Photo by Jahmad Balugo
Mordechai Rubinstein (or Mister Mort, as he doesn’t prefer to be called) has spent the last fifteen years capturing what he calls ‘the beauty in the everyday uniform’. Sort of like Bill Cunningham with a smartphone, he documents the real style on the streets of New York (and beyond), from the old men in wide-waled cords to the construction workers in cement-coated hoodies.
This eye for the authentic has led him to do stuff like work as a consultant on the Safdie brothers’ recent stressed-out masterpiece, Uncut Gems—helping to pick out just the right shiny pink shirt for Adam Sandler’s frenetic jeweller—and publish a book on the heavily tie-dyed subculture that surrounds the Grateful Dead.
Thanks to the wonders of modern video-call technology, I had a trans-atlantic sit-down with Mordechai to talk about all these things… and sandals.
Where are you at now? It looks nice.
We’re in southern coastal Maine—a little beach town. We’re in a little cottage that’s got a lot of ants and cob-webs, but it’s across the street from the ocean.
Sounds alright. How come you’re out there? Was it just to get away from New York for a while?
You know, as soon as this shit hit, my wife was like, “Where can we go? What can we do?” And her aunt and uncle have this little place, and they told us we could borrow it—which was really cool of them, because the whole world is crazy.
Definitely. I suppose a lot of people might know you from your photography. When did you start that?
I was working at Kate Spade…
I’ve never heard of her. Was that a shop?
She passed away two years ago, but she was a woman from Kansas—a really cool handbag designer who didn’t give a fuck. She took her boyfriend’s name, Andy Spade, and she started a brand. She was just cool.
I was working at that store in Soho—and Soho was still an outdoor mall back then, but it was still fun—we’d run around on our lunch breaks, smoke weed in the streets and just have lunch on a stoop with no-one bother you.
And I went to a tie factory on a lunch break, and this old Hasidic dude was sleeping in a recliner, and he said, “Look around, tell me what you want, and make an offer.” All the machines had inches of dust on them, they hadn’t made a tie in years. The ties were from the 50s and 60s, dead-stock with no labels—I brought 100 back to the office.
I thought we’d give them away or sell them on eBay or who knows what? And Andy was like, “Let’s make a label, and sell them for Father’s Day.” I called it Mister Mort. Long story short, I never had the nickname Mort, some of my friends now call me that and it drives me crazy. But, there was a 50s label called Mr. Mort which was by this guy Stan Herman. He’s responsible for the Avis rental-car uniform where the women wore pants under the dress… he invented that.
So I took the name Mister Mort and we sold these ties outside the store. We bought a desk, some cheap blinds, a water cooler and a mannequin, and I sat there like it was an office, and people would walk by and I’d offer Father’s Day sartorial advice. It was a joke, but it did really well.
You’re like Ralph then? You started with ties.
That’s right, he’s the jew from the Bronx, I’m the jew from Brooklyn… I mean I wasn’t born in Brooklyn but yeah, I love Ralph.
But what about the photos? What started you taking your shots of people around New York?
Oh yeah, so they gave me a camera. They said, “You need a camera for inventory purposes.” Inventory? I’d give away product to people everyday—so nothing was really in inventory, but they gave me this camera—a Canon Elf, and I used the shit out of that.
Every lunch break I’d go out—the guys that delivered breakfast and lunch in the area—little chicken cutlet on a roll from the corner deli—one of the guys was wearing a tie with British Knight high-tops. He was an old man who’d talk to himself, and I invited him in to stay a while. Eventually I had so many photos that I didn’t know what to do with them, so I started a Flickr account and then I put it on the blogosphere, and yeah… that was it.
What sort of thing were you looking for? What were you trying to photograph?
Well, nothing has really changed. It’s always different. On the Upper East Side it’s suits and ties, in London or Paris or Milan it’s old people. For me it’s the lining of a Burberry check. If I see that plaid I run after it. Or maybe you see someone in all orange or all one colour. I don’t care much about composition. I don’t consider myself a photographer. I shoot on auto and I use my phone a lot. I really just want to share how people dress.
