at California African American Museum, Los Angeles (through March 1, 2020)
Reviewed by Seren Sensei
Everything old is new again. This motto has held steady for years in the world of fashion, with it’s here-today-gone-tomorrow trends, and nowhere has it rung more true than in the waves of 1990’s urban culture that are currently enjoying a huge resurgence on runways. As numerous high fashion and luxury brands clamor into the billion dollar market for streetwear, Cross Colours: Black Fashion in the 20th Century, showing at the California African American Museum (CAAM), is a fresh and dynamic exhibit examining the history of the recently rebooted Cross Colours: a Black-owned brand that was one of the first to cater exclusively to a young, Black, and ‘urban,’ i.e. inner-city, customer who predominantly wore streetwear. A testament to its culture-shifting perspective, the retrospective opens with the story of how the line came to be, and then moves through its brand history and significance in time as viewers explore the gallery.
Life-sized mannequins on display wear the original designs, which primarily consisted of t-shirts, jackets, sweatshirts, shorts, and hats. Promotional materials like magazine advertisements and commercials are encased in glass or looped on screens, especially ones featuring a young Djimon Honsou early in his modeling career. Honsou peers out ferociously from a larger-than-life ad painted on the wall where he seems to yell at the onlooker, fists raised in a gesture of Black Power. The brand’s core color scheme, boisterous primary reds, greens, and yellows color-blocked with black and also over kente cloth patterns, also engulf the walls and floor. (Red, black, and green were specifically chosen due to their use in the African American flag.) Names and images of artists and other Black celebrities — many of whom remain beloved and influential – endorsing Cross Colours over the years are splattered throughout the circular exhibit, from basketball player Magic Johnson to best-selling girl group TLC.
Installation view. All images courtesy of CAAM and the Cross Colours Archive
In a room towards the back, an early episode of Yo! MTV Raps (the very first hip-hop show on the music network and one that spread American hip-hop culture around the world) boasts bouncy entertainers in head to toe Cross Colours gear, including actress and queen of hip-hop soul herself, Mary J. Blige. Many of the shapes, silhouettes, and taglines popularized by Cross Colours remain influential, in no small part because of their immortalization on classic and endlessly rewatched shows like ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ and movies like ‘Malcolm X.’ It’s popularity with young, Black celebrities and harnessing of that power to propel the company inspires a musing on if the brand should be considered one of the first ‘viral’ lines, as it successfully worked in tandem with high profile Black television shows and films along with the rising prominence of hip-hop to reach it’s core demographic. The impact of Cross Colours is felt like a visceral echo as you look around the room. A few times I wondered aloud, “Huh. So this is where that came from?”
Founded in 1989 by Black American Carl Jones, Cross Colours was born for the Black urban customer after Jones witnessed how inner-city youth in New York City were wearing their clothes. They styled them with baggier fits, cinched waistlines, and bright colors, and it is mentioned in the exhibit that many of the styles were offshoots of a racist prison system, one that disproportionately captured young Black American males: used to ill-fitting, often oversized prison garments, many had a habit of wearing their clothes larger and over-cinching the waist. The type of reclamation is a survival tactic amongst Black Americans that continues to this day, where we adopt processes and mannerisms initially meant as part of our subjugation and turn them on their heads to redistribute power to ourselves (see also: the n-word).
The baggier fits and cinched waists became ‘cool,’ and a part of Black cultural currency. Catering to what was then considered a niche market, Jones created Cross Colours as the first modern streetwear brand with the Black American consumer specifically in mind. This was in stark contrast to the strategies of classic American sportswear like yuppie staple Tommy Hilfiger, which was beloved by Black youth but marketed in the early 1980s towards a more ‘upscale’ white preppy clientele. Yet Cross Colours was such a smash success that it heavily influenced the mainstream fashion world in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, changing the silhouette and color palette of the dominant market to reflect the larger sizes and bright colors favored by an inner city customer. For the first time, there was recognition that the ‘urban’ market had dollars behind it. Hip-hop and streetwear went on to become the dominant forces behind mainstream American pop culture.
Jones studied fashion at Otis Parson’s School of Design and Trade Technical College in Los Angeles, and, after a short-lived stint creating t-shirts, started his first full brand, Surf Fetish, in the mid 1980s. While Surf Fetish was a line of beachwear-inspired clothes, Jones often found himself traveling to New York from the West Coast and riding the subways for hours in order to get artistic inspiration from the fashionable Black youth there. The birth of rap music and hip-hop out of drug wars on the East Coast had created a hotbed of innovation in neighborhoods deemed ‘ghetto’ and dangerous by the so-called mainstream, and Jones felt the need to cater to that audience in the West- one also politically charged after such racial events as the Rodney King beating and the L.A. Riots, along with a rising tide of gang violence. With slogans such as ‘Colours Without Prejudice,’ ‘Educate to Elevate’ and ‘Stop D Violence,’ Cross Colours was born in 1989 as a politically conscious urban brand meant to promote Black empowerment and racial unity.
