Window Dressing

Used to be pimps and playas -- high-test, low-rent or wannabe -- could get their gear on at only a few spots around here. Remember long-departed Ben's in the West End? Darrell, my older half-brothe

Jan 10, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Used to be pimps and playas — high-test, low-rent or wannabe — could get their gear on at only a few spots around here.

Remember long-departed Ben's in the West End? Darrell, my older half-brother, used to drop mad cash there. He'd throw a bone to me, 7 or maybe 8 at the time, and hook me up with some dresses. Ben's had all the clutter, congestion and aroma of cheap clothing of Value City.

Then there was Dino's, that high-class spot long a fixture on the corner of Race and Sixth streets. Dino's was posh and elegant with slick, high-end designer stuff. But the beautiful thing was it was hard telling who among its customers was legit and who was a cleaned-up thug, even back in the 1970s and 1980s.

There were guys in Dino's who'd scraped together every remaining penny from two weeks' pay just to cop something off the sale racks. It didn't matter, because they were there dropping cash with athletes, restaurateurs, business executives and New Jack hustlers alike.

Now Dino's is in Tower Place Mall and, nothing against malls — they're as American as racial profiling and war — but the windows that were such an integral part of the store's personality are gone. Dino's shares a window with The Gap and gets just a skimpy corner. I think there's a lonely suit hanging there.

If Dino's was one extreme, Smitty's on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine is the other.

Lights! Signs! Ugly-ass clothes! I'm talking about clothes garish to the point of cartoonish. Smitty's exists as a result of the one-two punch of democracy and the male Negro's need to suckle on the tit of cookie-cutter clothes made in Taiwan. Add to that the young black man's insatiable hunger for instant gratification, and what results is a business laughable to some but utterly necessary to most others.

Windows at Smitty's are jammed with Coogi knockoffs, bubble coats, suits the color of wedding cake frosting and hats perched above them like clouds of cotton candy. And, oh yeah, They! Cash! Checks! Their windows are a hellish, blood-knotting scream.

Conversely, the windows of House of Adam holla, as in, "Psssst. C'mere. Lemme holla atcha." They're insidious and this side of hideous yet hard to look at, hard to ignore.

But Casa de Adam scores legitimacy points because, unlike Smitty's, it doesn't cash checks or suck up all the Cinergy juice to entice people inside. Further, its staff legitimizes the joint: There's a bona fide tailor who must've done the alterations on Jesus' robes.

The jam-packed U is seductive. The color and design combinations are inspired. A slap on the back and a soul shake to any brother — black or white — secure enough in his manhood to wear mustard yellow head-to-toe. Likewise to any man who can carry the matching Coogi sweater and hat sets and/or combination patent leather and suede monk-strap demi boots.

It's hilarious to watch men in these stores. The extravagance heaped on their pursuits of even casual clothing rivals and often outdistances that of any woman obsessed with her appearance. Indeed, many of the men guilty of chastising sistas for their shopping habits need only take a long look in a full-length mirror and see themselves for the divas they are. You go, girrrrl!

Sometimes I pause, marvel at the clothes in House of Adam's windows and think, "They went too far with (fill in the blank)." Or, "They had me with the orange vest but not the orange pants, black shirt and black and orange tie, orange fedora and orange sandals, too."

Collectively, these stores are the offspring of James Brown and Prince if they puked up the wardrobes of performers from Def Comedy Jam and BET's Comic View. Or their racks could be leftovers from the costume trunks of Showtime at the Apollo. But it's all good.

How stupefying would life be if we each adorned our fleshy mannequins in uniforms off the racks of The Gap, Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch or Old Navy?

Still, you gotta laugh at the ironies. Black and white cultures that, for the life and death of us, cannot fundamentally get along nonetheless hold the same desires — to dress exactly like their brethren at any cost.

What FUBU and its subsidiaries did for the average black action figure Dockers did for his white Ken doll counterpart. Same as it ever was.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.