In sleek suits and fedoras worn at a deft tilt, members of Mantazia are all elegant business as they seize the runway. Vintage disco, Kraftwerk's robotic "Trans-Europe Express," adds an aura of foreign intrigue while each man plants a toe and swivels 360 degrees in unison with the others.
The men are "working it" at a Sunday evening fashion show sponsored by the Flair Modeling Agency at the Forum in Northwest Baltimore.
With deadpan macho finesse, the men toy with props: cell phones, cigars, the business page. They march in pyramid formation to the top of the runway T, then pitch forward, aiming right elbows at the crowd, in a display of well-tailored, no-fooling-around manhood.
The audience, mostly women in their 20s through 70s, squeals and hoots, waving programs like fans. Even the most mature women, in their fur-trimmed and velvet church hats, peer at the men over bifocals and say, "Mmmmm-mmmmm-mmmm." Before night's end, the ladies may be treated to a peck on a cheek, or a peek at the pecs, a little beefcake to go with their coffee and chatter.
"Oh, they are too handsome! Too handsome," the commentator purrs into the microphone.
Part Chippendales, part step show, part runway extravaganza, Mantazia has drawn from a suite of popular arts to create a unique identity -- and make its mark within Baltimore's lively African-American tradition of fashion shows for fun, flirtation, bragging rights and occasional profit.
In Baltimore, as well as other urban centers, Mantazia (which rhymes with fantasia) is but one troupe in a crowded field of modeling buffs. As an all-male ensemble, however, Mantazia is unique.
For decades, fashion shows have been a participatory sport for all. On Easter Sunday, churches throughout the city stage fashion shows to show off their youngest members in their holiday finery. On college campuses, including Morgan State, home of the Absolutely Chic modeling troupe, fashion shows are a part of homecoming festivities and spring flings. And historically black sororities have turned fashion shows into a cutthroat arena, preparing for them with fierce competitive spirit, out of the range of opposing teams' spies.
Every October, the Baltimore Alumni Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta brings the Ebony Fashion Fair to the Meyerhoff, raising up to $60,000 for local causes. Two years ago, more than 500 people attended a fashion show fund-raiser sponsored by Northwest Baltimore Corp. at Martin's West. Baltimore fashion godfather Travis Winkey produced the show, which featured modeling turns by Jada Pinkett and Will Smith.
Baltimore designer Earle E. Bannister explains fashion-show mania: For one, "You don't necessarily have to be the most talented model; you can have some experience doing fashion shows in high school."
And, it's a black thing: "We like to be on stage, we like to be seen, we like the attention," says Bannister, 31, who has a national clientele. "For some reason, when we put clothes on, we can assume the role, depending on what outfit we have on. That's what's fun. We make it bigger than life."
Patricia A. Turner, a University of California at Davis folklorist, suggests that fashion shows are a "latter-day version of parades" that took place within slave and free black communities. Slaves would "strategize to turn the parades into quasi-fashion shows" by convincing Master to provide used hats and other castoffs.
African-American high culture -- such as choreographer Alvin Ailey's signature piece, "Revelations," which features "a good deal of prancing, and a lot of attention to fashion" -- also demonstrates a traditional love of spectacle and playful self-promotion, says Turner, author of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture."
For many young Baltimore women, fashion shows are a coming-of-age ritual. Jarina Catchings, 40, remembers her mother modeling the work of local designers at the Alcazar and other tony downtown hotels during the 1960s. Catchings herself participated in "very professional fashion shows" at Western High School, where models borrowed clothing from Ruth Shaw and other stylish retailers.
It was "a way for the African-American community to build confidence," Catchings says. "At Byrn Mawr, you had dance lessons. I had charm school and used to do fashion shows at the YWCA."
Fashion shows also fuel the local economy, helping local designers promote their work. "It's great publicity," says designer Gloria Jennings, proprietor of Sibanye in West Baltimore. Bannister says he could make a comfortable living just by leasing his creations to fashion shows.
