Writing this intro is proving to be much harder than I anticipated, although the subject matter is one that is as familiar to me as my next-of-kin. Hiphop, street wear, fashion, culture, my culture. I have been operating on the intersectionality of all of these subjects for as long as I can remember. Taking it all in and trying to figure out where I fit in at first and then scouring how I could help produce, educate, amplify and build, later on. Mixing my early love for NWA, Queen Latifah and Ice-T (as well as Bobby Brown and Heavy D & The Boyz, I’m not here to front) and the imagery I saw coming from The Bronx, Brooklyn and South Central by ways of Yo! MTV Raps with my adoration for the work of the Antwerp Six and Jean Paul Gaultier. I ended up working for MTV in London and Belgium for several years and when I left, I co-founded an agency that’s been at it for almost twelve years now with a client list that features brands ranging from the Antwerp Fashion Department and MoMu - Antwerp Fashion Museum to Coca-Cola (If 1994-Tyrese could do it? Pshhh) to UNIQLO. My successes (major L’s been had too) weren’t and aren’t necessarily built on what I learned in school, but mostly on what avidly reading about and listening to JAY-Z (the non-negotiable GOAT of my Top 5) has carved into my brain. Just like Lee Stuart guest curator of “STREET DREAMS : HOW HIPHOP TOOK OVER FASHION”, the stirring new exhibition currently on show at Kunsthal, Rotterdam, I too eyed the moves of our worldwide OGs in such manicuring detail and with such vigour that it infuses every project or task I take on with a flavour that can’t be bought. More importantly, if you recognise its power, you will be quick to realise that this particular source can never be stolen nor lost either.
I urge you all to take your kids, friends, parents and lovers to go see this life-affirming show. It will not spell out why exactly Virgil Abloh is responsible for two of the best-selling fashion brands in 2019’s top 10 or why Rihanna gets to be the first woman to establish her own house at LVMH. But what it will do is give you a notion of the power and indestructability of a movement that started out as one of the most marginalized in the world to where we are now. You cannot turn on your tv or look outside your window or scroll through your favourite apps without having the influence of hiphop and its surrounding culture beamed onto your retina.
As soon as Lee -who is also brand director at Patta- had it be known that this exhibition was coming up, I knew that if he would invite me, I would happily travel to Rotterdam to preview the show and have a conversation to discuss our first true and never-ending love.
A couple of DMs and a press preview later and here we are.
LEE STUART: I’m buckling, I’m glad to be sitting down for a moment and talk to you.
KNOTORYUS: The build-up to this press opening must have been taxing.
LEE STUART: Pretty much! To be honest, I didn’t expect having to address the press to be so challenging. I thought I’d do a little talk upfront – wasn’t going to prepare anything. What I really wanted to say was: “Let’s just go check out these rooms as soon as possible.” I don’t want to explain it all, I just want you to experience this and catch a vibe and if you are interested in the subject matter, you dive in. That’s how discovering hiphop and the whole culture surrounding it was for me. The first time my brothers played me Public Enemy, I was like: “What’s this?” (scrunches up face intensely while headnodding, ed. note)
KNOTORYUS: That’s exactly the kind of face you’d make as a kid when first hearing them. (laughs)
LEE STUART: “What is this?!” I’d started scribbling ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ on everything. I didn’t even know what it meant. And that’s how you lock in, and you dig deeper and start discovering a whole culture and hiphop becomes the great love of your life.
KNOTORYUS: When and how were you asked to do this exhibition?
LEE STUART: I was asked by Aruna Vermeulen, founder of HipHopHuis. I think she DM’ed me in July 2018. We’ve known each other at least 20 years. We were acquainted from the time the hip-hop scene was tiny. You just knew everyone. Every party, every hip-hop party you’d go to – and there weren’t that many – you would see the same people every time. That was a community in and of itself, just because it was a small group. Aruna was the premier b-girl in the country, a super dope attitude, respected and respectful and always in the freshest kicks. So, we knew each other from those days, kept up with each other’s developments and then social media came along so you could literally follow what people are up to. I’ve always appreciated her and what she did, I think it has been mutual. I remember her really liking the different steps I took in life. I was a stylist for some time and worked on a lot of hip-hop videos, then editor-in-chief of hip-hop publication State Magazine and then I went abroad and worked for Bread & Butter Berlin, where I lived for 6 years. Then I moved back to Amsterdam and that was in 2018. Aruna knew I had returned, but nothing more. She knew that from my position in Berlin I worked internationally and had made a lot of connects. Everything I do is an expression of hiphop. Whether it’s styling, DJing, strategising or curating. That’s my flavour, this is my taste, these are the things I like, take or leave it. Aruna asked if I was interested in talking to the people at Kunsthal. Mainly during my time in Berlin, which is an art city, I got deep into art. I had a lot of free time there because it is an easygoing town.
