When Outkast named their 1996 masterpiece ATLiens, they were broadcasting to the rest of the world the most important fact about Atlanta, Georgia: Its people and culture operate so far outside normal laws and standards that they might as well be from another planet. It’s the last true thriving American subculture. A place of dualisms, both Southern and progressive. In Atlanta, the strip club and church aren’t warring ideas; they’re just two stops on a routine Sunday. (Also: Both prefer cash.)
It’s also become, in recent years, America’s number one exporter of pop culture, which is no accident. While the city has long been famous for its music—which can be punk or trunk-rattling or soulful or a mix of all of the above—style permeates everything. And everyone. From green locs to finger waves to military-approved side parts (see: a young Jimmy Carter), every phylum of personal style is represented in the A. Which is why we wanted to showcase the city and all its glorious energy. So we flew down with some of fall/winter’s most beautiful clothes with the aim of dressing some of the coolest people on earth. And we also called up the fashion savant and native son Derek Watkins, a.k.a. Fonzworth Bentley, to write a blazing incantation that takes you on a first-person intergalactic ride through the mecca’s most stylish corridors. No space ship necessary. —Mark Anthony Green
Universally at midnight, all across Atlanta, the Strafe classic jam played. It didn’t matter if you were in your 40s at Mr. V’s Figure 8 or in your teens at Shyran’s Showcase. This meant the party was about to begin and you were to report to the dance floor.
The tempo was one where you could move in your clothes. It’s not so fast that you have to sweat (I mean, you gon’ sweat, but you know what I mean), but the perfect tempo to get acquainted with the drape of one’s ensemble. If your shirt is tucked—your Bocci silk shirt and matching shorts, a fresh pair of K-Swiss with the gold package, white socks with the ball in the back, and wood-frame round gold Cartier glasses—this is the opportunity to adjust your fit so you can still take advantage of everything being in place while doing the Bartman seen on Atlanta Jams. Our very own Soul Train. Kids from all over the city would come in their freshest outfits and dance.
You see, not knowing how to dance wasn’t an option. If you couldn’t…you were a lame. From the high school talent shows to wearing matching Coca-Cola rugbies with Guess overalls with one strap hanging off and three-quarter Reebok Classics to Graffiti’s at Six Flags with your lady friend. West Side Story had the Jets and the Sharks; ATL had the Preps and Souls. The Preps were the Stray Cats, known for dyed Tretorns, blond-streaked box haircuts, tennis sweaters with a matching Benetton bag stuffed with a tennis racket to give it shape and also just in case things got outta hand. Conversely, the Souls could be seen wearing glossy Starter jackets, crisp white Jockey tees and heavily starched Jordache dark denim jeans, Cortez Nikes, and Josephine Baker finger waves. You were either one or the other or an amalgamation of the two.
Allow me to frame my red clay kudzu-lined neighborhood. I grew up in between the Audobon Forest and Cascade Heights in Southwest Atlanta, better known as the SWATS. Eleven houses down lived “Uncle Andy” and “Aunt Jean”—former mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and his wife, Jean Childs Young. Within seven streets you can find the homes of former mayor Shirley Franklin, legendary outfielder Hank Aaron, and former president of the SCLC Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. Head down Cascade to Venetian and just past Adams Park once you cross Centra Villa and there you will find the home of Congressman John Lewis, and within 15 minutes headed downtown you will arrive at the birthplace of the civil rights apostle Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I believe it was not only the compression of the community, but it was the angst of the strife that yielded the anointed solutions of nonviolence as a weapon to set off what would become a global exposure of injustice. These were not names from a history book to me. I knew them, and those that are still here? I can still call them. You would see them and their families weekly, at church on Sunday, in their four-in-hand (sculptured) knotted Spitalfields power silk ties, Lowell collar dress shirts, and fine-tailored notch-lapel suits with tassel loafers. As much as this was a time of fellowship, it was also a time for strategy and peacock flyness.
