André Benjamin (a.k.a. André 3000) likes short shorts. Short basketball shorts, that is, the kind players wore back in the seventies, the kind that end perilously high up the thigh, the kind that Kobe Bryant recently said made him feel “violated” after the Lakers played a half in throwback uniforms. Benjamin pulls off the look with some flair in Semi-Pro, the latest sports-themed comedy to roll off Will Ferrell’s assembly line. He plays the inventor of the alley-oop, and “by the time we started filming, the shorts were like a second skin to me,” he says. “It seems like you can cut through the air a little bit better in them.”
Not only is Benjamin unafraid to show a little skin—“If you’re tough, and you don’t give a shit, the seventies were so cool,” he says—he’s also something of a sports-uniform historian. “If you look at old football pictures,” he says, “the jerseys were hanging, the sleeves were dangling, but now everything is tucked and tailored.”
Such images, drawn from college football circa 1935, inspired his new clothing line, Benjamin Bixby, thanks to a documentary he stumbled across on TV one night. Consisting of 70 pieces, the line is currently self-funded (he’s looking for a partner) and, he hopes, will be at Barneys in the fall. Benjamin is a fashion autodidact: He has taken advice from Anna Wintour (who invited him to a Met gala), he has sketched the clothes himself, he has been to Italian factories and Parisian textile fairs. (And by the way, if you’re missing his primary career: He’s also working on a solo album for the fall.)
That mix of application and instinct carries over to his personal style. It takes a certain serenity to rock the resplendent Bixby outfit he recently wore to a Fashion Week party: wide-brimmed fedora, green waistcoat, buttery brown leather riding boots (“vintage”) that pushed his pants up, jodhpur style. He looked more like a wealthy, eccentric caballero than a thirties jock toff, but then, he wants the line to tell stories. Benjamin Bixby, he says, “is a character who’s kind of like your uncle, or your granddad, and he has a closet full of experiences and clothes, and he’s been around the world.”
It’s tempting to call Benjamin a dandy, but the word doesn’t quite go far enough—he’s more experimental than that. He’s worn pretty much everything during his OutKast career, from garish plaid to polka-dotted bow ties to pimp furs to turbans to leopard hats to military gear to golfwear.
But as he grows older—“In the hip-hop world, 32 is like being an uncle”—he’s returning to his classical roots. Other Benjamin Bixby pieces, like a pink sweater with a giant emblazoned B, continue a long-standing hip-hop fascination with preppy style that includes the nineties appropriation of Tommy Hilfiger and Phat Farm’s urban take on Ralph Lauren. Growing up in Atlanta, Benjamin was part of a “prep crew” at school with noted butler Fonzworth Bentley. “It was all about being a prep. It was about ties and saddle shoes and Guess overalls and stuff like that.”
Tearing pages out of magazines as a kid left Benjamin with a reverence for English style: He fetishizes “timeless” clothes, name-checks old-school brands like Turnbull & Asser, and calls his own style “classic spontaneity” or “rebel gentleman.” What this means, in effect, is doing a little remix. Here, he’s wearing a Façonnable shirt with Polo khakis and a tie from his new line worn as a belt. “There has to be something inventive about it,” he says. “But not so inventive that it’s a turnoff. So that some of the greats, like Beau Brummell or the Duke of Windsor, would nod and say, ‘Well done.’ Those guys killed it.” Now, that’s hip-hop.