ABOVE: GIANNI LEE IN LOS ANGELES, NOVEMBER 2014. PHOTOGRAPHY BY CARA ROBBINS. STYLING: SEAN KNIGHT.
Philadelphia’s Gianni Lee is a Renaissance man, operating in both the music and fashion worlds with a seamless swag that sets him apart from the heaps of young creatives trying to do the same. Since starting the clothing line Babylon Cartel (a graceful blend of sleek street and sportswear), Lee has established himself as a force to be reckoned with. On the music front, Lee is a DJ and producer whose tracks are injected with a swift energy primed for the dancefloor (he recently won the VFILES Def Jam DJ Championship for such reason).
We spoke to the emerging talent about where he’s been, where he’s going and how he’s getting there.
HOMETOWN: West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
CURRENT LOCATION: Los Angeles, California
THE MAN MAKES THE CLOTHES: I got into fashion totally by chance and from being poor. Being poor will teach you a thing or two about fashion—I’m serious. When I was younger, my mom purchased most of my clothing from the thrift store. Wearing those second hand threads taught me an important lesson about having your own style, and how you can make the clothes if you are in them. As long as you have courage, you can make a believer out of anybody. I could have gotten my ass whipped on numerous occasions for some of the ensembles that I walked into class wearing, but I taught myself what fashion was all about at an early age. I learned that fashion is not about the brand names at all.
FASHION ICONS: I only had two style icons growing up. The obvious one is Pharrell Williams; he made it cool to dress weird. Funny thing is weird isn’t weird anymore, but Pharrell was the pioneer of weird being cool and acceptable. I’m from the hood and many young African Americans didn’t dress the way I did. It wasn’t considered the norm. Where I grew up the norm was the safe route. During that time is was all Dickies, state property khaki sets, and Akademiks paired with Timberlands and/or white Nike Air Force Ones. My second, less obvious icon is Yoshitaka Amano from the company Squaresoft—now called Square-Enix—for his art direction in the Final Fantasy series. More importantly, the clothes that he designed for characters such as Cloud and Squall, just to name a few. His use of fabrics, denim, leather, belts, buckles, and holsters re-defined what fashion could be for me. He showed how limitless fashion was and it inspired me to take my character designs and wardrobe even further. At the time I was heavy into comics and sketched my own series.
FALSE START: My mother is a very eccentric person and I can credit her for getting me into house music. She would always tell me about the different DJs she was into back in the ’80s and ’90s. She told me about this spot in Philly called The Black Banana —it was the turn up of that time, and I always envisioned myself as some super cool DJ that had a night there. When I was younger, I was really into production thanks to inspiration from the big dogs: The Neptunes , Timbaland , Rodney Jerkins, Jermaine Dupree , Mannie Fresh etc. It was so cool to be the guy behind the boards that made the track because if you really wanted to be in the music video you could be—it was your song. I remember being in high school and making beats everyday. I had an SP-505 sample machine and I would sample anything I could get my hands on. I figured out a way to blend it all together to make sense sonically. Only problem was I don’t think I was that dedicated to it, I got frustrated that I couldn’t get bass into my tracks. I knew my production was missing that boom, but instead of holding onto it I gave it up and decided to focus on my second dream, fashion.
DIRTY SOUTH JOE: I came back to music when I met Dirty South Joe. He was on the Internet releasing these annual projects called LuvStep, and that shit was revolutionary to me. While dubstep was organized noise, “Luvstep” was a more subtle and melodic approach that was easy on the ears. He curated a playlist and even produced some of his own. I remember looking on Twitter like, “This guy is a genius—how can I reach out to him?” I tweeted at Joe, and he responded. We chilled a few times and I told him what I was trying to do with music. He kept me around showed me the ropes and taught me how to curate and organize my own projects. He told me the importance of solidifying a sound, creating a movement and branding it. I remember using his teachings to curate a tape of a very new movement at that time called “Trill Wave” in 2012. At the brink of the A$AP and Raider Klan movements, I put out a project that housed those as well as lesser-known artists. It was a hit, and that started my slow but steady climb in the music game. When I saw my project had 50,000 hits I realized my power and realized I could have even more if I released my own original music. That’s when I started producing and taking music serious.
LONDON CALLING: I was flown out to London to perform for Harvey Nichols’ contemporary menswear launch. Harvey Nichols is a department store in the heart of London and they never had a DJ like me rock their building, so I pretty much shut things down that night. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. What surprised me about the trip is how aware British people are. When I talked to folks in the street they knew of everything going on in the United States, while I didn’t know much of what was going on in London. It inspired me to open my eyes even more to things that were going on outside of my own country. This level of awareness is something that all human beings should strive for—America is not the center of the world.
THE ART OF WAR: When I thought of this new collection, I thought of war. I thought of soldiers and the idea of being a team and one unit. I studied various soccer teams in Europe and Africa. I researched various empires and armies over the world. I found a lot of similarities. Face paint, shoes, matching shirts. Many of these groups paid attention to color palettes, logo placements, and the idea of having one uniform no matter the equation or situation. If it was wartime there was an outfit for that. If it was a dinner party, or there was a death in the ranks, there was a uniform for that. There can be beauty in continuity and that was the message behind our new collection, being able to wear a piece that is so minimal that it can slip in any situation. Dressing up or dressing down, you can find a Babylon Cartel piece to fit any occasion and I find that to be the most amazing part of it. It’s the beauty in storytelling. Constant motion. The fact that cultures all over the world inspired a collection says a lot about where our minds are in this company. I will continue to pull inspiration from the very things around me to tell even more stories.
THE FUTURE IS NOW: My plans are to continue to keep myself in creative mode. I haven’t even reached my potential as an artist and I feel like I have more to learn on all fronts. I plan on working to reach new levels of creative enlightenment. I want to share my story with the world. In 2015, I plan on releasing some independent music projects. I am working on an EP with singer/songwriter Marian Mereba that I know will change the game. I have created a DJ group alongside [Baltimore-based producer] Hi$to, and we are working on different tracks everyday. As for fashion, I am going to continue to develop Babylon Cartel and work closely with my team to create new stories through our pieces. I also plan on taking more time to develop and cultivate talent from the youth. There is so much talent around us that hasn’t been discovered yet and it’s our job to help cultivate it and grow it. Strength in numbers.