The Ringleader

Brooklyn stylemaker Ouigi Theodore takes on American culture, one garment at a time.

In Ouigi Theodore’s ideal “meet cute” scene, a conversation is struck when a woman notices the corozo buttons on a guy’s checked popover shirt. The guy was never aware of the buttons, made from tropical palm seeds—he just knows he bought the shirt at this small shop in Brooklyn because he liked how it fit. Button talk begets a shared love of civil rights documentaries, Mary Ellen Mark photographs and travel aspirations to Gascony. Five years later, they’re married and best friends—all because of that one shirt he bought at The Brooklyn Circus.


“Clothing for me is always about creating a platform for dialogue,” explains Theodore, who created and owns that very store and lifestyle brand (often shortened to BKc) in Boerum Hill. “It’s the same way I feel about art: it’s bigger than these beautiful canvases and clothes—it’s so much more about what’s happening in the world; it’s social commentary.”


At this point, Theodore should be credited as a seminal architect of the Brooklyn aesthetic. He’s been a magnet of street style blogs since their nascency, often photographed wearing an ascot, tweed newsboy cap, or leather apron, should things get messy. He’s a staple of Scott Schuman’s blog The Sartorialist, designated a go-to tastemaker by New York magazine’s The Cut and was described by The New York Times in 2011 as having “the coolly detached verbal patter of a hipster—that is, in the 1940s daddy-o sense, not the 2011 Williamsburg sense.”


It’s true that Theodore’s look is based on historic vignettes (he majored in history at Stony Brook University), but the BKc proprietor is anything but detached. He’s earnest, warm and comfortable in his skin, particularly on a Sunday morning, dressed in a white short-sleeved oxford and green military pants (both BKc), silver rings, an orange knit cap and his characteristic beard distinguished with flecks of grey. “I decided to make clothes and sell clothes, but I love people more than anything,” Theodore says. “My method is through clothing because it warms my heart to hear people speak about what the brand means to them.”


And the physical store on the corner of Nevins and Bergen Streets, open since 2006, is the launching spot to do that. Theodore’s taste is everywhere: bottles of Brooklyn gin signal masculinity, a tufted green couch lends comfort, and—just in case you thought it was only about aesthetics—worn copies of Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, Crisis in Black and White by Charles E. Silberman, and Passage by Irving Penn line the register. (Theodore, in his free time, belongs to an all-male book club; he’s trying to convince them to go co-ed.)


Front of house thrives on PF Flyers high tops (a 75-year-old, New Balance-owned brand that Theodore partnered with to revitalize), cotton varsity jackets, t-shirts by Lady White Co., and grey suede loafers by Art Comes First. The back half of the space—redesigned this year as a gallery—houses portraits of creative Brooklyn duos, shot by John Midgley and styled by Scott Newkirk (with Theodore on creative direction), plus a glass display case holding Max Poglia knives, Sweettrade wallets and vintage watches from the 1960s and ‘70s. “Brooklyn Circus is the physical portfolio of what’s in my heart,” Theodore explains. “Every so often, I get to a point where it’s like there’s a lot going on and how do you say the same amount of things in less words? That’s what the gallery is about.”


A former full-time graphic designer who grew up loving clothes—not fashion—with four sisters in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, Theodore’s influences are broad. Early on, it was his Haitian grandparents and their antique jewelry and artifacts; in high school at Brooklyn Tech, it was the way Spike Lee monetized his films with merchandise. And of course, there is Ralph Lauren’s American sportswear empire. “He is the epitome of the American dream,” Theodore says of Lauren. “Also Thom Browne, because he took American culture and reappropriated it. But I’m also heavily inspired by vintage, anything from the 1960s back. The civil rights movement was very important for me in how American culture shifted. When I got to college, this whole world of American culture was open to me, and I’m constantly inspired by history, film and culture.”


This idea of refining American culture through clothing is paramount to Theodore. “The world should be able to see American culture for all of its layers and understand the complexity of every layer,” he says.“That’s what inspires me.” Theodore’s editorial instinct has fans in all parts of the world; a modelish couple from Montreal stops in to his store, as they do every visit to New York. “I saw this beautiful black man on The Sartorialist years ago, and thought, ‘Who is this? I have to find out who he is,” says the gentleman. “To me, this store represents the essence of what Brooklyn used to be. Now it’s getting more touristy.”


Theodore is unfazed by the effect of Brooklyn’s evolution on his brand. His hope is for future stores in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and to continue to pair with brands to produce his flood of creative ideas.


“I’m a big advocate of embracing change, but making sure that we give ownership and credit to the people who suffered through the crack epidemic and stuck with it and still wave Brooklyn with pride,” he says. “The intersection of Bergen and Nevins is important for me because it’s in the middle of $2-to-3 million brownstones, with Wyckoff Street and Gowanus Houses [one block west]. In the store, we may have a photographer who shot for Bergdorf and the guy from church, who works as a super, but who also gets super dapper on a Sunday. It’s that mesh.”

Photo © John Midgley