The Oxford American recently launched Parish Chic, a new online column in which journalist and photographer L. Kasimu Harris showcases the sometimes elegant, always eclectic pastiche of styles endemic to his hometown of New Orleans. The Circle Bar hosts a party celebrating the column from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. this Thursday, March 29. Here, Harris tells us why fashion matters and how jazz influences even the way we dress.
How would you describe New Orleans' fashion sensibility?
We definitely dress for heat, and our attitude comes out as far as being easygoing and being really improvisational — the roots of jazz and black American music. Perhaps once upon a time, you could look at someone and say, "This person is from New York," but with the advent of technology and prevalence of travel, a lot of people borrow from each other, so styles aren't as easily defined or recognized. But I think those three things are definitely incorporated in anything we do.
Your subjects are all very different. What makes somebody's style stand out?
I like people who take risks in style. Someone who has tried something different. I never intended for the column to be, "This is stylish, this is not." It's just people who care about style and have done it in a creative and interesting way.
What's your own style like?
I came up in New Orleans playing jazz, where what you wore had to be as good as what you played; otherwise, it's disrespecting the bandstand. My dad always made me wear hats. Ever since third grade, it'd be cab driver hats, newsboy hats ... But I'm a rule breaker. I compare it to music: it's based upon a set amount of changes. You wear a traditional two- or three-button blazer. That’s the fundamentals, but then what I do with the blazer, the bow tie, the shirt I wear, throwing some sneakers in there — it's going off this path. I wouldn’t wear wool with linen, but I will wear an ascot with shorts. People have been wearing bow ties for years, but it's how you interpret it to make your own unique personal style.
When did you start pursuing photography?
I've always been interested in photography. I still have pictures I need to post from 1995. I have a picture of Jason Marsalis and his wife, and Irvin Mayfield — we were all in high school. I was just playing around ... I wasn’t thinking of being a photographer; I was into documenting what was going on. I'm glad I did that.
Tell us about your background as a journalist.
I didn't want to be a writer when I went to college. I was horrible in English, but I always read incessantly. In 2001, I went to the school newspaper and wrote a column about New Orleans. You see your byline and enjoy telling stories and the accolades you get — I got infatuated and continued doing it. When I went to graduate school in '05, I went strictly as a writer. I was not into photography as a serious interest. The professor I had an assistantship under was a photographer, and I had to take photography classes. I still wasn’t into it, and Katrina happened. Forty-five days after Katrina, he took students back to New Orleans. He shoved a camera in my hand and said, "If you don’t come back, you fail." So I came back with a camera shoved in my hand.
How do writing and photography intersect for you as a story teller?
I really enjoy how you can marry vision and verbs. I wanted my column to be different from any other column, because I am using my journalism background to tell the stories behind the style. I was basically looking for an avenue. Anybody who does anything creative wants to do something on a national or international scale, and The Oxford American gave me the opportunity to do that.
Why do you think style is important? A lot of times it gets dismissed as shallow or trivial, but to you, fashion seems much deeper.
First of all, we tend to dismiss things we can't do well. If you can't dress well, you'll think it's unimportant. But in a structured society where you have so many rules — so much is nine-to-five, suit and tie, go to school, college —it's important to have self-expression. And in our society, everyone has to wear clothes. It's just whether you choose to do it well or not. That’s why I think style is important. Now would I put it on the same level as ending world hunger? No, but that doesn’t mean it's not important. Writers particularly pigeonhole themselves into, "Oh, writers can't dress." But I think of pictures I've seen of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner — they could dress! Even before Faulkner hit it big, in that little town of Oxford, he'd run up a bill sky high at the local department store buying these clothes. They called him Count No-Count because he put on a lot of airs and was this unsuccessful dude.
What do you want to do next in your career?
I had a friend from when I was doing my master's degree call me a few days ago. He was like,"Are you going to do this for the rest of your life? I thought you were going to be a professor." From his academic background, I don't know how seriously he takes the work. One man can do many things, and there's a value in telling stories. There really is. So it may not be academic, but I'm very pleased and just want to continue telling stories, not exclusive to style, but always including style.