Style Icon Coltrane Curtis Shares His Vision For Life After Quarantine

COVID-19 has changed the shape of… f*cking everything. The restaurant industry, modern fashion, movies premieres, sex — it’s all already shifted and will continue to shift. Be ready, friends, we live in a new world. A world where we’ve got no choice but co-exist with the coronavirus. A world where nothing is a given and the word “normal” is obliterated.

So what — precisely — does this new world look like?

No one really knows yet. We’re finding out in real-time, adjusting on the fly, and doing our best to navigate the unmapped territory. We’re listening to thought leaders and experts as they make educated guesses about the future. We’re evaluating information as it comes. With regard to the actual science and epidemiology involved in the spread of COVID, we urge you to listen to the scientists (that sounds obvious, but clearly… isn’t). As for the future of how we live, UPROXX is tapping visionaries and tastemakers who we can count on to predict the next wave of culture with a balance of hope and realism.

People like Coltrane Curtis.

For the past 20 years, Curtis’ basic job description has been that he has an impeccable litmus test for what’s cool. He was the founder of G-Unit clothing, an editor at Complex, Ecko Unlimited’s VP of Marketing, and an ex-MTV veejay. Most recently, Curtis co-founded the NYC-based Team Epiphany — an agency that has carved a niche by being the first place brands go when they want to know how to get the attention of young people. The firm throws parties, curates experiences and pop-up events, and generally “influences culture.” Their clients are huge. We’re talking HBO, Nike, Coke, Hendrick’s Gin… you get the idea.

When countrywide orders and social distancing measures put an end to public gatherings, Curtis and his team pivoted from an event planning platform to embracing the digital space in order to promote HBO’s latest season of Insecure. Prior to the season premiere, they put together a virtual Block Party on Instagram — featuring Q&A sessions with series star and creator Issa Rae, along with the cast and crew, DJ sets, Twitter watch parties, and a surprise performance by Jidenna. It was intimate and personal while also being completely inclusive and open, a tough thing to pull off in an online-only setting.

With the cities slowly opening up and everyone doing their damndest to navigate our collective new normal, we reached out to Curtis to discuss the future of public events, social interactions, and streetwear.

Team Epiphany/Uproxx

Knowing that every question is caveated with “In your personal opinion, with the knowledge currently available and knowing that everything could change by tomorrow”… what will public events look like in these next few months?

I think initially large scale events are going to be tabled… I think smaller more intimate experiences are going to be the way to go for the next couple of months. For the duration of this year, I don’t think we will really look to larger experiences.

There’s no substitute for that face-to-face, hand-to-hand kind of contact that we’re used to, and trying to think that virtual is going to do the same thing — It doesn’t, right? It does other things. We have to figure out the way in which we can emotionally touch people without physically being there in their faces. And you can do that virtually. But, I think when the larger-scale experiences do come back, what’s going to be really special is to watch IRL meeting the virtual, social, digital world. They’re going to live together.

Come 2021, we’re going to see the merger of digital, virtual, social, and experiential in an entirely new way.

Off the top of your head. Is there a way that you can imagine large-scale parties or events in an era where we have to social distance? Or is that just something that’s really not compatible with life right now?

I think you can be clever about it. No being in a nightclub with 500 people and you’re waiting with people in a queue to get in behind you — those days aren’t really going to be there. And I think there’s a very small set of people who are tone-deaf to what’s going on. There’s always going to be outliers. You kind of see what’s going on in Miami and other states opening up, and people crowding beaches, but I don’t think that’s the norm, right? I think what’s really happening is that people are being responsible and respectful of others and their health and others’ health.

Unfortunately, those larger experiences are going to be more difficult to come back, but I think there are clever ways to attack it. It’s like, you can’t put a lot of people in a shared space, but we can have drive-in movie theater experiences where you could have a boat ton of cars that you’re talking to. The drive-in theater experience could be really amazing. We’re actually checking with California state laws right now, in terms of how many cars can we gather If people don’t leave their vehicles. I might be able to have a thousand cars parked to watch a movie for a movie premiere. That would be interesting, right?

But the first thing, and I think the biggest challenge about this whole experience, is access to facts, access to information so you know how to pivot, and creative people know how to create. That’s the biggest, frustrating thing. There are so many different rules and laws and states are running themselves. And so, it makes it very difficult for us to then figure out how do we navigate?

Team Epiphany

How do you see public interaction in general changing? Are things like handshakes officially over? What does human interaction look like after this?

