REFLECTIONS | WINTER ’21
FROM BRIXTON, WITH LOVE
WORDS by NEMAR PARCHMENT
Many viewed Brixton as a spec of dirt to be ignored on the map of London—muddied with unscrupulous characters. When letting people know you were from Brixton, their faces would often scrunch up like a used piece of paper, their aversion to the area caused a physical reaction they could not control. It was defined by outsiders as a dangerous area riddled with crime and poverty. If you ever had the misfortune of visiting, grasping onto all personal belongings and avoiding eye contact were necessary to ensure your safety.
Growing up in the south London district allowed me to see past its bad reputation and truly bear witness to the beauty that resided within. Brixton was a beautiful place illuminated by rich Caribbean culture. A true sense of community lived within the residents, while the sweet scent of hard dough bread wafted out of First Choice Bakers and filled street corners. It was a flamboyant area with one of a kind characters where self-expression and individuality were celebrated. The place where my love for fashion was conceived.
As a young boy I would spend hours getting lost in fashion books inside the rust coloured cocoon of Brixton Library. Books and papers laid scattered across the table where I resided in the back of the building sitting on a miserably uncomfortable black seat. Still, I would sit and read book after book after book, until my body paid the price. I began sketching my own designs and using them as a vessel to tell my own stories. Drawings of extravagant ruffles and oversized lapels represented my flamboyant nature. Bright yellows and greens became an expression of my Jamaican heritage. I felt free getting lost in the limitless realm of fashion; it felt natural, innate. I made a subtle pact with myself to forge my way into the industry, not knowing it would be a journey that the young boy consumed in the fashion books never had the courage to foresee.
You see, the imagination is a wonderful thing that allows you to create realms that have yet to take form in reality. Despite this as a child, I found it hard to dream of a reality outside the sand coloured blocks that made up my Brixton Hill estate. I never saw full thighs, broad shoulders, round stomachs or rich mahogany skin while trawling through those fashion books. As a person who possesses all of these underrepresented characteristics and is a signed model, five years into my career, it feels like a fairytale no-one was brave enough to write. Gracing the pages of fashion magazines, appearing in TV commercials and having my face plastered on large billboards has done more than just filled me with joy. It has given a voice and visibility to a demographic of people that are often forgotten in fashion. In many ways, looking back, my presence as a person with a large body who viewed himself as beautiful was needed at that particular moment in fashion to respond to the call for change in the industry. This call would harken a new generation of shoppers and scrollers to buy into the belief that the fashion industry had become a more accepting and tolerant space.
Even though a shift in representation created an exterior that appeared more welcoming, internally navigating the industry as a big bodied black man has not been the easiest feat. My 4B crown has often been met with hairstylists poking and prodding at it like a suspicious package, nervous to touch it, and brushing waves backwards against the grain. For makeup artists, my rich hazel skin would cause panic. Face beaters rifled through bags trying to find a colour to match my tone, often to no avail, sometimes bringing out face paint sets or telling me that my skin was “great” and did not need anything as their brushes caressed the faces of white models. For the wardrobe stylist, my body triggered a loss of interest which caused them to direct their attention to the smaller models. My sparse clothing options would hang lonely and isolated against the rail of bountiful “straight size” garments. Often, I’d be asked to cram my body into clothing that was not my size, and those experiences are echoed by my model peers.
In spite of this, being able to tell my story, and the story of an overlooked group of people through my work reminds me of the Brixton characters that inspired my love for fashion. Brixton was full of unique personalities with senses of style to match. People from Brixton played by their own rules and used clothes and style as a roadmap to tell the stories of their culture, thoughts, and beliefs. My mother was one of the greatest storytellers.
As parents flooded through the ocean blue gates of my Church of England school, “Your mum is so cool” would often resound through whispers quietly cascading through the air. Oak trees stretched towards the sky and casted shadows over the playground as I walked like a little king drowning in my indigo blue school jumper toward my mother. It was typical for me to walk myself home, so to see her was a shift in scene and a glorious one at that; golden light fit for a queen filled the playground.Her long locs cascaded past her shoulders—a show of her strength. Her wrists were adorned in layers of glistening gold bangles etched with swirls of paisley, and her fingers were engulfed in precious stone rings—an expression of her honest spirit.
There she stood—a rebellious African Queen residing in the body of a young Black woman born to Jamaican parents in post-Windrush London. There I was—taking it all in. The emotional quality of the stories that her clothing told came together so seamlessly. She was the storyteller, with a deep emerald cape swept across her body and stacks of gold bracelets resting on the bend of the wrist. I was the student, with a crumpled school book bag, and soot-coloured trousers with loose tattered hems which were an inexpensive fix for my recent growth spurt. How I wished I had the same pen to tell my own stories and express myself the way I wanted.
My mother was not the only storyteller I knew. On my Brixton Hill estate we had “Pops,” the resident elder, fountain of wisdom, and occasional disciplinarian. He had high cheekbones, rich onyx skin, and a wool trilby often sat upon his head concealing his short, tight curls. He would tip his hat ever so slightly when greeting you, inadvertently letting you know he was a man of tradition. He donned an authoritative blazer in a bleak, closely woven fabric that made it clear he was a figure to be respected. His hard bottom shoes were always in pristine condition and freshly polished.
The Brixton Dancehall Queen Pinky from the early aughts also had a pungent sense of style. She would weave together elaborate tales detailing the culture behind Dancehall music using only the colour pink. Her pink wigs, over-embellished jewellery, and pink mini skirts were all nods to the dancehall culture and the empowering sense of self-representation it promotes. After school my best friend and I would walk through the colourful Brixton streets with our ties loosened and blazers off feeling free from the shackles of our dull school uniform. We thundered down to Brixton Market to buy the latest Dutty Fridaze or Passa Passa DVDs, hoping to get a glimpse of what pink concoction Queen had chosen to adorn her body in. It was an event that never failed to disappoint. Whether it was her rose coloured finger waves, her bright pink bantu knots, her orchid colour cowboy boots, or her hot pink shorts, she exemplified what it meant to be fearless and unapologetically yourself.
No place on earth has illuminated my soul, fed my mind, and left an everlasting impression on me in the way that Brixton has. My fellow Brixtonians taught me lessons about being proud of who you are by constantly celebrating our distinctions. Its vibrant streets and colourful characters created a unique space unlike any other. To the South London gem, thank you. The people that have resided there over the years bestowed upon me life lessons and exposed me to experiences that have made me the person I am today.
Nemar Parchment is a UK-based, Bright Black Young Thing—full of energy and conscious of minding the gaps of a mainstream cultural conditioning that says, “Black man, stand down.” Making that model money may pay the rent, but Nemar’s creative pursuits as host of Another Space Podcast and contributing writer at The Tenth suggests that his dream will take on all types of shapes and forms on his journey.