I met Kwame Phipps five years ago, at the end of his junior year in high school, through a Harlem-based youth development organization to help him apply to college. He was always neatly dressed and attentive to his grooming. So I am not surprised he would become a founder of the Well Dressed Movement at Syracuse University to promote better dress habits among his peers.
One reason I volunteered to mentor students like Kwame is that media portrayals of young black men have burdened them with numerous disquieting stereotypes. Like many stereotypes people affix to particular groups, they are highly simplistic and often neglect larger societal issues that produce and perpetuate misperceptions. Such perceptions prove harmful to nearly all black men. Young men like Phipps are often overlooked in such generalizations, so he and his friends have taken conscious steps to dispel negative myths.
Phipps, a 2016 Syracuse graduate, and his roommates, Joshua Collins and Elijah Biggins, started the Well Dressed Movement as a direct effort to counter some misperceptions. In 2014, their sophomore year, each had dressed up one day, but Phipps said, “It was random. I had an internship, Josh had a job interview, and Eli had a class presentation.” Unaware each had dressed up, “we left our apartment at different times and met later at the library for a social. Everyone saw us and asked why we were dressed up. We pretended it was intentional and said it was “Well Dressed Wednesday.” From there, they decided to make a Wednesday tradition of dressing up and enlisted their friends to join them.
They began the Well Dressed Movement in the wake of high profile killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and college campuses were rife with discussion about race. Syracuse was no different. Phipps said there was extensive racist dialogue in online articles in the school newspaper, The Daily Orange, and on Yik Yak, a location-based social media platform popular on college campuses.
“My friends and I are from inner city Philadelphia, Paterson (New Jersey), and New York City,” and they felt the sting of such commentary. Dressing up was a constructive response to address perceptions others might have about them. They took inspiration from earlier black pioneers who tackled social justice issues. The group’s motto, When you look good, you feel good, facilitated engagement with their peers. Their movement took hold and spread to other campuses, including Binghamton, Cornell, Howard, and Pace universities and Utica College, which validated their efforts.
Looking good takes money, however. As budget-conscious millennials, they shopped at H&M, Zara, local thrift stores, and they tracked sale items at Macy’s. It was worth the effort. Phipps said dressing up without a specific purpose elicited positive responses from those with whom he interacted, and it instilled a professional mindset in him.
“Dressing up on campus prepped me for interviews,” he said. “I already had the pieces, so I didn’t have to think about it too much. Because I had already experimented with different combinations, I can put on an outfit and be confident beforehand.”
Practice paid off: While still in school, he had internships and summer jobs at places like the Ford Foundation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington.
Phipps described his style as “trendy with my own personal touch.” A wardrobe necessity for him is “a navy blue suit, because you can dress it up or dress it down. It’s a suit you can match with other pants or jackets.” He added, “You can use it for going out, a job interview, to go to dinner. It’s a good essential to start with.”
Detailing with colors and accessories is his personal touch. “I like to incorporate hints of gold, if possible.” When it comes to ties, Phipps said, “I mainly choose neckties, because when you’re dressing up, you have more options. A bow tie is more extravagant and you’re making a statement with one. And not a lot of bow ties go with certain shirt combinations.” A final item for him, the pocket square, which “adds a nice touch to your outfit. You can find a set on Amazon or eBay for $10.” When he’s dressed casually, however, Phipps prefers jeans, Adidas, and Nikes. “I also like classic T-shirts and bomber jackets,” he added.
Whom does Phipps admire for their fashion sense? “Lebron James and Omari Hardwick because they mix suit jacket and tie combinations with shirts that mesh well.” He also cites Sean Combs, as he was one of the first hip-hop artists to wear suits, especially his signature look, the white tux and black bow tie.
All of the original members of the Well Dressed Movement graduated or are on track to graduate on time—noteworthy considering the stark disparity in college completion rates of underrepresented men of color. One of his former roommates is a sales assistant at Fox Sports; the other is working on his master’s in information management and technology at Syracuse. Phipps works as an assistant managing clerk at an New York City law firm and plans to attend law school in the future. As well, he demonstrated the learning he acquired from Syracuse’s prestigious Maxwell School of policy, when he submitted a letter to the editor on the city of Syracuse’s housing policy. It’s safe to say these young men achieved their group’s mission.
Finally, Phipps offered some fashion advice to other young men of color: “When it comes to dressing yourself up, you should own your fashion and take pride in it. You never know who you might run into. Also, attention to detailing in your clothing will have everyone noticing.”
Kwame wears a Flex Tailored suit, cotton shirt, silk tie, wool coat, leather belt, leather lace up dress shoes all by Tommy Hilfiger, available at Tommy.Com. Styled by Wendell Brown. Special thanks to East End Bar & Grill, NY, NY.