The Trove: djassi daCosta johnson
May 26, 2011

Mrs. Verini: djassi daCosta johnson, 2 months pregnant.

djassi daCosta johnson adores her “ridiculously amazing family.”  It is in the haven of their embrace and the freedom of their trust that she’s been able to move fearlessly through her life. Her educator parents Awolowo and Orundun, of whom she speaks reverentially, anointed their eldest daughter with the nom de guerre of revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, (Abel) Djassi. Brought together by “the Movement,” the former SNCC worker and the former Black Panther secretary instilled in their four children a sense of activism, pride of heritage, hunger for knowledge, love of movement and spiritual grounding.

When we first met, djassi was a Bantu-knotted, hoodie-rocking Essence magazine intern rapturously in love with her tween sister, Yaya. An admitted “fool for a party,” the fly Virgo moved fluidly between the worlds of academia, professional dance, media and the clubs. More than fifteen years later she feels “blessed to have found my best friend in my little sister,” is planning graduate study and enjoying a dance career that has taken her around the globe, expanded her notions of her art and paved the way for marriage and motherhood.

I spent a recent afternoon with the new mom, her husband Corrado and their delightful daughter, Mirahl in their Brooklyn home as they prepared to summer in his native Rome. Sipping wine, we marveled over the body’s tremendous capacity for healing. Awed by the “wondrous abilities of the human body,” djassi the dancer bowed to djassi the mother. “I always thought I knew my body so well. I’m so proud of what it’s done and what it can do, but then I was also humbled by its limits,” she said recalling the arduous journey of Mirahl’s birth. Her infant warrior woman is a testament to the “strength that humans have and the will to survive.”

After a “normal” pregnancy, a love-filled karaoke baby shower and the full expectation that she, a mind-bogglingly fit woman would move through a water birth with relative ease, life-threatening complications arose. For 42 drug-free hours she labored, but sensing something was “off,” she resisted the urge to push and her midwife took heed. It was discovered that pushing risked strangulation of the baby by the twice-wrapped umbilical cord around her neck as well as uterine rupture and severe hemorrhage for djassi who inexplicably presented with Placenta Increta. Mirahl arrived via emergency Caesarean. Her name hints at the miraculous and its Turkish definition, “little gazelle” befits the daughter of a dancer/choreographer. In homage to Corrado’s grandmother Vera and djassi’s grandmother Lucille, Mirahl carries two middle names, Vera Lu.

Little Mirahl was born December 28, 2010.

Besotted with their baby girl, dja and Corrado are grateful for djassi’s protective intuition and honored by Mirahl’s having chose them. “My parents were very affectionate, I felt one hundred percent unconditionally loved,” djassi muses. “I hope I can pass that on.”

The striking DaCosta Johnson family: Orundun and Awolowo; first-born Mamadou, youngest Djani and…

Camara Yaya and djassi Camara, then and now. Their shared name Camara, means “comrade.”

The Johnson children were all educated in the Montessori tradition, at St. Michael’s where their mother taught. Djassi recalls getting “mommy practice” with Yaya and Djani (eight and ten years younger) when her mom spent summers away in Ohio pursuing Master’s studies in Montessori.  Mrs. DaCosta Johnson would eventually open Central Harlem Montessori, “the only accredited Montessori School in Harlem and the least expensive one in NYC for sure,” djassi says proudly.  Now retired, her dad was a Professor of Sociology at several New York City colleges. “My parents were very clear about being cognizant of our history and the importance of education as not just a privilege but a responsibility.” At the behest of their father, who valued his upbringing in New Haven, each of the children attended high school on the wooded campus of Northfield Mount Hermon in Western Massachusetts and went on to matriculate in the Ivies: Penn (Mamadou) Barnard (djassi) Brown (Yaya) and Cornell (Djani) Djassi is grateful for her father’s vision. “Aside from the obvious academic intensity and advantage it gave me in applying for and understanding the purpose of college, I really had such a formative experience living away from home…I don’t think I would have ever run track, swam, worked on a farm, or really seen myself as a multi-faceted individual. Boarding school let me grow into my own skin at my own pace and feel free to just be. As an adolescent that was priceless.”