KNOTORYUS: How did you dive into art?
LEE STUART: I was just in galleries every day. Consuming, taking it in, figuring out what I liked, and what I didn’t. So, I learned a lot. I have always liked coming here to Kunsthal as well. For one, because they are known in the Netherlands for their fashion exhibitions: Jean Paul Gaultier, Viktor & Rolf, those things, now Thierry Mugler is coming up. And secondly because I’ve seen really nice exhibitions here. The Parra expo is a good example.
KNOTORYUS: Had you curated shows before?
LEE STUART: Never, no. But, if I’m an editor-in-chief of a magazine, I see it as curating. What I do for Patta: curating. Bread & Butter, where I was putting brand collaborations and creatives together: curating. When I’m DJing: that’s a form of curation.
KNOTORYUS: When I get asked by the right people to do something I know is alligned with my interests and skill-set I just answer yes before panic and doubt can take over. What went through your mind when you were asked to curate an exhibition?
LEE STUART: I thought, if I’m going to do this and I am, I have to represent. That was my mindset from the get-go: I want the level of ambition to be high. The only way that we do it is (makes rocket sound, ed. note). This is about my culture, so, in a way: who better than me to show people what’s so beautiful about it. I could cry right now thinking about how much this means to me.
KNOTORYUS: Thank you for bringing up emotion. I choked up a couple of times. When April Walker was talking in the ‘MASTERS’ room? I felt that in my soul.
LEE STUART: She killed it, right? “We don’t need your permission to be dope. You don’t validate our dopeness.”
KNOTORYUS: And then she is talking about how we are being followed around in stores and how our money used to not be good enough for these luxury fashion brands - In some places it still isn’t. “We can’t participate? We’ll just do it ourselves.” She spoke with so much authority. Very powerful.
LEE STUART: It’s so beautiful that it reached you in that way because April Walker is the embodiment of what this exhibition is about. It was imperative to me to include her, because she can’t be forgotten. The youth is the truth in this culture, but kids nowadays often don’t look back. April Walker almost isn’t discussed anymore, but she dressed everyone in the 90s: Biggie, Tupac, Aaliyah, Audio Two, Naughty by Nature. Everyone who is referenced on Tumblrs, lookbooks and timelines now. She was working with them, dressing them. Incredible. During my research, I found out that her big example in life was Dapper Dan, who I of course envisioned being featured in the MASTERS room as well. Edson, who is also in that room, owns custom-designed pieces by Dapper Dan. I figured: it’s all going to weave beautifully into each other. Unfortunately Dapper Dan didn’t work out. But we got April and she is the heartbeat of our installation.
KNOTORYUS: Before the start of this interview we were discussing the question of one of the journalists as to why there weren’t many clothes shown, meaning just garments put on mannequins. And you and I were talking about how it is impossible to get the vibe that streetwear evokes by taking the actual wearer out of it. It isn’t something static. It’s a vibe. It’s an attitude.
LEE STUART: I am extremely happy that we are showing the ‘Hustle Coat’ by Nick Cave among other pieces, but what you just mentioned is why I selected so many photographs and artworks instead of just showing clothing. That image by DJamilla Rosa Cochran of Cam’Ron in the pink fur at New York Fashion Week in 2002, I just knew it had to be featured. When that image was released into the world, it was such a wave.
KNOTORYUS: It still is. My daughter discovered that picture a few years ago and the kids just go wild when they see it. “Hold up, what?”
LEE STUART: Because hiphop is such a macho culture. And he was wearing a pink fur and it looked G as fuck.
KNOTORYUS: With the little cell phone.
LEE STUART: All of it. Matched throughout. You’re wearing something that is seen as feminine and you own it and it’s so hard. That’s hip-hop. You know, it is significant that this exhibition is set up in Rotterdam, because politicians here are suggesting police should be able to interrogate kids in the streets wearing expensive clothing to prove where they got it from. Are you kidding me?! One of the major points this show is trying to make is: these kids are the innovators. Stop viewing them as a problem or a menace. Instead of harassing them, you need to support and protect them, because they are what leads to beauty. I stress this in every interview: I’m sure that at this very moment in what the media is dubbing ‘the projects’, some kid is inventing or starting something that will be a worldwide trend in two years and will generate millions of dollars. See that. Nurture these kids, hire them, pay them.
KNOTORYUS: This is a good time to talk about Virgil Abloh, the best-selling man in fashion right now. Comes from hiphop and streetwear. He also contributed to the exhibition.
