Updated: November 5, 2021 1:31:52 pm
Written by Vanessa Friedman
Six years ago, Eric Adams, then Brooklyn borough president, stood onstage at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and thundered his commencement advice at the soon-to-be graduates.
He exhorted them to “reach for the stars.”
“You are lions,” he told them. They should always say to themselves, “I am possible.”
But, he warned them, while you’re doing all that, do not forget, “When you play where the big boys and the big girls play, everything you do people watch.”
“People look at your presentation before they take you seriously,” he said. “Everything about you must say power.”
On the first Tuesday in November, as he strode to a podium in Brooklyn to declare victory in New York City’s mayoral contest, becoming the second Black mayor in the city’s history and chief of the power playground, Adams modeled exactly what that meant — as he has been doing since he began his climb toward Gracie Mansion. His white shirt was so pristine it practically glowed; his collar open; his cuff links closed.
“Whether he’s talking or not, he’s always saying something with his dress,” said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant who was also Ed Koch’s press secretary. “And it’s, ‘I’m here. I’m in charge. I mean business.’”
It’s unusual for city politicians to engage with questions of image-making. Most often, they actively avoid personal discussions of dress, believing it makes them seem frivolous or elitist. If they do connect with the fashion world, it is usually as an economic driver of the city or of the garment district: Michael Bloomberg handing Ralph Lauren a key to the city for investing millions in new stores; Bill de Blasio welcoming the industry to Gracie Mansion before fashion week. It’s usually just about business.
Not for Adams.
As he proved when he wore a bright red blazer to a Hamptons fundraiser in August or posted a photograph of himself in a new tower with the city’s skyscrapers spread out at his feet, his aviators reflecting the girders and gleam of the building, he is more than willing to use his clothes to stand out.
And as the 61-year-old assumes his role as the mind — and face — of the city, a chaotic amalgamation of identities, politics, problems and possibility, at a time when New York is still recovering from a COVID-19-induced economic and spiritual nadir and after the social justice protests of 2020, he will become one of the most visible men in the metropolitan area. He can suffer that, or he can use it to his own ends.
“He manages to appeal to a lot of different people with a lot of different expectations,” said Nancy Deihl, chair of the art department at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. “He’s really dressing for that.” It is a strategic deployment of dress that goes far beyond respectability politics into what might be called charisma politics.
He is, Arzt said, a mayor “for the visual age.”
There are still questions about Adams’ specific plans for New York and how he intends to accomplish them, but in this one area at least he has always been absolutely clear: What you wear matters. It has meaning and import. And throughout his career, he has crafted his own presentation to bridge communities and interest groups, to assert his place in the room — and beyond.
‘It’s All in the Clothing’
Just more than a decade ago, when Adams was a state senator in Albany, he actually orchestrated a campaign featuring clothes.
The goal wasn’t a run for office, but rather to get the male members of his constituency to stop wearing pants that appeared to be sliding down their underwear. Complete with posters and a video, it was called “Stop the Sag.”
“You can raise your level of respect if you raise your pants,” Adams said in the video, wearing, The New York Times reported, “a gray suit, green tie and white pocket square” and framing the low-slung pants by contrast as participating in — and helping perpetuate — a continuum of offensive racial stereotypes that stretched from Aunt Jemima through minstrel performers.
As to why any of this mattered, he told the paper, “The first indicator that your child is having problems is the dress code.”
Ultimately, he said, “It’s all in the clothing.”
Since then, clothing has played a key role in much of his public storytelling, where he uses it as a sort of universal shorthand, a shared language almost anyone can understand. Reciting his personal narrative, for example, he described taking a garbage bag of clothes to school in case his family was evicted while he was away (clothing as a symbol of homelessness). Commemorating his 22-year career as a police officer in his Twitter bio, he wrote, “I wore a bulletproof vest to keep my neighbors safe” (clothing as a symbol of the positive side of law enforcement). Dramatizing a life lesson, he told an apparently borrowed story about confronting a rude neighbor who ignored him until he donned a hoodie (clothing as symbol of racial prejudice and threat).
And celebrating his electoral victory, he said, “Today we take off the intramural jersey, and we put on one jersey: Team New York” (clothing as symbol of unity).
“He clearly knows a lot more about the subject than the average politico,” Alan Flusser, a tailor in New York and author of “Clothes and the Man,” said of Adams. As to how he learned it, Adams said his role model growing up was his uncle, Paul Watts, a longshoreman who was always in “a hat, nicely pressed suit and shined shoes,” as well as his local pastors — though he has taken their lessons and made them entirely his own.
According to Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, a state assembly member and chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, “Eric’s style has evolved along with his career” — from police officer with an actual uniform to Brooklyn borough president with a quasi-uniform in the shape of the position’s official nylon jacket to today.
Now, Hermelyn said, “he’s projecting New York City as the capital of the world through his wardrobe. But he’s also saying he grew up on these streets.”
Indeed, there are a number of stories embedded in Adams’ current shirts and suits and accessories of choice.
The Stories Clothes Tell
Adams got his ear pierced in July after winning the Democratic primary because, he said, he had met a young man during the campaign who expressed doubt over whether any politicians keep their promises. When Adams asked what he could do to prove him wrong, the young voter said he could agree to pierce his ear if he won — and then actually follow through.
“Day one, living up to my promises,” Adams said in a video of the experience. Now he wears a diamond, which serves as a winking symbol of his commitment — but also an effective counterpoint to his perfectly tailored suits, one button often neatly done up to smooth the line, which both advertise his fitness (famously achieved in part by going vegan after being diagnosed with diabetes) and put him squarely in the tradition of Wall Street power brokers.
“He wears clothes in a modern way,” Flusser said — closefitting, in the vein of Daniel Craig as James Bond, often without a tie — “but with classic flourishes from the past: shirts with cutaway collars, pocket squares.” Details, Flusser said, “identified with the highfliers.”
Indeed, Adams is so detail-oriented in his dress that his decision to largely abandon the tie (except at debates, where he favored a four-in-hand knot with center dimple) was clearly deliberate, another visual clue that plugged him into the evolution of the modern male dress code. Also notable is the “energy stone bracelet” he wears on his right wrist, composed of stones from Asia and Africa that supporters gave him, and his propensity for a white shirt.
“The white shirt is a really powerful image,” said Deihl. “It conveys impeccability, crispness and currency.”
Together, she said, it all lays claim to a visual genealogy that extends from Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. through to President Barack Obama, whose black aviator Ray-Bans Adams adopted.
“After I saw President Obama wearing a similar pair, I decided I needed these to make myself look cool — Obama cool,” he told New York Magazine’s Strategist. (Other preferred brands include Florsheim Berkley penny loafers, Joseph Abboud chinos bought from Men’s Wearhouse and shirts from Century 21.)
Given that clothes are the unspoken and unwritten way we signal to the world our membership in a group, be it caste or class or profession, this particular collection of styles and names offers a medley of associations that allows Adams to be a master of the universe, a next-gen executive, a representative of the wellness contingent and the street-smart local, all at the same time. It’s a button-pushing balancing act that reflects both his chameleonlike politics and ambitions — for himself and his new role.
“Part of the challenge here is perceptual — that New York is on the decline, that it is not healthy, that it is not safe,” said Evan Thies, one of Adams’ senior advisers. He noted that Adams “connects dress with confidence” — in himself and now, by transference, his city.
His job is changing that impression. If he can do that through not only policy but (at least to start) sheer force of image — the “broken windows” theory made personal, all wrinkles ironed out — he may not just have won the election, Thies said, but “half the game.”