He’s gone from personal assistant to become hip hop’s premier gent. Now, our favorite fashion icon talks to Clutch about his new book, Advance Your Swagger (Villard), and tells us what it takes to get to the next level in style.
Clutch: You gained notoriety for being Diddy’s personal assistant, but you have a quite impressive background—graduating from Morehouse with a BS in Biology and then attending New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. What made you go into the personal assistant route?
I knew I needed to go to NY—they say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere—and I worked in the restaurant business for two and a half years. I love music; I love hip hop, so my thing was, if I could be a personal assistant to a mogul, then I could see firsthand how he micromanages all of these different businesses. It didn’t matter if I worked for Jay Z, Russell Simmons, Dame Dash . . . I didn’t really care. I wanted to be able to see how someone micromanaged their time and how they get things done on a very high level, and is passionate about all of these different genres, and Diddy’s one of the best that ever did it.
Clutch: Fonzworth Bentley is not your real name—what’s the story behind it?
You know, with any new job you get a nickname. That’s kind of the way it goes . . . especially in hip hop. I remember my first day on the job, Sean was walking me through all of the closets, and I had some shades stuck in my sweater. So he asked me to show him how I wear my shades. Before, I was taking notes, he was showing me through the house, showing me where everything was. I took that as a moment to perform. And I told him . . . well, I can show you better than I can tell you—but I did this little Loon look with my shades on, you know, very swaggeristic. And he looked at me and was like, “You’re like a Bootley Lee Farnsworth type of dude,” and his homeboy fell out laughing. So we then got on a bus for twenty-two hours from New York to Miami, and I was on there with all these producers. So Puff’s in the back with the big bed, and we’re in the front. His boy Dinero kept calling me Fonzworth, and by the time I got to Miami, that was my freaking name—and I hated it. Bentley came when we got to Miami. Diddy was doing a lot of business dinners, and this was an area where I can really shine, because I was a maÃ®tre d’. So instead of the being like the other assistants saying, “I’ll wait in the car or I’ll go back to the hotel room,” I would be there to provide service. I wanted to hear the negotiation; I wanted to hear what’s going on. I wanted to see who he’s leaning on harder, who he falls back on, what level of respect he has for everybody at the table, and how he gets his deals done. When we would walk into restaurants, I knew the managers name, the table number, everything. So Dinero looked at me and said, “Bentley . . . Fonzworth Bentley,” because of my attention to detail.
Clutch: You went from being a personal assistant to being a part of the most creative labels, G.O.O.D. Music. How did you link up with Kanye, and what can we expect from your upcoming album? I had done this interlude on Da Band’s album called “Cheers to Me,” and I distinctly walked into the 4040 Club, and Jay Z said, “I liked your flow on Da Band’s album,” and was like wow . . . can I quote you on that? So that very next day I got a call from Kanye West, and I didn’t know him. He said, “Yo, I like your flow, and I really want to go into the studio and do your whole album.” And I told him—Dog, I’m really not doing an album, but I appreciate the compliment. I did it because I just wanted to set the record straight that I wasn’t an assistant anymore, but if I see you in the street and you have your demo, I know some cool people in the industry and I might be able to help you out. And he was like, “I really think you should consider it.” So I got off the phone with him and I called my homeboy from middle school, Dre—people know him as Andre 3000—and I told him I had gotten this amazing compliment, and I didn’t really know where to begin? I know I’m a violinist, and I love music, and he told me to just go in the studio and have fun. I’m so glad that I asked him instead of some of these A&Rs who try to tell you what you are, how you need to sound, and try to put you in a box. I recorded two songs, and Kanye called me for his tour when he was opening for Usher. I played him the two songs and he was sold. At this time, I was doing really good work at Access Hollywood, and they were directing me toward Good Morning America, which were phenomenal opportunities. But I’ve always been into challenges—I think most renaissance men and women are into challenges—and I had a passion for music. I loved the idea of doing it, so I started recording and just fell in love and got lost in it. And that’s how it happened. I shot a video, and you should be seeing that within the next two months. It’s really exciting; I’m a music video fanatic, everyone knows that. So me doing my first video, it had to be right.
Clutch: Your new umbrella line is creating quite a buzz. When do you plan to launch?
I definitely am still working on the umbrella. It’s funny how this game is; you’ll be at a party just having a conversation with somebody cool at the bar, next thing you know, they happen to work for People magazine; and that’s how it came out in People that I was working on umbrellas. It was really something I wanted to keep on the low. In reality, it’s a dirty game . . . some people trademarked my name; I could trademark your name and own you right now! I’ve since gotten my name and everything back. So in 2008 you should be seeing them.
Clutch: Lots of people don’t know that you had a major role in helping Diddy upgrade his image and wardrobe. We have also spotted you on more than a few red carpets lately as a fashion correspondent/expert. In your opinion, what are some fashion trends do you foresee popping up in 2008? What fashion trend or fad do you wish women and men would just let die?
