What White People Can (and Must) Learn from the Rachel Dolezal Saga

The Curious Case of Nkechi Diallo

How in the world did the Rachel Dolezal thing even start? How do you make sense of it? Nobody understood it at first. Most of us still don’t, to be honest. She came, quite literally, out of nowhere. It was a story that was so farfetched, so unbelievable, that it took long enough to get to grips with the fact that no, this isn’t a joke, this is real, this is actually happening.

If you aren’t familiar with Rachel Dolezal (where the hell have you been?), here’s the long and short; in the summer of 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a thirty-something white woman from Spokane Washington, became an international news story when it emerged that she’d been living for most of her adult life as a black woman. Not only this, she had been a prominent figure in her local NAACP chapter and an educator at the Eastern Washington University in courses such as “African History”, “African American Culture” and “The Black Woman’s Struggle.

Dolezal’s ultimate defence was that she did not identify as white; that she genuinely believes that, inside, she is a black woman. I’m not going to go into much more detail about the rest of her backstory – it’s been well-covered and the information’s out there, and the whole thing leaves me so bewildered it’s exhausting.

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The reason I bring her up today is because she’s reappeared in the news twice over these past few weeks. Firstly, it was revealed that she is on the brink of homelessness because she now struggles to find gainful employment. A few days later, news broke that she had changed her name, a few months ago, to Nkechi Amare Diallo. Nkechi is an Igbo name that translates to ‘Gift of God’; Amare is an Ethiopian name that means ‘handsome/good-looking’ (no comment); and Diallo is a Fulani word that roughly translates to ‘Bold’ – this one, I suppose, is at least somewhat accurate, because if there’s one thing that can be said of Rachel Dolezal it’s that she’s bold as all hell.

I’m not going to wade too deep into the Rachel Dolezal debate itself today. That particular critique has been done so much more effectively than I ever could by people in a much better position to do so than myself; Jessie Daniels unpicks the whole debacle pretty effectively in this piece over at Racism Review; Gal-Dem have a good piece from last year addressing her refusal to quietly step out of the spotlight; and Trudy’s piece over on Gradient Lair speaks to the even deeper violence (and that is what it is) that’s at play in situations such as this.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Dolezal as exemplifying numerous problems that white people cause as allies to black causes. As the old saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and it’s Dolezal’s seemingly-unwavering belief that she is not the enemy that makes her actions all the more sinister. When her story first broke on Twitter, a common cry was “White people, come and get your girl.” With that sentiment in mind, here’s some things white people should be considering next time we want to show our support for any of the numerous black political movements happening right now.t


Your Personal Struggles ≠ The Struggle

Dolezal claims to have had a difficult upbringing. She has stated that her parents abused her physically and psychologically, and has been estranged from them for many years. At one point she even claimed legal guardianship of her adoptive-brother Izaiah – with her parents’ consent. Her parents heavily contest all of the claims against them, and even seem genuinely lost at some of the charges levelled against them. Whatever the truth is, it’s probably fair to say that their family is far from a picture-perfect fairy tale, and a considerable amount of animosity is bubbling beneath the surface, for whatever reason.

A common defence employed by Dolezal when it has been pointed out that she, with German, Czech and Swedish heritage, is quite literally the whitest white that could possibly white, is that she “identifies” as black. But what does this statement actually mean? Ostensibly it appears her belief is that, because she has encountered certain difficulties “fitting in” in life, she identifies with black people’s struggles to be accepted in society.

This logic isn’t just horseshit, however; it’s dangerous. It’s the ‘Oh, you have a hard time find a job? I can relate. I went to an interview at Starbucks once and they never called back’ mentality blown up to envelop black people’s entire lives. Not only that, while it’s right and vital to recognise the black experience as one that involves hardship, it’s patronising and reductive to boil it down to just that. An ally who views black people purely as vessels of suffering and hardship is just as bad as someone who actively inflicts those experiences on them. The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t about making white people aware that black people are being killed just to make us to feel bad; it’s about saying black people have lives; stop taking those lives. Stop killing them. And if you’re unable to understand black people outside of narratives of oppression and suffering, ask yourself how you’re going to aid in ending the reality of those narratives?

As we learn about the deeper elements of the black experience across the world, there will probably be times when we reflect upon it in context of our own experiences and feel empathy. That’s probably okay. If you can remember a particular moment and how it made you feel, and that helps you to place yourself in the shoes of a black person or person of colour for one second and reflect on what it might feel like to experience that for every minute of every day, good.

But if you aren’t then able to re-contextualise that, to realise that you aren’t in that person’s shoes, that you still don’t get it and will never be completely able to, then you are of no use. Our attempts to understand and be engaged with the black experience is not the same as trying to identify with it. If you’re doing the latter, equating your comparatively minor experiences of hardship and alienation with an entire system of oppression and exclusion, you are only going to do damage.