Developing sound minds and bodies, the Johnson siblings excelled both academically and athletically. “We were always encouraged to be physical by nature, taught how fun it was to challenge and stretch the body’s capabilities. We grew up doing gymnastics, capoeira, all of us dance — my brothers are shamefully talented despite their lack of interest in training. I had school and ballet and modern classes all week and was able to ‘study’ the house and break-dance culture on the weekends. There are still guys who call me out when I’m uptown like, Ain’t you ‘Dou’s little sister who won that battle spinning on her head way back in da day?”

A 1970’s anti-nukes rally: “I want to GROW not GLOW.” And grow she did into an awesome command of her body.

Her parents have been on the board of DanceBrazil for most of her life. “Growing up, around and backstage with a dance company was amazing,” she says. Her first stage appearance was at age six: a samba with the company in “Orfeu Negro” at Riverside Church.

Junior high was pivotal. She chose as her Phys Ed elective, the dance class of Melvin Jones. The former Alvin Ailey dancer taught the Horton and Graham techniques. Through his instruction, she was ahead of the curve when she auditioned for and was accepted into the Ailey scholarship program years later.

“After boarding school I was hungry to get back to NYC and dance.” Yet she shunned the academic pursuit of dance. A local school would allow her to both train with Ailey and study English and Anthropology.  “A women’s college seemed empowering to me. With alumnae like Zora, Katherine and Twyla, I knew Barnard would be perfect.” Her nine-page appeal to overturn a denied housing grant was successful and though her parents lived only 23 blocks away, she was awarded housing for four years.

She initially found anthropology “daunting and too focused on the other,” but eventually realized that “there is a future in Anthro for participant-observers such as myself, that the preservation of culture can be enacted by those within rather than some extraneous observer.” This will be the crux of her graduate exploration. “I see ways to give back through my art.”

Among her impressive credits (view them and her performance reel at Dancer’s Pro) is her phenomenal performance in Moses Pendleton’s Passion.  A cornerstone of the MOMIX repertoire, Passion is a highlight of djassi’s eight-year tenure touring internationally with the company.

The mind-blowing Passion ribbon solo.

When djassi joined MOMIX, she and technical director/lighting designer, Corrado Verini, “gravitated to each other during after-show dinner to discuss the world, both yearning to talk about something besides dance,” she says.  On an Amsterdam tour they sparked an intense, see-each-other-on-tour, long-for-each-other-off-tour relationship. “We had cultural, linguistic, generational, not to mention the American/Italian, Black/White dichotomies that we both had to get over somehow.  We weren’t convinced right away that we were ready to deal with all of the work that loving each other might entail.” Nevertheless, “it was undeniable for both of us that there was something that kept bringing us back together.” In a yellow silk dress of her own design, djassi wed Corrado in August 2008 in Rome.

dja love.

“Soho Moods,” Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome.  Photo © Nina Contini Melis.

Apart from dance, she’s tapped into other aspects of her creativity through acting, writing (contributing to the book Transculturalism and TRACE magazine) and fashion.  Frequently complimented on garments she’d whip up, she during a tour break in 2001, created a 32-piece collection dubbed the eponymic dja. She sold the line at fairs in Rio and New York.  Inspired by her love of adornment, she has more recently launched the easier-to-produce earring line, Flights of Fancy by dja.

As Calpurnia in an Italian production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: A.T. Ambrosini

Optical party dress and Flights of Fancy earrings by dja.

As a brisk stroll through nearby Prospect Park rocked Mirahl to sleep, djassi spoke of “spoiling” their winter baby “with Italian summer love at the sea and countryside of Rome.”  Happy for my friends and smitten with their slumbering infant I bade the Johnson-Verini family farewell and buon viaggio.

Il tesoro trovato di djassi:

1. Fame (the 1980 movie.) “My father took me to see it when I was six and I made him sit through it twice. I was like ‘I wanna do THAT!’ I look back on the movie now and realize there were some really adult themes, it wasn’t a movie about dance and fairies. But I was pretty clear that I could be an artist at six years old, so there you go.”

