The art of hunting clothes


Leslie King-Hammond thinks of the city's nooks and crannies and foreign cities as one big mall. The dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art loves to shop, but she does it her way. She's not driven by trends. Her way with a wardrobe is a creative statement refined by study of the history of human craft.

She lectures in subjects as diverse as perspective in criticism, women in the history of art and Africans in the New World traditions. She studied fine arts at Queens College in New York and earned her master's and doctorate degrees at Johns Hopkins University.

She is widely-traveled on the lecture circuit, but admits that beyond the lectern there is always some time for browsing. "One must ignore hierarchy and class distinction in shopping for clothes," she says. "One shouldn't set up stigmas about the right places to shop, because you find wonderful and unusual clothes in the most unlikely places."

How unlikely, for example?

Markets, street vendors, Goodwill and veterans' stores. I shop literally everywhere, from the $10 Gallo shops around town to designer boutiques. I hit discount stores and outlet malls. It's a sport.

What do you look for?

I'm looking more for the fiber, not the style. I'll buy a suit in a thrift shop or department store and remake it. I'll cut off sleeves, raise or lower the hem.

I dress spontaneously. I'll get clothes in anticipation of events and sort of have them hanging around in the closet waiting to be worn depending on my mood, the occasion.

Have you always been clothes-conscious?

My interest in clothes comes from my grandmother. She emigrated from the West Indies about 1917 and went to work in the garment district in New York. There were always scraps and fabrics around. I had a string of aunts who made clothes for the family and others to [earn]extra money.

We were well-dressed as children. Grandmother would bring scraps from Seventh Avenue and make clothes for us. I even remember having a little Persian lamb jacket as a child. My mother's generation came through the Depression, when nothing was wasted. I don't remember store-bought clothes until my teens. Before then it was hand-me-downs or home-made.

Do you really remember your childhood wardrobe?

My first leather jacket came from the Salvation Army. It was white Italian leather and to die for. Mother bought it for something like the grand sum of $3.50.

When my son was born, I dressed him at the Salvation Army, and some of my friends were appalled. Why? Children grow out of things in weeks, and thrift shops are full of quality children's things.

How did your sense of style evolve?

I never liked looking like an exact fashion copy. As an artist, if I can't be in charge of my own creative self, why bother?

I have designed for myself and others. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of my first projects. He used to live around the corner and was wearing these awful dashikis. I remarked how ugly they were and eventually remade about four of five of them. We became good friends.

Why didn't you continue along the designing line?

I liked researching and reading, too. I have made clothes for entertainers, but some of my most rewarding work was designing things for people with disabilities who had particular clothing needs. And I have always made crazy clothes for myself.

Who taught you to make clothes?

My grandmother and aunts always had all this fabric around. Sewing was part of family life.

Even now, my son is not afraid of a needle and thread. Of course, he attends the School for the Arts and sees them as marvelous tools with which you can change your presence, not to mention practical things like repairs.

What triggers your sense of style?

I have a love for hand-made fabrics -- ikats, silks, embroideries. I will spend more for something someone made than a designer label. If somebody took the time, I have respect for it, whether it's knitted, knotted, or stitched.

My grandmother taught me to respect fabric. The Depression compounded the sense of urgency and poverty that existed in her life in Harlem. She always said you only needed quality and three garments to be well-dressed -- one to wear, one hanging in the closet, and one in the wash.

You have an artistic eye and work in an artistic milleu. Not everyone is able to break dress codes and come up with something unique. How do you approach dressing?

I'll put unusual things with a straight, professional suit for a different look. Sure you have to know your colors and what you look good in. I don't dress for a specific age; I dress for who I am.

Even in my teaching, I make reference to the role clothes play in shaping the position and character of women in a culture.

Have you had a great fashion or clothing moment?

Every day is a moment. I'll do the incognito jeans thing, but I'll also get up every day and dress for that day and what it brings.

How "artsy" do you dress when you travel to lecture?

I always take a basic unit. Scarves are my signature, and they can adapt to anything -- extra warmth for a chill. If the occasion demands a different look, a scarf can even become a skirt.

Do you collect any particular clothes or accessories?

I have jewelry from all over the world. I also treasure wearable body art made by friends.

What is it that separates mere clothes from art?

In my teaching, I often start off in explaining how the body is used as a manifestation of an aesthetic expression. In nomadic peoples especially, where people have no means to erect sculpture or hang art, their own bodies become their expression; their own portable sculpture.

As in tattooing?

Yes. There is a clear rationale why people would want to mark their bodies. I have considered a tattoo for some time and may go ahead and do it. It may be an urge for self-expression. That, or it may be mid-life crisis.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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