One chilly, bright afternoon at Sylvia’s Restaurant on 126th Street and Lenox Avenue, the Reverend Al Sharpton, dressed in a tattersall-checked jacket, a medium-blue shirt with a white collar, a shiny black tie with matching pocket hankie, and a black leather-trimmed shearling parka, sat down in front of a chicken leg on toast and chatted with the Voice about his clothes.
Reverend, you’ve certainly traveled a long road, from goofy jogging suits to straight-arrow business ensembles. When did you first become interested in fashion? Clothes are always important to any public figure, but it really became something that I watched when I was about 14 or 15, traveling with James Brown. James was like a father to me, and he would take me on the road. Sometimes he would change three, four times onstage. He would tell me that he changed outfits based on lessons he wanted to send.
Then in the Movement, when I became Jesse Jackson’s youth director in New York, I saw that he, too, would use clothes in a certain way. I never saw Reverend Jackson wear a suit and tie until ’72, ’73. He wore turtlenecks, medallions, like I later wore. Between Jesse and James Brown, I learned that what you wore projected some of your message. So later in life, whether it was a jogging suit or a three-piece suit, I understood that people see you before they hear you, and a lot of what they hear they judge by what they see.
You think they wanted to see you in those jogging outfits? At different stages in my life, when I was doing just street activism, I would wear just jogging suits, going on marches that mostly resulted in a night in jail. Why would you wear a suit if you’re going to spend the night on Rikers Island? But don’t forget I was still a preacher, and when I was preaching on Sunday, I wasn’t preaching in jogging suits.
If you’re associated with any one accessory, it’s that medallion you used to wear around your neck. Why were you so attached to it? In ’86, I was on the Howard Beach case, and in the middle of the case a man came from Atlanta, Hosea Williams, who was one of Dr. King’s chief lieutenants. He had a rally in the church I grew up in, and he said how proud he was of me, a son of the Movement, fighting racism in Howard Beach, and he gave me an award—the medallion. Not only was it not gold, it was an award—not only did I not buy it, it was an award from one of Dr. King’s right-hand men! I remember for weeks I even slept with it.
What happened to it? I did 15 days in the Brooklyn House of Detention during the Days of Outrage. I checked it in, and when I left they couldn’t find it. It’s somewhere in the legal system.
In any case, the medallion is gone, the jogging suit is gone, and you stand before us now a pillar of sartorial respectability. Today it’s a more sophisticated look. If you’re a good organizer, you dress with what’s going on, you don’t dress against it, because people that you’re trying to appeal to . . . you’ve got to be appealing. That’s part of organizing. Running for the Senate, you, well, dress more senatorial. And, you get older! I’m no longer in my early thirties, my early forties—my kids are no longer pre-teenagers, they’re teens. I mean, there’s a natural progression. And then also, a lot of my supporters are black businesspeople now. I mean, a guy that preaches, who speaks 80 to 100 times a year, would have a suit! The scandal would be if I didn’t. This year I spoke at Harvard, Yale, Georgetown. I mean, why wouldn’t I have a suit?
You know, we have an office in the Empire State Building where I fight corporate racism in advertising—it would look silly for a guy with an office in the Empire State Building not to wear a suit! I meet with corporate CEOs—I wouldn’t go in there in Reeboks and a jogging suit to tell them they’ve got to cut in black media in a multimillion budget! You’ve got to go to these corporate offices and look like you represent something of substance.
Nevertheless, this sartorial substance is somewhat offset by your coiffure. [This particular afternoon, the Reverend’s ‘do is fairly flat on top, though it still ends in a neat, tight flip somewhat reminiscent of Cheryl Tiegs on the cover of Seventeen magazine circa 1964.] You know, my hairstyle came from James Brown—he had me style my hair like his so I’d look like his son. The hair will always be long—that’s my commitment to James. No matter what kind of suit, it will be under a full head of hair.
Actually, the hairstyle—along with the medallion—is still one of the first things people think of when they think of you, which may be due in part to the famous New York Post cover of you under a hair dryer. Did you like that shot? No! I mean this guy Ginzburg, a photographer—I’ll never forget it—he was showing me his book, a book called 100 Years of Lynching. So I’m totally enthralled with this book, because it documented some of the most atrocious lynching that ever was, and in the middle of giving me the book he takes this shot of me under the hair dryer! The last thing I’m thinking is he works for the New York Post. The next morning I pick up the Post—oh! So even James called me the next day and said, “Reverend, Why would you be photographed like that?” For years I was explaining that I did not set up that photograph.
Now that the sweatsuits have disappeared, where do you get these fancier duds? A friend of mine took me to his designer, Eduardo, uptown, and told me, “Pick whatever two suits you want.” That’s when I came up with the kind of suit I like: the vest with lapels under the jacket. Now it’s almost become an image thing that everybody identifies with me, but why I like it is because on someone heavy, full-chested, it deflates the look—so you look at the lapels, you don’t look at the girth. It was the right style for me—almost a banker look, but a little different. I’ve never wanted to just blend in, but at the same time I didn’t want to look too out there. The only suits other than those from this guy Eduardo that I get are, like this coat, from Rochester Big and Tall Men.
It’s a pretty expensive-looking coat. Once or twice a year Don King will come to town and we’ll go shopping, and of course he pays for everything. I bought this coat—Rochester had to fit it to me—and about five suits and shoes. We just go shopping! Don can afford it. I don’t even know how much it cost. Don and I went shopping one other day, and I think it came to, like, $15,000. I could never pay that kind of money, but I certainly wasn’t going to turn it down.
Well, since you brought it up, you’re actually looking pretty slim these days. How’d you get the weight off? One meal a day! Cut down on your fried food and your starches! No sugar! And I do the treadmill an hour every morning. I get up at 5:30 every morning, even if I’m on the road. I try to stay at a hotel that’s near a spa.
So, Reverend, what did you think of the recent New York Times article that questioned who pays for your new clothes? That article was more a reflection of the cultural makeup of The New York Times! In the black community, it’s customary for people to give gifts to their ministers! It’s customary! You represent the community! Who wants somebody to go on Face the Nation and look like they can’t polish their shoes? If you’re telling somebody you’re going to be their mayor or their senator, you can’t dress like a hip-hop producer. On the other hand, if I think I’m going to spend the night in jail, I’m not going to wear one of my Eduardo suits.