The “Fame” trailer.

2. Aperitivo.  “I have always loved a good glass of wine and 9 years of bartending in New York gave me the opportunity to really understand it.  One of the things I love about Italian ‘time’ as it relates to food is the concept of aperitivo, the precursor to dinner.  In the best bars in Rome and Milan one can go, relax, pay for a glass of wine and feast on the ‘buffet’ offerings.”

“No matter where I am, I rarely have a night without an aperitivo.” Wine photo by Sara Rosso.

3. Languages.  At 28 she lived in Brazil with Yaya and learned Portuguese by immersion. On a tour in Spain, “I got my Spanish better with that guy,” she says gesturing toward Corrado, “He speaks it really well.” After having traveled and toured as an American, she knows that rudimentary English is spoken most everywhere. “So you take it for granted,” she says. “But I find that you get so much more respect by speaking the language and you can really break down so many more barriers by how you speak the language… to take on the culture and the understanding of how people speak the language because of the culture. My sister and I really assimilated into Brazilian life and took on the accent.  A similar thing happened with Italian while living in Italy. I still have a long way to go to perfecting my Português and my Italiano but the ‘way’ I speak fools people and so I learn that much more from each exchange…and the languages are actually very similar. Many words are the same, it’s just ‘sung’ a little differently.”

4. New Year’s Eve in Rio. She’s spent it there a few times with Yaya. “The most meaningful, beautiful, spiritual New Year’s Eves ever!” Once they spent it on the roof of singer Elza Soares‘ Copacabana house, looking down on the glorious sight of the white-clad Carioca multitudes making water offerings to Yemanja. 

Ano Nove: “It’s pretty special. I can’t wait ’til the next one we are able to make.”

5. Dancing With My Family. “You can’t take the six of us anywhere with good music and some space because we all love to partner dance. We are all Salsa-proficient improvisers.  My dad made sure the girls could follow and the boys could lead. Holidays are three couples on the dance floor or a few of us dancing while the others play the congas, bell and berimbau…and my mom can lead a good funga anywhere.”

The Sisters Johnson get their dance on.

6. Hats.  She often tops her look with one of the many chapeaux she’s collected in her travels.

Some faves include Trilbys from Spain, select vintage and a conical spire from Chile.

7. High Heels.  “I looove a good pair of heels, and I love to get good bargains on them. One of my favorite pairs is from El Mundo on 145th and Broadway near where I grew up. They are gorgeous.”


“Don’t they just make you want to Salsa?Carlos by Carlos Santana pumps.

8. Fearlessness. “Without that concept in my life I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done. From thinking I could make a career of dance to traveling the world–something I wanted to do, but do with a purpose to meeting Corrado through work and believing in following my heart.”

Holiday Island, the Maldives.

9. Oasi Naturista di Capocotta. She loves the freedom of the nudist oasis in Rome. “I used to be a bit prudish about my breasts and then I realized I had to shed my Western issues and embrace my origins on this European beach. They have the most amazing restaurant with people eating on silver plates with huge wine glasses in different arrays of nakedness. It’s one of my favorite places to go in the summer.”

Easy atmosphere and the freshest catch.

10. gDiapers. “I just couldn’t fathom that in 2011, I should be complacent,” knowing that conventional disposables degrade in 500 years. “How is that responsibly leaving my child a planet she can thrive on?” An Earth-friendly diaper hybrid, gDiapers feature inserts (either washable cloth or flushable, biodegradable disposables) to absorb waste.  The new gMom has become an ardent brand evangelist: “no rashes, sooo much less waste and the refills break down in 50 days!” With an in-house washer during her Roman sojourn she’ll use the cloth option exclusively.

Good for the baby, good for Gaia (and they appeal to Mommy’s fashion sensibilities.)

