Tribe NYC photographed by Phyllis Leibowitz
Tribe NYC photographed by Phyllis Leibowitz

Phyllis Leibowitz & Tribe NYC On Late 80s - Early 90s Chic

If you are asked about the style and trends of the late 80s and early 90s, you must talk about it as a bold era. With all great decades, personality was a trend and we believed that people liked to portray their individuality through their style of dress. This is why these years marked a milestone that you can witness today with a funky comeback of the 80s and 90s styles. Hi-tops, block colors, tops with fringes, massive shoulder pads, stretch stirrup pants, leg warmers, high waisted pants, skirts, shorts, huge earrings, fingerless gloves, oversized tops, heavy braids and more have all resurfaced. You had the right to mix and match or even rock them all in one without having to fear that anyone would judge you. If you were around at the height of these trends, you will experience a fair amount of nostalgia with these photos of the Tribe NYC crew and in-depth commentary from photographer Phyllis Leibowitz; the woman behind these iconic images of the new-school resurgence of 80s and 90s chic.

That era had been so good that young people in New York City, called Tribe NYC aged from 17 to 22 years developed an affinity to the fashions and high top fade hair of Kid 'N Play. They, then started dressing like it and discovered their mutual styles in different boroughs of New York City (Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx). Now, there are about 15 kids in NY, and now have members in Los Angeles, DC, Miami, Orlando, Toronto, and even Paris and Johannesburg. Beautiful story, there's such a sweet vibe from those times and it is great to witness the power of fashion and the impact of a generation on an other. Do not get us wrong, they're not the first one to connected to the 80s/90s culture in the same way, there was Retro Kidz and others. Tribe NYC is now and brand ambassador for Reebok — Swizz Beatz connected with them on Instagram and later on, Reebok contacted them to potentially do photoshoot. Here are pictures by incredible creative Phyllis Leibowitztaken on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge on May,18, 2013 and we chat with her about her collaboration with Tribe NYC.

Okayplayer: Tell me a little about yourself.

Phyllis Leibowitz: I’m a fashion stylist, photographer, handbag designer and pop culture junkie. I styled the “Concerto of the Desperado” video for The Roots in ‘96, directed by Charles Stone III. I dressed them in Ralph Lauren and Kangol which were very big back then. We shot in a rock quarry in New Jersey and one of the extras lost a huge gold chain in a massive pile of rocks. Lucky for us it was not real gold.

OKP: When I say 80's, you say...

PL: MTV. Amazing. Prince. I wanted to dance to everything Michael Jackson. Most creative (and worst?) hair ever. Even Michael Jackson had a mullet. Huge gold chains. Acid wash. Neon. Track suits. Graffiti art. I remember not understanding sampling when I first heard it, and then I realized how revolutionary it was.

OKP: When I say early 90’s, you say…

PL: Oversized clothing, baseball caps, sneakers, work boots, Tommy Hilfiger, sports jerseys, gangsta rap, Nirvana, East Cost / West Coast, Dre, The Chronic. But I wondered why all these handsome men wanted to hide their fabulous physiques and other important parts of their anatomy underneath all that baggy clothing?

OKP: Stylistically, how would you describe that era?

PL: Keith Haring’s black lines and bold colors were a huge influence. Cartoon characters, video game patterns. Baggy oversized shapes, sport jerseys and sneakers. Everything seemed comfortable, designed for movement. Sometimes it seemed like adults were wearing kids clothes. Tribe NYC says that style was fun because it meant that they didn’t have to grow up. Bill Cosby was the proud papa of this look with his kooky, colorful, fugly sweaters.

OKP: How did you meet Tribe NYC? Who are they? Is there a leader?

PL: I used to do trend scouting for Levi’s, always on the lookout for people who were “influencing” new trends. I live in Union Square, and one day walking through the park I saw these 2 guys sitting on the steps with flat top fades and bright aqua jerseys and baseball jackets. Their throwback look was so well executed that it was hard to believe they were actually standing in front of me in 2012. So I took their photo, we exchanged digits, and I thought I’d probably never see them again. But they were amazingly professional and persistent about keeping in touch with me. Tribe NYC are a “tribe” of 14 kids in NY, average age of 21, who met each other through their mutual love of late 80’s early 90’s hip hop and fashion. They slowly formed a network that spread organically and was reinforced by social media and good energy. Now their network has spread internationally to link with other tribes in Miami, Paris, Toronto, Manchester, Johannesburg. There is no single leader, Tribe NYC functions as a democracy where everyone has an equal voice, but 3 members (Prince DiVoe, 80’s Baby and Kid Love) oversee the organization of the group so they can make efficient decisions and get things done.

OKP: How did everything start? How did they met and spread the word to extend internationally?

PL: Throughout the boroughs of NYC and the Tri-State area, each independently developed an affinity for late 80’s/early 90’s hip-hop, especially the fashions and flat top fade hair styles of Kid 'N Play. Some of them met in high school, and gradually one by one their connections spread though random meetings on the street, at Starbucks, dance and art events, hanging out in Union Square park, and social media. Their international connections were all through social media.

OKP: Tell us something about them that no one knows.

