in chic costume jewelry, leading the shift from the over-embellished designs that have dominated, to the clean and modern aesthetic that has now become de rigueur in fashion.

Although, when Saki first launched her line back in 2009, the feedback was less than welcoming for her brand of geometric accessories at a time when boho and vintage was the all the rage.

“People would ask why don’t you make things with beads, strings, or embroidery. That just wasn’t what I liked or would wear,” she recalls.

In fact, the line’s signature piece, the Titan, a hinged bangle with distinctive cone details, was deemed ugly by her Italian factory and outdated by her own business partner.

“When it came in, no one liked it or even noticed it for the first year.” Fast forward to the last year-and-a-half, and the Titan has reached “It” status, eliciting “ooohs and ahhhs” from celebrities, bloggers, and everyone in between.

Vita Fede’s pièce de resistance has since ignited a slew of knockoffs.  “I knew the Titan was very cool. It’s a classic piece with a bit of an edge that works for all women.” Sakai credits a button on her grandmother’s vintage dress as inspiration for the successful design. The Titan has since evolved into a whole family, with a myriad of iterations that include crystals and onyx.

The Titan wasn’t the first time Sakai – who launched her first accessories line when she was only 18 designing pretty cases to discreetly carry tampons – had a stroke of silhouette genius. Vita Fede was founded thanks to her unique ability to see beauty and retail potential in the unexpected.

“When I owned a showroom back in 2008, a friend gave me a bracelet from Italy and I just knew that I could sell it.” Her gifted leather-and-chain bracelet was a ubiquitous tourist souvenir sold in Italy for years, but when she got her hands on them and added her personal touch – new colors and metallic hardware – the bracelets, which she named Vita, crossed over from run-of-the-mill to fashionable.

“We sold 10,000 of them in the showroom and they were featured in every magazine. I had no intention of starting a line, but people were always asking me what’s next?”

Taking cues from the impeccably dressed Japanese women in her life such as her mother, who worked at Fendi and was involved in opening Fendi stores in the States, her grandmother and great-grandmother, Sakai was determined to lend a sophisticated sensibility to costume jewelry with Vita Fede.

“They all used to have their ready-to-wear tailor made, so quality and longevity was really instilled in me,” she points out. Her father, a former architect, no doubt had a role in Sakai’s love of clean lines and sculptural shapes.

Her American L.A. roots, is evident in the wearability of her line. You can pair one of her bracelets or rings as easily with a cocktail dress as you can with jeans. She strays from designing complicated special-occasion pieces and leans more towards an effortlessly modern and sleek European style she adopted on her many trips abroad.

“I wanted to create a line that both fashion and classic girls could wear every day,” she reveals. “Vita Fede makes a statement without being overbearing or in-your-face.”

Nailing that anonymously unpretentious look requires the intricate labor of five factories in Italy, whom also work with elite fashion brands like Céline, Saint Laurent, and Givenchy, to produce Vita Fede’s hand-crafted jewels. A single piece takes about six to eight weeks to bring to life.

Now that Sakai has succeeded in bringing craftsmanship back to costume jewelry, she is now set on eschewing the stuffiness of fine jewelry, and hopes to make it more relevant with her new upscale Black Label. The small inaugural collection is scheduled to launch in the US and Europe.

“When I go to a fine jewelry store, I still get that old, dated feeling of a tennis bracelet,” she says.  “Our customers who like to stack their Cartier and diamonds with Vita Fede are a bit hipper. They are looking for something that is not too edgy but still very cool.  We are working with black and clear diamonds and pink, white and solid gold.”

As for Vita Fede, the new pre-fall collection will consist “of a little more bling.” Sakai will also be adding more earrings to the mix and introducing a new cut-out design, inspired by a vintage ring her mother wore in the ‘60s, that will highlight more skin. We can also expect evening clutches to complement the jewelry collection in the near future.

Vita Fede is quietly poised to take over the costume jewelry world. In between working on these three new collections, Sakai is in the midst of launching the European markets, opening showrooms in Milan, Paris, and London.

The company is growing at warp speed, but multi-tasker Sakai plays it cool under pressure.  As if her day of Skype meetings, checking in on the factories, pulling pieces for clients, and chatting with me for this interview wasn’t enough, she casually mentions that she is also in the process of moving offices today.

“It’s just in a day’s work. I call it ‘organized chaos.’”

‘Awkward Black Girl’ Creator Issa Rae Talks About Her Webseries and Television Ambitions

The second season of “The Mis-Adventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” the popular web series created, produced, written and staring 28-year-old Issa Rae, came to an end last Thursday. Since this viral, award-winning show debuted back in 2011, we’ve watched J, the endearing socially inept lead character, fumble her way through her relationship with White Jay, a dead-end job, and the mundane occurrencesthat make up her days. “Long hallways are the epitome of discomfort. I already said hi to this woman, what other interaction can we possibly have? ” J asks in her voice-over. “Am I supposed to look at her the whole time? Do I act like the blank walls are interesting enough to stare at?”

Such are the awkward trials and tribulations of J’s life and, for that matter, many of ours, regardless of race, which explains why a diverse segment of viewers were instantly drawn to this hilariously relatable show and why, after having run out of money in the midst of the first season, Rae managed to rack up $56,000 in donations to complete the season from fans through a Kickstarter campaign.

“Awkward Black Girl” has garnered much praise and attention not only for its brand of relevant situational comedy in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld but also for its refreshing lead character that debunks all the ubiquitous stereotypes associated with African-Americans on the small or big screen. J is far from the one-dimensional roles we are accustomed to watching most black actresses play. She’s neither a comforting girlfriend, nor is she the overcompensating strong, got-it-together shot-caller or the angry sassy sista. Instead, she is the almost never seen vulnerable, self-conscious black woman that the mainstream media would like you to believe doesn’t exist.

“We’ve been denied a normal reflection of ourselves for so long. Not an overly dramatic, cool, or violent one, but just a normal character,” explains Rae over the phone from L.A. where she lives and shoots the series. “With ‘Awkward Black Girl,’ I sought to create a girl who just happens to be black that goes through the same things that everybody else goes through. Being awkward and black is never seen as a good thing.”