But the real fashion show was the day before at Lenox Square mall, which to this day may be the best fashion show I’ve ever attended (and I’ve been to many of them). The feeling of getting off the MARTA train and playing Frogger across East Paces Ferry and Lenox Road to finally walk into the food court and the smell of Cinnabon invokes Alexander Technique—and you find your stride while snatching up samples of Chick-fil-A nuggets and gesturing a talk-to-the-hand for subpar amuse-bouche wannabes. As you ascend the first escalator, you begin to question the country-club-influenced white polo buttoned up to the top, duck-head khakis with razor-blade creases, an O-ring repp-stripe ribbon belt, blue Sebagos, and one too many sprays of Obsession cologne. And now the red St. Louis Cardinals Starter suit and matching red Filas skrate from Walter’s seem to be summoning you. On the contrary, today I’m fastidiously casual, thus donning an Alexander Julian pastel striped button-up long-sleeve rolled so you can see my clear Swatch watch on one arm and my white braided cotton nautical bracelet on the other. Canary yellow Polo chinos, kelly green Polo socks, and tan Timberland boat shoes with the thick white soles.
But all that is behind you now as you’re nearly at the top of the second escalator and the runway of all runways now begins. The goal is clear.… I’ve saved enough money to purchase the esteemed Gucci belt, but what do you know about asking for a larger bag so you can lap the mall for the next umpteen hours? For the bag is now more important than the belt—you see, size does matter. The motivation, you may ask? The Gazelles and Clydesdales better known as the Jennifers, the Nikkis, Tashas, and Japonikas. Derek Watkins is never caught slippin’, Cool Outrageous Lovers of Uniquely Raw Style is the punctuation.
The crown jewel of the mall? If I’m keeping it funky, it’s the Neiman Marcus sale rack, but everybody knows it’s the Polo store. I became a loyalist to dressing timeless after a bad stint when, one year, my parents gave me and my younger brother $500 to buy whatever we wanted for Christmas. A clothing line called Skidz were the coolest things out. Think if MC Hammer’s pants and some wacky pajamas had a test-tube baby… I bought six outfits.
By my birthday in February? They were completely out of style. And that’s when my dad sat me down with Alan Flusser’s book Clothes and the Man and talked to me about my great-grandfather Daddy Emmit’s sense of style. It was timeless. He was a well-dressed deacon who was never seen without a fedora, an umbrella, or a cane.
So when it was time to go to college, naturally, being a SpelHouse baby I went to Morehouse, as the majority of those foundational juggernauts that the civil rights movement stood on were bred at the Black Ivies, better known as HBCUs. I admit, when I arrived my freshman year, I still had a couple of Major Damage and Exhaust suits left, but I never wore them because they didn’t translate in this new arena. Going to an all-male school, other than Crown Forum, I was dressed in my collegiate track-and-cross-country grays almost daily. It didn’t matter, because I was with hard legs throughout the week. This made getting dressed on Fridays that much more of an event. You had The Wall at Clark Atlanta University, where all the AUC schools would gather in their freshest fashion Friday attire, and of course Lower Manley at Spelman. In the fall you might find me in my Kayak Polo rugby, a white Jockey tee, my chocolate brown shearling vest, RRL indigo denim jeans with one leg tucked into my Polo socks so you could see the player, and chocolate brown Polo boots with the buckle across the first through fifth metatarsal. And for the spring: my navy Polo basketball tank top, Moco Sport cotton heather gray athletic shorts and white slouch socks—a nod to my DMV fam—and white Reebok Pumps. After all, next week is FreakNik, the stand-still stand-up-on-your-car-while-on-the-expressway traffic jam when everything inside the BeltLine became a sidewalk, including portions of 285. The humidity gave way to women in booty shorts, combat boots and midriffs, spaghetti straps, and tennis skirts with slingbacks, who were dropping it down to everything from the J-Team to 2 Live Crew bass music from Bazooka tubes powered by Rockford Fosgate punch 45 amps. And one, and two, and you know what to do—YEEK!