Know your Place

In the protests that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, black people took to the streets wearing hoodies to symbolise the idea that any one of them could have been Trayvon; any one of them could have been the victim on that day. Some white allies saw this and joined in, wearing their own hoodies, but in doing so completely erased the racial dynamics at play; the hoodie was symbolic of the laundry list of everyday actions that have put black people at risk of death at the hands of police, from selling loose cigarettes to placing hands in pockets, to not placing hands in pockets. The hoodie was not the point; it was about the black body that becomes weaponised by the white gaze when placed inside something as banal as a hoodie, and when white participated in that act they effectively erased that statement on the weaponisation of black bodies.

White people are not the person in the hoodie in this dynamic; we’re the guy holding the gun. Solidarity is important, but we need to do so in way that doesn’t erase the very schisms that black people are trying to highlight. It’s for this reason that I’ve felt personally uncomfortable when white people have joined in with ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ chants during marches or protests, or lay down during ‘Die In’ protests. By aligning ourselves with these actions so simplistically, we actually risk erasing the very significant difference between the black & white experience that black people are trying to highlight.

White people being engaged, involved and taking part in these fights is important. We have a role that we can perform in discussions, at protests, in politics, media and so on that we can use to further the cause. A discussion that arose in the wake of the Women’s March in January was that if that number of white people had turned out during the Ferguson protests and stood with those protestors, the police would not have behaved the same way they did. Police in the US – and the UK – attack black bodies with impunity because they know there is an entire structure in place that will defend them.

It’s easy to look at footage from Ferguson, as a white person, and feel shock or amazement at what you’re seeing, but when you remember those protests were triggered by law and order’s complete and utter disregard for black life, how shocking is it really? Individual police officers respond to individual black bodies with violence; the collective police community will respond to the collective black community with violence. If white people want to be at the front of the fight, then they should get, quite literally, to the front of the fight. If there had been a line of white people between the police and the black protestors in scenarios such as Ferguson, it would have played out differently.

If you want to be an active player in these protests, do them in the role that fits your position; as the person with privilege. Use your voice to call out injustice on without erasing black voices. Place your body, one which is valued and protected by white supremacist mechanisms such as law enforcement, between black people and those who intend to do them harm. Challenge people within your own community. Give your money to black and minority political causes. Contribute to funds for meeting spaces, transportation, legal fees, food, medical supplies and so on. Get your friend’s lawyer parents on board.

If we take Dolezal’s eager participation in her local black political and protest movements as sincere and well-meant, then this is a white woman who placed herself at the very front of a number of dialogues and discussions when it wasn’t her place to do so. If your desire to speak as a white person happens at the expense of a black person’s voice, then how can you claim to be supportive? Being part doesn’t have to mean being at the centre, which leads to the next.


De-centre your whiteness and de-centre yourself.

A recurring element of Dolezal’s behaviour has been her inability (or unwillingness) to prioritise the movements she claims to support over her own ego. After all, over the past two years the issues with her behaviour have been called out, highlighted and explained repeatedly, at length, but she has continued to fight for her own personal right to “identify as black”. It takes a particular sort of mental gymnastics to claim you are committed to a certain group’s cause, to be told by that same group that your actions are detrimental to that same cause, and to then ignore them and continue on that same path because you believe you know better.

But it’s bigger than that. Not only have Rachel Dolezal’s actions been detrimental towards the black movement; she’s added fuel to the fire of groups and agencies that actively seek to invalidate and silence them. Within the black community, her actions have been met with frustration, anger and scorn, quite rightly, but mainstream media outlets (not to mention far-right platforms such as Breitbart and Daily Stormer) have used her as a sideshow; a tool with which to mock and ridicule those who are fighting these genuine battles over race.

Not only that, her tenuous, botched reasoning that she, a white woman, should be allowed to identify as black, has been co-opted and twisted by those same groups to invalidate the transgender movement through false equivalences and spurious logic (the Gradient Lair article mentioned above unpacks this dynamic very powerfully).

Her refusal to think of broader issues and movements before her own ego is causing massive, lasting damage to people beyond her immediate sphere, and her continued hijacking of those causes, not to mention the media platforms that give her continued coverage, does nothing to help. Think of all the newspapers and media outlets that have published articles and features on Dolezal, and think of how many have tied her to black political movements and academic thought. Now ask yourself how many of those same outlets have given platform to black academics and figureheads in those same movements.

A newspaper like the Daily Mail is never going to give column inches to someone like Cornell West, Feminista Jones or Sydette Harry, but they’ll churn out feature after feature about Rachel Dolezal and let their comment sections, not to mention Facebook and Twitter, boil over with bigotry and hateful discussions. And be clear; though a proportion of people might be ridiculing Dolezal on the absurdity of her actions alone (though I doubt it), plenty of them will use her as a vessel to channel their hatred of black and brown people (and trans people, for that matter) safe in the knowledge that Dolezal’s self-obfuscated identity provides them a shield of ambiguity.


Sometimes stuff will come back on you. Deal with it.