Rae should know.

When her family moved from Potomac, Maryland to L.A., Rae first understood there was a narrow definition of blackness and being awkward wasn’t one of the conventional identifiable descriptors. In Potomac she attended a diverse school for gifted and talented kids and was accustomed to being herself with no reproach, but at her predominantly black high school in L.A., a nerdy Rae’s blackness, or lack thereof, was up for debate. “I just did not fit in all. I wore my hair nappy; I didn’t have a perm like everyone else. To them I talked white and my sense of humor was white,” recalls Rae, who kept a low profile and sought refuge in theater class where she uncovered a budding interest for acting, writing, and producing, which then developed into her passion when she attended Stanford University. While in college Rae wrote and produced plays, and in 2007 she created her first hit web series, “Dorm Diaries,” which took a look at being black at a prestigious school.

“In college, the black, white, Latina friends I made all had the same specific kind of humor I had,” Rae says. “I realized then that it was universal, even if I didn’t see any people of color on Seinfeld. I knew we could and should all be included.” But not everyone agrees. After ‘Awkward Black Girl’ won the 2012 Shorty Award for Best Web Show, Rae was bombarded by racist tweets questioning the show’s merits. Some of them came from fellow web series creators stunned that they had “lost to a niggerette,” as one so cleverly pointed out to Rae. The tweets included such shocking and tasteless gems as, “#ThingsBetterThanAwkwardBlackGirl the smell coming from Trayvon Martin,” “Congrats on winning do you get 3/5 of the award?” and, “Of course the black one wins. Fuck the Shorty Awards.”

“The bewilderment that our show not only exists, but that it could actually be good is indicative of how mainstream media thinks,” Rae pointed out in an essay on XOJane following the show’s backlash. “This mindset is exactly why creative shows of color don’t get to exist on television anymore. There’s an overbearing sense of entitlement that refuses to allow shows of color to thrive. How dare we even try.”

“Some people are really closed minded,” says Rae. “It shows how brave other people are who got passed the word black in the title and watched and related to the show. I wanted to put black in the title. Why not? Why ignore it? It’s obvious, right? I’m black.” But that’s not where her identity ends. “At its core, the show is about this awkward girl who goes through ridiculous situations that forces everyone to relate,” Rae explains. “When people dismiss it as a black show, they just don’t get it.” The show also co-stars a racially diverse group of actors.

Grammy award-winning hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams, who in his own right has broadened hip-hop’s musical and stylistic landscape with his eclectic beats and whose rock band N.E.R.D. helped redefine the meaning of cool for a generation of young black males, reached out to Rae during the first season. “He was like, ‘I’m awkward and nobody believes that people like us exist,’” she remembers of their first conversation. “Awkward Black Girl” was exactly the sort of content Williams was after for his new video network web site, IAMOTHER.com. “Pharrell told me he wanted to be part of ‘Awkward Black Girl,’” she says. IAMOTHER.com is now funding the show, with the recently wrapped second season being the start of Williams and Rae’s thriving partnership. “He is the best,” she says. “The first thing he told me is that he wouldn’t change anything about the show. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Following Williams’s call, the offers have kept coming in from TV executives eager to develop this unique show. While bringing “Awkward Black Girl” over from the internet to the small screen is a very exciting prospect for Rae, she’s wary of losing the creative control that comes with producing your own work for the web. “The raw expression gets filtered ‘cause so many people get their hands on it,” she says. “It becomes about what is going to make money, and that’s not what is really important on the web.” Rae also admits that “Awkward Black Girl” is “just too close to me to just hand it off to anybody.”

Although she would be open to having the show air on a cable network. When she got a call from Shonda Rimes, the creator behind the wildly successful Grey’s Anatomy andScandal, Rae expressed her fears that “Awkward Black Girl” couldn’t work on network television; Rimes agreed and asked Rae for some more ideas. Rae pitched her a show she briefly worked on as a minisode on the web. “I wrote ‘I Hate L.A. Dudes,’” she says. “I had no idea where I was going with it, but I just knew that it was true to my life.” The short featured an L.A. man’s lengthy grooming session in front of the mirror before heading out on a date. “I do hate L.A. men tremendously, and Shonda does too,” she laments. “They suck! They are really sipping on their own Kool-Aid, and they swear they are the best thing since sliced bread.” Rimes loved the pitch, and she sold the half-hour comedy show about a young aspiring journalist navigating the L.A. dating scene to ABC. Rae will write and co-produce (but in which she will not star).

“I’ve been enjoying branching out and doing other things,” says Rae. This includes not only making the jump to network television but also creating content for other web series. Rae is in high demand, but despite her busy schedule, “Awkward Black Girl” continues to be her priority. The second season finale ends with a very big announcement—well possibly. “Next on Awkward Black Girl: An ABG Movie?” flashes on the screen before the credits role. “We are trying to make a feature-length film happen,” says Rae. She wants to create the kind of cult classic that she loved watching in the ‘90s, when movies starring black actors were more prevalent. “Love Jones and Love & Basketball were the kind stuff I wanted to write when I was younger,” she says. “It wasn’t about the struggle. They were basic love stories.”

Rae will no doubt add a healthy dose of clumsiness to her big-screen love story. This season ends with White Jay professing his love, following a relationship hiatus, to J, who has been missing him and waiting for his call. A self-conscious J uneasily responds with, “Oh, thank you! That’s what’s up. That’s great. High-five!” Awkward!
 

Photo by Elton Anderson for Rolling Stone.

The Wallace Brings Quality Cuisine to a Burgeoning Strip in Brooklyn

Clinton Hill, Brooklyn may not be the first destination that comes to mind when hit with a hankering for locally grown and seasonal American cuisine, but thanks to restaurateurs Chef Jon Wallace and partner and fiancée Jessica Soule’s The Wallace restaurant, the fast-developing Fulton Street is now home to a great addition that has been leading the charge to revitalize this corner deli and Chinese take-out-dominated area into a foodie hot-spot.

