Glamour in the South Bronx

By Courtney Vinopal

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For her September 4 birthday celebration, Beyoncé could have chosen to wear any designer in the world. But at the Made in America Festival in Philadelphia, she wore none other than the clothes of a Made-in-the-Bronx designer, Jerome LaMaar. Sporting a tropical printed t-shirt and beaded jacket from LaMaar’s high-end clothing line, 5:31 Jérôme, as well as a bag from his more affordable brand, 9J, the “Bey Day” girl was photographed chatting with former President Bill Clinton and dancing alongside her husband, Jay-Z.

You could call it the “Queen B” effect — immediately after pictures surfaced of the music festival, the attention of fashion bloggers and industry insiders turned to 31-year-old designer Jerome LaMaar, a Bronx native who has built a successful clothing company from the ground up over the past three years, largely on his own.

This was not the first time Beyoncé’s support of the designer had sparked chatter about him in the fashion world. The singer was first spotted wearing LaMaar’s clothes last fall. Then Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles, joined in on the fun — after wearing a 5:31 Jérôme dress to a fundraiser in June, she urged her 758,000 Instagram followers to “check out this talented young designer.” Women’s Wear Daily then credited the mother and daughter with “Help[ing] Lift Jerome LaMaar’s South Bronx Business.”

Jerome’s celebrity fan base grows bigger by the day, and the newest member of his fan club, supermodel Iman, recently featured him as “one to watch” on her style blog, Destination Iman. After a successful Spring/Summer 2017 showing at New York Fashion Week, the designer also hit the radar of editors at fashion trade publications such as Revolt and Fashionista.

“It’s made me feel confident in what I want to do,” he said in an interview just one day after seeing pictures of his designs on Beyoncé. “Every single thing I wanted to do has come to fruition.”

Despite his success, he remains humble, and true to his roots. He even incorporates his hometown borough into his everyday style, which he calls “South Bronx Luxe.”

The “South Bronx Luxe” style is a blend of classic streetwear and unabashed glamour. Few pieces featured in LaMaar’s boutique are left unembellished. Inside 9J, a boutique he opened last April in the Bronx that caters to the more budget conscious customer, one finds Stan Smith Adidas covered in Swarovski gems, denim baseball caps with bright cartoon logos stitched on the front, and fabric paisley bandanas decorated with colored gems and sequins. While LaMaar starts with basic pieces, he tries to add shine to everything he designs.

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Even the 2017 Spring/Summer 5:31 Jérôme collection had plenty of sparkle. He adorned, for example, a kimono with sequin images of seaweed and coral, a nod to the time LaMaar spent in Japan when working as a consultant. Many of his models in the show also sported white Birkenstocks with Swarovski pearls and shells affixed to the top.

Besides the ocean-inspired touches, LaMaar drew inspiration for his line from the future. His sister, Ebony, is expecting a niece this fall, and he wanted to incorporate his vision of the world that he or she will live in — which grows more multiracial and multiethnic each day – into his line. For his September 8 show at Chelsea Piers, he cast a diverse set of models to represent what he called a “cosmic race,” coming from a multitude of different backgrounds.

“I like to connect the dots,” he said..   

While 5:31 Jérôme may be pricey — a dress that Beyoncé recently wore is priced at $1,200 — LaMaar eschews the idea that fashion should be exclusive.   “I’m not an elitist,” he said. “Fashion is for everyone.”

This is why he decided to create 9J, what he calls a “sub-brand.” The name 9J refers to the sum of the numbers in his high-end line (5+3+1) — “a spiritual number” — as well as his first name and the number of his Pelham Bay apartment.

When it came time to open a boutique, he chose Port Morris’s Bruckner Boulevard. The shop features more casual, and affordable, items than the 5:31 Jérôme line. A pair of 9J black sweatpants, for example, goes for $50, while t-shirts with the 9J logo are priced at $40. LaMaar has also incorporated housewares into the 9J line, with scented candles starting at $25 and handmade soaps at $15.