LEE STUART: When I found out about him getting the Louis Vuitton position, man, that was an amazing moment. We all remember that infamous picture taken at Paris Fashion Week 10 years back, of him and Kanye West, Don C, Taz and them. They didn’t have invites. Fast forward a couple of years and they are at the top. Virgil was obviously one of the first people I wanted to involve. He was playing in Amsterdam a while ago and we invited him for a meeting. It went great because we’re operating from the same frame of mind. He’s mega successful and someone I respect, but he’s also a peer. We had a great conversation and he agreed to be involved. He told me to give him a month to think. I said that was cool. Then the request came for a collaboration, a product. We said we’d like that very much. So they agreed to do the shirt which will be available in August. Unfortunately we didn’t get him to do the MASTERS-series.
KNOTORYUS: But you did secure Angelo Baque. He was at Supreme for 10 years during their take-over-everything years and then he left to focus on his own brand Awake NY. You know him personally, I guess?
LEE STUART: Yes, through mutual friends. I work at Patta, he’s very close friends with one of the founders, so we work together. I know some people who were at Supreme when he was its brand director. Angelo is someone I look up to. He’s my peer and we work together, but he’s also my OG because I am brand director at Patta. Angelo came from a rough background, his family didn’t have much. His position at Supreme wasn’t in existence when he got there. He says: “All I knew was: this is the best brand out there for me and I wanted to see how I could improve it.” I see myself in that, it completely reflects how I feel.
KNOTORYUS: I thought it was really cool when he said he always wanted to work at Supreme, he got there and then it was like: Ok, what am I supposed to do now? You don’t say it out loud. But that’s a moment that’s very real especially considering how we were raised, with hip-hop’s values of hustling and trying to figure things out until you can do them for real. It’s not about faking it till you make it, but you work and work and work until you get there and you have to make it up as you go along. Then you reach a certain level, and you have to start all over again, making it up as you go along, again.
LEE STUART: Oh, you levelled up? Oh shit, you have to keep going. Then you’re at this level and you find out they run faster over there. It’s wild. It’s a wild ride. Imposter syndrome pops up too: I’m always working within this culture and at a certain point it comes naturally and you stop overthinking…
KNOTORYUS: Exactly. Also excellently represented in this exhibition: the mentors and OGs for the new generations. You’re here, Edson is here, April is here, Angelo is here, Virgil is here.
LEE STUART: (Still pondering the previous subject) Sometimes you’re like: “Fuck, is this the job where they’re going to find out I have no idea what I’m doing? Oh, shit.” I have that sometimes. But it also has to do with the person I am, I try to look at things from different perspectives, so I second-guess myself all the time. I’m in meetings and people are using difficult, academic terms. I know all of them, but they’re using them just like that in a phrase. “Woah, damn. Okay. Sure.” I’m just here speaking from the heart, from my feelings and sometimes I blurt out stuff and I have no idea what I just said. But it’s all real though. That’s the only thing I can give you. Sorry, that wasn’t a question, but I shared it anyway.
KNOTORYUS: This is the final thing about the MASTERS room, sorry, but I’m obsessed with that part of the exhibition. Patta co-founder Edson Sabajo also shares a part of the brand’s story. If you’re a Patta fan, you’ll likely have heard some of it, but I could listen to it a thousand times.
LEE STUART: And Dominique, he could tell the story a thousand times. Most people who visit Kunsthal, though, have never heard him speak. First of all, including Edson was a no-brainer. Sneaker culture – and the fact that it’s a real culture now. All of that hype, it was Patta. Edson and Gee. Before them, the industry wasn’t like this at all. And Patta becoming so big, as a Dutch brand? For the Netherlands to have a brand that is thriving on an international stage? That’s incredible to me. For Jordan to do their first collab with a European country and it being Patta from the Netherlands? Wow.
KNOTORYUS: You all just released the Patta x Nike Air Jordan 7 and opened a store in Milan. What’s beautiful to me is the longevity. You know that there have been mega ups and downs, when they scaled up the store it went awry, but they recalibrated, started small again and then build, build, build, build, build… It’s such an amazing example, just for the legacy. Something the younger generation can look at and say: we can take a loss, we don’t have to do something different every two years. It takes time and effort, it literally takes blood, sweat and tears to do this stuff. Having the Patta history on record makes me very hopeful for the kids wanting the blueprint.
LEE STUART: The documentary is in the making.
KNOTORYUS: The documentary! In the making! We are not going to talk about it, Lee, because Edson once yelled at all of his followers on IG that: “Shit’ll be finished when it’s finished. Don’t fucking ask no more.” I took that to heart. I’ll see it the minute it gets here.
LEE STUART: I shouldn’t bring it up. But that doc tells the story so beautifully and it shows so much.
KNOTORYUS: How did you go from being good friends with the Patta crew, probably even family, to becoming their brand director?
LEE STUART: I always wanted to work for Patta, but I had my own path to follow first and things to learn abroad. And also I normally wouldn’t quote Drake, but he says: “You can never put on for your city in your city”. You need to go away to be able to represent, or something. So, in Berlin, I was representing Amsterdam and Patta. And then a spot opened up. Gee named me brand director and I try to show what that looks like every time. That’s what Angelo Baque was talking about, too.
