The first time I walked into Amir Browder’s gallery/boutique, Homme D.C., located on the bottom floor of 52 O St. NW, I was struck by how much Browder’s idea-turned-into-reality ran counter to everything I had seen in D.C. up to that point. Talk to anyone from outside of D.C. and smart money would be on the assumption that most (if not all) people still think the D.C. art scene begins and mostly ends with the conglomerate of national museums and a few private spatterings. And to be frank, it’s hard to blame people who think that. D.C.’s evolution into a cosmopolitan hub of culture has been uneven to put it lightly; for every new restaurant or high-rise apartment, much less attention is paid to creating a welcoming environment for an artistic community; the same artistic community necessary to revitalize the city’s voice muffled by gentrification and development plans akin to a shitty SimCity game.
“City officials have their own idea of what art is and what artists are supposed to look like and how art is supposed to presented,” Browder says. “There are way too many stigmas coming from people who aren’t in the community; let the artists be the artists, let them create, and allow art to come from many different forms.”
The beauty of Homme D.C. is how effortless it feels. Nothing feels forced, every detail—from the white brick wall to the grassy ferns on the ceiling—feels nature, feels lived in. More importantly, Homme D.C. feels like Amir Browder, a man with D.C. in his blood on a journey that started with an introduction to high-fashion at the age of 16.
“Back when I was 16-years-old I started to really get into fashion and brands like Versace and Moschino all because of the hip hop scene,” Browder recounts. “Biggie and all those guys were all talking about that type stuff so as a hip hop guy I thought ‘Okay, this looks pretty cool.’”
While Browder’s journey proves that serendipity, hard work, and sacrifice are often inseparable, it also serves as an example of how D.C.’s artists and curators are creating a community uniquely theirs. Starting with his initial gallery at the Anacostia Art Center in 2014, flowing through his Homme D.C. retail kiosk at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 2017, and arriving at his redesigned gallery at 52 O St. NW, Browder has always seen himself as part of something greater than one person. “Even with the space in Anacostia,” Browder says. “I wanted to create something that served as a platform for emerging artists.”
Homme D.C. is also a reminder that whoever is in charge of art programs or development in the D.C. government is doing a poor job. Places like this should not be relegated to single digits. Curators like Browder give a voice to our city espousing the power of creativity, the power of art, and the power of building an identity espousing both. Browder admits D.C. is different—”D.C. is a place where you have to do your research before you get here. I don’t think you can just come to DC and ‘figure it out.’”—he also acknowledges something at the heart of our art community: “..artists in the city are trying to form a community instead of more divisions…you have to respect the culture of DC first; once people see that you’re giving the city the respect it deserves people will roll with you.”
Visit Homme D.C. at 52 O Street NW and check out Homme D.C. on Instagram at @homme_dc
Brightest Young Things: How did Homme DC come to be?
AMIR: Back when I was 16-years-old I started to really get into fashion and high brands like Versace and Moschino all because of the hip hop scene. Biggie and all those guys were all talking about that type stuff so as a hip hop guy I thought “Okay, this looks pretty cool.” At the point, I already had some sense of fashion, but I didn’t know anything about those brands.
BYT: That kind of sounds similar to how kids are getting into high-end sneaker fashion now.
Amir: Yea, I remember being at the Pentagon City Mall in 1996 and seeing this guy come through with one of those Versace leather jackets with the Medusa on the back. I remember saying to my friend [Marcus] who was with me, “What the hell is that?” And him saying it was Versace and it cost nearly $1,000. Ever since that time, I started to really look at items like that not because of the price, but because they looked cool. That summer I bought my first Versace shirt in Georgetown for like $100 and witnessed first-hand the quality of something that well-made. The moment really caused me to immerse myself in fashion and take seriously not only high-end brands but also brands that were still relatively unknown.
BYT: So when did that obsession turn into something tangible?
Amir: I remember when I was 21-22-years-old, I was with my friend Marcus [same Marcus from 1996] and we were just chillin’, sitting back, and having a conversation. I remember telling him “Man, one day, I’m going to put a luxury boutique in Anacostia. This was in 2001 and at that time Anacostia still had a pretty rap. For me, the idea made sense because I thought the impediment to something like that succeeding was not about race, but about access.
I sat on the idea for a long time, working various jobs in corporate and government. In 2014, I visited the Anacostia Art Center on a whim and saw that they had a small space open for rent. I remember proposing the idea of a men’s boutique in the center, and getting a lot of positive support back from the Center but I don’t think they really understood what I was trying to do.
BYT: So how’d you make that happen?
AMIR: I had zero money at the time…like actually zero. But I got the space on my 35th birthday and started to look into D.C. Government programs that would equally match however much money I could raise for my business. I don’t think those programs exist anymore; I think they were cut the last I heard.
I opened the space on July 18, 2014, and shortly thereafter linked up with a guy a local industrial carpenter/designer named Carter Anderson and a curator named Martina. Martina was the first person to suggest I have art in the space, but I didn’t know any artists at the time to do that. Martina ended up curating my first art show and I started to notice people liked that art but were more enthralled with how the space was curated. I latched onto that and started to reach out to up-and-coming photographers on Instagram to take photos of my space. After that things really started to move, but in September 2015, after a music show in the space, I started to get complaints from the Center. I don’t think they expected the space to be a creative hub; I think all they thought I’d do is sell clothes.