I have an eight-year-old that’s pretty much going on about 16. And I think their resiliency is now creating what’s going to be the new normal. I think it’s the old people who are very much scared about not being able to dap or give a handshake or a high five, but the younger kids who are going to come through this could care less. They’re just going to figure it out and move along, they’re not so set in these practices.

I think it’s the older people who are averse to digital spaces and doing things and pushing envelopes like that. It’s us old dinosaurs that it’s going to be very difficult for, but I feel like the younger kids if they can’t dap and can’t give a handshake, they’ll do their own thing.

I think — are we going to be hanging out in the park and laying out on the beaches? I’m not really interested in that. I don’t think that’s going to be safe for a while. I mean, I almost don’t think it’s going to be safe until we really find a vaccine.

What do movie theaters look like? I think that’s going to evolve. The day of just like hundreds or thousands of people together at a concert, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think the other things that could happen are intimate experiences, especially for artists. When you think about back in the day, this is how I age myself, with the whole MTV Unplugged piece. It was big artists in a small room.

What that does is it drives the cost up. So now I might pick and choose who I want to go see. But I would rather go see my favorite artist in a 50 person jazz club than I would in a 50,000 person arena. I think everything is going to evolve. Some things will change for the better and obviously some things will change for the worse, but I would love to see Jay Z in a 50 person room. I don’t know about you.

The question is — can we afford it?

Team Epiphany/Uproxx

You’ve been in and around style for some time. How do you see style and streetwear moving forward post lockdown?

I liked that you called it style and not fashion because I think fashion is dead. I personally do. You see J Crew file for bankruptcy. You see Neiman Marcus file for bankruptcy. They’re in the fashion business. I think style is what’s going to drive other industries to take off. In our newly released zine, there is a really interesting point of view that two of the writers had where one writer said “everybody’s going to come out of this and be super cozy” or cozier than ever. The other writer’s piece was about people wanting to get dressed up because they’ve been slumped, schlubby, and extra cozy in the house for the last four or five months.

My personal take on it is I think cozy is going to be it. Me personally, I’ve been a full sweatsuit guy for the last three years. I figured out how to dress up a sweatsuit so I can sit at a boardroom and still get money. I’ve also figured out how to wear that sweatsuit on the weekend with my kids. I feel like that functional being able to change gears in one look, is going to be of utmost importance. I also feel like value is going to be of utmost importance.

You’re going to start seeing things that wear well, wash well, and are durable. People are going to be very cognizant of how and where and what they’re spending their money on. People are going to now look to quality, not vanity. Like what’s the difference between a reverse weave Champion sweatsuit, or if it’s something that’s collaboration on collaboration that cost four times more. I’m more opt to just pick the solid color reverse weave Champion sweatsuit because I know it’s going to wear well, wash well, and I don’t need the vanity of somebody else telling me that it’s cool because they put a tie-dye or a splash or their logo on it.

I think we’re really going to go back to function and utility and I think that’s going to be the new style. When you think about it, the last time we’ve had one of these kinds of depressions or recessions, military picked up. Ripstop, surplus, Army/ Navy stores — that stuff picked up crazy.

What was it? N65 jackets, army fatigue pants, whether they were desert camo, normal camo, black camo colored, those $29 pants took you wherever you had to go whenever you had to go. Whether you were wearing Wallabees, Jordan’s, or a pair of Tim’s, they were your look. So I think that’s where it’s going to go. I’ve already started decluttering. When I get out of this quarantine, I’m definitely getting rid of a couple of hundred pairs of sneakers at Stadium Goods. I just don’t need those things.

I’d rather spend my time not hoarding, people call it collecting. It’s basically gotten to a point of hoarding.

Why do I need four pairs of the same sneaker in the same colorway? I can go get them whenever I want right? So now I think it’s more about having things that you need. I think people are going to be coveting experiences over things. And that’s what I think is the beauty of what’s going to come out of this, is people are going to start respecting the interaction with one another and making that the premium as opposed to — I’m all dressed up and I’m actually still not having any fun because I don’t care about who I’m with or what I’m doing.

What do you think about face masks?

As I’m talking through my N95 right now! My wife is Chinese. Her family lives in Taiwan and Shanghai. Normally, we travel to Asia four times a year. I’ve been seeing Asian communities wear masks my whole life. I always was kind of confused as to why, or how has this becomes style? And then you see brands like Bathing Ape and then Virgil’s Off-White, who are very heavily consumed throughout Asia, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong. That’s where those brands are built and get their inspiration.