You see, by this time I had nurtured a relationship at the Polo store. Archie Smith, who started in security, was now a sales associate in the men’s shop and would become my plug. I started at the cash wrap through Christmas and started on the floor in Polo Sport in January. After proving myself in sales, I was promoted to the Men’s Store, which gave me access to tailored clothing and arguably the best men’s sales team in the league. It would be disrespectful to say we had a starting five—we had six starters and there was no bench. Randall Cartwright was Michael Jordan. Leonard Gresham and his unparalleled clothing knowledge was Magic. A recruit from the New Orleans store, Arthur Simon, with his center part and perfectly laid-down 1930s coiffure, was our Doc Rivers. And Benjamin Harris, our men’s manager, was our small forward—assists when you needed but could put numbers on the board.
And me? Well, I was the Billy “White Shoes” Johnson of the crew. How can you deny a six-foot-one-and-three-quarter gent in a brown-and-tan chalk-stripe Super 150s three-piece Purple Label suit, lapel waistcoat, English cutaway spread-collar shirt, champagne satin cravat with the Wall Street cleavage (dimple) in full plump assisted by a silver monogrammed tie bar, and laceless British tan side-gusset wingtip brogue spectators, finished with a featherweight silk pocket square…boy stop! And once I found out the power and extension a cream gabardine did to a man’s wardrobe, I was truly unstoppable.
It made sense my first hip-hop moniker was actually Polo Man, given to me by a former street entrepreneur and Dungeon Family member BlackOwned C-Bone because shawdy from Zone 4 was wearing tailored clothing daily. Every morning before the mall opened, I would stop by The Athlete’s Foot and Champs to see the latest releases, and before I would go through my client book I would take all the XXL and XL outfits that could match the new drops and hide them in the stockroom. You see, the best way to say it is I was trapping out the Polo store. We had the best product, and I was your pusher. You had to be on your A game, as the competition was high. The anchor stores were Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, and Rich’s. There was Brooks Brothers, Britches of Georgetown, H. Stockton, and directly across the corridor was Ray: Mark Shale’s very own Charles Barkley. This was a time when a professional retail associate could earn a decent living if he took care of his clientele and was proficient in his craft. It was not unheard of for a seasoned professional to make $100,000 annually.
You have to understand, the music industry was at a tipping point. L.A. Reid and Babyface were now having a run with their Y Combinator start-up, LaFace Records. Dallas Austin had carved his niche and shown dexterity with his forward approach at Rowdy Records. And College Park’s own Jermaine Dupri was here for all the smoke with a rally of hits through his label, So So Def. You see, in order to break a record in the South you couldn’t skip over Atlanta. And so they all came. And when they did, at some point they had to stop by the Polo store. I sold Pimp C an olive green suede Purple Label sport shirt and trousers. I sold Nas a medium. And I remember beating up C-Murder so tuff the next day Monica came in looking for who helped him, as she swore she couldn’t get him new gear on the regular.
Before the city’s blood pressure gets too hot, let me assure you I did not forget a thing. I saved the icing for just that. You see, Organized Noize (Ray Murray: YODA, Rico Wade, and Sleepy Brown) were more than a label. They represented the phoenix from which Atlanta is named rising from the Dungeon. (A heartwarming fun fact about the trio: They still write and produce as a collective to this day.) The culture that runs through the veins here prepared me for what was next, the Rhinelander mansion flagship store on Madison Avenue in the concrete jungle of New York City. This was the final training ground that opened a new world of opportunities for me, because this was the apex of culture and lifestyle wrapped in a retail experience second to none. I was ready, and it was the organized noise of all of this that groomed me. And with that I tip my lowercase Bob Horner Atlanta Braves baseball cap. Blaaaat!
Derek Watkins, known throughout his career as “Fonzworth Bentley,” is a renaissance man and a deacon on dandy. He is an author, producer, musician, creative director, and a pioneer of sartorial innovation.
A version of this story originally appeared in the GQStyle Fall/Winter 2021 issue with the title “48 Hours in Atlanta.”
Photographs by Kennedi Carter
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Hair and makeup by Danielle Mitchell
Grooming by Brandi Lashay and Calvin McFarland
Tailoring by Fhonia Ellis
Produced by West of Ivy