Style Stories

How to get dressed with Jalil Johnson

by Leandra Medine Cohen
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The Virginia native on dressing for the paradox of seeking home through dress

It takes no more than a few scrolls through an Instagram feed to understand if you’re in the presence of a true fashion stan, which I first realized when I came across Jalil Johnson’s page last year. His style oozes a sophistication that does not take itself too seriously, and there is what feels like a self-taught knowing about how he carries himself too: an understanding of and reverence for the shape of the fashion industry.

After I met Jalil last Spring, it became clear that he’s also a skilled second hand and vintage shopper, one who knows what he wants and what is worth getting. Most intriguingly to me though is how he conveys his understanding of the value of getting dressed — what it can bring to your day, what it can take from your day and the way he has been able to weave his deep fascination with American history into the reconciliation of his own personal style.

Below, Jalil Johnson on growing up in Virginia, finding home in New York, what it means to engage in gentle acts of rebellion, and, of course, on what to wear.

What to wear to work

Lauren Manoogian suit, J. Crew sweater, Prada shirt

When I’m putting together an outfit, it’s totally emotional. I usually wake up from a dream and have an idea, or take a reference from a film that recently inspired me, then that’s what I wear.

This suit is Lauren Manoogian, the sweater is J. Crew from the 90s (I got it on eBay). The striped shirt under it is Prada. I found it at the Ina on 13th street — I usually know something is worth buying when it feels like it’s an item missing from my closet, when the price is good enough that I’m actually considering it and when there is a sentimentality attached to the purchase. Maybe it’s a piece from one of my favorite [runway] collections or it reminds me of someone special.

The hat I actually got on sale, it’s from The Row’s kids collection.

I’m not always shopping, but I’m looking everyday. I spend a lot of time in vintage stores and I’m intimate with the cadence of The Real Real: there are two drops a day, and I’m very familiar with the discount schedule.

My strategy changes: I used to check new arrivals, but lately, I go straight to the pages of designers I believe in.

L.L. Bean classic tote, Tory Burch red bag (but this one’s30% off!)

I’m wearing my L.L. Bean tote. I got it about two years ago directly from L.L. Bean. I originally had this one, but the straps do not fit over a coat. Then the bag slung over is Tory Burch — I got it at the beginning of Tory Burch-issance.

The shoes are Vibi Venezia.

Vibi Venezia furlane slippers (with some good red socks here) (which come in suede now, fyi)

I’m from a small town in Virginia called Hurt, but always knew I wanted to live in New York. Or I knew from when I was 10 years old and came here to visit with my grandma (or as she prefers to be called, “Sascha”).

She [Sascha] has been a huge influence on my life, and has exposed me to a lot. She grew up in Detroit in the 60s and also had a lot of queer friends which made it easier to be myself around her, and ultimately made coming out to the rest of my family less scary. 

When I came out was around the time of the It Gets Better campaign and there were possibility models, people like Andre Leon Talley or Edward Enninful, for me to look up to. So I realized I could be gay and live a happy life.

I think seeing me with my fiance and seeing how much love there is between us helped my mom see it too. Those years throughout high school with me finding out who I am were tough, but everything is good now. My parents are happy for me.

I get dressed for myself. Like most people, I have had to deal with my fair share of insecurities, some having to do with weight and others with not feeling like I fit into general beauty standards. Getting dressed has really helped with those insecurities and it’s nice to know people are interested in my style and what I’m wearing, but its never the motivation. The act of getting dressed is for me.

Judith Lieber gold comb strung through black shoe lace, Lemaire compact necklace (see also: the flask!)

The compact mirror necklace is Lemaire — I got it this summer after Tommy Ton showed it to me. The gold comb is Judith Lieber — I found it on The Real Real and strung a string from the shoe cobbler through it.

I've always enjoyed getting dressed up. I've always had an interest in style. In high school I kept up with the trends and was very in tune with them, but as I have gotten older and have started to feel like I know myself better, I’ve also found my own style outside of the trend cycle. My story really speaks to what getting dressed can do for you. It’s just a moment, but can be the best part of the day and set off a ripple for everything else.

When I think back to high school and getting dressed, those were life saving moments for me. They reaffirmed who I knew I could be, or was. And at this stage now where I’m at, it’s helping me push myself to get even closer [to the kernel of truth].

What to wear to dinner

Batsheva dress (not the same, but a beauty)

We’ve been eating at El Quixote at the Chelsea Hotel a lot. It’s my favorite restaurant right now, and this is something I’d wear there, maybe drinks first at the lobby bar and if I’m in this dress, I sure hope we’re going to see a show after.

The dress is fromBatsheva— it came with a crinoline skirt underneath, but I decided not to include it. It reminds me of this Jackie O look she wore to a state dinner with Andre Malraux [the French minister of culture].

Jackie O is one of the most important style icons to me. I have been working on an essay, trying to figure out glamour — what it is, what it means to exude it. I’ve been a big Helmut Newton fan and recently revisited Avedon and I’m trying to distill the feeling of what he captures.

Some alt yellow Blahnik options here, yellow leather gloves from Amazon

I love these gloves because they remind me of the movie Jackie, that one scene where she’s in a pale blue dress with these acid color gloves. It’s odd, but elegant.

I got the gloves on Amazon but before I found them, spent an ungodly amount of time looking for yellow gloves to match these yellow heels (Vetements x Manolo Blahnik from the collab they did in 2018; I found them on The Outnet for like $250 in 2019).

