Jon Cope on the Clash of Old Richmond Attitudes and The New Influence

by | Jun 29, 2023 | FASHION, PHOTOGRAPHY

It was a breezy night, and I was happy to be wearing the sale-rack blazer from Macy’s. I walked back out to the middle of 2nd Street to see if the Apollo roach I flicked was still there. It was gone or I couldn’t see it.

My editor asked me to write about RVA Fashion Week and here I am thinking how in the hell was I going to write an article about any of this? I am a tourist.

Usually, if I find myself out of my element, I just allow the story to write itself. Most of the time I get by, but sometimes it can get a little squirrelly. 

Two doors to the Hippodrome opened and a man wearing a black blazer decorated with safety pins strolled up with some ladies in evening gowns. There were wire teardrop shapes hanging off of each of the eye length braids dancing around his orange lensed sunglasses. He was also wearing a gold neckpiece. Somewhat smaller, but very similar to the coiled brass rings the Ndebele women of southwestern Zimbabwe wear to stretch their necks. He asked me if I would take their picture as they posed under the floodlights. He pointed to where they wanted to stand. I obliged. He handed me one of the girls’ phones. As they struck different poses, I noticed the tall, bearded black man who had asked me to take the photos was wearing a metal body harness over a long, black, sleeveless, double-thigh-high-split dress paired with strappy heels underneath the safety pinned blazer. 

I needed to know more about this man. 

After a few more pictures I handed the phone back. 

“Who the heck are you” I asked.

He extended his hand. “Jon Cope” he said.

Jon Cope interview by Ryan Kent 2023
Photo courtesy of Jon Cope

Jon Cope was the person I was going to have this conversation with. I lit a cigarette. 

A couple of weeks later we met on a patio for coffee to have a talk about fashion in Richmond, Virginia. Jon is toned and thin like a competitive sprinter. He’s 6’4 and looks like a relative of Leon Robinson (or simply, Leon). He was “Derice Bannock” in Cool Runnings and “Shep” in Above the Rim. Jon was carrying a wicker basket and wearing the same neck accessory that he had on for the awards gala. He told me it came from a store in Shockoe Bottom called Adiva Naturals. He said he also had a silver one. The basket reminded me of some of the vintage purses I’ve seen for sale at Bygones, but I didn’t ask Jon where it came from.

Besides knowing Jon’s name already and his social media information, I knew next to nothing about this man besides what was available on the internet. I also know nothing about Richmond fashion and wouldn’t consider myself a connoisseur of fashion even in a broader sense on a good day. I figured I’d met a new friend in Jon and would at least be privier to the local fashion scene. 

That’s how I started the conversation. I just said, “Tell me everything.”

“[I am] Jonathan Copeland” he said. “Jon Cope is what people most know me by, especially here in Richmond. I have built a reputation for being a stylist, Creative Director, a host, and just a general cheerleader. I like to tell people, I’m a cheerleader for the fashion community within Richmond. So, I really like to support anything that has to do with supporting designers, photographers, models, anyone who sees [themselves] as a creative in the fashion world. People who are looking to do music for fashion events, or want to just be a part of it, I’m always trying to create connections and elevate anyone’s idea of what it means to experience fashion, and for that matter, life. Fashion to me … literally means what is happening at a certain point in time. I like to always tell people that fashion is everywhere, and I’ve lived here now in Richmond for more than 10 years. So, it’s interesting to pay attention to Richmond fashion, as I’ve lived here and seen how it’s evolved. Especially considering it’s changed, like the landscape, the attitude of Richmond has changed.”

Jon was a military brat. His father was from Richmond, but they lived in NoVa, only coming to Richmond to visit family. Jon spent his formative adolescent years in California, feeling that the core of who he is now was formed there. Jon didn’t much like the Richmond of the past.

“For the most part, I’ve had the opportunity to see Richmond, before it transformed into RVA, as we know it now. My impression of Richmond is gray, I hated it, it was scary. It was Cap City. It was also not sexy, or chic or cute. There had been a lot of the absence of culture of any type of like, life, I feel from what I now understand the history of Richmond to be before that moment in time, which is like 15 years ago. I’d say, in turn, VCU obviously had a hand in changing the landscape of Richmond, which has been nice. 

It’s also been cool to see how Richmond has been addressing its racial past, its racial trauma and mixing of this new world, this new generation right now, the youth from VCU and all the other surrounding universities… It’s been interesting to see this new group coming in and influencing the landscape, but then also the fact that there’s still old money, there’s still [the] old attitudes of Richmond here. You can see where there’s an interesting mesh of people who are trying to rectify trauma that Richmond has, in regard to, all of its race relations. 

Other parts of Richmond [are] kind of either opposed to it or on this fence that’s like trying to grapple with what’s happening – but it’s interesting just to see its growth and overall, I think there’s a progression in just understanding how we as a people can live better together. I think Richmond has been a really interesting example of that, in that sense.”

