This post is about my experience at SP Smoking Weekend. For the review of the show, see this post.
To say two weekends ago was amazing is a vast understatement. Heck, even saying it was outstanding is an understatement. For you see, I have been in the company of a genius!
The vision, the excitement, the parties, the dancing, the new friends, the booze: it was pure magic. What began as an ode to Charleston turned into a force of nature, a cultural landmark amongst a sea of mediocrity, all because of the work of a visionary. This visionary dared to be different. He refused to settle for the mundane, and as a result, he has gained a group of loyal supporters: a following that sticks together in its dandy eccentricity. He is an innovator that changed the definition of Southern menswear. He has taken the idea “go to hell prep” to an entirely different level. He is a bon vivant, a dandy, and a Southern gentleman. This visionary is K. Cooper Ray of Social Primer, and this past weekend, I was invited as a guest to view his formalwear line: SP Smoking.
If you don’t know who Social Primer is by now, then you clearly have not been here very long, as I am an ardent supporter of SP and owe a lot of my inspiration to Mr. Ray’s blog (Note: inspiration, not imitation). Just last year, I was a Campus Representative for Social Primer at the University of South Carolina, and though I did not re-apply for this position, I continue to be a voice of praise and support for SP; I guess you can call me an SP Disciple, if you are so inclined.
When I caught wind of SP’s new formalwear ideas, I was very excited. Remembering what Cooper did in New York with the idea of the Social Primer Fraternity, I knew that his vision for formalwear would be nothing short of stunning. Granted, Social Primer was, and continues to be, a successful part of the Brooks Brothers family for many seasons, but it was time that SP step out on its own. Thus, we find Social Primer by K. Cooper Ray, a line of both long ties and bow ties that feature contrasting patterns that walk the line of professional and nonconformist.
Honestly, before I met Cooper, I didn’t have a clue about how menswear design or production worked. My knowledge of clothing stopped with picking out what looked good and giving sartorial advice to my friends. I always liked wearing nice things, but my knowledge was limited to Polo Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Ben Silver, the stuff from local haberdashers, and the popular preppy options (vineyard vines, Southern Proper, and the like). Beyond that, I was lost. After meeting Cooper and following the birth of his new line, I have seen a glimpse of the realm of menswear. I mean, I still have no clue what’s going on, but at least I have been introduced to it. And I must say, I am infatuated with it. I have soaked it up like a sponge, and despite being called a “fashion guru” by my friends, I continue to explore this exciting new world.
Back to SP’s formalwear line.
This past December, I met up with Cooper and Taylor Eubanks (Social Primer’s head of sales) at Craig Reagin in Lexington, South Carolina for a trunk show. I planned on spending a few minutes just to say hello and view the new ties, but I ended up staying until the end of the show, during which Cooper gave me a little sneak peek of the upcoming show, which he called SP Smoking. He explained how this was a nod to Le Smoking, a revolutionary show from Yves Saint Laurent that pushed the boundaries of women’s attire, introducing the concept of women donning more “masculine” forms of clothing. I was instantly captivated by his vision.
Fast forward to March.
SP’s twitter and facebook pages were abuzz with pictures of invitations and sneak peeks of SP Smoking. Though Cooper and I knew each other, we never saw each other outside of the confines of St. Philip’s. As such, I assumed that I would view SP Smoking via pictures afterwards; after all, I was just a church acquaintance. Fate, circumstances - hell, maybe even some luck - would have it otherwise. In my inbox on facebook, I saw a message from Cooper. Inside were three things: a sentence and two pictures. The sentence simply said, “I hope you will join us.” The pictures were of a guy in a tuxedo with a shotgun and an invitation to Peter Ashley’s Winter Formal. This was my invitation to SP Smoking! Let me say, this was a very exciting thing to see when I woke up.
Fast forward a few weeks.
It’s Friday night and I am getting ready to head to the Charleston Library Society for the show. I am freshly showered, am cleanly shaven, and am donning my evening attire. I then hopped in the car and drove down to Broad Street in hopes of finding a relatively close parking space. I didn’t. Instead of the usual spots up and down Broad, I was greeted with a film crew. Hardly the sight I wanted to be seeing at the time. Don’t get me wrong: I love having film exposure of my beloved hometown, but I was hardly in the mood. I went up and down the street, scouring for a measly few feet of unoccupied pavement. No luck. So, with time running short (the invitation said 7:00 and it was 7:32 at the time, very much past being “fashionably late”), Plan B was enacted. South of Broad was my next option, for if Broad Street was packed, then anything north would surely be jammed. After finding a spot on Church Street, I made my way up to the library. The walk from Church to King was almost dreamlike. Here I am, walking through the alleys and passing visitors, knowing I am about to be blown away! It took all I could not to sprint down Broad Street up to the library.