So I think it’s about to just become an extension of everyone’s style. I think it’s going to be a functional piece. Some people might decide to do the bandana thing. Some people might decide to get their favorite mud cloth or kente and make a kind of more ethnic focused thing. But I think masks are going to become a part of people’s extension of their personal style and it’s not going to go away. I’m more of a medical mask guy. I feel like if I’m going to wear it, it needs to do what it’s supposed to do. When I go to Whole Foods I wear a medical mask and I wear one over it. That’s it for me and so I think the mask is here to stay forever.

It’s out of respect for yourself and other people that you could infect, but I don’t want to see a $300 cloth mask, which I’m sure we’re going to see a luxury version of at some point. But I’d rather still spend $12 and have an N95 that I know is blocking things as opposed to something that just looks cool. I think that can be a really good brand extension of medically cleared masks that have a good little look to them, I think is a really interesting new business model.

Team Epiphany/Uproxx

I imagine this is hitting the reset button on a lot of trends and interests culturally aside from just fashion and public events. So… and I hate to ask this in a time when people are financially panicked… but what do you think the next era of cool looks like after lockdown?

I think the new era is going to really be about domestic exploration and the cool things you can find in the US. I think the airline industry is in the shitter. I think what you’re going to really be able to see are people being able to purchase vehicles and being able to explore their surroundings in ways in which they haven’t before. Before it used to be, “Hey, we can get from New York to London cheaper than you can get to LA.” So what that really allowed you to do was just hop on a plane and go. And now I think the cost of flying is going to go through the roof.

The safety risks of flying is going to kind of keep the lid on that industry. What’s going to happen is that people are now going to have to explore their 500-mile radius in ways in which they haven’t before. The new trend and the new thing will be finding local haunts to try to experience, to try to find some localized hacks to kind of give to your peer groups. I think overall that will turn into actual currency. It’s not about what you’re doing, it’s about where you’re doing it, and the new places that you can explore.

Over quarantine, I’ve been to Bear Mountain or around that area, pretty much every weekend for the last six weeks, because I had to get out of the city and do things with my kids. And so what we really found is that, you know what? Let’s get off this exit here. Let’s try this here. Okay, let’s pull over to the side of the road. “Oh wait, those are the police.”

Respect nature, number one. I’d rather have something that was handmade than something that was manufactured. I’d rather have a story about what I purchased, than it just be a flat garment that’s on my body. I think everything needs depth. And I think that exploration is going to provide the storytelling depth that we need to make those products more valuable. I go back to sneaker collecting, and I’m a sneaker hoarder, and there’s no such thing as exclusive anymore. What made sneakers exclusive was the relationships that you had and who gave you that item. It wasn’t the actual item itself. It was the story behind it. What you’re really starting to see are all these fabricated stories about origin or exclusivity because there is no kind of craftsmanship story behind it. I think the storytelling behind tangible purchases is going to be as valuable as that physical item period.

Exploration is going to be the new trend, and doing it on foot, by bike, by car is going to be the vehicle of choice.

Team Epiphany/Uproxx

What are your fears for the world in this time? What makes you angry and what gives you hope?

The first thing that I would be worried about is this effect on the next generation and the young kids. My kid is trilingual. Mandarin is his first language. I crafted and curated his existence to be a global citizen and to be able to navigate the world. And so now that’s being challenged. When is the next time that I’m going to feel comfortable with him getting on a plane?

Think about socialization. I have a lot of friends who have kids, the kids who are four and five, who are just becoming socialized in school, are having the biggest challenge right now, finding comfort within this whole, solitary confinement at home with their parents.

How does this adversely affect them?

The positive is that I think people are going to really value human connection and respect one another, a bit more. That’s what I’m hoping will come out of this is that we have more respect for the person sitting to the left and the right of us. More respect for cultures and people’s differences. In major cities like New York, I don’t think that’s the biggest challenge because I think that we love one another openly here more than other places. But as we go into an election year and seeing the cultural, the economic, the racial divide in this country, I’m hoping that after we get through this, that divide isn’t as wide, because what’s going to happen is we’re going to have to start exploring those places — the places where people who feel divided from us, are too — because of the lack of global travel.

So I want my family to be respected and received well, if I’m going into a red state, a blue state, a Southern state, a state in the Northwest, wherever. I want to be able to feel that I can traverse this country with the same safety and freedoms that anybody else can.

Team Epiphany/Uproxx