Look sharp: Flatbush fashion mixes African and American styles

INNER city style: You won't find it in a department store window or the pages of a magazine. You have to go to the street - one like Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue, a five-mile-long commercial strip running through mainly black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

There you'll find Rastafarian women, their ``dreadlocks'' covered by long, knitted caps; high school girls in black leather jackets, gold nameplates dangling from their ears; businesswomen in elegant suits and heels; and women pushing strollers, wearing stretch denims and wild oversized sweatshirts.

You'll also find women mixing high style and African style. It shows in the big, bold-colored jackets worn over long skirts. In the African style, leather toques top tightly upswept hair or braiding as elaborate as a headdress.

But whatever the particular look, inner city style is surprisingly formal. Your apartment may be cramped, your furniture down-at-the-heel - but when you show up on the street, look sharp. Because when you're on the street, you're being observed.

And on Flatbush, everyone is a fashion expert, especially teen-agers. ``Coats,'' pronounces Zahra Alves, 14, ``in mustards, greens, and purples. And everybody wears hats - bicycle caps or hats with strips of fur or African material.''

``Skirts have to be at least a couple of inches below the knee,'' says her sister, Chiriga, who's 13. ``The mini isn't appropriate.''

``You gotta make sure your pants bag down at the bottom,'' advises 14-year-old Yanira Velardo, lifting a long leg to demonstrate. ``Or you can fold them up. You wear them with flats,'' she says, flexing her feet in patent leather ones with bows.

But what the stylish residents here really want to talk about is hair. Hair is the obsession on Flatbush, where there are more hair salons than a gentrified area has gourmet food stores. Video monitors in salon windows show the latest braiding techniques, and free-lance hair stylists hand out cards on street corners.

There's a dizzying variety of styles: upsweeps of curls, cornrows, chignons, bobs, ponytails, and braids, sometimes shot through with gold or a stripe of red.

Especially among the young, there's braiding fever. ``I like a fish-bone braid,'' says Yanira. ``I like my bun,'' says Ro-Ro Ortiz, 23, who has yard-long hair she highlights with gold, ``but I also like box braids,'' tiny braids made along the scalp - cornrows - in the shape of a box.

``I can't do my own braids,'' she continues, ``though I can do my daughter's. I go to a friend or to a salon - and that can cost 50, 60 dollars.''

Chris Davis, who owns a beauty salon on nearby Nostrand Avenue, has hired a braider. ``It takes from three to five hours to do braiding,'' says Ms. Davis. ``People like it, partly because it stays in for a month. But most people still want a body wave,'' she says, indicating the young woman whose hair she's styling. ``This is a popular style, cropped on the sides, curly on top, like that singer, what's her name?''

``Anita Baker,'' puts in D. McLean, who identifies himself as the shop's kibitzer. ``And that punk style is popular,'' he indicates - ```The Fade,''' which is cut flat on top, a bit full on the sides, then ``fading'' (gradually coming closer) to the hairline.

On weekends, all the local salons are packed. ``I'm generally here way after midnight,'' says Davis, ``sometimes till three or four in the morning.''

The devotion to style isn't all pleasure, and it takes a good deal of time, as Asa Jones, a three-year-old Flatbush resident, is finding out. After recently being turned away from a friend's door because she wasn't ``ready yet'' to play - her bath still had to be taken, her hair braided, her outfit assembled - Asa called on another friend, Crystal, Ro-Ro's three-year-old daughter.

Crystal looked fine to Asa when she appeared at the door in scruffy jeans and T-shirt, her sandy-colored hair loose - but not to her grandmother.

Asa waited. When Crystal's grandmother sent her sailing forth a mere 40 minutes later - her face freshly scrubbed, hair beautifully braided, wearing an oversized denim jacket and colorful sneakers - in Flatbush terms, she was ready.

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