Sirens: Fashion Designer Carmine de la Cruz’s Resistance to Resistance

18 November 2022 by Rion Amilcar Scott in Style

It could be said that Carmine de la Cruz is a designer trapped by his own aesthetic urges. Or perhaps it’s an aesthetic forced on him by the harsh circumstances often visited upon black people. Whatever the case, like any prisoner — even prisoners of conscience — de la Cruz wants out.

For years, to anyone who will listen, he’s spoken about the new line he’s dreamt about since he was a boy on the streets of Brooklyn. It’s a synthesis of everything he is and all he imagined he’d become, he’s told the world. This new line will go far beyond his already transcendent and wildly popular de la Resistance collection, he says. It will be earth-shattering, a thing to change lives. Of this he assures us.

Talk of this enlightenment-inducing line goes back several years, but after pattering on about it in interviews and private conversations, de la Cruz has shown the world nothing outside of endless variations on the de la Resistance theme, leaving fashion observers to mumble and wonder.

Has the fashion world been taken for a ride? Is de la Cruz charlatan or messiah; fool or visionary? He isn’t the first to call these categories into question. Or maybe you simply can’t rush art, as many suggest, and we have all been doubting the only begotten son of the fashion God. Perhaps he’s always been a little of all these things at the same time.

“Those who count me out are right to do so,” de la Cruz said, alternating between serious flatness and a palm-leaf thin smile. “If I were a young boy with dreams of being a fashion designer I’d also wonder if this guy — my hero (and I have been hero to some) — had lost it. I’d sit in my studio and plot ways to take the spot I now inhabit, as I know some are doing. He’s gotten rich and fat and all that creativity in the old days was a fluke. That’s the sort of thing they say. I hear it all. I’d say it too. I’d lose my faith in me too.”

Perhaps there are those who have lost faith, those who have counted him out, but all one has to do is walk down any street in America, go to any wedding, any fancy-gown ball, playground, nightclub, bar, college campus, coffee shop; at all of these places you’ll no doubt see someone wearing a version of the designer’s famed de la Resistance line. Once derided as “urban warfare gear,” the bullet-proof vest-inspired fashion has gone on to become a staple of the American wardrobe. Since his first collection, we’ve seen mini-skirts, suits and ball-gowns. We wear versions of de la Cruz’s vests as sport coats with ties. Colorful vests emblazoned with images, messages and his company logo can be seen in classrooms, airports, ball games and other casual environments. From the informal to business to haute couture versions of his fashions displayed in his store windows, de la Cruz’s work has taken over in six short years. The story of fashion is the story of de la Resistance.

He never meant it to be this way. It could be said that the de la Cruz we know was born in summer 2014 in Ferguson, MO when a white police officer killed a black teenager, leaving his uncovered dead body on the street for hours, taken by many as a warning to residents. De la Cruz, a teenager in Brooklyn at the time, watched the aftermath of that killing in high definition on a small television set in his mother’s basement. Riots. Tear gas. Violent clashes between citizens and police.

These days, drones buzzing over poor and minority communities, quickly calling in swarms of police at even the most minor of disturbances is just another Tuesday.

“This wasn’t the country that my Pappy fought for in Iraq,” he said. “Not as I understood it. So when folks hit the streets saying ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ and ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I stepped right out there with them.”

A quiet and bookish teen, more at home sketching dresses than shouting in the streets, de la Cruz’s career as a protestor didn’t last long. A demonstration here and there with his brother, Dwayne, but that was it. But he noticed an uptick, a succession of incidents of police seemingly abusing their power and getting away with it — a killing here, a bloodied black man beaten in the streets there. The more he read, the more he researched, the more he realized it wasn’t a new phenomenon, just new to him.

“A man, not far from where I lived, was choked to death by police just before the Battle of Ferguson and I didn’t know. How could I not know this was going on?”

During that time he barely saw his brother who was in and out the house — and jail — to protest what he perceived as a gross injustice. Dwayne de la Cruz travelled back and forth between New York, Baltimore, Ferguson and other areas of unrest, leaving his job and living on savings. That sort of life wasn’t for Carmine and de la Resistance was born as a challenge from Dwayne.

“I’ll never forget what he said to me,” de la Cruz recalls. “He said: ‘If you ain’t out on the streets, you ain’t doing shit. What them little girly clothes you sketching going to do for this struggle, huh? Nothing.’ So I started sketching something new to show him.”

de la Resistance has made de la Cruz — and his brother, who invested early and now works for him — wealthy many times over. They placed the label’s first store on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson and franchisees have opened stores at the scene of other police killings. Seemingly every time a clash between police and citizens occur, de la Cruz has a pop-up shop selling de la Resistance clothing, leaving the designer open to charges of opportunism, but such accusations have largely faded over time. The work caught on because it took hold of the zeitgeist and even managed to be prophetic, anticipating the street clashes and militarized policing of recent years. Some fashion experts contend that de la Cruz’s line allows average people to unleash their inner rebel.