I arrived at the library, only to be greeted by someone saying it would be another thirty minutes. Not a problem, so I ended up spending a few minutes resting in Charleston Place (my normal hub). Thirty minutes passed, and after a thorough check of my twitter feed, I headed back down to the library, only to be turned away again. At this point, I began to think: Should I get a drink at the Thoroughbred Club? Head down to the Blind Tiger? Grab a bite to eat? Do I have enough time to do this? Do I know anyone coming to the show? I was running out of ideas, so I sent out a tweet saying the show was delayed. Nick from Great Lakes Prep responded and said he and his brother, Anthony, were on King Street. I was less than a block away from their location, so I said that we should meet up. We did so, and thus there was a new connection. In case you were unaware, social media is the coolest thing once you meet a follower in real life, a modern pen-pal correspondence of sorts. After conversing by Charleston Place for a bit, we headed back down to the library. Finally, they were ready for guests to enter.
Once inside, we were greeted by a shag band, several bars, and the great Social Primer banner stretching across the center of the room. I have to hand it to Cooper: I can’t think of anyone else that can change a library into a 1950s country club. This being a Social Primer event, it would be sacrilegious to to not start with a drink. We headed over to the bar and started what would be a long night with many more drinks to come. Naturally, I ordered a Gin and Tonic, as this is my signature drink. Truly, if you ever see me at a bar without a gin-based drink or without a beer, you’ll know something is horribly wrong. One of these days, I’ll write an article about the wonders of gin, but enough about that; back to the library.
After getting our drinks, Anthony told me he was never a fan of gin. Just so you know, if you ever say this to me, consider it a challenge. Thus the following unfolded: Oh boy, I thought. Another person to convert! As I have mentioned before, I am a Gin Apostle, and my conversion rate is near, if not at, 100%. I cannot recall a person I have met that does not like gin after I get a hold of him or her. After discussing my passion of gin, I suggested for him to try Gin and Ginger Ale, a great drink to introduce the spirit to a newcomer. More on this later.
As a former Campus Representative, I try to stay connected with the current reps, just to see what is going on with Social Primer in other parts of the country; plus, they are some outstanding people! Considering this was Social Primer’s biggest event in Charleston to date, I expected to see several Campus Representatives in the crowd. It didn’t take long for me to spot several, and I went over to make a connection with one I regularly converse with on twitter: McKenzie Mullins of Western Kentucky University. I brought him over and introduced him to Nick and Anthony. Not too long after this, people began to shag, and naturally, I was feeling the urge to dance - have I ever mentioned how much I love to shag? I’m sure I have - but I wasn’t quite boozed up enough to dance. That didn’t matter, as some older ladies approached our group wanting to dance. So off we went, the four of us. Mind you, the other three were as familiar with shagging as I am with getting around the streets of Bangkok: not very much at all. I kept looking over to see how they were doing. Needless to say, the old Charlestonians had taken the reins and began teaching the novice shaggers how to do our beloved state dance. Quite a beautiful site, if you ask me.
A few minutes later, the man of the hour, Mr. Ray, stepped up on the platform and announced his predicament. It turns out that the plane toting the clothes for the evening had broken down in Memphis, and the clothes had no other way of getting to Charleston in time for the show. He said he called everyone he knew with a private plane to see if they could get the clothes in for the evening, but alas, no other details were divulged. We didn’t really mind, as we all were having one hell of a time. Combine shagging, a top-notch band, more than an ample supply of booze, and a fun-loving crowd, and you have a party that cannot be stopped. Clothes or no clothes, models or no models: we were going to celebrate!
As the night continued on, I met many others in attendance. Some were “Old Charleston,” and others were newcomers from “The College.” Some had known Cooper for years, and others were new friends and supporters. Speaking of “The College,” it was around this time that McKenzie introduced me to another Campus Representative: CofC’s Ryan Mazza. Gin continued to be poured, dancing continued to be done, and conversing became more and more relaxed. Somewhere in the mix, the Electric Slide came into play. Time went on, and Rhett Boyd of Rogue Wave Surf Shop approached me. We chatted for a few minutes and spoke about the wonders of the Shag (seriously, y’all have no idea how much I love this dance). I joined up with Nick and Anthony, and lo and behold: Anthony was smiling as he sipped his second Gin and Ginger Ale, or was it his third? Mission accomplished.
At once, the interns corralled the crowd into three major sections, forming a T-shaped runway in the middle of the great hall. The music changed from the sounds of beach music to the squeal of guit - you already know this part, don’t you?