“What we liked about it here is that it’s a place that is very diverse,” explains Wallace. “There is an influx of new residents and people who have been here for a long time. The possibility to serve everyone was very exciting to us.” Setting up here also meant much lower rent than in the much-gentrified and bustling culinary haven of Fort Greene, which neighbors Clinton Hill to the west. Wallace and Soule jumped at the chance to stand out with their selection of refined American gastronomy. Since opening The Wallace’s doors back in September, a couple of new restaurants have followed suit by opening shop on Fulton. “We both have this great passion for all things New York, Brooklyn and American,” reveals Soule, who along with Wallace resides in Flatbush. “It’s the amalgamation of cultures in Brooklyn we love. Everyone can find a home here.”

Having made a name for himself cooking scrumptious comfort food at Buttermilk Channel and gastro-pub fare at Thistle Hill Tavern, Wallace was ready to indulge in his own interpretation of American cooking which has very little to do with comfort or bar food. “A lot of the American restaurants that have been opening recently are based on comfort food. I love it and it’s something I cook for myself, but what we wanted to be is different. There are plenty of places that cook mac and cheese and do it very well, but I was pretty much finish with doing comfort food. I wanted to do something that reflected my culinary experience growing up,” says Wallace, who describes a childhood exposed to a mélange of flavors which included Southern, Japanese, Indian, Thai and Portuguese.

Before embarking on his culinary journey, Wallace worked as an executive in the publishing world for ten years. An unexpected lay-off from his post as Director of Publishing at The Source magazine back in 2006 was the catalyst for a career change. “After some soul searching, a friend, who I had cooked for several times, suggested I get in touch with her friend who owned Lamb & Jaffy in Greeenpoint to see if they needed any help,” recalls Wallace, who went from working at the top of the corporate ladder to being assigned to washing dishes and taking out the garbage. “Walking into a professional kitchen for the first time and despite my, at the time, extremely high opinion of my cooking skills and being told and that I really wasn’t qualified to touch food was humbling and changes one’s perspective very quickly.” Forgoing culinary school training, Wallace chose instead to learn on the job from “a number of great chefs.” His hands-on training consisted of basic French culinary techniques with a focus on American cuisine. He quickly excelled and became a sous chef at Buttermilk Channel and later a chef at Thistle Hill Tavern.

“Working with American food allows you to take the influences of all the numerous culinary cultures of the world and throw them together in a melting pot similar to America,” Wallace says. “If I feel like I want to use curry, miso or chimmy churry in any of my dishes, I can pretty much sell it as American food—as far as using American ingredients and making things that are familiar to an American audience.”

His refined American “farm-to-table” menu boasts appetite-rousing dishes such as a mouth-watering duck breast served with fingerling potatoes, baby turnips, and shaved brussels sprouts. There are the much-loved scallops with hazelnut cauliflower purée, onion jam, and brown butter appetizer. For their burger with garlic aioli, they grind their own beef, make their own buns and pickles, and hand-cut their fries turning the classic burger into something brilliantly delightful. They also make their own cheeses, jams, and seasonal flatbread with caramelized onion, olives, and egg in the center. The braised oxtails accompanied with creamy polenta, toasted breadcrumbs, and crispy garlic have become The Wallace’s quintessential and by far the most raved-about dish on the menu.A very unthought-of piece of meat but elevated to be something really fancy and beautiful,” says Soule.

Locavores Wallace and Soule have also expanded their celebration of all things American to their extensive wine selections. The wine menu is all-American and seasonal here, with a concentration on New York State and Long Island; all of the featured cocktails are all made with Brooklyn spirits. “We are really trying to keep it as local as possible,” says Soule, who honed her American wine chops, along with her hospitality expertise, whie working the front-of-the-house at Manhattan restaurants like Zoe and Chubo, where service was paramount. “I think attentive and knowledgeable service is essential to being a good restaurant,” she explains. “You don’t have to be stuffy to be efficient. Being friendly is another part of it. We are not trying to be too cool for school.” On the topic of service, Wallace adds, “One of my biggest problems with restaurants, old and new, in Brooklyn is hipster service. The idea of ‘Ugh, I’m here, you’re here, let’s just get through this.’ When you are dealing with that type of attitude from a server, it just makes you feel like you are an imposition to them.”

The modest décor at The Wallace is warm and inviting with dark wood tables, chairs, and banquette. Vintage mirrors of all shapes cover the wall to add depth to the long and narrow space. “We wanted it to look like a cross between a French bistro and a steak house,” says Soule. Modern industrial-looking chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The lighting is dimmed, and candles are lit on each table for dinner. It’s both romantic for date nights and just chill enough for an easy dinner with friends and family.

While Wallace had been conceiving his initial opening menu five years prior to opening The Wallace and loves to share unconventional flavors and dishes with his customers, it quickly became apparent that there could be such a thing as “too cute of a menu,” at least at their present location. “In the short month that we opened, I might have gone too far with some things,” he says. “We’ve changed the menu to reflect what our customers want to eat.” Take for instance the charcuterie plate that included duck liver pate and testa headcheese. Wallace, a huge fan of testa, noticed the plate just wasn’t selling. “To a lot of people the idea of eating something called headcheese, even if you try to disguise it with the Italian name testa, wasn’t appealing,” he explains. The duck liver pate has a strong irony taste and gamey-ness to it which made their pate much stronger in taste than people were accustomed to. So they did away with the headcheese and replaced the duck liver with chicken, and now the plate sells. “When you fall in love with a particular flavor or dish, especially if it’s something that is rare or different, you want to share it. Unfortunately sometimes those dishes, no matter how much you love don’t sell,” says Wallace before adding that his “primary responsibility is to serve my customers.”

But there is a line that must be drawn between catering to the masses and creating the type of food that inspires and fulfills you as a chef. His eclectic menu and concerted effort to stray away from comfort and soul food have some residents in the neighborhood accusing him of pandering to white customers. “I’m proud of being a black chef,” Wallace declares. “There are far too few of us, and those of us in this industry get pigeonholed into making comfort food or Southern food. All of which I believe are noble pursuits. Nevertheless, if I want to make a menu that is contemporary then I feel there is a burden on me that I am somehow leaving our culinary traditions behind.” It’s an issue about which Wallace feels very strongly. “Hearing from black people that I don’t cook a certain way so they won’t come here… It’s ridiculous, scary, reductive, and backward-ass thinking. If you’re not inclined to give my restaurant a fair shake ’cause there is no fried chicken on the menu, then up yours. Seriously.”