There’s a reason phrases like ‘white guilt’ and ‘race traitor’ exist. The former is a phrase often used by white people, many of them ostensibly “progressive”, who think that putting your own feelings aside in consideration of others is the result of misplaced guilt; that white people would only seek to support black and minority causes because they feel bad. The latter is a more extreme manifestation of that same sentiment; that those people are committing an act of betrayal against the white race and should be treated with scorn. Be clear on this – those two sentiments are one and the same. Both are simply examples of White Supremacy confronting what it perceives as a threat to its own dominance. One might cloak itself in moderate language and intellectualism, but it’s rooted in the same fear of its place in the hierarchy being challenged.

Whether it’s a friend of yours getting frustrated and telling you to “stop bringing race into everything” or an actual racist threatening you with violence for challenging their views, it’s important to recognise these moments as exposing the mechanisms of whiteness, and though your friend might be expressing themselves in a more polite and congenial manner, they are part of the same problem.

If you are committed to the cause of challenging whiteness and dismantling white supremacy, you will probably lose friends. You will probably be made uncomfortable by work colleagues. You will probably find it difficult to enjoy certain films, music, TV shows, books, comedy, and so on. You might even walk into your favourite bar, or restaurant, or trendy East London hotel/creative hub, and become palpably aware of certain mechanisms at play. But when you experience those flashes of discomfort or uncertainty that you can indulge in these things anymore, remember that you are experiencing a split-second flash of something that black, brown, LGBTQ and other minorities experience every day of their lives. Confronting these kinds of things, particularly cutting off people who you previously had no problem with, is hard, but even when shit seems to be coming down on you, it’s not about you. Return to point one; that you are struggling with certain things does not mean you are part of the struggle. You are not a victim. Not even close.

Why is Rachel Dolezal coming back in the news right now? Because she’s having a hard time finding work. People won’t hire her. As I said earlier in this piece, she has a strange way, for whatever reason, of taking hardship and difficulty in her life and transposing it into this narrative of her struggle as one and the same as the black experience. There is no doubt in my mind that Rachel Dolezal truly believes that she, as a white woman who has chosen to identify as black, is struggling to find work because she is black. I do not think it has crossed her mind at all that the reality of the situation, the truth of it, is that nobody will hire her because she is absolutely toxic.

It’s possible that Rachel Dolezal has experienced at least some discrimination because of her involvement in black political movements, but don’t get it twisted; the backlash that she has received over the past two years is because she is a white woman who has done foolish and damaging things. For her to have steadfastly ignored all of the criticism that she has received from the same community she claims to support, and continue to claim that she is a victim of oppression or discrimination, is blinding.

It’s this which makes me view her decision to change her name to Nkechi Diallo as particularly caustic. In a continuation of her desire to interweave her personal hardships with a narrative that is not hers, I can’t help but feel like this name change is an attempt to further disown her transgressions. As Zoe Samudzi has noted, she’ll now likely claim that people aren’t hiring her not because she’s an employment dumpster fire, but because her name is “too black”.

Rachel Dolezal living on food stamps because she is unemployable does not unite her with the many black families in America who are living on food stamps because they are un-or-underemployed as a result of structural racism. Being denied employment because you would be poison does not make you one and the same with the person who was denied because of the colour of their skin. Rachel Dolezal is a story of someone who wishes to blame all of her hardship on a broader societal construct, even when genuine victims of those societal constructs are telling her otherwise. Rachel Dolezal is an ally for as long and as far as it massages and comforts her own ego. It’s precisely this behaviour that all white people should be wary of when we participate in these movements.


The other day I was reading about James Zwerg, a white man who became involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s after seeing how his black roommate at Beloit College was treated. He got involved because he saw that wrong was being done, and he knew he had to do something. During his participation in nonviolent protests, Zwerg was repeatedly assaulted and beaten. In one instance he was beaten unconscious with a monkey wrench. Later on, he became involved in the Freedom Rides which included initiatives such as those depicted in the film The Butler wherein activists challenged the south’s segregation laws by sitting at White-Only lunch counters. On one occasion, the group Zwerg was travelling with was ambushed at a bus station and beaten severely. He was denied immediate medical attention because the white ambulances, allegedly, were not available. His attack received widespread media coverage – because he’s a white guy for fighting for black rights (see: white guilt/race traitor mentality) – and when asked about his ordeal he said this:

‘There was nothing particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said ‘Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.’ And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don’t know if he lived or died.’

It’s important for white people to be involved in these fights. It’s important for us to be engaged and listening, and taking part in the activism to deconstruct white supremacy in all its forms. But consider James Zwerg’s understanding that even when the newspapers are asking about him and pointing the cameras at his bruises, the discussion should be about all the people the newspapers aren’t talking about. These were news stories about a white man being beaten for protesting (and surviving) during a time when black people were being lynched for merely existing. James Zwerg’s own experience of violence at the hands of white supremacy concludes with a black body whose fate was unknown, and he made clear to remind us that he is not the victim. And he did not do what he did, or go through that violence, for some sort of gratification or reward. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

Rachel Dolezal should be viewed as a warning of the dangers of allyship when it is not called to question and held to account. No matter how passionate white people might be about the issues we read about, we must always remember that this is not about us. No amount of proximity to black people, even spouses and children, will magically grant us an understanding of what it means to be black. Again, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Showing up without truly making an effort to understand what you are engaging with makes us just as bad as the people who don’t show up at all – a lot of the time it makes us even worse, because nobody’s reporting on the white people not fighting White Supremacy; they are the norm. In the eyes of the media and hegemonic institutions, misguided white allies and their derailing actions become tools to invalidate the entire movement.

