It started with a Google search. George Myrie, 37, sat in front of his computer to do research for his blog, Stuylin. He typed in, “successful black man.” He found memes and mockery.
Images with captions like, “black men leave their children” flooded Myrie’s screen. What he saw was the reflection of a long perpetuated stereotype: Black men are armed, dangerous, and otherwise “up to no good.”
This motivated Myrie to start a dialogue with friends Darrell Moore, 30, Arthur (Nestle’) Hylton, 33, and Collis Torrington, 36, on ways to tackle the negative perceptions of black men in America. Myrie, a Bedford-Stuyvesant native, Moore, a Florida native, Hylton, from East Flatbush, and Torrington, from Crown Heights, are all black men with beards and style. Together, they made the Bearded Dapper Gents.
The men in BDG call themselves dapper because that is exactly what they are. Spread by icons like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and Richard Wright, dapper fashion shows an attention to detail, fit, color and texture. But sleek images of dapper black gentlemen do not typically grace our television screens or accompany our newspaper headlines.
“The only time you see us, we’re either in handcuffs, getting arrested, going to prison, or coming out of prison. You don’t see any positive images,” said Myrie. “The initial goal was for BDG to actually take pictures, upload those pictures, and change that Google search so it could actually show some positive black men instead of memes—but then it evolved further, into community service and giving back.”
With Prospect Park as their backdrop, the men dapper-ed up for their first BDG photoshoot and the results went viral. This inspired BDG to spread their keen sense of style to a younger generation of black men by launching an initiative called A Brother’s Duty.
A Brother’s Duty aims to style young black men in custom suits. It was a partnership between BDG and Foster Care Unplugged, a campaign founded by Melody Joanne Centeno, 31, to raise awareness about the child welfare system. Centeno, a Brooklyn native, grew up in foster care herself.
Centeno paired BDG up with four young men transitioning out of the child welfare system. These young men not only faced the stigma of being foster children but they also faced the “stigmas of black people in general,” Centeno said.
Providing the young men with custom suits meant that with each fitting, BDG would work to get to know them. Through fashion, their walls would come down.
“When you are in foster care, you don’t have a blueprint on life. People who are not in foster care, their parents are blueprints. Them being around the Dapper Gents, it is giving them a form of blueprints,” said Centeno
Through the combination of a fundraising party called The Rebirth of Cool, and a GoFundMe webpage, BDG raised a little more than $8,000 to outfit the young men. They turned to local black suit designer Andrew Gentles, aka Dreu Beckemberg. Beckemberg, 38, is the creative director of Beckemberg Fashion Group and specializes in bespoke suits, which can cost more than $2,500. But, he agreed to work within BDG’s budget. Over the span of eight weeks and three fittings, Beckemberg worked on the suits and Myrie, Moore, Hylton, and Torrington worked with the young men.
“When we first met them, they were kind of closed off. By the second time we met them, which was the second fitting, they started opening up. By the time they got their suits, their whole persona changed,” Myrie said. “Like you were turning the light on.”
With a new look and a fresh haircut, the four young men had their first photoshoot. At the click of the camera, they loosened up and embodied the power of their suits. They looked like they belonged on the cover of GQ.
“We asked one of the young men, ‘What would you say if someone asked you on the street, What do you do?’ He went on to tell us, ‘I’m an entrepreneur,’” Moore said. “Just by having the suit on, he felt like he could really take on the role of being an entrepreneur.”
As BDG’s mission continues to grow, the group has received some pushback from people who believe the movement is teaching young black men to conform to white standards of beauty. While BDG acknowledges this concern, they aim to provide black men with an alternative narrative.
Currently, BDG is continuing to challenge the stereotypes of black male masculinity through photoshoots and community service. They’re also in the process of becoming a non-profit, and hope to get permanent funding to continue projects like A Brother’s Duty year round.