BYT: But you started out pursuing high fashion?
AMIR: I did, and that went really well, but the space and the environment I created took a life of its own. People always came to me with different activation ideas, but I never got off brand. I’d never do something like a “sip and paint”; everything I do has to be authentic and cool to me. For me it became more about people being creative, and the clothes became an extension of that.
BYT: So when did you make the switch to 52 O St. NW (Homme’s address)?
AMIR: Even with the space in Anacostia, I wanted to create something that served as a platform for emerging artists. In 2016, Charles Jean [Pierre] (Haitian American artist) helped me get into this studio. At that time, this space [Homme DC] was way different, but it wasn’t until the end of 2016 that I started to really put my mark on it through some renovations. The grand opening was in April 2017.
The timing was very weird [haha] because in May 2017 I found out I had been picked for a retail kiosk space at DCA [Ronald Reagan National Airport] and had to start July 17.
BYT: How did you manage both?
Amir: It was tough. I was at the airport 13 hours a day, 7 days a week but even then I tried to apply the same thinking towards the space I tried to create. I sold a lot of Happy Socks [haha]. Honestly, I tried to make the best of it. I saw it as a grind, as an opportunity to make it all work. And I did it with the help of my family and friends. But it became just too much by April 2018.
BYT: Do you remember when you knew you had created something special with Homme DC at 52 O?
Amir: Yea, around September 2017 I started to reach out to a bunch of local artists and creatives around the city. People like [botanic artist] Keith Stanley and local artist Marly McFly drove the initial momentum but it wasn’t until the [Washington] City Paper did a feature on me in early 2018 that led to a lot more people hearing about Homme. After I closed my kiosk at DCA in April 2018, the next big moment, and really probably the biggest moment that got me to where I am now, was a show in September 2018 with a local skateboarder/artist named Keon. That show brought together a different group of people who didn’t know much about the space, and from then on Homme DC started to snowball into what it is now.
BYT: Why do you think the appeal of Homme DC has only grown?
AMIR: Honestly, in the beginning, I couldn’t really explain it. I put in a lot of work to make this happen, and I also think people wanted a different type of gallery experience. Traditional galleries are fine, but we’re breaking the rules with Homme DC. Of course, we’re still professional and take a lot of care with how we present art and whatever else, but allowing people to experience art in an untraditional space has really shown how different we are from everything else in the city.
BYT: What argument would you make for artists to come to DC to either start their careers or grow their careers to another level?
Amir: D.C. is a place where you have to do your research before you get here. I don’t think you can just come to D.C. and ‘figure it out.’ D.C. is a different terrain, the city has a different set of rules you have to abide by in order for people to mess with you here. I think devotion to the constant grind and hustle is the same here [D.C.] as it is in New York [City] or LA, but it’s not as cutthroat.
D.C.’s art scene is so small compared to those other cities; we haven’t been known for art. And so artists in the city are trying to form a community instead of more divisions due to the competition. You have to respect the culture of D.C. first; once people see that you’re giving the city the respect it deserves people [artists] will roll with you.
BYT: What about the community outside of artists? How does that contribute to D.C. being a welcoming place for artists?
Amir: Well, we have a big international population that has a lot of money and that seriously cares about art. I think it’s also important to note that you don’t have to be a ‘starving artist’ in D.C.; there are so many options for work that help artists focus on their craft but also provide some financial stability. It’s not all or nothing here.
BYT: What can the city do to help the art community grow?
Amir: The city [government] needs to stop giving people who aren’t from here opportunities that would otherwise be given to people who are local and want to pursue their own careers. It often feels like there is a ‘secret gatekeeper’ who decides who gets [art] spaces and where; most of the time those type of things [art space and galleries] are kept secret for some reason. It’s like the city wants to promote the art community but keep it secret at the same time.
BYT: Do you think that sort of behavior from the city is rooted in limited real estate that can be devoted to art?
AMIR: Sort of? It’s hard to say honestly. There are studios around the city but they’re so secretive because there aren’t many of them. The limited amount of studios has created a situation where it’s overly competitive to get a space to work in. I think the city [government] needs to have at least two or three studio spaces in every ward in DC. Some of these spaces should be live/work spaces and others should be incubators. I think people point to the limited real estate in the city as a reason we don’t have more artistic space, but I find it hard to believe that someone can’t purchase a six-unit apartment building somewhere in Southeast [Washington] and turn into live-in art studios.
BYT: Do you think there is a disconnect of how the art community is seen by city officials and artists?
AMIR: City officials have their own idea of what art is and what artists are supposed to look like and how art is supposed to be presented. There are way too many stigmas coming from people who aren’t in the community; let the artists be the artists, let them create, and allow art to come from many different forms.
In order for D.C. to be considered a cosmopolitan city, we need a great art scene. We [DC] have our museums but that’s not enough. We need a constant artist community without it feeling like there are different cliques within that community. The city can help with that by being better at educating people about how to take the opportunities that exist; that can include how to feel out administrative documents to obtain art spaces or other avenues the city provides but doesn’t publicize.
The disconnect is also that the city doesn’t do a good job of including the right people in conversations of how to improve the artist community. I can’t recount how many times I’ve only heard of an event or talk or whatever sponsored by the city after the fact. I’m not offended by it, but I feel like people like myself should be part of the solution and that’s not the case right now.