Don’t protest because you want to look good or progressive. Don’t challenge White Supremacy because you have experienced difficulty and believe you identify with the black struggle. Don’t march because you have a Munchausen-esque desire to be attacked, vilified or ostracised. Don’t interpret any of the exclusion or backlash you may experience as proof that you have passed the test and become part of the black struggle. Do not show up to a protest expecting someone to stamp a Melanin Loyalty Card, and understand that it is possible to be present without placing yourself at the centre of the activities. Don’t fight on the side of black people because you believe it will eventually relieve or excuse you of your whiteness.

Do it because it is the right thing to do.
And when somebody tells you you’re doing it wrong, listen.

Thanks to: Gradient Lair, Sydette Harry, Feminista Jones, Zoe Samudzi, Bwalya Newton

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Consuming to Grieve, Consuming to Provoke: Thoughts on Tragic Product

In the age of social media and mass-consumerism, we interact with tragedy in interesting ways, and there are arguably consumptive elements to some of these interactions. I view a lot of the behaviours we engage in on social media as consumptive practices. In many ways, your Facebook profile is a mannequin on which you can pin certain decorative features and characteristics, and as you post about certain topics or share images, you are consuming those things just as much as you are broadcasting them.

Sharing a news story, posting a meme, political statuses and so on; these actions are just as much about attaching their meanings to our own identities as they are about spreading the message itself. Before moving forward, I should clarify that my analysis of some of these behaviours shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of the people who enact them or me questioning their intentions. I am simply interested in the mechanisms of grief and trauma and the way we, as a consumer society, manifest these emotions in different ways, or even consume tragic events long after the event itself.

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In the aftermath of particular terror attacks, such as the attacks in Paris in 2015 or the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, people placed translucent symbols of solidarity over their profile photos; the French tricolor or the LGBT rainbow flag, respectively. People around the world were rightly shocked and in trauma about these events, and wanted some means of broadcasting their grief to those around them. These decorations provide a means of aligning ourselves with causes, signaling our solidarity with particular groups of people and placing ourselves within a broader, global dialogue.

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Something similar can be observed with product releases that are released in the aftermath of tragedies or in support of certain causes. After Japan was hit by a tsunami that displaced over 200 000 people and claimed almost 16 000 lives in 2011, a number of streetwear brands released limited edition product with proceeds being donated to relief efforts. Notable examples include Supreme’s ‘rising sun’ box logo t-shirt as well as t-shirts by the likes of WTaps, Neighborhood, Stüssy and Bape. Likewise, Noah’s recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt, donating proceeds to the official BLM movement, is an example of aligning people’s political beliefs with their consumptive practices to benefit a worthy  cause.

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These are examples of positive consumption; using people’s eagerness to align themselves visually with the causes they support to generate support, promote solidarity and, in some cases, raise money that will go to those causes. There are other moments, however, where our consumption of tragedy takes a different form, and I sometimes wonder if they aren’t two sides of the same coin.

Heaven’s Gate was a religious cult founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 1970s. Underscored by the two friends’ fascination with science-fiction and extraterrestrials, the cult was underscored by a belief that planet Earth was a quasi-limbo designed for the harvesting of souls and that all human constructs beyond the soul itself — sexuality, gender, family, name, job, and so on — were meaningless. Members referred to their bodies as “vehicles” and committed themselves entirely to the Heaven’s Gate cause.

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Fundamental to the system that Applewhite constructed was the belief that Earth would eventually be wiped clean, and that the only way to survive this erasure was by escaping the planet. In 1995, two amateur astronomers discovered the Hale-Bopp comet, garnering heavy attention in mainstream media. Over the next 18 months the comet would gradually brighten, at some points even becoming visible to the naked eye. Applewhite argued that the comet was being closely followed by a spacecraft intended to take the congregation on to the “Next Level”; that they should prepare to “exit” their vehicles.

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On March 26th, 1997, 38 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in a rented mansion in an upmarket neighbourhood of San Diego by drinking apple sauce mixed with phenobarbital, before asphyxiating themselves with plastic bags tied over their heads. Each member followed a strict protocol in order to insure acceptance onto the spacecraft. When their bodies were eventually discovered by the police, each person wore black sweatpants with a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pocket, identical black shirts with an embroidered “Heaven’s Gate: Away Team” badge on the sleeve, a large purple shroud which covered their faces and torsos, and a specific pair of Nike Decades running shoes.