I didn’t want to spend too much money on the gloves, so first went to all the glove resources I could think of, then through eBay listings hoping I could find a nylon option if leather wasn’t too hard to find. Finally, I found theseHandsome Stockholm gloves, which were the perfect color and length; I just did not like the price. So I turned to Amazon and typed in "taxi-yellow leather gloves." I thought about getting satin since the shoes are satin, but that would just make me look like Belle from "Beauty and the Beast,” so.

Amy Downs hat, necklace from Gramercy Thrift and vintage earrings from Etsy (some chic alts)

This hat is fromAmy Downs, it’s a tiny hat maker with a website that you can’t shop from. You have to call her to order. Rachel Tashjian told me about her hats. I think maybe The Row’s knot hat was inspired?

The Row’s knot hat

The necklace is from Gramercy Thrift and the earrings are Etsy.

I usually launch into an Etsy search after watching a movie that inspires me, or if I’m having trouble finding something I’m looking for on my other resale sites. I’ve been on a big 1920s custom jewelry kick since rewatching "The Great Gatsby" (The Mia Farrow version from the 70s) and after seeing the Bode crown

Originally, I typed in "1920s crystal costume jewelry” [to find the earrings], wanting to find a tiara (which I did), and the earrings so happened to come up with this search.

When I think about what’s worth buying on Etsy, it’s totally governed by price.

Here are some lovely alt jewelry finds using the search phrase here

I went to Gallatin [at NYU] and my focus was on how race influences fashion but I made a point not to take any fashion classes because I was getting all my fashion info from the industry (I interned all through college), so mostly, I took history classes.

I’m obsessed with knowing how things came to be and style so easily flows into that stream. You can tell such an elaborate, true story through dress but with Jackie O and my fascination there in particular, there is this dedication [she demonstrated] to the idea of an idea, you know?

I have so much admiration for her because she had the foresight to understand the importance of objects (something she shares with Dolley Madison), beyond the materiality of having, let's say, an Egyptian Revival console in one of the front rooms [of The White House.]

She understood the social and cultural importance of these items — and how they would contribute to telling the story of the United States, which at times verged on more myth than reality. But she still felt it was important that the country had something we could collectively look at and be proud of.

There was just this commitment to an image that fascinates me.

What to wear on a weekend (when you have errands to run, and might go out after)

This is an example of something I’d wear to do my chores on the weekend — laundry, pick up dry cleaning, with the possibility that I will get a drink or have dinner after. Maybe pop into the city and look at things (Gramercy Thrift and Desert Vintage are my favorite vintage stores in the city).

Ralph Lauren sweater, CDG pants from 2016 (here’sa festive alt),Emme Parsons heels

I still want to look dressed up, but also feel comfortable, a bit cozy. You get that with the sweater and pants. I got the sweater on eBay — my search term was “American flag Ralph Lauren turtleneck sweater.” I was walking down Mulberry Street just beforehand and saw these two women fully decked in Ralph (orRalphism, really — one had on a beaten hat that didn’t have any insignia but looked like it belonged to his world) and at first, I was just amazed at their commitment to encapsulating the brand, then I did a double take, noticed the sweater and was likeoooh, that’s really nice,so I went home and launched my search.

The pants I found on Grailed, I think they were shipped from the Philipines. They’re Spring 2016 Comme des Garcons Homme and I happened upon them after I’d launched a general CDG search on the site.

Then I love a heel and these (by Emme Parsons) are comfortable enough to run around in.

Louis Vuitton speedy

I bought my first pair of heels in my sophomore year of college, but have always loved heels. I have this memory of wearing my Sasha’s gold strappy sandals to get into the house and remember feeling like, “Oh. This is nice.”

And the bag is really big, so you can throw a ton of stuff in — extra shoes, a book, anything.

Plus the glam (my tiara and the brooch that [my fiance] Nick gave me). I’m big on contradictions with my style so the sparkle is actually part of the look to play with the coziness.

[When I was in college], I decided to convert to Judaism. On my dad’s side, we have a Jewish family friend, so I was exposed to the religion through them and I remember when I was deep into the TV series, Orange is The New Black, there was a character who converted to Judaism to get the kosher meals in prison but then identifies with [the religion] because “There’s no hell to put you in,” and when I heard that line something really resonated.

I started the process when I got to New York, but stopped in 2020 and picked it back up after I started going to these Old Jewish Men events at CBE and met [the Rabbi who is converting me].

I just wanted a community, and I feel more whole as a person when I have spiritual backing. I have been feeling a bit lost this year.

In my first meeting with the Rabbi, he asked me how it feels to be adopted into this religion and I told him it felt a little weird because every time I went to temple, people would look at me like I didn’t belong when here I am converting to belong. It was kind of like reliving the hurt of Hurt [Virginia]. But he said, we’re all here because we collectively choose to believe in this one thing, whether or not it’s true. And somehow that — the concept of joint belief — really helped me level set and start to feel more like I do belong.

It’s funny that you are drawing the correlation between my wanting to belong and the way that I dress — almost to stand out. It’s the act of being a Gemini! And reminds me of the Little Richard documentary, which I just watched, because he’s such an individual, and always stood out, but was seeking community all throughout, which is the through-line for so many queer black people: sticking out and wanting to belong.

But the way he sticks out is so joyful. It’s almost a form of rebellion or resistance.

A physical manifestation of the ways we are uncomfortable in the world, and our will to make the discomfort more beautiful. As told to Leandra Medine Cohen in Prospect Park, Brooklyn on November 27th, 2023.

Follow Jalil Johnson on Instagram here, subscribe to his Substack here.