Graphic designer Thomas Walker, hired for Surf Fetish, was brought on to Cross Colours as Vice President. Their first order of business was contacting the publicity team for upcoming show ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ set to premiere in 1990 as the acting debut for successful rapper The Fresh Prince, also known as Will Smith. Smith loved the clothes, and their bright colors and distinct, color-blocked patterns became a core part of his bombastic persona on the show. Instantly popularized by ‘The Fresh Prince,’ the next show to pick up the line was ‘In Living Color,’ the classic sketch comedy created by Keenan Wayans similarly aimed to represent the underserved Black American population (it was thus named ‘In Living Color’ for it’s majority of Black sketch comedians). Being worn onscreen and off by future stars like Jamie Foxx and even Jim Carrey, who were regulars on ‘In Living Color,’ further raised the profile of the brand. And in 1992, Cross Colours was prominently featured in tandem with Black American filmmaker Spike Lee’s biopic on civil rights leader Malcolm X after Jones released an X-themed special collection. Lee, along with star actor Denzel Washington, was often photographed wearing the distinct X-emblazoned caps from the label. The Cross Colours ‘X’ line became an instant favorite for Black Americans, particularly those that were socially- and politically-inclined. The film ‘X’ became a critical and commercial hit, later being selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’
At a time when hip-hop was gaining its foothold in, or rather, as popular American culture, every rap artist from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg to Kriss Kross – even Marky Mark, better known as Mark Wahlberg — was wearing Cross Colours. With a help of huge global platforms like Yo! MTV Raps, rap began dominating the musical void left by the dwindling rock genre (which was also created by Black Americans) and crossing over into mainstream white interests. Hip-hop and ‘street’ culture had also begun to co-exist with popular American sports culture, especially basketball, and when Michael Jordan was photographed wearing an ‘X’ cap before going on to win an NBA championship and being named Most Valuable Player in the 1992 season, the line skyrocketed into the mainstream. By the mid-90s, they were a multi-million dollar company with accounts in fashion retail stores across the country.
After witnessing the meteoric rise, the fall of the line is detailed towards the back of the exhibit. Competition became more fierce, and as Cross Colours grew, similar Black-owned streetwear brands influenced and inspired by them popped up, such as Walker Wear, founded by April Walker, and Karl Kani, a brand founded by former Cross Colours designer Carl Williams. Older, richer heritage fashion lines such as Tommy Hilfiger adopted Cross Colours strategy of styling and marketing directly to a young, urban consumer. (By 1997, for example, Hilfiger had signed the ‘princess of R&B,’ Aaliyah, and her trademark hip hop-inspired style as spokesperson.) Streetwear went from a niche market that Cross Colours dominated to the mainstream, where it remains to this day. But the final nail in the coffin was an unrelenting war with counterfeit merchandise.
Jones struggled with street vendors and corner stores that sold bootleg versions of their designs, and even in the acquisition of pieces for the exhibit, curators at CAAM had to wade through hundreds of inauthentic garments. As Cross Colours lost its ubiquitous hold on the industry and found their market flooded with fakes, orders eventually slowed to the point where the business was no longer viable. And when hip-hop moved out of the gangster rap phase of the early to mid-90s, tastes changed. Baggy fits and bright colors gave way to the more futuristic aesthetic of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Cross Colours was forced to close shop, and have only re-opened within the last five years.
Interestingly enough, there is a blind spot in the exhibit, in the form of inclusion of a video of rapper Cardi B and singer Bruno Mars. In what is described as a ‘viral moment,’ the two entertainers circle each other at the 60th Grammy Awards in 2018, performing their record ‘Finesse.’ The stage was an exact replica of a scene from ‘In Living Color,’ with the Cross Colours outfits to match, and it was clearly envisioned as a moment of revival for the brand. But the instance rang hollow and even staged, like learned and performed exhibitions of ‘Black cool’ for two artists that are not Black and whom have been questioned for their use of Black culture in a manner that is ultimately exploitative. With fakes being a major reason why Cross Colours faded from relevancy, it appears an inability to tell authentic from imitation continues to plague our popular culture.
Culture vultures and counterfeits aside, the exhibit demonstrates the undeniable impact the line had on present day fashion. Jones was one of the first to cater to the Black American community specifically, tapping into the ideology of a Black generation that had been hit hard by police brutality, violence, and drugs, and used art as an outlet to express themselves. When he witnessed this self-expression and catered to it with Cross Colours, he totally impacted the fashion market, making streetwear mainstream. It is somewhat the legacy of Cross Colours when billionaires who grew up on hip-hop culture wear hoodies and sneakers instead of suits; casual streetwear is the new cool. (Yet it is a shrill irony that clothing initially made specifically for an urban market that was shut out of fashion has become what the wealthy and ‘fashionable’ want to wear.) Cross Colours rebranded and re-launched as a multicultural line in 2014, maintaining their tagline of ‘Clothing Without Prejudice’ meant to introduce “…their message of unity, equality, and empowerment to a whole new generation.” The 90s look championed by Cross Colours has certainly come back around, and in our current time of racism, sexism, capitalism, sociopolitical upheaval, and climate change, it does seem most appropriate for them to re-emerge, does it not? Everything old is new again.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.
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