The Trove: Lloyd Boston
September 9, 2010

LB, unbuttoned elegance.  Become a fan on Facebook.  Photo: Robert Tardio


Sure he’s poised, handsomely photogenic and genially telegenic, delivering doses of friendly, practical style advice to the masses, but it’s not just fashion knowledge Lloyd Boston is dropping, it’s the well-timed bons mots that get me every time (and I’ve worked with him on various projects for years.) Irreverence sans commonplace industry snark; his witticisms never jab at the individual, but rather make a clever pop culture reference.  While taping an episode of NY Emmy-nominated, Closet Cases (on which I was wardrobe supervisor) featuring a woman planning a B’nai Mitzvah for her twins, there were for technical reasons, several takes on one scene. When Lloyd (after a few takes of getting it right) pronounced the word B’nai, with the long i sound rather than the long a, the woman corrected him.  Without skipping a beat he quipped, “b’neigh, b’nigh, cut me some slack, I’m not Sammy.”  Irreverent, yes, but not mean.  It provided much-needed levity toward the end of a long shooting day and no offense was taken.

I was often amazed by his uncanny ability to remain as fresh, energetic and characteristically quick-witted at 1 am as he had been at 6 am call. Though he has plenty to share with his well-written, accessible style guides, he comes alive on-screen.  The camera loves him and so do those who work with him.  He is courteous to all and quick to shine light on the efforts of his crew — he gives credit wherever credit is due.  He embodies Gemini’s duality: professional and driven, yet knows how to relax; confident yet surprisingly shy.  He is an impeccable gentleman, his mama raised him right.

That unpretentiously gorgeous mother, Lynell raised her only child in New Brunswick, New Jersey and sent him to Catholic Schools. Perhaps the wearing of uniforms for most of his early life indoctrinated him in the classic silhouettes that he still favors, while the introduction to men’s fashion magazines in the eighties taught him to tweak them with style.

He was a Fine Arts student at the historically Black Morehouse College when he crossed paths with Tommy Hilfiger at a mall appearance. Dressed for the occasion, he waited patiently amid the 200 or so young people waiting for an autographed duffel bag and then proceeded to proffer his advice on strengthening the collection to the celebrated designer. “Shocked by my moxie,” but impressed with his vision, Hilfiger “offered me an internship on the spot.”  The Morehouse Man returned to his home state, transferring to Rutgers University at the end of the semester to get that internship.  Hilfiger so believed in him that he paid for his last year of college and for the next ten years Lloyd grew with and helped guide the look of the brand. When he left, with Tommy’s blessings and goodwill, to transition into his current career, he was Vice President of Art Direction for the Hilfiger company.

In the years since, his trajectory has been stellar: authoring four style books, one with his illustrations; covering NY Fashion Week and all the major red carpet events: Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes as a fashion correspondent and hosting television programs as a fashion/lifestyle authority.  Since 2007, he has been the exclusive “style guy” for mega-brand Jones New York–their first male spokesperson–representing the company’s many brands and sharing his “less is modern” style philosophy at appearances across the country.

On an episode of Closet Cases, Lloyd and closet designing marvel, Carey Evans show his mom Lynell her new closet makeover.

Working as Style Editor last summer on Lloyd’s fourth book was an absolutely delightful experience.  No melodrama, just experienced people doing what they do in a relaxed yet efficient manner.  Fantastic photographer Robert Tardio’s equanimity and genuine good nature paralleled Lloyd’s. The fruit of that labor, The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials for You, launched this week. Look for personal nods from each of us: a hoodie from Lloyd’s alma mater; Robert’s favorite Montblanc pen and my Grandma’s ornate sterling lipstick holder. The book presents a list of Lloyd’s suggested classics for the well-dressed woman’s closet.  With 100 entries, there truly is something for every woman.  Knowledgeable about fashion history, Lloyd shares the genesis of each item and its ultimate ascent into the pantheon of wardrobe essentials– the why and how it works.  A mix of garments and accessories from affordable to luxury brands (with, I am proud to say, several African-American designers represented) in Robert’s lush, artful still-lifes, The Style Checklist looks like a coffee table book, but its diminutive size allows for portability–even more so on Amazon Kindle. The book is a go-to, carry-along guide that should stand the test of time.

The latest from Lloyd:  The Style Checklist.

Check his appropriately well-designed website LloydBoston.com, to learn more about his illustrious career and view his on-air clips.