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Though the incident understandably received a lot of media coverage, there was a particular fascination with the shoes. The shoes corresponded with the color scheme of the rest of the uniform, and some have posited that Applewhite believed the Nike ‘swoosh’ as resembling a comet. As one might expect, Nike were less than delighted with having their brand name associated with  a mass-suicide. The shoes were pulled from shelves and, to my knowledge, have never been re-released.

A few years later, during the Dunk craze of the early 2000s, images surfaced of a sample Nike Dunk High SB in a familiar colour way; black body, white swoosh, with some panels around the heel and lace eyelets in a familiar shade of purple. They were quickly nicknamed the ‘Un-Heaven’s Gate’ Dunks and never saw a full release. This hasn’t stopped them, however, from becoming one of the most coveted Dunk colourways among collectors.

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It was this which got me thinking about our relationships with grief, tragedy and trauma, both as individuals and as consumers. Just as there are traumatic events which generate global solidarity and outpourings of grief, there are similar tragedies which carry a certain kind of controversy or “edge” that makes them appealing to consumers not as causes to be supported or opposed, but as controversial events to be consumed in and of themselves.

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The allure of the Heaven’s Gate Dunks lies not in any particular aesthetic or stylistic aspect of the shoe itself. It is built to the same silhouette as any other SB Dunk, and its colourway is relatively bland compared to some of the more exciting sneaker releases out there. Their appeal is directly related to their association — implicit, inferred or merely interpreted —with a tragic and morbid event; one which claimed dozens of innocent lives. Not only that, if we interpret that Dunk colourway as more than an unfortunate coincidence, that same notoriety that Nike initially distanced themselves from, was then exploited to create hype around a sneaker release — whether the shoe was ever intended to be released or not.

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The same could be inferred from other products; t-shirts with pictures of Charles Manson; skull graphics that bear more than a passing resemblance to the SS-Totenkopf symbol; Western fashion’s current fascination with Soviet Union symbology, a topic which I’ve already written about at length. The same could be argued for streetwear military designs that channel imagery from the Vietnam War, or Nike’s well-documented release of merchandise featuring ambiguous phrases that could be attributed as quickly with gang culture as they could with sports.

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In his book ‘The Man in the High Castle’, Philip K Dick shares an alternative history of the second World War in which the Allied Forces lose to the Axis and the conquered United States is divided in two, controlled by Japan on the West Coast and Germany on East. Part-fact, part-science fiction, though the book’s central “what if?” storyline is pretty straightforward, the broader concepts and queries that it explores arguably make for more interesting discussion.

In this alternate universe where the bomb was never dropped on Hiroshima, Japan has colonised the western coast of America, subjugating the American population who have become second-class citizens, their culture erased and slowly vanishing. American culture endures, however, in antique shops, where wealthy Japanese businessmen collect trinkets of Americana, romanticised relics of a bygone nation, not unlike present-day America’s own fascination with Native American culture.

At one point in the novel, we learn how items associated with significant moments in American history sell for a higher price. As a result, items which carry this “historicity” are highly sought after, leading to the propagation of fakes. There is a desire for physical product to be adorned with the intangible concept of its attachment to American history itself; for its authenticity to be made more authentic. But the supposed significance of an item through its association to a fleeting moment or use — the gun used to shoot Lincoln; a lighter once used by FDR — is itself a human construct; a fabrication. Through this interplay of real, fake, significant and mundane product, much of it mass-produced, Dick poses interesting questions about what it is about items and their proximity to particular moments that grants them a greater “authenticity”. It’s worth noting that at one point in the book, a fake is identified not through physical characteristics or tell-tale signs, but its distinct lack of “historicity”. It simply didn’t feel significant.

Perhaps we are also looking for products with some sort of historicity. We like to believe that t-shirts, hoodies, sneakers or any other consumer good has a greater significance than being a product that we have purchased. We see the way people engage with tragedy — with sincere and commendable intentions — and understand that these events carry a certain importance. Then there are more notorious symbols that are consumed not out of some emotional attachment or desire to effect change, but through a morbid curiosity with the notorious historicity of the event itself. Our consumptive practices interact with significant events in both good and bad ways, and I’m interested in understanding how these behaviours diverge.

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It would be easy enough to simply say it’s because certain events are, for one reason or another, “edgy”. Charles Manson is a pop culture figure. Religious cults carry this strange sensation of the familiar (religion) made other. The idea of a mass-produced, indiscriminately-sold product like a running shoe becoming a symbol of 38 particular deaths transforms it from Fordist product into cultural artefact. But where do we draw the line between tragic and edgy? How do we better understand the weight that we carry with each purchase? What are we saying when we consume certain tragedies as events of global mourning or solidarity, and others as a means of standing out from the crowd; as statements of individualism; as an opportunity to shock or provoke?

This is a complex and oft-confusing conversation, and I understand that I’ve probably not shed much light with this piece. I’ve been weighing up different ideas in my head for about six months now, and plan to return to this again. Feel free to get in touch and let me know your thoughts.

