We first came across Coreen Simpson via her iconic collection of street style portraits of impossibly stylish black men and women on the NYC nightlife scene of the 1980s that we published back in FADER #33. Simpson also happens to have a good helping of style herself, working as a jewelry designer throughout her photography career. Her new book, The Black Cameo, pays homage to the accessories sensation she started back in the late '80s—chic black and white cameos with the profile of a black woman. Before her pieces, black images on jewelry of this kind were pretty much unheard of, and when her collection launched at the Studio Museum of Harlem there were literally hoards of women lining up to get them. We chatted with Simpson about her days street-vending on 57th street, about the origins of the cameo and why, in her opinion, personal style is the only thing that we really own. Q+A and pictures after the jump.
As a photographer, what drew you to jewelry design?
I’ve always loved jewelry since I was a child. And when I was working as a freelance photographer there was a transition period and I started selling things on the street with a friend of mine in the East Village. I took design courses at Parsons too—the more I took the more my jewels sold. Then I went to Madison and 57th Street—it was a hard time though because of the police. But one day I made so much money on 57th street I couldn’t believe it. Carolina Herrera, who still has a studio on 57th street, saw my things and invited me to her studio. She bought 11 of my necklaces for her resort collection.
Why did you start making the cameos?
Well one of my clients was a magazine editor. She told me that Chanel had just came out with a cameo. But she wanted a cameo of a black woman and asked if I could make one. Could I find a black cameo in 1989? No. So I decided to make one myself.
What was the response?
It was crazy. I told the Studio Museum in Harlem that I was coming out with a cameo for Christmas 1990. Women were standing on line on 125th street. It just took off after that.
Why do think people were so excited?
Because black people at that time felt disenfranchised. I think black women needed an empowerment tool and it was just the right thing at the right time. People were hungry for self-identification and self-representation and no one was doing this before it.
What are the origins of the cameo?
People don’t realize that cameo making comes directly from Egypt. They think it originates from Italy. When I went to the New York Library and did my research I found out that it came from the original Egyptian seals and that the Italians picked it up from there.
When did you realize you had an eye for style?
When I was growing up in Brooklyn I remember seeing a black man on Pacific street wearing an orange suit and everybody stopped. I never forgot that. He looked like a god. This was in the ’50s. That was a transcendent moment for me. He seemed to be moving in slow motion and it just blew my mind. Clothes and jewelry have always been very important to me in observance of how people present themselves because that’s empowerment. Everything I do is about self-presentation and empowerment. You know why it’s so important? Because even people who have very little can control how they present themselves to the world. If you have no money, no nothing, you can throw on a scarf, put your hat to the side and walk out in to the street and feel good. It’s style. Diana Vreeland said if you’re not born with it I feel sorry for your ass.
Coreen Simpson will be holding a signing for her book The Black Cameo on Thursday, 28 May 6-8pm at the June Kelly Gallery in Manhattan.