LaMaar didn’t always embrace the Bronx in the way he does today. As a boy, he had dreams of something bigger . LaMaar’s mother, JoAnn Spigner-Rice, 54, recognized this creative spirit in her son early on.

“He drew the entire cast of the Wizard of Oz when he was three,” she said. “He’s never stopped, ever since he was little.”

He grew up in the neighborhood of Soundview, where his mother worked at the local post office and his father in the military. His parents always referred to him as a dreamer. He often recalls his first job as a cashier at Key Food.

“I was the first male cashier,” he said, laughing. He remembers sketching ideas for designs in between stocking the shelves, and insisting to his co-workers that he wouldn’t be working there for long. 

His family cannot remember a time when LaMaar wasn’t creating something.

“We used to cut up socks and make clothes for my Barbies,” remembered LaMaar’s sister, Ebony Rice, 28. “He would cut up a sock and make it into a full dress. Come laundry day, my mom would say, ‘What happened to all the socks?’”

Armed with this drive to create, LaMaar landed an internship at Baby Phat, an urban fashion line, when he was only 15. There he trained under the brand’s owners Kimora Lee and Russell Simmons.  He then attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he studied fashion design and fabric styling.

LaMaar worked for a number of years as a trend forecaster, traveling around the world, including Japan,  to consult for different brands about upcoming trends in the industry. While the job allowed him to develop a sharp vision, the business wasn’t rooted in anything familiar to LaMaar.

“It was like a fairy tale,” he said.. “There was nothing real about that world.”

Eager to gain more independence, LaMaar decided to invest in his own vision, and launched his own line, 5:31 Jérôme, in 2013. He named the line for his birthday, May 31. He has presented at New York Fashion Week six times since. 

He still remembers the struggle to attain recognition, though, and that’s why he has made his Bronx boutique a place for emerging designers, both within and outside of New York. Some current items on display include phone cases from Brooklyn-based GoodWoodNYC, priced at $35, as well as t-shirts sporting edgy phrases and graphics (“No Deal,” “Kill All Punk”) from brands such as City of Gods, BWood Vinnies, and Bronx native M65, starting at $50.

“I want to make [9J] a hub for creativity and ideas,” LaMaar said. “We have to make the Bronx major.”

LaMaar recognizes that high-end shopping may not be on the minds of many of Bronxites, however. The Bronx’s Community District 1 (which includes Mott Haven and Port Morris), after all, is one of the poorest in the borough, and on the whole, 16.4 percent of Bronx residents make less than $10,000 a year, according to the latest American Community Survey.

The Bronx, he says, needs a space like 9J, where he has an “open-door policy,” and welcomes everyone from the community. He mentors young designers and wants his boutique to be a gathering place for anyone “to have a creative conversation with others.”. 

Roderick Reyes, a 20 year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, appreciates that sentiment . He started working for 9J  as an intern when it first opened. LaMaar discovered him on Instagram, and expressed interest in the student’s style and skills. His tasks include working on patterns, helping to hand-sew clothes and assisting with fittings. “Jerome actually gives me stuff to do that helps him, and I can see that I make a difference,” Reyes said.

A suede jacket that Reyes designed for one of his classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology is even displayed in 9J.

M.I.N.Y. Collective, an artistic group based in New York  has also designed a collection exclusively for 9J.

“He offered us the opportunity to be in a new space, amongst other creative [people] that have their own vision and language clothing-wise,” said Elias Prince Franco, 27, who is a member of M.I.N.Y.

The designer is excited to see how his boutique is part of a new wave of businesses and galleries setting up shop in the South Bronx, an area with a long-time reputation as a haven for gangs, poverty and violence. Port Morris, says LaMaar, is finally drawing new visitors.

“It feels so good to say ‘I told you so,’” LaMaar said. “It feels so good that people are finally exploring the Bronx.”   

As for LaMaar’s next step?

“I don’t know where I’m going…but I’m excited to be here now,” he said. “I want to stir some shit up.”

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