I asked Jon if he thought the protests in 2020 had anything to do with people in Richmond feeling more open to express themselves in a way they hadn’t before.

“I was just about to say, ‘taking down those monuments.’ I felt a whole new lightness to the city as a whole, like, literally when we think about “taking down a wall” taking down those monuments really opened up a whole new energy to be a part of this area.”

Jon Cope interview by Ryan Kent 2023
Photo by @sequitamyers

I asked if it gave people a sense of freedom to express themselves now that the long-standing Civil War monuments have been removed from Monument Avenue.

“Freedom to have the permission to express themselves because those monuments were signifiers of the fact that you’re not allowed to express yourself. You must contain yourself in the ways that these white people have said that you need to be and now that there’s not that…I think those monuments kept people away and made them feel uncomfortable to come. And now that [the monuments are] gone, there is more of a city that feels comfortable to experience what Richmond is all about, its experience, new areas, and not be confined to themselves. So, the heart of what I’m all about right now, is really allowing ourselves to be limitless. And, you know, I think that was an expression of allowing people to feel limitless in the city and to feel like they can live here and be who they are and that is a beautiful thing to me. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about what’s going on here in Richmond, right now.”

I wanted to know if Jon felt that mentality had spread into other forms of art or expression. If it had allowed others to feel the same?

“Yeah” Jon said. “I feel like the mentality that I’m seeing is allowing for a lot more openness to inclusivity. Especially when it comes to, in particular, I am interested in fashion. So, it’s interesting to see, the variety of people that feel comfortable to express themselves through fashion…Here in Richmond, because of VCU, and the influx of students here – not just VCU, but like, Virginia Union and Virginia State and all of the green colleges that we have are here. This influx of youth is really, revitalizing the fact that we can exist as we are and still conduct ourselves in ways that are community inclusive. Fun and lighthearted and humorous. What I see in fashion is a willingness to be wacky, right now, and it’s interesting to see how Richmond translates that. I feel like we have our own incubator of creatives who are very laid back but also want to be elevated in the sense that – I don’t want to say opulent. I mean, I think that’s more of what I’m looking to do. I like showing the Down to Earth nature of opulence through my style, and I think that’s something that I feel like is what we’re experiencing here in Richmond. People in Richmond are very against pretentiousness. I think that we’re injecting a level of style that doesn’t have the pretentious undertone that other larger cities have, when it comes to style. I think that when we do experience that here in Richmond, we kind of shut it down.”

Jon Cope interview by Ryan Kent 2023
Photo by @astoldbyjacyth

“When it comes to your fashion, how did you adopt what you do” I asked. 

“I think I’ve always had the inclination to be the most limitless version of myself, as I look back on my life now, and how I always have been as a person. I don’t like to be constrained and I do like the effects of provocation. I never really had that opportunity to express it as much as I do now. Now that I’ve also worked a lot to explore my own desires [and] to be as authentic as I possibly can. Especially being a queer person. I’ve always – I feel like in my generation, what we would see of prior generations is closeted men living these lives that are – on the outside it’s the American dream, they have a wife and kids, but they have all these desires on the inside. 

I’ve always tried to answer that question. I’ve always, for me, have seen my interest in femininity as not perverted, like, I feel like other people do, or, you know. It’s not something that weakens me, it’s never been something that weakens me. I’ve always seen women as a source of strength – my mother for one. And two, how feminine nature throughout time has really been such an endearing fact of life. Feminine nature has done so much to make itself known and to become equal to the masculine perspective. That’s been always so fascinating to me. So, exploring how I can use that energy to feel my own being has been my play, and then it’s just kind of naturally gone into clothing. 

Trying to marry the outside with the inside, I think is what I’ve always tried to do. ‘So, how can I do that?’ It’s been an honest exploration of, ‘what does that mean for me?’ What do all these symbols of strength mean to me and how can I exude that for myself so that I can feel secure in myself? That’s what’s led me honestly to be the person that I am. So, regardless of whether I decide to wear women’s clothes later in the future, or not at all anymore, or whatever I choose – whatever type of clothes I choose to wear in the future, that’s the heart of it all. That the marrying goes to masculine and feminine, I think it’s imperative for us all to do to because it makes us whole.”

Jon Cope interview by Ryan Kent 2023
Photo by @photographybylechele

Jon went on to tell me about his love for Grace Jones and Sailor Moon. His love for Jean Grey and the Phoenix saga from the X-Men universe. His love for emo band My Chemical Romance, Rhianna’s lingerie line – Savage X Fenty, and 2000’s Britney Spears. Surprisingly, Jon tells me that he didn’t get a degree in fashion, he didn’t even minor in fashion – Jon got a business degree from Norfolk State. However, he said fashion was always a top priority. Being a history buff, he even took a class on historical costume. 