Somehow, I managed to get a “front row” spot with Nick and Anthony. The show went on, and I documented the looks with my “oh-so advanced” Blackberry. Thank goodness Nick was both smart enough to bring a camera and tall enough to tower over the crowd, and his footage was superb!
The finale concluded, we sang “God Bless America,” and then the bombshell was dropped. Out of the blue, the notes of our cherished dance rang through the halls of the old library. Almost like a radio signal to the brain, the crowd stopped what they were doing and began to dance. Because my mother’s family is steeped in dance - my great grandmother was an award winning dancer of “The Charleston” and my grandfather danced with Fred Astaire - I was familiar with how to Charleston. I was overcome with the urge! So, with arms waving and legs twisting, I began to Charleston my heart out. Another lady joined me in our beloved dance, and we proceeded to show everyone how it was done. To be honest, I don’t know why this moment was so memorable; I had just seen a monumental show that made a mere dance seem trivial. But somehow, “The Charleston” was the most appropriate answer to such a show. It was our response to Mr. Ray, our “amen.” It was our applause and congratulation.
After some very enthusiastic dancing, I was in dire need of another drink. Just before I reached the bar, an older gentleman approached me. He was wearing a grey suit with a Huguenot lapel pin. The gentleman introduced himself as Thomas Middleton LeMacks, and we spent the next few moments talking about all sorts of stuff: dancing, families, Huguenots - you know, the usual. After mentioning my Huguenot ancestry, he enthusiastically invited me to visit the French Protestant Church some time. A very nice jesture and a very real possibility, considering my church is literally the next block north. We parted ways, and I returned to the watering hole.
The rest of the party was the same as the first half, albeit more boozed and crazy. Dancing, music, and an all ‘round good time. Eventually, the time came to close shop, but if you know anything about the SP crowd, you’ll know that the party never ends swiftly. Cooper made the proclamation: the afterparty was in the works! But where to go? Upper King was too far, and we weren’t exactly in the part of town known for nightlife. That is unless you know about a wonderful local dive: the Blind Tiger. So, with the location in sight, we made our way. Some rode in the hired cars, some walked, and others crawled. No matter, for more good times awaited!
Nick, Anthony, and I arrived at the Blind Tiger shortly after the hired cars, and thus we came in right at the start of the hype. We grabbed our drinks and headed out to the courtyard. Once there, we met up with a few other familiar faces and a few new ones. McKenzie introduced us to Tom Fisher, the Campus Representative for the University of Georgia, and in turn, Tom introduced us to his cousin and a few friends. We made our way to the old part of the courtyard and joined Cooper, F.E. Castleberry, and others who were gathered. Before I knew it, the last call was being announced. I said my goodbyes and strolled back down to Church Street.
SP Smoking Weekend was over, or so I thought.
The next day, I did some video editing for a friend - I know, you had no idea I was so “multi-talented” - and thus I thought the fun times were over for the weekend. Later that afternoon, McKenzie sent me a message wondering what was going on around town. This, my friends, was the start of another crazy night. I ate dinner with my parents, jumped in the shower, got dressed, and hopped back down to the peninsula.
Per usual, I set up camp in Charleston Place and waited on McKenzie to rendezvous. Eventually he showed up, and we scooted on over to one of my favorite places: the Thoroughbred Club. I sipped on my gin, he on his bourbon, and we talked about all sorts of stuff. A few minutes later, Ryan met us and we continued to swap stories. McKenzie told us about his family’s old seats at Churchill Downs, I told them about, well, growing up in Charleston, and Ryan answered my age-old question: what do you call someone from Connecticut? According to the Connecticut native, people from Connecticut do not call themselves anything in particular. Time went on and we received a message from Cooper. He told us to meet him at The Ordinary. So, we downed our drinks, headed out the doors, and made our way up King Street.
As we made our way up the street, Cooper messaged us once again. He told us to forget about The Ordinary and to meet him for an afterparty at Stars, a popular Upper King bar. He told us to tell the bouncers that we were with Cooper and Cynthia Bailey. Yes, that is the Cynthia Bailey of The Real Housewives of Atlanta fame. Mind you, none of us knew who she was at the time, but if she was a friend of Cooper, then this would be far from a mediocre experience. We arrived at Stars and looked for Cooper. He was nowhere to be seen. We headed up to the rooftop bar, thinking they would be up there. Alas, no success; however, while up there, we met back up with Tom and his entourage. We weren’t about to give up our search, so with Tom joining our party, we went a floor below to the private rooms. Jackpot! We told the bouncers the spiel, and after a quick glance inside, we were waived through. Inside, we saw an enthusiastic Cooper dancing his heart out. We met up, he introduced us to Ms. Bailey, and we made our way over to the bar. So there we were: a group of current and, ehem, “retired” Campus Reps, Cooper, F.E. Castleberry, their friend named Mary, and Cynthia Bailey. Time went on and Cooper told us he was ready to move on to the next spot. He and F.E. Castleberry went on ahead and we waited for Ryan. Somehow we all got separated, so Tom, McKenzie, and myself decided to join Cooper, F.E, and Mary at the Silver Dollar, another popular Upper King bar.