Maybe what you shoot hasn’t changed… but has New York changed at all since you started?
You know, neighbourhoods used to have real style of their own. But fine, things changed. If you’re away from New York for a couple of months, it’s a different city. Or even if you don’t go to the Lower East Side for a month, it’s a different city. You’re like, “Where am I?” It’s changing so, so much. There’s not a New York style anymore, and I think it’s the internet’s fault, but that’s okay—people travel on the internet now.
It’s not that New Yorkers should be tough, or assholes, or mean, but they did have a lot of different looks. But then there are still things, like the black Air Force One, which are very New York. And then the Birkenstock is in every community. We’re in some interesting times.
But the reason I shoot so many of these old dudes is that when they’re gone, I don’t know what I’m going to shoot. Young dudes are pretty boring. With these old dudes who have maybe worn the same Oxford shirt for 20 years and never changed, there’s something exciting about that. It’s so authentic and so real.
It’s that comfort isn’t it? As people get older they find what they like and aren’t as worried about what others are thinking.
Hopefully. I’m still uncomfortable. I get a hat and think, “This is it, I’m going to wear this everyday because I want it to get trashed and sun-faded.” And then two weeks later I’m getting a new hat. What kind of man does that?
So are you taking the photos of these relaxed older men ‘cos that’s what you want to be, rather than worrying about hats and stuff?
Maybe? With suits it’s like that. Maybe it’s because I don’t go to black tie events and if I actually had to wear a suit everyday I’d be miserable, but if I look at those Wall Street guys, I just think it’s so cool. The fact that casual Friday became such a thing, and then the whole world got so casual… it’s sad.
I went to London for Popeye Magazine to find suits, and people were not wearing them. It’s a casual world. And the ones who were wearing suits looked like they were wearing disposable suits.
It’s like that Take Ivy book in the 1960s. Those guys went from Japan to get the photos of ‘Ivy style’, but then all they found were students lazing around in hippy gear and ripped jeans.
I didn’t know that. I like that.
Apparently it was really edited. It took them ages to find anyone wearing the button-down shirts and ‘classic Ivy’ stuff.
Interesting. I want to see the out-takes. That’d be so cool.
Yeah, it’d be interesting to see the reality of it. Going back to your photos… do you ever get much grief for taking them? Sometimes you’re pretty up-close with people.
Yeah, surprisingly it’s only been a couple of times. I was on Madison Avenue and three finance guys were smoking cigarettes on the corner next to a hot-dog stand, and one of them was wearing Belgian loafers. So I said, “Can I get a photo?” I kind of bent down low to take the photo, getting as close to the shoes as I possibly could, and he punched me almost in the face. They throw the cigarette out and walk into the building. They looked back and went, “Seventh floor, come and get me!” The security guard wouldn’t let me up, but I was so pissed. But nothing really happened. Because I have a kid now, I try to behave, but it hasn’t changed much.
You’ve just released a book about the Grateful Dead and the style of the fans. How did that come about?
I was really into Dead clothing, the Dead uniform, and then years later, GQ had me go and shoot a Dead & Co show. I don’t think I even knew what that was, but I was like, “Bob Weir? He’s a legend, I’ll go.”
So I shot the guests going in and out of the stadium and then a friend gave me a ticket, and—oh my god—it really opened my mind. Not to be all cliched and everything, but it was so good. I don’t go to a lot of live shows, but seeing a band live is so special—it’s really cool. You don’t have to drop acid, you don’t have to be under the stars, it feels like it’s intimate, no matter how many people who are there. So I started going to a bunch of shows.
There’s a chef, Matty Matheson, and he was doing a book with Abrams, and he said that his editor was a Deadhead, and he’d want to see my photos. So we did this quick and easy softcover poolside book. You know—sit by the pool, drop a hit of acid, you don’t need to read, just look at the photos and trip out. And that’s how that came about.