“I love Jane Birkin” Jon said. “And I love French style and just style, but the je ne sais quoi of French style, like how to access that feel of a French person, right? Because I think that they exude the perfect level of caring about fashion, but not caring about fashion and understanding how fashion plays a role in life and not, you live for fashion. And they do it in a way that’s so intentional and so mindful. That speaks to me because I think that’s what true style is. [It’s] knowing how to intentionally live your life with joy and ‘your life’ – operative words – and Jane Birkin. Most people know her for her ‘Birkin bag’. Most people don’t really know her. It’s funny, when I tell people – [I’m] like, ‘Do you know who she is?’ She’s a super important character in life. And like, nobody knows who she is, do you know who she is?”

Somehow, I remembered Jane Birkin’s name, but it had nothing to do with a Birkin bag or French style.  “Didn’t she do a song with Serge Gainsbourg” I asked.

Je t’aime moi non plus” he said. See, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the film, Blow Up. That was one of her breakout movies. She’s basically like the quintessential French girl. She is that romantic girl that wants to experience life to the fullest without anybody making her do anything and wants to be free. [She] accepts the idea of melancholy in her life. That life’s not always perfect and like deals with it, deals with her emotions and also like, does whatever the fuck she wants, regardless of what a man says she’s supposed to do. She’s trying to live as free as possible, and I think that is what I tried to get to in my life because I can be kind of Type A [laughs]. But in any case, my basket, it’s like Jane Birkin who was mostly famous for, back in the day, for wearing a basket wherever she went. She would go to nightclubs with like a full picnic basket because that was the bag that suited her most for her life and suited her for her style who she wanted to carry. So, she’d wear like sexy, slinky, non-bias dresses, with her basket going to hot Paris clubs of the 60s and 70s.

“And then everyone wanted to carry the basket” I said.

“I don’t know if everyone wanted to, but it’s like, now everyone knows a French woman, I think for having one of these wicker baskets. As you can see [picks up basket] it’s fairly versatile in regard to being worn with everything and not looking cheeky. It’s very down to earth, but it’s so design focused. This is craftsmanship at its finest, but it’s like laid back at the heart of it and it’s functional. So that’s that.”

“When it comes to experiencing fashion, people come to me and are always like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so confident.’ I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m glad that that’s something you feel from me. I think we all have [the] capacity to feel that the way that everyone sees that I feel. When [you and I] met, I feel like my idea of – I will say, I am a social person, but I’m only fashionable because I’m interested in engaging with people, and I feel like our meeting is my ideal way of engaging in fashion. 

It’s not taking photos in front of other people, which is fine. That activity is fun in and of itself. That is not what makes us feel alive about what we’re doing, how we’re portraying ourselves. It comes from the interaction that we have with people. So, I felt like it was great to be in an environment with people that enjoy and expressing themselves. But when it comes down to it, I’m that person that wants to wear a ball gown and go down the street to the hot dog stand and eat that hot dog right there in front of the hot dog man as soon as I get it in my ballgown. I think that’s fashion. I think being able to wear your fashionable shit, wherever should be the norm. We have so much money again. Why are we not wearing it all to its fullest and putting that energy into it? 

So, I think what was beautiful about our night is that we were able to haphazardly meet, because of the way that we looked. We wanted to know more, and we got to know each other more, because we have the same curious nature in people, which is why we gravitated towards each other. I think it’s interesting that people gravitate towards other people. Now we’re having this conversation, which is deep and recharging.”

Jon Cope interview by Ryan Kent 2023
Photo courtesy of Jon Cope

Some time later I sent Jon a text message.

The text said, “If you lit up a room, what color would it be?”

He responded later that night, but I didn’t see his text until the following morning. It said, “Orange…it makes ppl feel more alert and boosts brain power!”

I read Jon’s text a few times. Got dressed and put on my Ray Ban’s because it was bright outside. 

Walked out to the sidewalk and sat down on the curb. I wondered what color I’d light a room up with. The pack of Lucky Strikes in my hand was half empty. I pulled one out and put a flame on the end. Took a long drag and exhaled.

The first, possibly best conversation I’d have all day.  

Give Jon Cope a follow at @imf.adventures

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent is the author of the collections, Poems For Dead People, This Is Why I Am Insane, Hit Me When I'm Pretty, and Everything Is On Fire: Selected Poems 2014-2021. He has also co-authored the poetry collections, Tomorrow Ruined Today, and Some Of Us Love You (both with Brett Lloyd). His spoken word record, Dying Comes With Age, will be released by Rare Bird Books in 2022. Ryan is a staff writer for RVA Magazine and maintains a pack a day habit. (photo by D. Randall Blythe)

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