“Everyone loves the outlaw,” said Heidi Neale, an assistant professor of Fine Arts at Howard University. “With de la Resistance we can dress up as revolutionaries and rebels; it gives us control over our lives as society breaks down and we descend into a sort of quasi-police state. And the hazy legality of the fashions in some jurisdictions doesn’t hurt. It’s a dare for the police to crack down and de la Resistance is so widespread I can’t imagine they’d take that dare. It’s all so sexy.”

De la Cruz often keeps his head down and speaks almost in a whisper. He seems never to have shaken the shyness of his youth. His voice is lithe and light, full of birdsong — a striking contrast to his image as a firebrand revolutionary. He offers little about his personal life or his training. While his company maintains offices in his hometown, a fashion capital of the world, de la Cruz chooses to do most of his work in his Ferguson store. He lives in a small apartment nearby and walks to work daily. As for his training, he made it all up, he says. Never apprenticed or patterned his work after anyone. His brother confirms this. “That brother Carmine rose up one day a fully formed designer,” he says. “We don’t come from artsy fashion people. We’re working class folks. Straight black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, man. But even when he was a baby that dude was all fire and passion. And then when someone put a crayon in his hand…”

The light flesh around de la Cruz’s eyes stay ringed in maroon; that’s because he spends all day on tweaks to the de la Resistance wear and late into the night, every night, he’s creating the collection no other human eyes — even family, even lovers — have seen, the collection he calls his truest representation. But whenever he imagines himself done with de la Resistance, a case of police brutality sends him back to create something new in the Resistance mold.

“My brother is exhausted,” Dwayne de la Cruz says. “Our whole company is. We keep pressing on because that’s what we’re supposed to do, but we’d all be happy if the de la Resistance clothing wasn’t needed no more. Sometimes I get sick that the lifestyle I enjoy came from blood.” At this Dwayne fingers the $50,000 Hublot ever present on his wrist. “Sometimes I get disgusted with some of our investors who take joy in the continued fight; they seem to never want this shit to end. If you ask my brother he’d rather be creating his new stuff. He’d give all the money and success back if he could just have some more time to work on his new stuff. I’m in about the same place, but the world is what it is, man.”

De la Cruz’s first show in 2016 was a debut like no other. Complete darkness. Smoke. Air raid sirens. Bursts of light from above. People in black marching with fake Uzis. Stormtrooping officers menacing the marchers. A voice crying out, Armageddon has been in effect, go get a late pass! Wall-to-wall noise — hip-hop from the late 1980s, a time before de la Cruz was even born. Then finally came the models wearing the original de la Resistance clothing. Such a debut immediately polarized the audience. At the time, the New Yorker referred to de la Resistance as a “brilliance that captures the true tenor of our times.” The Cross River Days & Times described his work as “truly vulgar…defies conventions of both beauty and function…disgraceful that critics are all a tizzy about such a tragic passing fad.” The Nation’s Andrea Gino-Lee years later dispensed with the de la Resistance brand in a couple sentences: “Our leader is the young, wealthy de la Cruz, designing the latest and chicest in urban rebellion from a villa in St. Tropez while calling on his servants to bring him lavender infused mimosas? One wonders if he discusses with them how to claim revolution while still catering to a rich white, clueless, vacuum-dwelling base.”

De la Cruz likes to think he’s flying above both the criticism and the glowing praise his work enjoys. Somewhere in the clouds he’s designing his true statement on humanity — a fashion line broader and more true than the one that has brought him fame and millions. Like Bob Dylan disavowing the political nature of his celebrated protest song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” de la Cruz denies there is any overt political intent to his groundbreaking de la Resistance line. His concerns are truth and beauty, he says. But one can’t help thinking of such a disavowal as the words of a puckish trickster.

When pressed on this issue, he shakes his head and mumbles, “I’m just a designer, man.” But if one sweeps an eye about his messy studio, tacked to the wall above his drawing table alongside a series of de la Resistance sketches is a crumpled, sloppy handwritten note. Words written atop words, it reads in part:

“Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Joe Smith, Prince Jones, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Dwayne Jackson, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd, Darius Brown, Akai Gurley, Bob Randall, Denise Dante, Eric Garner, Shawntay Greene, Amadou Diallo…”


RION AMILCAR SCOTT

Sirens columnist Rion Amilcar Scott is the author of the short story collections Wolf Tickets and People in Motion and several novels. The next installment in his epic Cross River Saga is forthcoming in 2023 .

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