Giovanni in Ferragamo

In the NYT Style Magazine (Men’s Style) on-line on 9/5/19 (in print 9/8), a remarkable piece by Hilton Als, “‘Giovanni’s Room’ Revisited”, with the subtitle: “James Baldwin’s 1956 novel is a layered exploration of queer desire — and of the writer’s own sense of self”. The cover:


Als’s text comes with an artful photo-essay illustrating a reimagining of the story of Giovanni’s Room as an interracial gay love story, each photo also serving as a men’s high-fashion spread, displaying extraordinarily expensive clothing from famous brands.

A jarring moment in modern culture.

David and Giovanni meet (and fall in love) at a gay dive bar in Paris, among les folles — the femmes, queens, sissies, faggy queers, flaming faggots, flamers, what have you (men the aspiring-butch narrator David holds in contempt), presided over by the femme proprietor Guillaume. (Here I note that Als is himself, among many other things, a chronicler of his femme identity.)

So we get fabulous Ferragamo among the flaming faggots. The culturally marginal put to labor as advertisements for absurdly conspicuous consumption. Funding a long thoughtful essay by Als (black and gay, of Barbardian ancestry) and the intriguing photographs of John Edmonds (black and gay), mediated by the work of Carlos Nazario (NYC Puerto Rican and gay) as stylist, in sense 2 below:

noun stylist: 1 a designer of fashionable styles of clothing. … 2 a person whose job is to arrange and coordinate food, clothes, etc. in a stylish and attractive way in photographs or films… (NOAD)

(Edmonds is also a fashion designer, a stylist in sense 1.)

The Baldwin version, the Edmonds/Nazario version.

In the novel, both main figures are white, but Baldwin has split his own racial identity between the two characters: David is the voice of Baldwin’s black-American experience, while Giovanni is the exotic olive-skinned European, the dark one. Meanwhile, David is immersed in shame over his sexuality (suffering the burden of the persecuted black man), and is drawn powerfully to Giovanni, who is without shame (offering the authenticity of the proud black man). In the Edmonds-Nazario visual reimagining of the story, David is white, Giovanni black, as in #1 and this kiss (I’m a fool for men kissing):

(#2) Left: Salvatore Ferragamo coat, $4,200, Loro Piana sweater, $1,695, Right: Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket, $4,460, (212) 226-8001. The Row T-shirt [$250].

The themes of masculinity and manhood, which are prominent in the book and treated at some length in Als’s text, don’t, so far as I can see, figure in the photo essay. (I propose to touch on them in a separate posting on femmes, with South Park‘s Big Gay Al — who recently popped up here in a posting about my birthday, thanks to Big Gay Ice Cream — as one exemplar of the type, among several.)

The Edmonds/Nazario project. From the NYT piece:

Behind the story: The images in this story had existed, in some form, in the minds of its creators for over a decade. Shot by the New York City-based artist John Edmonds and styled by Carlos Nazario, the pictures are a visual reimagining of “Giovanni’s Room.” The book was personally significant to nearly all the main collaborators, all of whom (including the critic and New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, who wrote the accompanying piece) are queer men.

A carefuly framed formal composition:

(#3) Left: The Row T-shirt, $250, (212) 755-2017. A.P.C. jeans, $220, Right: Hermès shirt, $960, Dior Men pants, price on request, (800) 929-3467.

The models: New York-based actor James Cusati-Moyer (as the namesake character Giovanni) and British-Nigerian dancer and model Temi Bolorunduro (as the protagonist David).

One more photo, of Giovanni and David, adrift and apart:

(#4) Far left: Giorgio Armani Icon Collection coat, $3,595, and pants, $1,395, Sandro shoes. Right: Giorgio Armani Icon Collection T-shirt, $1,595, and pants, $775. Mr. P. shoes, $495,

On Hilton Als. From Wikipedia:

Hilton Als (born 1960) is an American writer and theater critic. He is an associate professor of writing at Columbia University and a staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker magazine. He is a former staff writer for The Village Voice and former editor-at-large at Vibe magazine.

… His 1996 book The Women focuses on his mother (who raised him in Brooklyn), Dorothy Dean [African American socialite, connected to Andy Warhol’s The Factory, 12/22/32 – 2/13/87], and Owen Dodson, who was a mentor and lover of Als [African American poet, novelist, and playwright, 11/28/14 – 6/21/83]. In the book, Als explores his identification of the confluence of his ethnicity, gender and sexuality, moving from identifying as a “Negress” and then an “Auntie Man”, a Barbadian term for homosexuals. His 2013 book White Girls continued to explore race, gender, identity in a series of essays about everything from the AIDS epidemic to Richard Pryor’s life and work.

Als’s most recent appearance on this blog was in  the 2/27/17 posting “CK basks in Moonlight” about the movie Moonlight, including a stunning New Yorker review of the movie by Als that I quoted in full.

Beyond being queer, Als and I don’t have a whole lot in common. But, even though I’m a generation older than him, we do both have the experience of having been through the AIDS epidemic — which wiped out almost all the gay men in my age cohort (leaving just a precious handful of survivors), and cut down so many young men in Als’s.

One Response to “Giovanni in Ferragamo”

  1. [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky shares a glossy, fashion photography-style, reimagining of the central relationship in the James Baldwin […]

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