Exclusive to LloydBoston.com, The LB Signature Tote.

Now that he’s bi-coastal, pursuing television hosting opportunities in Los Angeles and admittedly enjoying So Cal weather, I have yet another well-appointed LB home to visit–the Brooklyn duplex, the suburban Jersey idyll and now the Hollywood loft. I managed to catch up with my intensely scheduled friend recently and I’m glad to present his top ten:

1. The Color Orange. “Whenever I look at a true, juicy shade of orange—I just smile inside (sometimes outside too).  I love a pop of it on an outfit, a shot of it on my dinner plate, a cool painting, a hip home accessory, you name it.  I think everyone has a color that does this for them.  Harnessing it brings a little joy to your life for cheap.”
Color bible to the design industry, Pantone has provided color standards for over 45 years.

2. A Good Crab Cake. “My mom’s are clearly the best! (get her recipe at JNY.com) If out and about, I run to Houston’s, Legal Sea Foods or Oceanaire for the best chain restaurant versions. The trick at any restaurant is in asking if there is any bread in the crab cake.  The moment they say no, I am all in!”

Crab cake perfection at The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Dallas.  Photo: Steven Doyle.

3. Stubbs and Wooton slippers. “My velvet versions with the sitting Buddha have gotten me countless, literally countless, compliments.  I can wear them with anything from chinos and a white button down shirt, to a tux.  They travel light, and keep me feeling chic on days when it’s hard to pull it all together.”
From the Stubbs & Wootton bespoke collection.

4. New Year’s in Brazil. “I visited Rio for New Year’s Eve once, and went back four more years in a row.  Sexy, spiritual, and so much fun!  I love the people, the food, the architecture, and especially the easy lifestyle.  This is one little jewel that American culture hasn’t totally invaded.  And that is refreshing when you really want to get totally away.”

The white-robed throngs on Copacabana Beach.

5. Laura Mercier Lip Silk.  “Yes, it runs you $20, but it lasts you forever.  Once you leave those $3 drugstore brands for this, you will never go back.  It is marketed for women—but is perfect for guys who don’t want shiny lips.  It holds nearly all day too.  I literally have one in every bag.”

This lip treatment from Laura Mercier Skin Care, exfoliates, hydrates and softens.

6. J.Crew. “I could spend hours in J.Crew.  It is like they are designing just for me.  I am preppy at my core, but love an ethnic or bohemian twist on top of all of my stiffness.  They strike the perfect balance these days.  I can sometimes fit a few of the women’s XL t-shirts too.  They are much softer than the mens’.  Don’t sleep, guys.”

From JCrew.com, a look for fall.

7. The Vitamix Pro Blender.  “I love juicing, but hate the clean up.  I invested in the Vitamix and it changed me.  I try to start the day with an organic green drink a few days a week, and this allows you to get the juice and the pulpy fiber.  The clean up is so easy too—that I have no excuse to not be healthy (at least for the first meal.)”

Lloyd marvels over the efficient power of the Vitamix: “You can literally liquefy a shoe on these blades!”

8. Michael Kors Menswear.  “He could dress me every day all day.  The lifestyle he translates through his collections is what I dream of living one day.  From après ski to cocktails on a terrace in Capri—I dream big when I see his vision for men. We are friendly, and I love him as a person (and personality) too.”

From the Michael Kors Fall 2010 ad campaign.

9.  Spa as Sport. “I am a total spa junkie.  I love spending time in L.A. for this addiction, as there are reputable massage spots on every corner.  From a quick chair massage at Whole Foods, to a power 90 minute Deep Tissue almost anywhere—I am in heaven.  I travel about 20-30 cities a year on average, so these bones need reviving more and more lately.”

“I could literally get rubbed down daily.”

10. Biographies of Any Kind.  “Books, TV shows, documentaries, you name it.  I love stories about successful people, tragic folk, decade long romances, the works. The entrepreneurial ones really hit home.  I love when someone you admire shares all the victories and pitfalls—and you actually can count the similarities in yourself.  Those moments make me feel connected to a tribe of winners.  And all my dreams seem less crazy.”

The biography of Barack Obama shown at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.