I might be wrong but in England I don’t think the Grateful Dead are really that much of a thing like they are in America. Maybe it’s because they were about that live, touring experience.
I’m sure they’ve played there back in the day, but I don’t know the relationship with American rock-and-roll in the UK. I watched an interview with Bob Weir and he was saying that to play now over social media wouldn’t be the same, because they play for the crowd. And he said that’s why they never made any good albums in the studio.
Because they needed that feedback or participation?
They wanted to play for the crowd, so how the crowd was dancing and get the crowd going. You’re making me wonder about the UK now.
Maybe they’ve got a bit of a following here, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about them or mention them over here, yet in America their fans are their own subculture.
There’s a good saying I saw on the back of a t-shirt. “The Grateful Dead are like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
It’s funny, because the uniform hasn’t really changed. Bob Weir wore super-short denim cut-offs with the pocket-bags coming out of the shorts with Birkenstocks, and the young kids might be trying to do that look a little bit with their Chacos or their Tevas and all the outdoor gear. And then the older dudes are still wearing the same t-shirts they wore to all the shows—maybe too small now, with joint holes in them.
It’s like going to a baseball game and seeing someone’s hat decorated with a hundred pins. It’s very authentic. There’s still that ‘lot’ scene—as in a parking lot. People go the whole day of the show and hang out, whether they BBQ, or drink and tailgate and listen to music. And that’s just a show in itself, it’s beautiful whether people are camping out, or it’s in Queens, New York. It hasn’t really changed that much. Maybe the drugs aren’t as good or aren’t as open in the air, but there’s a lot of that free love hippy look. It’s just chill and laid back.
I was reading an article about t-shirts recently. It was written in the mid-90s for a magazine called Might, and the guy who wrote it was saying about how he worked for a screen-printers in the 80s and how the knock-off Grateful Dead merch was maybe some of the earliest logo-rip designs. There was a Nike one which said, “Just Dew It.” A reference to some song.
Oh yeah. They do it so well. From every sports logo to my favourite, which is where they took the L.L. Bean logo and it says ‘L.L. Rain’, from a song called Box of Rain, the Dead bears are sitting in camping gear around a fire toasting marshmallows.
And there’s another one it’s a line drawing of an Eddie Bauer jeep driving into the water, with a bear behind the wheel, and it says ‘Deaddie Bauer.’ And those are lot tees. It’s just some kid in his dorm-room making 20 or maybe 50 tees. With Instagram it’s like, “Yo Sam, meet me at the lot before the show, maybe hold me one of those t-shirts.” Or maybe, “I’m not going to the show, can you ship me one.”
Merch used to be about going to the venue—whether it was a delicatessen or a bar or a bakery or a Dead show, and now, you can almost get any merch. I used to love it when you’d go to a restaurant and you had to buy the hat off a waiter, because they didn’t sell them—that’s merch. You’ve got to go to the hotel gift shop when you’re on your honeymoon, they’re not sending some $30 t-shirt in the mail. And now, you can buy almost anything.
Yeah, the hunt used to add to the appeal. And the ease of getting most things means you’ve only got to hunt out more niche stuff.
Exactly. I’m in Maine, and one of the first things I thought of when I got here is that there’s some local yacht clubs. They don’t have a website, but they might have a plastic bin of t-shirts that they made three years ago for a race that benefitted the local firefighters. I’m excited that the season will be opening soon and I can go in and say, “Hey, I bought one of those shirts two years ago and I got mustard on it, do you have another one?” I really appreciate that. If they had a website and they had product, I probably wouldn’t want it anymore.
It’s the interaction. You’ve gone in there, you’ve talked to someone, it’s a memory. You haven’t just sat on a computer.
It’s a true souvenir.
Definitely. As well as the book you also worked on the wardrobe stuff for Uncut Gems and the film the Safdie brothers directed before that, Good Time. What’s the story there?