Word-of-mouth has been essential in The Wallace’s growth and so has residents’ support of the local restaurant. Their customers are made up of Brooklyn locals and diners making the trek from Manhattan. “We definitely benefit from the Barclays Center,” Soule says. “When there are big events or concerts, we get more people from outside the area for dinner.” The restaurant is still at its early stages (having only been open for five months), so landing a table for dinner or brunch doesn’t require a long wait. Although that may soon change with Fulton becoming the new up-and-coming restaurant row Soule and Wallace predicted it would be. “The challenge is getting people to think of Fulton as a place to get great food and dining and not just take out,” Soule says. “We’ve had a good feeling about this area from the start, and now it’s changing in the right direction.”

The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman Opens Up About His New Book

“I don’t need a big important coffee table book right now,” says Scott Schuman, the leading street-style photographer better known as The Sartorialist about his new book of photographs, Closer. Since launching his popular blog in 2006, Schuman has inspired a bevy of professional and novice photographers around the world to pick up a camera and hit the streets in search of stylish pedestrians. Schuman has not only been a creative muse for many within the blogger world, but his savvy and strategic business moves, which have won him coveted advertisers for his blog and placed The Sartorialist.com on the list of financially successful blogs, has many hoping to follow in his foot-steps.

Despite his numerous accomplishments, a CFDA Media Award 2012 (which he shared with fellow style blogger and girlfriend Garance Doré) being one of them, Schuman couldn’t dream of releasing a pristine coffee table book. He was adamant about releasing Closer in paperback in hopes of encouraging readers to use it as a workbook. “I don’t want it to be something people are intimidated by. I wanted people to be able to rip out pages and put them on their walls,” says Schuman via cell phone during one of his daily outings in New York City searching for subjects to shoot. “I love the fact that he gets inspired by artists outside of fashion; I think he’s bigger than fashion and that is very motivating to me,” reveals Doré, who has a section in Closer dedicated to her easy, chic sense of style.

Similar to his first best-selling book, this second volume will feature photographs Schuman has posted on his blog and many special ones he’s held onto especially for the book. Editing down his monstrous collection to 500 book-worthy images then proceeding to match them side-by-side is no small feat, so Schuman initially enlisted the help of his readers. “It was a great idea until I realized that not only is shooting these images personal but also how you lay them out is. That’s just something nobody can really help me out with. I just have to go through the process.”

We caught up with Scott Schuman to talk about his new book, the upcoming Fashion Week shows and street-style bloggers’ focus on editors.

What can we expect from this second volume of photographs?
Igot to go to much more diverse places this time around. The first book was the first three years of the blog, and in the beginning you have to go where people would send you. For the last couple of years, I’ve been able to take a little more control over my own career. I get to decide where to send myself on trips. I’ve got shots from Morocco, Savannah, Georgia or Dublin. That’s on top of all the fashion capitals.

It’s a big coup in fashion circles to be shot by you. What drew you to the subjects who made your two covers for Closer?
The young lady has such calmness to her in the photograph and such a direct gaze. What she was wearing looked beautiful and the way she has her hands looks very calm. Using this image for the cover was almost a no-brainer. It is such a strong image and she’s very beautiful, but I think there’s that beautiful ease that I love. I like the colors she is wearing and the darkness of the background. I knew right way this was the cover.

I feel that a lot of times we’ve lost the masculinity in men’s fashion. I love designer fashion from Givenchy or Jill Sander because they do beautiful work, but I don’t know if it always portrays men in a masculine way that I’m particularly inspired by. I can understand how others are inspired. I’m inspired by those designers in an abstract way, but I think we’ve lost the masculinity of the ‘30s and ‘40s. This photograph [on the second cover] brings that back for me. I mean, there’s a guy who looks great, his clothes fit amazing, and there’s this sense of masculinity about him. He’s cool and he’s kind of a throwback. I think one of the reasons my site took off in the beginning, particularly in the men’s section, is because of that element I brought. When you look at fashion magazines or ads with men it’s almost like women’s wear now. The ads are covered with a bunch of 22-year-old very skinny little boy models that many men, or women, can’t relate to. Maybe young girls can relate to them. For those reasons, that picture just felt so right.

Your images are rooted in fashion. Do you consider yourself a fashion photographer?
August Sander was a strict photographer but because he captured such interesting elements of life at that moment, now a 100 years later you can’t help but look at the fashion in these photographs. The only difference with me is I have a chance share a fashion experience for a contemporary audience with my photographs. People won’t dress the way we do now and I think they will be able to find inspiration in my images 100 years later, but in a more abstract way. What life must have been like back then!

New York Fashion Week is coming up. There are going to be men and women vying for your attention. Do you ever experience awkward moments when people try to get you to take pictures of them?
I don’t really have people who try to get me to take their picture. I don’t always wear my glasses and I have a hard time seeing. Sometimes when I run into Garance [Doré] on the street, she’ll say, “You look so mean.” It’s because I’m having a hard time seeing. The only awkward moments are when I run into people I’ve photographed in the past and maybe I don’t want to shoot them this time around. It’s usually those people who expect to be photographed and that’s more awkward.

Your blog is one of the few that still highlight non-fashion industry folks. Most street-style blogs today are consumed with editors. What do you make of this focus street-style blogs have taken?
I think it’s just laziness. I have been doing fashion for a long time before the blog. I love going to see the shows and I do think the editors can be interesting, but that’s just a part of the blog. In an odd way it’s about the person, but it’s about my abstract romantic ideas of that person. I never mention their name or what they do. For me it’s much more abstract. It’s completely out of my control that a lot of these editors, like Anna Dello Russo, ended up becoming individual stars. I understand why people look up to them, but I always got much more out of it when they were just an idea. I do love going out and shooting real people on the street. That’s an area I’ve been pushing myself to more. If you look at the last couple of weeks of the blog, you really see some great New York moments. I know that’s my point of differentiation in this world. I think the way Garance and I have evolved is we go to Paris for Fashion Week, but we are not obsessed by the shows. We might check out a different neighborhood or go to a store. We try to create it as if we are going on a trip to Paris to see shows, but there are other things to do too. That keeps me from being too excited about seeing any particular person.

