Secret Forts pays a tribute to the timeless all American man; masculine, unassuming, and classic. I always wondered who was the person behind this blog that always left me feeling nostalgic. During my last visit to New York I finally got my answer. We go down memory lane with James, the founder and curator behind Secret Forts.
Were you born and raised in New York?
I was actually born and raised in Tennessee, Nashville. It was the last place I wanted to be from growing up as a skate punk. For me back then, it was Cali and New York. So at 17, I left. Moved all around. I finally settled in NY in 2000. But in the meantime, have grown to really love where I grew up and love going back.
What style and era was one of your favorite looks that you rocked?
I’ve had some interesting looks. As a kid, I went through the punk thing and then into skateboarding. I had lots of Misfit tees and cut off army pants. I really admired people like Jason Lee, Natas, Matt Hensley. They totally had so much influence on my style back then-Vans chukkas, chain wallets. I always payed attention to the smallest details in skate mag photos, then kind of worked them into my own style. Skateboarding still has that influence on me in some way or another.
Were you always interested in fashion?
Well, I wouldn’t say “fashion” really. I’ve always had an interest in clothes.
Did you go to college after high school?
All through high school, I wanted nothing more than to move to NY, to be a painter, something very simple and romanticized notion of that. I had a really great art teacher in high school named Gene who had lived, in his younger days, in New York and had run with Schnabel, Basquiat and that crowd. He really beat it into me the idea of getting a good portfolio together so I could get into SVA, Cooper Union, etc. and making the move North and being an “artist” in a very serious way. His belief in me really meant the world. He was very real about the whole thing. He was a cynic and kinda jaded and we would spend a lot of class time, sitting around the side of the building, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. We would talk about artist’s work and their lives. He worked at the Met once upon a time, and once showed me a Polaroid of himself, holding Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” with his pants around his ankles, kind of having sex with the painting, making this nutty face.
I got into schools here in New York. I made a quick trip here in ’92 so I could have a look at the institutions. During that trip I had this crazy, overwhelming experience. I had friends living here, and shit was crazy. I mean, for a 16 or 17 year old kid from Nashville, the idea, once I was here, of moving to NY just kind of made my brain explode. Even though I got into these amazing schools and my dream had always been to move here it was just too much for me to handle at that time in my life. I had this total crisis. Last minute, I applied to this small art school in Cincinnati, where I had a couple friends living, and ended up going there. I went a week the first term. Quit. A week the second term and quit again. It was just so antithetical to what I really felt I should be doing and where I should be. So I guess moving here, for me, was a dream very long differed.
How did Secret Forts come to be? How did you come up with the name?
I’m asked about the name from time to time. It all kind of converges together, the actual creation of the site, the intent, the name, etc.
I had initially wanted it to be an anonymous thing. I’ve always really been into that notion.Whether graffiti or strange notes or prank calls…I guess I wanted it to simply be found kinda randomly. When I was young (and this is the first time I’ve maybe put these things together) we lived on this hill with acres of woods behind us. And as a child, the woods both terrified me and really intrigued me. I would walk up into them with my father. And some ways up the hill, there were the burnt out remains of a really old cabin that had been there who knows how long ago. After a while, I would go up alone. When I had enough courage I would make a trip to the old burnt down place. The chimney still stood, but the rest was just the blackened footprint of the place. And I always thought about who had lived there and what had happened. It felt like mine and mine alone.
I guess I wanted Secret Forts to feel like that. To be found and wondered about and to be something personal. I started it without telling anyone.
When looking at your blog I noticed that you are really into iconic American imagery.
Sure, yeah. Totally. I appreciate things that endure.
What do you think about these streetwear guys that are trading in their limited edition Nike sneakers for Martin Margiela Maison leather loafers and hoodies for Comme Des Garcons cardigans?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s not really anything that I think about. I simply like clothes. How things are made. How different things work or counter the other. Fashion to me is such a strange beast. It’s something that’s always in flux. And innately, it’s theater. It’s dress up. It’s a very considered thing. We say a lot about ourselves by what we wear. And much of the time it’s some form of projection. It’s a certain version of ourselves. I see some people who just do their own thing, that have a care-thee-not attitude toward dressing and you immediately feel that from them. But more times than not, we’re all trading in something for something else. It’s natural. We grow up or change our thinking about things. And that’s the great thing, that we’re all capable of self-reinvention in that way. It’s very American Dream, very Gatsby-ish.
What is your favorite thing in life?
My wife. We’ve been together for nine years, married for five. And she’s the magic.
What should a girl never wear?