Read also:
Timeliness/Timelessness — My Problem with Gosha Rubchinskiy

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Subcultural Capitalism: Some Meditations on Race, Class and Streetwear

N.B. The following piece explores the intersections of race and class, as well as the erasure and manipulation of black bodies, in fashion and streetwear. I’ve weighed up a number of thoughts on these issues for quite a while and wanted to explore them, but in doing so must necessarily acknowledge my own whiteness, and that the presence of another white voice does not resolve issues of black erasure. As a result, I’ve tried to approach this first and foremost as a critique of whiteness and its known mechanisms. There are numerous websites such as gal-dem and Media Diversified doing amazing work highlighting black voices in fashion, music, art, literature and beyond. Please check them out, subscribe and support.

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Jayson Musson, aka Hennessy Youngman

Jayson Musson is a New York-based artist whose work sits somewhere on the intersections of social commentary, mixed media communication and performance art. His work focuses primarily on ideas of the black experience in America and its interactions with whiteness. Using everything from canvas paintings and posters to newspaper columns and installations, Musson exposes schisms of affect in society; where one particular group, such as white people, might look at a scenario and see one thing, whilst another group, particular minorities and marginalised peoples, see another.

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In ‘Too Black for B.E.T.’ a series of 34 posters featuring big, bold text and occasionally images from popular culture, Musson subverts clichéd American values, challenging accepted truths with alternative perceptions; one poster declares ‘The fastest route between obscurity and fame is a straight line of cocaine with the right person’; another presents images of Jesus Christ and Osama Bin Laden and warns, ‘Beware of persuasive men with beards’.

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In another series, ‘Barack Obama Battles the Pink Robots’, Musson creates paintings of (now former-) President Barack Obama performing increasingly-absurd acts of good will, from rescuing a cat from a tall tree, to saving Jesus Christ from the crucifixion, to battling a giant monster made entirely of diamonds. As America prepared to inaugurate the most unqualified and inexperienced President in its nation’s history earlier this month, discussions flared up again about ‘black excellence’ and the racism that says for a black person to be president (or any other prominent role, for that matter), then they must be over-qualified, scandal-free, spotless and beyond reproach. If a white person wants to be president, all they have to be is rich and male.

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One of the most interesting of Musson’s creations is his character, Hennessy Youngman, a sort of exaggerated black caricature who waxes lyrical about art practice, theory and academia. White academia, white media and white spaces in general have historically dismissed African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a means of invalidating black thought and creativity and, in doing so, erase and exclude black people from certain spheres — it’s this which makes our parents comfortable trashing all rap music as “just noise” and “not saying anything” whilst praising Sergeant Pepper’s as one of the greatest albums ever made in the same sentence. By dismantling art theory and pulling the curtain back from the “impenetrable” world of modern art whilst speaking in AAVE, Musson subverts the structure and excludes the Eurocentric art world from his own sphere.

In late 2013, Hennessy Youngman moved into the music world, releasing a series of mixtapes entitled ‘CVS Bangers’; named for the popular American chain of drugstores, the tapes consist entirely of cheesy, 1980s easy listening music that CVS plays in their stores, overlaid with trap and hip-hop samples such as gunshots, airhorns, ‘excluuuuusive!’s and ‘more fire’s. Think of ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’, ‘I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight’ and countless Steve Winwood tracks being interrupted by ‘Daaaaamn Hennessy, where’d you find this track?!’ and you’re halfway there.

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At first I took the mix at face value, enjoying it for the humour of hearing super-white, super-corny 80s music overlaid with familiar artefacts of contemporary trap music. It’s pretty funny to hear Rod Stewart singing, ‘Some guys get all the luck’ only for Hennessy Youngman to cut in and go, ‘Awwww, poor Rod Stewart!’ But then I came across a piece by Gavin Mueller for Jacobin where he unpicks a deeper subtext in the CVS Bangers mixtapes.

In his piece, Mueller discusses the historical context of the songs Youngman selects for his mixtapes; released in the mid-to-late 1980s, performed by white artists and loosely classified as ‘Adult Contemporary’; ‘a format that combined easy listening with gracelessly aging Boomer rockers and New Wavers moving into more lucrative slow-dance territory’.

Most importantly, Mueller highlights the prominence of a number of black easy listening artists who are omitted from the mixtapes, such as Lionel Ritchie and Whitney Houston, and interprets ‘CVS Bangers’ as a commentary on mainstream radio and record labels’ attempts to appeal to a ‘silent majority’ audience of middle-aged white people, appropriating and stealing numerous elements of black soul, funk and R&B, whilst erasing the voices that created them. Consider Youngman’s telling ad-lib over Baltimora’s classic single, “Tarzan Boy” — ‘Racism… but so good!’ CVS Bangers is the soundtrack to an audience that wants to indulge in the black creativity and musicality, but does not wish to engage with the politics of its own consumption and inherent racism.

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Mueller then explores Youngman’s use of trap samples and airhorns to theorize Trap music’s appropriation as Adult Contemporary for a new generation, whilst Youngman’s placement of those sound effects over corny 80s pop music lampoons modern rap artists like Macklemore, Lil Debbie and Iggy Azalea by drawing attention to the real “music of their people”. White people want to be hip-hop now? Okay, but they’re bringing their own music with them.