Do the hordes of photographers at the shows make your job harder?
It makes it harder in the sense that it takes away from the specialness and the romance. If I saw Anna Dello Russo in a particular way, I was very careful to shoot her as I saw her in the right light and create a mood. Once she’s taken off as a star, all the lazy bloggers want to just take a picture of her. It’s doesn’t matter if it’s a good picture, they just want to report what she is wearing. We end up with a million bad pictures of her. It kills the romance, ya know? What I’ve done is continue to not just look at the front row but also the behind scene people, the fourth row and the fashion fans. I also enjoy shooting other photographers. There’s something I love about the physicality of taking pictures. It looks beautiful.

Hotel BPM Remixes the Hospitality Experience With Fresh Beats

So much has been said and written about Hotel BPM (Beats Per Minute), the new music-themed hotel that opened in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park on August 1st. The first of its kind, Hotel BPM’s unconventional theme sparked lots of talk when owner DJ BIJAL revealed his plans to blend music and hospitality. The notion of a music hotel was hard to swallow at first; a number of misconceptions were spread about Hotel BPM throughout its four-year construction phase. There were those who touted it as a party hotel with music blasting out of speakers unto the street, rooftop parties, and neon light shows. Not surprisingly, the hotel’s neighbors grew concerned at the thought of a 24-hour rave in their midst, but upon learning of DJ BIJAL’s bona fide vision for the music hotel, it was all love.

“The initial reaction was very mixed,” says DJ BIJAL standing in the lobby of the hotel as workers continue putting the final touches to the space for this week’s opening. “Some people were confused and they were calling it everything from a hip-hop hotel to a party hotel. They were completely wrong. I just have a passion for music, and I’m incorporating this aspect into a luxury hotel. The hotelis completely soundproof,” he explains.

Just how does Hotel BPM differ from standard hotels? The distinctions are clear even before you step foot inside the 76-room building. When you call up the hotel to make reservations, guests are asked for their choice of songs for the request hour, which is every day from 10am to 11am. These songs are played randomly and can be heard throughout the hotel’s shared spaces and inside the rooms. Unlike previously rumored, the hotel doesn’t pledge allegiance to hip-hop alone, but all music. When Sensation, dance music’s biggest event, makes its American debut at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in October, Hotel BPM will fine-tune their playlist to cater to the many electro, techno, and dub-step fans staying at the hotel for the big party. “We try to appeal to everyone and the songs requested have really been across the board,” says DJ BIJAL, who made a name for himself spinning mostly hip-hop and dancehall reggae around the world and on his Sirius XMradio show. He has also collaborated with artists like Ne-Yo and Akon.

“The feel of the music changes throughout the day. We increase in BPM as the day goes on, so the music gets higher in energy,” he reveals. “For your morning breakfast, you’ll hear more mellow songs that aren’t instantly recognizable. Come check-in time,we play more radio-friendly hits. So far the first round of guests have requested a little bit of everything. We’re talking a little bit of Selena Gomez, Frank Sinatra, and Fabulous.” As long as the song requested is in the hotel’s catalogue of licensed music, DJ BIJAL will play it. Every time a song is heard during the request hour, the artist gets credit. “We are supporting the music industry along the way, and that’s always great.”

Although when visiting DJs spin in the hotel’s lobby, they are free to play anything they want—as long as it’s clean. “All the DJs under contract have to play at least 90% clean music,” DJ BIJAL explains. “I get that you can’t do it 100% of the time because you just may not have a clean version of every song.” Rooms come equipped with volume control. If you want to hear the DJ’s set in your room, all you have to do is turn it up, and if you’re not feeling the DJ, well, just turn it off. 

The Fashion Club Blends Menswear and a Feminine Sensibility

“I love blogging, but it can get people to be kind of narcissistic, especially when there’s really nothing you’re promoting besides other people’s products or yourself,” points out one of the blogosphere’s prominent fashion bloggers, Lulu Chang of LuLu and Your Mom. Chang may have gained notoriety through her popular style blog where she documents her affinity for streetwear culture and her passion for technology and fashion, but she always had big plans to flex her creative muscles outside of the blogger world. Since launching Lulu and Your Mom in 2009, Chang has done just that, releasing The Fashion Coloring Book, a fun collection of fashion illustrations sold at MoMA and The Met. This summer, Chang, along with designer and friend Heidi Leung, is making the transition into the world of fashion design with an impressive new line called The Fashion Club, which melds high fashion tailoring, menswear and luxurious fabrics with a touch of punk and streetwear appeal that’s all Chang and Leung.

The Fashion Club designers talked to BlackBook about their new line, their vision for women’s menswear, and the importance of well-fitting clothes.

While there have been many established brands that have collaborated with fashion and style bloggers on special collections or pieces, The Fashion Club is really the first line created by a blogger from scratch.
Lulu Chang:
The Fashion Club was a natural and organic next step. Heidi and I were looking for the next evolution. It all came together naturally through the powers of technology. We IM each other a lot because she is based all the way in London and I’m in L.A. There are a lot of bloggers who are just the face of a brand and aren’t involved in the design process. This is definitely not that. First of all, it’s a real partnership between us. I have a hand in everything. We do everything for this line. It’s our baby. It’s a capsule collection for this first season. We will be producing double the amount of pieces next time around. I don’t want the fact that I’m a blogger to discredit the fact that this is a real label. Real talent and really hard work were put into this line just like any other established label. This is not simply to sell off my name.