Platform flip flops? Tramp stamps with whale tales? I don’t know. There are some girls that just pull off the craziest things.
Do you think someone can steal your personal style from you and make it theirs because of the funds they have in their pockets?
That’s a funny question. I’m not sure that personal style can be stolen. I mean, I think there are people that hitch their wagons to whatever is happening now but ultimately, those things change and people move on. I appreciate consistency and things that hold up over time. And I realize that that is cliché to say now, with all of the attention and importance placed on this current ” heritage movement”. But I also love the the fact that the raddest people I know don’t really give a shit about what they wear and what it says about them. People will move on to the next fascination. Everything is cyclical. I can imagine the curve moving back toward some more Helmut Lang-ey sort of period. Who knows. The point is to do, live, dress however is authentic to you. I don’t kid myself by thinking that there’s anything more authentic about me or the way I dress than anyone else out there. I like not to gauge myself by that. I just do what I do, dress how I dress, like what I like.
Top 3 movies off the top of your head?
I used to watch so many films. I totally love Kurosawa, Fellini, French New Wave…I don’t know. No real good answer for that one. I recently really liked “Inglorious basterds” and “A Serious Man”. I wanna see Tom Ford’s movie. I did watch “The September Issue” which I thought was really interesting. Grace Coddington seems like such a great and talented woman.
I read on your blog that when you were 7 or 8, if someone were to ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up, you said that your occupation would certainly have the word ninja in it. Tell us a little about this…
I was really into that stuff when I was a kid. All the terrible movies, etc. I remember getting this throwing star from a friend and keeping that thing like a secret. In my OP nylon wallet like a condom. I figured my parents would really flip out had they known about it. I also had a special hiding spot in my room that I had made with some bricks and a piece of fabric. Like a small shrine to everything secret and dangerous a boy could have. Matches, a knife, fireworks, half a cigar. It really couldn’t have been more conspicuous. I wasn’t really savvy to the idea that I had effectively painted a giant red arrow for my parents. And certainly at that age, I had no clear idea that there were maybe certain limitations in life. That you kinda couldn’t be a ninja-professional basketball playing-lawyer-astronaut-cowboy. But I could be wrong. I don’t want to send the wrong message to any eight year old out there that are aspiring to be a multi-hyphenate when they grow up.
Do you agree that your style is heavily influenced by Northwestern classics, and engineered garments?
I’d agree with that I think. I’m always hard pressed to sum up my own personal style. I don’t think about it very often. Certainly, the skate influence is still there. I feel like I’m constantly redefining and refining it as I go along.
Tell us about the Aesthete and how you are involved?
Brennan, who does the Pursuit Aesthetic, got in touch with me about it and I was pleased to oblige. It’s funny. My feeling is that there are a handful of sites out there that, one way or the other, are somehow associated with each other. Whether through similar content or appreciation of certain things, his is certainly one. At the same time, not many of us really know one another. There are friends I’ve made through doing Secret Forts that have become invaluable and important people to me. But largely, we all email one another and it feels familiar because, I think, that what we all do is something personal to each of us. I wrote in a post that we are all just trying to do something that is authentic to ourselves and kind of stay above the fray. So when Brennan got in touch, I was happy to do it.
Who do you admire?
As a younger man, I was always very enamored of post war era painters. The kind of hard-drinking, hard-living types. I recently visited Pollock’s grave out near where we go during the summers. It was something I had been thinking so much about while out there.
Presently, I have an enormous amount of respect for Daiki Suzuki and what he does with Engineered Garments and the Woolrich line. The more I read about him personally, the more I think that he’s got his priorities really figured out. Whether doing really great work, surfing or trout fishing, he’s a guy that I feel like has this sort of sovereignty over his life and has made a very nice place for himself in it, doing what it is he loves.
I’ve gotten to know the Parton brothers over the past year or so. They do Apolis Activism, and just have such a great outlook on life, and have found their place in the industry that brings together making garments with real philanthropy. They constantly bring a smile to my face.
The Corsillo brothers, of the Hill-side and Hickoree’s Hard Goods are just such good guys and have been invaluable friends and I have nothing but total love for them.
I admire people who just go for it, do what they love and make it work. Hopefully, I’m somewhere on that path.
3 new lines that are golden?
Maybe not the “newest” of lines but…Dana Lee is so so talented and I love what she’s doing. I can’t say enough about her. Folk from the UK are doing great things and gaining more of a deserved following here in the US. I really really dig Mark McNairy and his funny and smart takes on the classics. It’s the kind of thing where you think “Fuck, this dude is making everything I wanna wear”. There’s many more, but I’ll quit there.