HOODIES, HOODIES, HOODIES, HOODIES, HOODIES, HOODIES, HOODIES. They need to just let them go! I mean, how many different hoodies with prints can you do? And as far as where I see fashion going, for men’s clothing you’re going to see the made to measure business really boom. The exclusivity, the well-fitting garments will become that much more important. For ladies, I think it’s the real old school glamour. I don’t see a lot of ladies with pearls, but that’s an accessory that is very elegant and simple—every woman should have a set.
Clutch: Who are some of your favorite clothing designers? Do you know of any up and coming designers we should be checking for?
Kanye’s been showing me a lot what he’s doing with his pastel line . . . I’m really excited about that. A favorite designer—Jay Kos, a haberdashery on the Upper East Side. Very nice Italian made goods. I also like what Tom Ford is doing; I really like his ads. . . . they evoke emotion.
Clutch: We are in love with your new book Advance Your Swagger? Why did you decide to write it?
Actually the CFO of Random House reached out, I think probably because of me raising my profile and being known as a gentleman and a stylish guy. He wanted me to do a book about taking your career further. I thought that would be cool—people obviously know I’d started as an assistant, and I’ve gone on to act in movies, I’ve been a fashion correspondent for Access Hollywood, but what I thought what the culture really needed was a book on etiquette. That’s how I came up with the title Advance Your Swagger. We all kind of know swagger . . . I came up with that title two and a half years ago, by the way, and swagger was not heard like that two and a half years ago . . . if you go back into your memory bank. But I know that swagger is something my culture really gets, and I knew that Random House would understand. I pitched thirty different titles and none of them would work. So I was going about it all the wrong way. So I said, “ What is a word that both Random House gets and my culture gets?” And that’s when the word swagger came up—it had the right ring. If I asked you to define swagger, you might say a way about you, the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you dress; but if I really had to give a definition for swagger it would be a formula: Manners + Confidence + Style = Swagger.
Clutch: Which part of the book do you think people should take notice of and why?
Probably the epilogue dealing with haters. Because when you get your swagger right, that’s when haters are going to show up! I think very often not only do we let other people put us in a box, but we as individuals have a tendency to put ourselves in a box. We let others define who we are and what we need to be, and we need to think outside that box as far as evolving ourselves. I look at my girlfriend [Actress, Faune A. Chambers] as a prime example. She was at Spelman College, and was asked to go on Michael Jackson’s worldwide HIStory tour, and was a huge dancer. She went on to work with J. Lo, and decided one day, “You know what, I’m not going to be able to do this in my thirties, so I have to advance my swagger.” She then took acting classes, and the last two films she’s been in have been number one. She was in White Chicks, Epic Movie, and just finished up a movie with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt. So you know, that’s something to say . . . she could’ve let people tell her, “You’re a dancer. You need to stay in your world and do choreography.” But she decided to see herself as something else.
Clutch: Manners and etiquette are rarely talked about in our community. Why do you think it’s important for people, especially African Americans, to care about how they behave and present themselves to others?
I’ve learned that if people feel comfortable around you, and you respect yourself and respect others, you’ll always go far. And people want to be around people like that, and people always want to help folks like that. It’s not just about you being comfortable in your own skin, it’s about people being comfortable around you, and it can open doors. I distinctly remember being at an affair, and because I had on a hand tied bowtie, I ended up talking to the president of a major film studio for about twenty-five minutes, because he walked up to me and he really liked my bowtie. Everybody else in the room didn’t know who I was, but I was talking to the biggest guy in the room. I ended up doing fantastic business with five other people there just because they were trying to figure out what I was on! It was a black tie event, and yeah, I could’ve worn a black suit and a white shirt—and I’ve seen people at black tie affairs, funk it up, wear a black suit with black denim jeans—but I was elegantly dressed, and proper for the occasion. I think we should always know what to wear for the occasion. You can’t wear what you wear to the beach, to church. You can’t wear what you wear to the MTV Movie Awards to an interview at Lehman Brothers. Know what to do in the proper occasion.
Clutch: Atlanta is your hometown, what are some of your favorite restaurants and shopping areas to browse when you’re back home?
When I’m home, the best restaurant is either my mama’s kitchen or my uncle Fred’s kitchen, which is in Columbus, Georgia—about two and a half hours south of Atlanta. And those are the hardest reservations in town. As far as boutiques, I like Blue Genes—I like the ladies who run that, a mother and daughter team, I always like to go to Ralph Lauren at Lenox [Square] Mall, because I worked there for a year and a half. I also like the original Jeffrey in Phipps Plaza.
Clutch: Besides fashion, music and etiquette, do you have any other interest or hobbies you enjoy?
Hang gliding and alligator wrestling! I really like classical music. When I get a chance, like to get dressed and go to the symphony to hear live, symphonic music.
Clutch: One last question, between you and Kanye, who has the better swagger and style?
I don’t think that you can say that ‘Ye or myself have more or less swagger. We both have our own individual swagger. He does what he does better than anybody, and I feel comfortable with how I’m put together and how my manners hold up at the same time.