Anthony Coleman’s black T-shirt displayed a photograph of Laura Nelson’s 1911 lynching in a newspaper-like spread covered in white words. The T-shirt is part of his brand’s new fashion release, “Black Like Water.”
A large headline in capital letters across the bottom read, “Support the strong, give courage to the timid, remind the indifferent, and warn the opposed.”
The photograph of Laura Nelson’s murder is the only surviving shot of a female African American lynching victim.
Coleman’s fashion, he said, expresses a “walking metaphor of the contradictions of what it feels like to be in America.”
He and Joe Pitts, a criminal justice graduate student, created their brand Cult Classic in 2012 as a “modern Americana lifestyle and fashion brand with a mission to showcase underground creativity.”
Coleman and Pitts hosted a fashion release and art exhibit at the James Oliver Gallery in Center City Sept. 1 to launch their new collection, “Black Like Water.”
The release featured a collection of shirts covered in an old-school newspaper design, each with its own photograph. The newspaper columns and headlines across the shirts were replaced with famous quotes from people of color. Each piece had a hangtag with the history of the photograph, allowing each shirt to create its own story.
Coleman and Pitts said “Black Like Water” was designed to be a “wearable expression of the triumphs and hardships of living in a society where injustice and inequality still run rampant.”
“I want people to be able to walk around—if they’re brave enough and if they choose to—to be like, I want to make a stance and I can do it through clothes and I don’t have to do it through Instagram and stuff like that—this is more in your face,” Coleman said.
All of Cult Classic’s collections have different themes, with this particular concept heavily drawn from racially unjust events throughout American history.
“I think this line is our most socially-conscious driven yet,” Pitts said.
Along with the historical sources of inspiration, when creating the name “Black Like Water,” Coleman said he thought about the past and a time before mirrors, when people could only see their reflection in sources of water. He then connected it with the idea that identifying as black is portrayed negatively.
“I was thinking about water, how it’s good, it’s refreshing to the body, but on the other hand, before mirrors, people checked their reflection in ponds, lakes and rivers and I just thought, yo, if I was black—and if you look up the definition of black it’s negative, the consumption of all light, etc.—what the media might take it as would be that, I’m still black like the water I drink,” Coleman said.
For Pitts, as a white man, he thinks it’s important to be “conscious” and “reflective.”
“We live in a society where I don’t think people take that step as much,” Pitts said. “I think with me teaming up with Anthony, I mean he’s a black man at the end of the day and this is really his creative direction, but I saw the vision and I wanted to help foster it and tell that story because I believe in that drive.”
The artists showcased in the exhibit knew the theme of “Black Like Water,” but didn’t see any of the clothing before creating their work. Alumna and artist Jona Shreeves-Taylor featured an untitled piece of a woman inside an inkwell and a poem she wrote on the portrait.
“I figured it would be cool if the woman was sitting in an inkwell, because sometimes people try to find the right words to describe how they’re feeling or try to put it into something when there’s not necessarily any right words to express it properly,” Taylor said.
The first line of the poem reads, “Sometimes we drown in words, unsaid, unfelt, unheard.” Taylor said sometimes “words get in the way of expression.”
“When I’m creating art, it’s just expression,” Taylor said. “Regarding my thoughts on the struggle in society right now, there is a big divide. I don’t want to sound cheesy, but I think through community, unity and trying to build something genuine, anything can really be solved.”
Alexa Zizzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.