Heidi, your background is deeply rooted in fashion design. How did you end up launching The Fashion Club with Lulu?
Heidi Leung:
I went to UC Berkley [where Lulu and Heidi first met] and then Central Saint Martin’s to study fashion. I just graduated in 2010. I did my internships at Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane. I always wanted to start a label, and last year I entered a contest for young designers called Fashion Fringe. I made it to the finals and was given my own show and funding to design a line. I realized, after working on my own line, just how hard and stressful this process was by myself. I was encouraged to continue the line but decided against it. One day Lulu and I were talking about my experience and we just decided to launch a line together. We’ve always been fans of each other’s work. I really like to take my time researching and drawing. That’s really my favorite part of the process. Lulu is really good at getting things done in a timely manner. That’s her strength and it balances out with how I like to work.
LC: You can sit around and keep perfecting one thing forever. I’m pretty much always pushing to get things done and to make it happen now. This is always with the intention of doing it as best as we can. Heidi’s final collection to graduate had a lot of shirting and structure, and it was beautiful. I really took to that aspect of her designs. She really likes wearing dresses and I like wearing pants. I’ll be like, “We need to make more pants,” and she’ll say, “I don’t think I can make pants!” We played around with some ideas and now Heidi is the best pant designer. The line is a seamless collaboration between both our worlds.

Although there’s a strong menswear aesthetic injected in the collection, the feminine sensibility is very much present. Where did you guys draw inspiration for your debut?
HL:
It’s very important that we keep it feminine at all times. As much as I like to look like a robot sometimes, it’s really nice to feel like you look really pretty. We were looking at a lot of uniforms and utilitarian garments. Lulu and I are small girls, so it’s hard for us and many other girls to wear a man’s garment without it looking obviously like we tried to do exactly that. The fit of these pieces were very important to us, especially at the shoulders. People don’t care about quality anymore. They aren’t that knowledgeable about it and they can’t tell the difference. It’s important for us to show that as a young label we are serious about quality and fit.
LC: Stores like H&M are the ethos right now in the US. It’s all about finding the cheapest ways to make trendy clothes, so expensive materials such as wool is so much harder to find. I was talking to suppliers and it seems like the environment is changing. There is a shift for better made clothes. People are oversaturated with high street brands. I don’t want 50 pants; just one great fitting pair is fine. There are also enough boyfriend jeans and boyfriend things out there. I wear a lot oversized clothes, but a lot of what we do in the collection is fitted garments. What we really like from menswear is not what people traditionally like or borrow from. Men have such limited options, so they really concentrate on the fit of their clothes. Shirt and jackets fitting perfectly is what we respect and admire from menswear. We are both still very girly and love pink. Girls communicate on a level only girls understand. We want to maintain that balance.
 

The Fashion Club online store will be open for shopping in August.

Ari Seth Cohen’s ‘Advance Style’ Jumps From the Internet to Bookshelves

Photographer Ari Seth Cohen may only be 30 years old, but he has single handedly overturned the hierarchies of street style with his fresh approach and unlikely subjects. You won’t find Cohen chasing after the latest IT blogger or fashion editor—he’d rather document the style adventures of an overlooked segment of our population: the 60 and over crowd. On his blog, Advanced Style, the San Diego native wanders New York City on the hunt for uniquely dressed older women with advanced style to prove that, despite what the media and the fashion world would like us to believe, style doesn’t have to come with an expiration date.

“I want these older women to be role models for us on how to live life to the fullest,” explains Cohen, whose love for the mature woman’s aesthetic dates back to watching old movies and vintage shopping with both of his grandmothers as a little boy. “I was struck by the amazing style of people like Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. I really appreciated the way everyone dressed so elegantly. I used to look at my grandmother’s old photographs growing up in the depression and everyone still looked so amazing. That was a huge influence.”

Five years since the blog launched, Advanced Style is getting the book makeover through powerHouse Books. The tome features photographs of a stylistically diverse mix of Cohen’s muses, along with inspiring tips and thoughts about style, life, and aging. In addition to a new book under his belt, Before jetting off to pick up the new bright pink suit he’ll be wearing for his book release party tonight at The New Museum, Cohen talked to us about his admiration for our elders and what today’s young gals can learn from the ladies about staying forever chic.

Your reverence for older women and their style was influenced by your close relationship with your grandmothers. How did the blog come to fruition?
I was living in Seattle, studying art history and working in galleries. Before I moved to New York, I was managing a men’s store and buying for them. As a kid, my grandmother always told me I should move to New York if I wanted to do something creative. She passed away six years ago, and that’s when I knew it was time to move to the city. When I first moved to here, I was working at the bookstore at The New Museum as a supervisor and doing my blog on my days off. I’ve always been interested in older people and their style. Right before I moved here, I saw a film called Hats Off starting this 94-year-old woman named Mimi Weddell. She was an incredibly elegant woman who never went aNew Yorkwhere without a hat or gloves. She was in campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Burberry. She started modeling and acting at 65. I got to meet her at the film premiere in San Diego. I called her as soon as I got to New York. She was really my muse. I started noticing so maNew York older people who are still active, interesting, and stylish, yet I noticed there was such a lack of imagery of older people in the media and advertising. I wanted to show the world what I was seeing. I had no clue how people would respond to it.

What kind of reaction were you getting from the women you approached on the street?
These women were surprisingly open. You expect New Yorkers not to be that friendly, but I would photograph women on the street and they’d invite me to their house. I was amazed at how open they were. Just like young people, they were so collaborative and great at networking. These women shared so much with me and trusted me. I think a big part of what I have to do is earn their trust. Not all of them first understood what a blog was. I want to bring visibility to these women who speak to me about feeling invisible after they started aging. The blog is making them feel visible again. My mom comes to visit and will spot advanced style faster than I do. She’ll go running after these ladies in the West Village screaming, “My son has a blog!” I’ll get embarrassed. Both my parents are always looking for people for me to photograph everywhere they go. My mom loves fashion.

Where do you find your subjects? What draws you to a particular person, and what turns you off?
I walk around the whole city. I want them to be pretty diverse. I go a lot on the Upper East and West Side. I even go around the East Village. I don’t usually photograph women who are dressed all in designer labels and don’t have a personal sense of style. I don’t like to photograph women who’ve had too much plastic surgery. I like to photograph women who are aging naturally. These are the women who inspire me in some way.