Typically, these fashion shows are more inclusive than exclusive: Just about anyone, however unwillowy, can model. At Sunday's fashion show, Flair's female models alternated with Mantazia. And you were as likely to see 70-something Grace McCain, who says her "strut comes naturally," or a plus-size vamp, as you would a leggy teen bounding down the runway hips first.
Mantazia's members work out and look real, not like the pretty boys in Ralph Lauren ads. They're pleasantly handsome, not ultra hunky, either; except for Darryl "The Body" Godwin, whose chiseled looks and honed physique suggest a cartoonist's over-the-top masculine ideal.
They are guys you would want to know, too -- fire department brass, a policeman, entrepreneur, actor, sales associate -- on call 24/7 for friends and family.
At Coppin State College in 1976, Lloyd R. Carter, now chief of medical services for the Baltimore City Fire Department, formed Mantazia with a childhood friend.
After college, the group disbanded, but Carter rebuilt it five years ago, "hand-picking guys for looks and personality." Carter envisioned a troupe that could perform routines with military precision, communicate pride and an oomphy sense of fun.
Larry Jackson, a sales associate with Gage World Class Men's Store, fits the Mantazia ideal, Carter says. He's the "master": a tall man with boundless energy and a nice way of wearing clothes. "He knows he looks good but he's not conceited."
Other members -- including Demetrius Luck, 27; Steve Holliday, 34; Bill Weaver, 37; Calvin Edwards, 40 -- also capture the spirit of Mantazia, absorbing the personality of the clothes to play slouchy gangstas, men of leisure, zoot-suited Cotton Club denizens and pin-stripe professionals with equal aplomb.
At any given performance, seven of the 12 Mantazia members appear. The troupe plays in Baltimore and Washington, at an assortment of venues, from the annual AFRAM festival, to bridal shows to this weekend's People's Expo at the Baltimore Convention Center. Carter's dream is to play the Ebony Fashion Fair, the oldest of traveling fashion shows.
For Bill Weaver, a broadcaster and actor, Mantazia is more than a modeling troupe; it's a way of communicating to women, disgruntled about the state of black manhood. It's a "kinship of hard-working and very professional and very polished men, almost a sector that goes unknown," he says. "Women [tend to believe] there are not a lot of guys out there, a lot of good guys out there, who do positive things in the community. And we model, too!"
Fresh from a torrid performance at a bridal expo in New Carrollton, Mantazia enters the Forum runway on this Sunday evening in silky, pajama-like suits.
With a gesture here, a nod there, Mantazia draws the ladies, dressed as if they, too, were on stage in brocade, sequins and treacherous heels, into the performance. "What Mantazia does is totally different, in the way it gets the audience involved," says Vernon McFadden, who often lends clothing to the troupe from his Security Mall store, Vernon's Menswear.
Throughout the evening, lounge wear gives way to Afrocentric pieces, which give way to glamorous evening wear. The clothing ranges from go-to-meeting proper to see-through bikinis (worn by the Flair women).
After teetering on the edge of propriety, the show concludes with a hand-clapping turn around the hall to gospel musician Kirk Franklin's "Stomp."
It all sounds familiar to Turner. "Often in African-American tradition, there's a very fine line between sacred and secular traditions," she says. "The world of church and outside of church blend in lots of interesting ways. The whole emphasis on fashion is something that is also discernible in the ways in which [many] African-Americans dress when they go to church."
And best of all, it's a great time, says 67-year-old Gwen Patillo, a great-grandmother, power lifter and former Flair model. It's the "sense of being with people, of looking good and feeling good. It makes your self-esteem go up. Makes you want to go shopping."
Mantazia will appear this weekend at the People's Expo, sponsored by The Radio One network, which includes WERQ-FM (92.3), WWIN-FM (95.9), WWIN-AM (1400) and WOLB-AM (1010). The expo-musical performances, star appearances, seminars, a children's area and cultural merchandise for sale -- runs noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center. $7 for adults. Free for children under 5. 410-332-8200.
Pub Date: 3/03/99