Anyway, Mueller’s article is a brilliant read, and I go back and re-read it often, so I really recommend taking the time to go and have a look. The reason I mention it is that a lot of what I’m about to talk about concerns similar concepts and ideas, though nowhere near as well constructed, so you’d be doing yourself a favour to see a professional unpacking this shit before bothering with my dirge.

This whole topic got me thinking about streetwear, as a concept. It’s been said countless times by people within the industry that nobody quite knows where the term ‘streetwear’ came from. One day this new wave of clothing brands started making printed t-shirts, sweats and caps and eventually the term ‘streetwear’ was created as a category. What’s interesting is that streetwear, like street culture, is inherently connected to black American culture; rooted in hip-hop, graffiti and b-boy culture in cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. But when we think of the iconic, original streetwear brands, like Stüssy, Supreme and Fuct, all were founded by white men. There were numerous black-owned streetwear brands in the 90s such as Fubu, Phat-Farm and later Rocawear, but you’re more likely to find them categorized as “hip-hop clothing labels” these days.

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‘Streetwear’ occupies as interesting space of placing its roots in street culture, whilst charging a comparative premium for its products. Brands like Supreme promise the credibility and authenticity of a label peppered with references to the archaeology of 90s street culture, but at a price that elevates it above street culture itself. Certainly, many of the brands have credible roots in the subcultures that they celebrate, but it’s in recent years that I noticed the young kids buying Supreme these days are the same that, when I was at college, would more likely be buying Jack Wills, American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch.

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Where kids were previously seeking out higher-priced casual clothing that spoke to notions of White British and White American middle-class identity, they’re now looking to brands loaded with streetwear ‘edge’ and the symbology that comes with it. Even if the kids in line for Supreme London don’t know or care for the brand’s referencing 90s menswear labels like Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Sport and Nautica, there’s no way that Palace’s product descriptions and social media copy, dripping with slang and what has come to be known as “roadman talk”, is slipping past them.

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Nonetheless, since the style and the accompanying term were established in the early 90s, the brands have sat somewhere on the periphery of fashion. Stüssy became a global brand, but it’s never been perceived as more than a t-shirt brand; Certain menswear writers were describing Supreme as the best kept secret in menswear as far as back as the early 2000s, but the brand certain wasn’t on the map in any significant sense outside of the insular streetwear community until a few years back.

The majority of people consuming brands like Supreme, however, were tacitly aware of the culture they were immersing in when buying Supreme product. When I first got into streetwear, growing up in a town where weekly wages are supposed to be spent on pints of beer and a gram of coke, I turned to Internet forums like StrictlySupreme and Superfuture to learn more and explore the culture, and the people in these places took pride in unearthing the references and messages in graphic t-shirts and ripped-off Ralph Lauren jackets. Every hip-hop album, every graff artist, references to the Rock Steady crew and so on, knowing this stuff was necessary.

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I always found it confusing, then, how often discussions that would occasionally arise in forum threads and chat-boxes about race and class, exposed worrying levels of ignorance. You can probably imaging the topics; ‘It’s okay for me to say the N word because…’; ‘If X group don’t want to be hassled by police then they shouldn’t…’; ‘If a white person did that to a black person there’d be this, so why isn’t it the same the other way round’. For a group of people so passionate and vocal about their deep knowledge of street culture — something innately interwoven with black culture — there didn’t seem to be much critical engagement with the source material. You always wonder how a group of guys can scoff at somebody for not getting the KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions references in a Supreme collection and then fire off a diatribe of ill-informed, anti-black clichés in the same conversation and not see the irony. If there is one rapper who has consistently pointed out the connections between hip-hop, race, politics, class and society throughout his career, it’s KRS-One.

I brought this up in private conversation with another member at some point and they pointed out that lots of those guys really don’t interact with black people or minorities on a regular basis and based their views on, basically, feeling around in the dark and going with what makes sense. But how can a subculture such as streetwear become so removed from black culture?

The same issue is present on the forums of today; Facebook groups. A few months back I took the decision of removing myself from most of the “big” Facebook buying & reselling groups because I just got total fatigue reading discussions between kids in provincial English towns with minority populations in the fractions of a percent weighing in on discussions about race, class and gender with completely backwards views. That somebody can gas about Palace and “roadman culture” (shudder) one minute and then totally dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement the next makes me feel ill.

Facebook, as a social media platform, is inherently about expression of self. Unlike Twitter, which facilitates engagement with views and opinions outside of your immediate sphere, most people use Facebook to connect with their friends, talk to like-minded people and express their own views. There’s a reason that arguments on Facebook rarely achieve anything and only leave the two parties even more steadfast in their views. People don’t go on Facebook to have their views challenged. They go on there to say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I stand for and this is how I view the world’, and to then accumulate the likes of people that agree with them. People have been pushing Facebook to provide a “dislike” function for years now, but it’s never happened. Even the angry reaction face that they introduced is just ambiguous enough that using it could suggest you angrily share somebody’s view rather than disagreeing.

