Fashion Photographer Clarke Tolton on Caribbean Eats, San Juan’s Best Beaches, and Nordstrom’s Style Profile Project

Generally speaking, we need no excuse to daydream about Puerto Rico. The beaches…the food…the rich history and culture. But now that we can add the new Nordstrom to that list of Puerto Rico goodness, well, let’s just say the Caribbean archipelago is front and center.

We sent bi-coastal fashion photographer Clarke Tolton—who happens to have been born in San Juan in 1976—to photograph the flavor of our new stylish neighbors. Upon his return, we asked him to reflect on island and global style, best-bet beaches and killer skewered meats of his homeland. Because, you know, hopefully we’ll get there ourselves one of these days.

The Thread: Looking back on your recent trip, and your roots, are there Puerto Rican style traits that resonate most with you?
Tolton: The style of dress in PR is bright and colorful; they like to mix and match patterns and colors, which reflects the vibrancy of the island and its residents. But it differs across age groups and subcultures. So you can’t really generalize. One group that has a certain look is the older generation, say people above 60 years old. They wear a traditional button-up shirt called a guayabera—a short or long sleeve button-up with embroidery on the front. They’re really beautiful, but when you’re a kid and your parents make you wear them, they’re not so cool. Hats are also big in PR. Not your typical baseball cap, but woven straw hats. I got a really cool one from an amazing store on Calle La Fortaleza called Ole. Hats there can range in price from $50 to $5,000.

I’m always pleased when I can sense a strong look in any given area. The Internet might have us believe that we’re all following the same trends and wearing the same things, but I think you can almost always sense a city-specific vibe when you’re out in the real world. Do you see that when you’re traveling from city to city for work?
Definitely. You can go to Paris, wearing one outfit, and no one will look twice, but wear that same outfit in Puerto Rico and people might stare and they’ll definitely know that you’re not from there. But with the acceleration of digital culture, it’s possible for people to reference and wear styles they were previously unaware of. It’s given people greater access to ideas and inspiration that they might use to create their own sense of style. Yes, “the look” will differ from Paris, L.A. or San Juan, but it also differs greatly among age demographics and subcultures in each of those cities. It just depends on what you’re into. I’ve found that people want to emulate their idols and those that inspire them.

Your family moved to Huntington Beach, California when you were about three, so you grew up in sunny SoCal. Was fashion a part of your childhood or early adolescent experience?
Definitely. I remember looking at magazines like Dazed and Confused, i-D, and the Face and thinking, “This is what’s cool.” I listened to a lot of Brit rock bands like the Verve, Ride, Oasis, Slowdive, so I just wanted to look like those guys—which was quite a departure from what everyone else was wearing in Huntington Beach in the ’90s. My friends and I tended to wear vintage Levi’s, Dr. Martens and vintage button-up shirts. Vintage clothing just fit better. Everyone else was wearing surf and skate brands.

Okay, so back to the Islands. What are the best things to eat, drink, and do in your hometown and the surrounding area?
The best things to eat daily are mallorcas—savory and sweet pastries—from la mallorquina. After dinner you should enjoy a small glass of coquito and a piece of flan. The best beach is on Culebra; it’s called Flamenco beach and is a short ferry ride from San Juan. From there you might want take the water taxi to Culebrita, an even smaller uninhabited island near Culebra. The el Yunque rain forest is amazing, too. And people love to dance in Puerto Rico. Rhythm is in their blood. Check out the San Juan clubs such as Club Brava, and also the skate pool in the La Perla neighborhood [pictured above]. The people who live in this little hillside neighborhood built a pool to skate in right on the beach. It’s a bit sketchy, but who doesn’t like a slight element of danger when traveling? And it’s right next to one of the most beautiful cemeteries, called Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis. Finally, a 20-minute drive east of Old San Juan is Piñones, a little stretch of beach with a palm-lined boardwalk with a bunch of little huts that sell skewers of meat and fish called pinchos.

What are three cool, under-the-radar places that we won’t find in any guide books?
Verde Mesa is an awesome organic restaurant; el Batey is a great dive bar; Caficultura has the best coffee.

What was your favorite location during the Nordstrom shoot?
Definitely Castillo San Cristóbal. My grandfather would take us there every time we visited Puerto Rico each summer. It’s so beautiful!

What did you discover about Puerto Rico and the people there during the shoot?
Not matter where you shoot in San Juan, it’s all photogenic. From a street corner to a restaurant, you can’t take a bad picture of San Juan. Everyone was so warm and friendly. Not that I expected them to be difficult, but everyone felt so honored and flattered to be part of this project. And it shows in the images. They all felt very comfortable in front of the lens.

Where’s home now and how different is it from life in the islands?
I currently live in New York and Los Angeles, depending on where it’s warmest. I think the biggest cultural difference between NYC and Puerto Rico is a sense of urgency. People in NYC can be impatient and want things now. (I’m definitely guilty of this as well.) Whereas things in Puerto Rico move a bit slower, people aren’t in so much of rush. Southern California falls somewhere in the middle. And in New York, all everyone wears is black on black on black.

What’s next? If you could teleport to any city on the planet right now, where would you go and why?
Kandui, in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. Because I could surf everyday without having to wear a wetsuit.

—Laura Cassidy