Have you discovered advanced style outside of New York? How much of your work is inspired by the city?
I just got back from Switzerland, Rome, and Paris, and you can certainly find advanced style everywhere. There’s a lot more here because people do feel a certain sense of freedom to dress how they want in New York. People walk the streets and everyone is out in the world. In San Diego, I may have not come across these people because everyone drives.

The fashion industry revolves around youth. It’s certainly doesn’t celebrate growing old gracefully or taking pride in growing older. What are your thoughts on how mature women are represented in the industry?
I think that when you see that elegant older woman at the shows or even older models, there’s always a good reaction to it. It’s just that there is a lack of it. It’s very strange that there’s not more older people in campaigns. They shop, too, and they don’t want to see a 15-year-old selling them a product. When older women are used, I think it makes a great impact. These women have honed their styles for so many generations and they have so much to teach us about life. I like to start with style and then really use these people as examples of how to live life to the fullest. They don’t think about fashion all day every day—it’s just a part of their life. They don’t have anything to prove to anyone; so many tell me that they wear what makes them happy. They aren’t worried about dressing for a man, woman, or a job—they are dressing for themselves. They are fearless and don’t really care what people think.

Yes, it’s so striking how so many of them are so daring and experimental with their style choices. What can young women learn from them?
To really trust yourself and develop a personal sense of style. It’s not about relying on trends. Dress to please yourself. It’s about embracing who you are, what looks good on you and wearing it with confidence.

What do you see in older people that most of your peers today don’t?
[Young people] are so interested in ourselves. These older women, compared to the younger generation, are more aware of themselves and have a lot to share. When you’re young, you really get caught up concentrating on success. There are a lot of prejudices against older people. We tend not see the value in relationships with older people because our culture is so focused on youth. When you start looking outside of that, it can change.

Think you’ll ever succumb to shooting a younger crowd?
It’s really not what I’m interested in. I’m not sure if everything I’ll do in the future will have to do with fashion, but I always want to work with older people in some capacity. I appreciate style, but fashion is not my main interest.

Has your experience with the blog changed your view of getting old? Do you feel older than you are?
I don’t necessarily feel older than I am. These women don’t feel as old as they are. Hanging out with them is like hanging out with some of my friends. I have a 100-year-old friend that I go to lunch with, and It’s hard to believe she is that age. It’s not that I’m looking forward to getting old; it’s more that I’m not afraid of getting older. It’s going to happen—we are all going to grow older. The ladies are examples of how I want to get older and take care of myself when I’m that age.

The High Price of Haute Couture

Public interest in the campaign against sweatshops hit an all time high in the ‘90s following the news that high-profile brands like Nike and Gap were using sweatshop factories that paid women and children mere pennies to produce their merchandise. The anti-sweatshop movement, along with widespread public pressure, would ultimately force these companies to reevaluate the working conditions in some of their facilities. Although the fight for a sweatshop-free world may have evolved and strengthened over the years, it seldom makes the front-page news—that is until a major brand or celebrity is an offender. “It’s sad, but if you can implicate a name that is known to the public in this messy issue you can get attention,” says Robert Ross, a Clark University Sociology professor whose book, Slaves To Fashion, takes an in-depth look at the death and re-birth of U.S. sweatshops in the 20th century. “Every once and a while, we people who are concerned about these matters break through the crust of apathy and get a little airtime.”

And that’s exactly the case with the recent shocking reports on the multiple labor violations at Apple’s Chinese manufacture, Foxconn, the lawsuit filed against Alexander Wang for alleged labor law violations by workers, and the Human Rights Watch investigation into the working conditions of the factories where the Kardashians’ clothing line is produced. “Sweatshop” is once again a buzz word, and the anti-sweatshop movement is taking full advantage of this renewed media attention on worker rights to continue to push for systematic change, galvanize the ever-increasing segment of socially-conscious consumers, educate those unfamiliar with the cause, and air out the industry’s dirty laundry. The collective mood right now among activists is one of hope.

“I think right now we are seeing a push for more transparency because of all the current bad press that has come out,” says Green America’s Fair Trade Campaign Director, Elizabeth O’Connell. “Factories and brands need to be held accountable for exploiting their workers.” Through consumer action campaigns, Green America works to advance environmentally and socially responsible business. “The best way to protect worker rights is to ensure they have control over what they do and are paid a fair wage.” Hershey’s chocolate is Green America’s latest target, thanks to their unfair labor practices and forced child labor in West Africas.

The concept of empowered factory workers is an unheard notion in sweatshops around the world where the basic rights of workers (mostly women and teenage girls) are disregarded. Violations such as dangerous working conditions, child labor, forced and unpaid overtime, discrimination against union members, and a lack of living wages have been documented at factories across Asia, Central and South America, and the U.S. In this globalized economy, companies facing pressure to meet quarterly earnings have strived to keep costs down by working with the cheapest factories regardless of their labor practices. This profit-boosting but socially irresponsible model has become the norm at the expense of factory workers.

The International Labor Rights Forum, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that organizes for the rights of workers around the world, featured several familiar brands in their 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame. Abercrombie & Fitch, Hanes, Pier 1 Imports, L.L. Bean, Ikea, Wal-Mart, and Kohl’s all earned their spot on the list for being uncooperative in addressing a number of violations by their suppliers that include poverty wages, unsafe work conditions, illegal suspensions for union members, and child labor.

Since most companies don’t own the factories from which they outsource their goods, and because the labor laws in these developing countries are hardly enforced, the brands often claim ignorance to conditions on the ground or simply dismiss the allegations. For Liana Foxvog, The International Labor Rights Forum’s Co-Director of SweatFree Communities, indignation and unawareness are lazy excuses. “Many top brands are using hundreds of different subcontractor factories,” Foxvog explains, “but at the same token they stay in touch with all these factories to go over updates on designs and product quality control. They can also handle communicating the labor expectations.”

We saw this dance of naïveté famously play itself out on national television back in 1996 when Katie Lee Gifford appeared on The Today Show to deny any knowledge that her Wal-Mart fashion line was being produced in a sweatshop by teenage girls in Honduras, as revealed in scathing report by the National Labor Committee. NLC’s Charles Kernaghan, who has perfected the art of publicly confronting designers and companies about their factories’ shady labor practices, questioned Gifford on air and made the TV host cry. A vow from Gifford to support labor rights and a campaign against sweatshops with President Clinton quickly ensued.