PL: A few of the Tribe members used to be in gangs. Many grew up in rough neighborhoods, with parents who were always working and not around to supervise. The gangs made them steal to prove their toughness and loyalty. But once they hit junior year in high school, and they were exposed to more of the world outside their small neighborhoods, the positivity of old school hip-hop inspired them to more worthwhile and creative pursuits, and to move away from petty crime.

OKP: They have great styles. Outside of fashion, what else are they doing?

PL: In NY they are making music.

Their “Friday Night” video has gotten almost 38,000 hits, enough to start generating a potential revenue stream. (Today a Samsung Galaxy commercial precedes the video.) They were featured in an Adidas commercial with Nicki Minaj and Jeremy Scott late last year. And also in Elle Varner’s music video “ Only Wanna Give It To You”. They have modeled for Vice, Indie and 212 magazines. (A top secret fashion line is in the works, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy.) Internationally, they are focusing on dance, fashion and music.

OKP: What is the distinction between style and fashion and where would you put Tribe NYC?

PL: Fashion is a business, retailers require new product every 6 months, and designers are forced to supply the demand by creating clothing that is different from the previous collection. So fashion is about constant change and new trends. Style is a way of life, a visual philosophy and creative expression. True style icons have a consistent signature that distinguishes them as unique and does not change drastically from season to season to keep up with the current trends. Tribe NYC is definitely about STYLE. They are very specific in their tastes and they don’t flip flop to follow the latest trends. They have an easily identifiable visual signature.

Late 80s, early 90s were an amazing period, the youth was bold and eccentric, do you think that the same revival could happen in 20 years concerning our current era?

The same type of revival definitely WILL happen. Years ago, Simon Reynolds wrote in The New York Times about “The Perils of Loving Old Records Too Much”. He identified “a strange kind of nostalgia -- a yearning for a golden age that one never personally experienced. A born-too-late feeling: "epigonic” That article stayed with me, and as a stylist and lover of pop culture I’ve seen this phenomenon over and over again. In steampunk music today, and it’s adoption of Victorian and Edwardian Fashion. In 50’s Rockabilly and Swing music and fashion revival epitomized by Brian Setzer and The Stray Cats in the 80's. My friend Brian Newman (perhaps best known as Lady Gaga’s go-to jazz trumpet player), is drawn to the music, fashions and burlesque style of late 40's-50's post WWII era. He has a group of creative collaborators who all ascribe to a similar aesthetic of music and style.

Savoia The Tailor, a brilliant men’s fashion designer who is particularly drawn to 30’s and 40’s mens suiting, designed Ricky Martin’s costumes for the Broadway show “Evita”. His group of friends and collaborators share a distinct love of fashion and music and style from that era, walking into one of his birthday parties transports you back in time. I met fashion stylist Eric Daman in the mid 90’s when he was working with Pat Field on “Sex and the City”, he was wearing tight acid wash jeans and I thought they were ridiculous. Of course I was wrong, Eric is a major trend influencer, and now an Emmy Award winning costume designer for “The Carrie Diaries”, set in the 80’s, dressing them in acid wash. Full circle. Personally, I’ve always loved late 60's early 70's fashion and music, and wish I had been around to see Hendrix wake everyone up with “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. I’m not sure what this decade will be known for stylistically, or what will be different in 20 years. Will kids be pining away for nostalgia of the “old days” of Instagram? Will they be searching thrift stores looking for sneakers from that "old" brand Nike? Will they be scouring eBay for music on CD format which will by then be extinct? Or for the “huge” iPhones of 2013? Will eBay still even exist? Will Mars One have succeeded with it's plan to populate Mars? We can only guess.

OKP: What does it represent for you to see the youth getting interested by that bold fashion period?

PL: It is a great starting point for youth to find creative inspiration, and to create their own unique take to update that vintage to something new.

OKP: How did you get approached to do this shooting? And how did it go?

PL: Tribe NYC followed Swizz Beatz on Instagram, and he followed them back. Swizz Beatz is a brand ambassador for Reebok, and Ari Uolde-Mariam, a Reebok product manager, discovered Tribe NYC via their Instagram. Reebok was interested in Tribe NYC’s styling and set up a test shoot. Tribe NYC asked me to shoot it, and these are the pictures I took. It was amazing to shoot them, because these kids are excited to pose and understand what a photographer needs. And they are patient with direction. And super sweet.

OKP: Name one song that represent their brand/signature/style.

PL: “Friday Night” is the song they feel represents them best - because it has a hint of old school with a modern lite feet beat. It includes a sample of “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan (1995)

A Tribe Called Quest is the group that inspires them most musically.

OKP: What are their upcoming projects? Where can we see them in New York City?

PL: They will be performing at a Reebok City Classic Leather release event at Paperbox in Brooklyn on September 1. This summer they are performing on the My Life Tour throughout New York. Retrospec, 80’s Baby and Kid Love all have mixtapes coming out in the next 2 months. Prince DiVoe has a poetry mixtape being released in the fall and they have a new video “Summer Bunnies” coming out in September.

OKP: A word about Okayplayer.

PL: Okayplayer is... Two words: Right Now.