We walked across the street to the Silver Dollar, only to be greeted with the sounds of yet another amazing band. We walked inside and, you guessed it, headed straight to the bar. Sidenote: I love bars. I love big bars and small bars, nice bars and grungy bars, but more than these, I love cheap bars. The Silver Dollar is just that. Well, at least it is fairly cheap by Charleston’s standards. Cheap booze is happy booze, and likewise, a cheap boozer is a happy boozer.
Back to Saturday night.
We loaded up on our drinks and met back up with the SP entourage. Conveniently, an all-time party favorite was ringing out from the speakers of the packed bar. We honed in on a dance spot, and awaited the bandleader to sing those famous words: “You know ya make me wanna…”
The bar, much like the crowd the night before at the first notes of “The Charleston,” erupted into a massive frenzy. We jumped, we danced, we shouted and sang. We got a little bit softer and a little bit louder. We had an enthusiastic call and response. We fulfilled one of our founding principles as a nation: the pursuit of happiness.
The lights flickered, the band packed up, and the bar began to close. As if the night couldn’t get anymore exciting, a fight erupted right beside us. In a flash, Cooper, F.E, and their friend Mary exited the bar. Meanwhile, the rest of us were left to fend for ourselves. Without too much drama, we did such and met back up with Cooper & Co. One member of the SP entourage was a bit overserved, and told us he was going to walk back to his lodgings. This was on Cannon Street, hardly a place to walk alone when under the influence. Cooper enlisted us (the Reps) to get him back safely and to meet him at the studio, and with that, he and the gang departed. McKenzie and said friend got in line for hamburgers while I went back to get the car. Through the rain and the droves of people, I ventured back to Hasell Street to pick up the car. As I was driving up King Street, I knew I was going to face a challenge, as parking is nonexistent in the area. Somehow, I lucked out and snagged a spot right in front of the Silver Dollar. We loaded up and, with the entourage in tote, I made the winding trip to Cannon Street.
After we dropped off Cooper’s friend, we made the trek down to the Harleston Village. As we rounded the corner of Rutledge and Montagu, I asked McKenzie which house was Cooper’s, as he was staying at the studio for the weekend and I had never seen “SP HQ” before. Eventually I saw Cooper’s SUV, with his St. Philip’s sticker serving as our beacon. We parked, went to the gate, and proceeded to the carriagehouse.
Living downtown is very different from any set up you would find in most American cities. There are single homes, apartments built into single homes, additional houses behind a main house, and old carriagehouses converted to studio apartments: it really is a neat assortment. As such, you sometimes have to walk through people’s back lawns to get to a house. This is the case for Cooper’s carriagehouse. So, as we walked past the main house on Montagu, we were greeted with the glow of Cooper’s front stoop light and a blur approaching us rather quickly. This blur turned out to be Tess, Cooper’s adorable Yellow Lab mix. After our introductions by the “SP Welcoming Committee,” we headed to the studio.
What came next was a surreal experience. Once we crossed the threshold of the front door, we saw the clothes from the show. Much like being inside an exhibit of a museum, we were in the presence of precious artifacts. We were shown the brilliant coats, the regal fox stoles, and the Prep Necky waistcoats from the vantage of their creator. Cooper then took the experience a step further. He told us of what was to be, what wasn’t, and - I’ve already said too much…
I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but as the night went on, we were all wearing the fox stoles and Tom had on a top hat. And it was perfectly normal. We discussed life, cars, the exciting life of SP, and other topics of the realm of early morning hours. I looked at my watch; it was 3:40 AM. McKenzie was being picked up in an hour for his flight back to Kentucky, I had church at 10:30, and I still had to drop Tom off at his cousin’s house. So, we said our goodbyes and parted ways. I dropped Tom off, went home, and took a short nap before church.
SP Smoking Weekend is one to live on throughout the ages. We danced, we drank, and we partied. We made friendships, met celebrities, and, for a spell, became the SP Entourage (no offense to the original SP “Brotourage”). We danced in a library, partied at local dives, conversed in the Club, and chilled in fox furs and top hats till early Sunday morning.
To those who were a part of this production, I thank you for one hell of a shindig. To those who were a part of the entourage, I thank you for the fellowship. And to Cooper, I thank you for being a visionary.
To Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Civility,
A Charlestonian Bon Vivant