Sure, there are those companies that after being exposed are persuaded to investigate the charges and implement changes in their supply chain. Take, for instance PVH, the parent company that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. In 2010, a fire at one of their factories in Bangladesh, which also supplied Gap, JC Penney, North Face, Target, and Abercrombie & Fitch, killed 29 young garment workers who were padlocked inside the factory and could not escape the blaze. Just recently the company signed a memorandum of understanding with several labor rights organizations and unions in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to create fire safety standards for their factories and fund independent monitoring. It takes more than one company at a factory, however, to make any real changes to workers’ wages and conditions. Each factory produces goods for many brands at one given time, so unless all the brands get on the same page when it comes to supporting worker rights, these small changes won’t have a significant effect.

“There are companies who get pressure all the time and they never change. They become larger targets of what is wrong with sweatshop labor,” explains Harvey Epstein, Community Development Director at the Urban Justice League, which offers free legal services to low income New Yorkers. In 2003, UJL represented a then 19-year-old garment worker who worked at Southeast Textiles S.A., a factory in Honduras producing P. Diddy’s Sean John t-shirts for 90 cents an hour. She complained of mandatory pregnancy tests, non-paid overtime, and verbal abuse at the Southeast Textiles S.A. factory. Following an avalanche of bad press, Sean John made improvements to that specific factory. “The pressure brings light to the problems, but it has to be an internal decision about caring for people around the world or else it’s just talk,” adds Epstein. “The strongest guarantor of decent conditions is a strong union. These companies have to get off the anti-union horse. The apparel industry is under six percent unionized,” says Robert Ross.

Even Nike, one of the very few apparel companies who freely disclose all the factories they use and are praised for adopting policies that support worker rights, continue to come up short, despite being touted as an example for other companies to follow. Just earlier this month, 107 workers at a factory where Nike apparel is being made fainted due to poor ventilation and exposure to chemicals. So how meaningful are codes of conduct if they are public relations moves? This is why independent third-party monitoring of factories are crucial to see beyond the smoke and mirrors. Even then, factory management has been known to falsify their books and coach their workers on what to say to inspectors.

All this makes shopping with a conscience an overwhelming experience. We are bombarded with labels that let us know that our chicken is organic and our light bulbs are green, but what about our gadgets and clothes? Author Kelsey Timmerman wasn’t satisfied with shopping blindly and wanted to know exactly where and in what conditions his favorite T-shirt, underwear, jeans, and flip-flops were made. Timmerman travelled to China, Cambodia, and Honduras to visit the factories his clothes were manufactured and, most importantly, talk to the workers who all complained about wages.

“The garment industry does something that’s really important; they go to places where there is a lot of poverty and they provide jobs,” says Timmerman who documented his travels in his book, Where Am I Wearing? “We need a garment industry that pays people what they are worth. There is a reason why a mother in Bangladesh will work for 24 dollars a month: she has no other options. We are not gonna shop our way into a better world, but we can start by being engaged consumers.”

Perhaps one of the most successful anti-sweatshop campaigns to date in the last ten years has been spearheaded by college students across the country. United Students Against Sweatshops has been instrumental in pressuring universities to sever their ties with brands that utilize sweatshops to produce their collegiate apparel. “The issue of sweatshops is especially relevant to college students because of the unique leverage that students have over multi-national apparel brands. We had tons of influence to affect the behavior and labor rights practices and policies of these brands,” explains Teresa Cheng, USAS’s International Campaigns Coordinator. Launched in 1997 during the height of the sweatshop scandals, USAS has since gotten a large number of universities including Duke and Cornell to break lucrative contracts with many brands. In fact, the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization, founded in 2000 by university administrators, students, and international labor rights experts, joined forces in 2009 with leading supplier of collegiate gear, Knights Apparel, to create a factory that will produce 100 percent sweatshop-free clothes to be sold on college campuses. Alta Gracia is unlike any factory in the world. Based in the Dominican Republic, Alta Gracia is the only factory in the garment industry that makes workers’ rights and labor laws a major priority in the work place.

“We’ve exposed the age-old myth that corporations like to espouse about how you can’t pay a worker a living wage and can’t respect their right, if you want to compete in the global apparel industry to be a big fallacy,” adds Cheng. Alta Gracia garment workers are the only ones in the world compensated with a real living wage, nearly three and a half times the prevailing minimum wage in the Dominican Republic making it possible for them to send their children to school, build a home ,and pay their bills. The management even encourages workers to unionize. “How awesome would it be if you knew that every single day what you did for a living had the ability to make a life-changing difference in the lives of people?” ask Joseph Bozich, CEO of Knights Apparel. “That was the motivation behind Alta Gracia.” Alta Gracia manufactured goods have won the support of not only college students across campuses around the country, but also high-profile retailer Barnes &Noble; which aggressively market the line in their stores.

“Every month we provide unfettered access to third-party labor rights group,” reveal Hodge. “They audit our books and records and they meet with employers. It’s not like they come once a month to check up on things. They might be there today or tomorrow. There’s complete transparency.” Alta Gracia has become a learning tool for the industry at large. Students and labor rights activists and organizations have made regular trips to the factory to see this incredible model at work. Ironically, the space in which Alta Gracia is now housed used to be a sweatshop: BJ&B, which produced college logo hats for brands like Nike and Reebok. The workers were fired for organizing a union to challenge poor working conditions. Pressure from USAS won the workers their jobs, back but not before these high-profile brands pulled out their orders in favor of non-union factories.

“We’ve never seen a factory that has given us the right to organize freely and have a say in our conditions, has given us dignified work with a living wage. We don’t have this intense emotional psychological pressure from management, which makes working easier and better,” says Alta Gracia garment worker and union secretary general, Maritza Vargas who previously worked at BJ&B. “It now feels great to be appreciated and to work hard knowing we are making enough to build a good life for our families. This is a dream all workers have and it’s wonderful that it’s been realized.”