Where clothes don't always make the man

Thug-style attire a fashion statement for many good, law-abiding youth

July 27, 2006
Globe and Mail
By Joe Friesen

They buy their pants four sizes too large and wear their baseball caps loose with a flat brim. Their T-shirts go on forever, often billowing below the knee. This is how many of the young men of Jane-Finch present themselves to the world.

Their dress and their mannerisms give the impression they are thugs. They know that, and they celebrate it. But they are not what they seem. The layers of fabric that bunch at the ankles or make round, adolescent shoulders seem square are practically a uniform, and very few dare stray from its codes.

"For the guys, the bigger the clothes, the better," says Cathy, who works at Foxx men's store in the Yorkgate Mall. "The smallest size we carry in this store is large, and we go as high as 5XL."

A wholesaler from the United States, who was making a delivery to Foxx this month, says the baggy work-wear trend came out of the prisons, where inmates couldn't wear belts so they let their pants sag.

For teenagers like Justice and his friends, their fashion has no origin. To them, it's just a natural process, although they admit they're influenced by what they see on Black Entertainment Television.

They describe their style as gangsta, thug or hood, although many of them still go shopping with their mothers. Most are good, law-abiding citizens, but they're prepared to spend a lot to look dangerous.

Justice (his street name) is the 15-year-old son of Ghanaian immigrants and lives in a Jane Street apartment tower. He owns 13 pairs of sneakers. About half are Nike, some are Reebok and others are Adidas. He owns four pairs of Nike Air Force Ones in different colours. But his prized possession is a pair of $180 Air Jordan XIIIs in red and black, which he wears only on special occasions, and rarely to play basketball.

He's working hard this summer, pushing mops and paintbrushes in his job as a janitor's assistant. He's trying to save for a set of diamond grills, which are custom-moulded, jewel-encrusted plates worn over the teeth. He also wants a gold necklace spelling out his name, a gold ring and a belt buckle. In all, the jewellery will cost nearly $500.

"The favourite thing that I rock is my picture T-shirts and my Dickie pants," Justice says, referring to the brand of blue-collar clothing that's de rigueur in the neighbourhood.

He says he wears his picture T-shirts, the ones with images of the late Tupac Shakur and other rappers, to impress his friends. His jewellery and more up-market clothes, such as his long-sleeved Sean John shirts, are for impressing girls.

He and his friends call themselves Bloods, which stems from their block's long-standing affiliation with the street gang. They dress mainly in black and red, and tend to avoid blue.

As they sat outside their apartment complex this week, a young man walked by dressed in blue from head to toe.

After looking him up and down, they said, "What's with the blue?" The young man smiled and kept walking. He's a Crip, they explained. But they didn't treat his presence as any great affront.

Most members of the group carry either a red or black bandana in their back pocket, to signal affiliation with the Bloods.

"If you rock the rag, you've got to follow the code," Justice says. "Red on the right, or blue on the left."

Dressing like a dangerous gangster is expensive, and Justice spends a lot of time thinking about how to get more money to buy more things, but he won't turn to crime. He works. He gambles on dice games with his friends; he says he wins more than he loses. And, like many of his friends, whenever something of value comes into his possession, such as free food, tickets to an event or a T-shirt, he tries to sell it.

Shlomo Soussan owns Foxx clothing. He started the business in Jane-Finch 17 years ago, aiming for the middle-of-the-road men's fashion market. Four years in, he realized the market was strongest for hip-hop clothing, and that's what he's sold ever since.

He says the growth in the industry has been phenomenal.

"In my lifetime, denim in the urban market reached $200," he said. "It's not catering to the guy who inspired the fashion."

Since many parents can't afford the high-priced designer items, Foxx carries no-name brands that sell for less than $20.

It also sells 'Stop Snitching' T-shirts, but doesn't keep many in stock. The T-shirts, which advocate not speaking to police, were the subject of controversy in Boston last year after the mayor threatened to ban them.

Other popular T-shirts borrow from the logos of famous corporations: Blockbuster becomes 'Block Hustler,' Burger King becomes 'Murder King,' and then there's 'Ho Depot,' modelled after Home Depot. And there are shirts that feature the 'Snitch Motel,' where snitches check in but don't check out.

Mr. Soussan says his customers are attracted to the dangerous lifestyle evoked by the clothes, even though most are law-abiding citizens.

"All these things are part of their daily life to them, and there are people in business who are smart enough to take advantage and cash in," he said. "Kids like it. As long as there's no crime involved and people can make a living, then it's okay. It's a happening thing. They'll go through it and tomorrow it's something else."

Tomorrow's trend appears to be tighter-fitting clothes. Pants are getting narrower and starting to look more European in cut, according to Cathy, Mr. Soussan's employee.

"The more mature guys are getting out of the thug image," she said, "and a lot of it has to do with partying downtown, where they won't let you in if you dress all gangster."