KNOTORYUS: What does it entail?
LEE STUART: I know that what this brand stands for is the best of the best, Patta is my favourite brand its value is the best, better than anything – I mean anything. And that’s what I want to convey in the best way possible. In the product, in our campaigns, events, collabs, all of those things. I want to make sure the brand is bulletproof, I want to be connecting everything and help set the direction for every aspect. I don’t decide things, we all have to move simultaneously. We all have to talk things through, which way we want to go, where we are, where we want to be.
KNOTORYUS: I think for a brand like Patta, you can almost not be part of the core team and not have your eye on everything.
LEE STUART: That is true, that is really the case.
KNOTORYUS: And I can imagine that titles don’t mean anything when you’re all gathered around the meeting room table.
LEE STUART: I go: “Edson, you’re full of shit.” And he tells me I’m full of shit. He jokes about me, sometimes I joke about him. Although decidedly less so, he’s faster and better that way. But it’s just the team, it’s just family. That’s how we work. I’ve had long talks with a good friend of mine, who is brand director at Highsnobiety – because I don’t like using that title. And he told me I have to. “You have to. People don’t take you seriously if you don’t.” So, I started doing that, but I’m just Team Patta forever, actually. Straight up.
KNOTORYUS: A little while ago, I was speaking at an event for a brand that we all love and at one point one of the execs asked me: “Streetwear, isn’t that just a hype? Won’t it be over in a couple of months?”
LEE STUART: Oh? Okay.
KNOTORYUS: I was taken aback, because this brand is deep in it, but I guess the people at the top necessarily aren’t. So, I just replied: “For those who jump in and out, who just like to pilage and then dip out again, it might seem like a hype. But for us it’s the same as saying, isn’t hiphop just a hype? ”
LEE STUART: We’ve already proven you incredibly wrong on that one.
KNOTORYUS: I would think they would’ve learned by now. Who do you think your kids are listening to? Look at what they are wearing! Look at who they are following on IG and Snapchat! Sorry, I get a bit heated when it comes to this. But it’s the biggest culture out there! For a while now!
LEE STUART: The big-gest. Hiphop music, the style, the different types of dance, the entire culture, always reacts to what is happening in the world. It shows in the clothing, definitely in music. It goes from sample-based to electronic, from activist to party vibes and the other way around. It’s like an algorithm, you know? It doesn’t go away, it morphs over time but it sticks around forever. Look, the mainstream infatuation with this culture will probably ebb, fine, good riddance. That might sounds harsh, but we don’t need you.
KNOTORYUS: We don’t need you, we got here without you. That’s something I wrote down verbatim in the debrief notes to myself and my staff. Before I forget, when Angelo Baque said in his MASTERS film: “It’s hard work.” And he looked so tired and emotional but also combattive, I related deeply, because you know what is tiring about being in this business is trying to push this movement forward while also safeguarding it. And that’s something you can get from your exhibition too. “It’s not just about a logo on a T-shirt, not at all. You can’t just take what we are doing and implement it. Sure, short-term, it might work.
LEE STUART: One hundred percent. Some journalists asked me how I feel about big fashion houses incorporating streetwear into their collections. Fine, that’s great! There’s a difference between the original and the appropriator. And it’s all good. Because the mainstream or luxury shoppers get a little bit of what is real. If it’s for them, they’ll look into it and the world has just improved a bit. I like that.
KNOTORYUS: Do you think there will be more Virgils to come? Will someone come knocking at the Patta doors and snatch you guys off to become directors of a house?
LEE STUART: We’re the underdog and although we know we have broad reach we also know we’re not the biggest deal yet. That’s fine, that’s our position and we love playing it. But the sky is the limit. I’ve been amazed a few times. For me, hiphop culture has always been high culture. Honestly. Only a few years ago, I could not have imagined some of the things that we are doing. And I think I’ll be surprised a few more times. For other brands, (points at the hoodie I’m wearing) I think Kerby-Jean Raymond of Pyer Moss is going places. But you know what? I know we as a culture can do anything, because if you’ve always had to work with little resources and you got here? That’s the ultimate creativity.
KNOTORYUS: And it’s limitless.
LEE STUART: Exactly. Coming together, we are strong, we are powerful and we have so much within us, it’s incredible.
KNOTORYUS: Lee, a huge congratulations and thank you so much for talking to me.
LEE STUART: Thank you, Dominique.
A conversation between Lee Stuart and Dominique Nzeyimana
Until September 15, 2019
3015 AA Rotterdam
Tuesdays - Saturdays 10:00 – 17:00
Sundays and public holidays 11:00 – 17:00
Lee Stuart portrait by @theoceaniam