They liked the people that I shoot, and the style that I shoot, and they liked to reference them a lot for the characters in their movies. And with that, comes me trying to put actors in either similar clothes, or similar feelings. There’s a Fed-Ex messenger in the movie who delivers the fish at the end, and he’s a real Fed-Ex guy in the Diamond District. I was begging him to bring a certain hat. I’m very particular. I get into these peoples’ closets—it’s so much fun.
What were the hardest pieces to find?
With movies you’re supposed to have two or three of everything, in case something happens. In Uncut Gems they throw Adam Sandler into a fountain, so they needed three of his suit because he’s going to get wet each time and we wouldn’t have enough time to get dry. So getting multiples when you’re on a real cheapo budget is not always easy. And a lot of this stuff was second hand. Sandler was wearing a black leather blazer—good luck trying to find a similar one.
How important was it to get it right? Those outfits were all perfect.
I think the clothing was the best part of those movies.
You would say that!
Yeah, I’m proud. The costume designer I worked with for Uncut Gems, Miyako—one of the reasons we worked so well together is that like me, she’s an untraditional stylist. She loves authentic and real people. We’d get all excited… thinking he has to wear Ferragamo or Cartier glasses—we’d both really agree on an item or a look, and then when we’d show them to the directors they’d be like, “Weeeelllll, you know…” And we’d be back to the drawing board.
A lot of it would be at two or three in the morning, them texting like, “Yo that picture you took, let me get that picture.” And it’s great because they’re friends, but it takes a special working relationship to do that. No one is too big for their britches.
I read about how for Good Time you’d be chasing people down and buying the jacket off their back.
Yep. We did a ton of that. The casting was so great for both of those movies. They had a room full of full-on gangsters, and these guys were coming in from construction jobs with their duffle bags, their knee pads still on and helmets hanging off their belt loops. They looked like they were going to kill somebody—they were enormous, covered in tattoos.
And whether they made it into the movie or not, I’d talk to them like they were superstars. I’d take their picture and I’d say, “honestly, no matter what happens, can we buy the shirt you’re wearing right now?”, because nobody is going to get it real like an actual construction worker on site. So buying stuff off people, that’s one of my specialties.
What’d they go back with?
Well, because we were in wardrobe, we’d have rooms full of clothes, I’d say, “Hold on, I got a pair of pants you’re going to love.” Switcheroo! And they’re happy because they’ve got a new pair of pants.
There was a time, it might have been the jacket you’re talking about, when Josh said, “There’s a guy at this subway stop right now, go and find him. Offer him 50 bucks.”
And it works because the characters look real.
I think so. In Uncut Gems a lot of those guys were real diamond District workers— real industry dudes—not actors. At the same time, they all have such unique looks. They’re such characters that to me, they look normal for 47th Street. When I meet someone for casting and they’re wearing their wildest Versace print shirt, I’d be like, “Dude, you have to wear this for the movie.” A lot of the times the directors would look at the clothes and think we should tone it down, but I’d say, “No, no, no, no, no.”
Have you got more film stuff coming up? It sounds like a nice job.
No. I got nothing on the agenda.
Sounds alright to me. Everyone wants to be ‘busy’ these days.
It’s pathetic. “Every hour I’m in a Zoom.” I just think “Fuck you and your Zoom. What are you so busy with?”
All the rushing around people do rarely amounts to much. I think I’ve pretty much run out of questions now, but I think I was meant to talk to you about Chaco sandals a bit. You were a pretty early instigator of wearing them.
I’ve never met a sandal that I felt so comfortable wearing the city. I loved Birkenstocks, but I didn’t feel totally comfortable barefoot in them. Then I tried Chacos and I couldn’t believe how tough and rugged they were. I was like, “Fuck it, who cares if I’m not in Colorado—I’m wearing them in the big city.” And once I felt comfortable in them, I felt comfortable in Birkenstocks.
The sandal gateway drug. Okay, wrapping this up now, have you got any words of wisdom to pass on?
Go with your gut. I like the word ‘wisdom’, it’s better than advice. I think I often second guess my choices, so I’m going to say go with your gut.