Back to streetwear. The thing about streetwear, particularly in the age of social media and Facebook groups, is that it’s become more and more about consumption and spending. The celebrities of these groups are the kids that buy new stuff every week, post it, get likes and build rep. Those who purchase and consume the most, thus posting the most fits and pick-ups, thus getting the most likes, are those with the most respected views. With this considered, it’s little surprise that most of the prominent figures in these groups are mostly white, male and middle-class. So you get this weird situation of the authorities of streetwear, and occasionally the social, cultural and political discussions that are connected to them, having zero connection or insight whatsoever.

There was a funny exchange on Twitter back in October, around the time that Wonder Woman was revealed to be a lesbian. A man in a tweet exchange explained to Gail Simone, ‘Baby, I’ve been reading comics since BEFORE you were born. Wonder Woman is not gay. Shoo dear.’ This prompted Simone to send the following razor-sharp response: ‘Dear, I WROTE Wonder Woman, and I can tell you we’ve been saying this for years, and it goes all the way back to her origins. Nice try.’

What this exchange highlights is a misguided notion that consumption within a particular field equates to authority or expertise in that field. The capitalist mechanism of ‘if you have the money, you can buy the clothes’ cultivates a similar attitude of ‘if you bought into the culture, you can speak on the culture’. You’re welcome to be a member of those groups, post and be active, engage with the community — on occasion I’ve seen some very encouraging attitudes on there, but mostly very surface-level things. I’m just saying, don’t be surprised if a community that creates threads like “Post a photo of your outfit and post the total price” turns out to be grossly out of touch with more pressing social issues.

It’s this that got me thinking about Hennessy Youngman and Mueller’s piece. The mystery of that term ‘streetwear’, and its origins; that equally street-heavy black labels such as Fubu are retrospectively labelled as ‘hip-hop brands’; that even today a number of black and minority kids growing up in cities like London, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia are not wearing Supreme or Palace, they’re not wearing big-S ‘Streetwear’, but the clothes they are wearing would unlikely be categorized as ‘streetwear’. Even in music videos with up and coming rap artists; sure, they might be wearing some of the big brands, but how many of their friends are in the back?

I wonder if, like the ‘Adult Contemporary’ genre of the 1980s, there isn’t some strange code going on in streetwear, clothing predominantly rooted in black music, culture and creativity but sanitized into a more palatable form for a majority white, middle-class customer. The same thing has happened in London with the foul term ‘roadman clothing’, a coded term for tracksuits, caps and trainers that promises all the edge of the life of a young black person in London without any of the danger. As Jammer explained when I interviewed him a few months back, they always knew they looked good, they always had their own fashion, it’s just now the fashion world is paying attention. Most kids hyping up about ‘roadman clothing’ and paying premium prices from labels like Palace will never have encountered the life that label entails, let alone lived it, but it’s a great selling point.

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How are we then supposed to feel about high fashion’s increasing interest in “streetwear” now? Gucci has made massive inroads with its embroidered sneakers and jeans; Demna Gvasalia, with both Balenciaga and Vetements, has been repeatedly praised for supposedly “elevating” streetwear to the catwalk. Supreme’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton has been hailed as solidifying the status of two fashion icons in the cultural zeitgeist.

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But then the Supreme x Louis Vuitton collaboration was allegedly inspired in part by late 80s/early 90s New York style, including Dapper Dan, a designer who transformed those same luxury brands into street products and was effectively chased into hiding by threat of lawsuits and financial ruin. Yeah, sure, his influence is being celebrated in the high fashion world now, but will a penny go to him for leading the way nearly thirty years ago? And only the other week it was revealed that Versace uses a code-word for black customers in its stores. And as for Gvasalia, fashion’s golden boy, I hope it didn’t go over anybody else’s head that of the three black models in Vetements’ F/W’17 runway presentation, one was dressed in an imitation Fubu ensemble, and the other like a leather jacket-clad bouncer. So for all the shift the fashion world is making in adopting “streetwear” into its own language, how big is its change in general attitude? I’m not so sure.

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Streetwear just seems, to me, to be a coded term that works for the people who have control over it; white fashion designers, white consumers and white audiences. When a black designer like Sam Ross or Virgil Abloh makes waves in the fashion industry, as both have done consistently over the past few seasons, their ‘streetwear’ brands are praised, simultaneously celebrating them but maintaining their distinction from fashion proper. But then when a high-fashion brand chooses to make tracksuits and sweats, they are praised for incorporating ‘streetwear’ style without sullying their high-fashion status. For customers, ‘streetwear’ is clothing that carries many of the connotations and credibility of street culture, allowing the wearer to immerse themselves in the identity, but without having to be truly engaged with what that might entail. There are two ways to be a roadman; grow up black and poor in London, or buy a tracksuit jacket that conveys an amplified, fictionalized idea of what ‘roadman’ is.

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Returning to Hennessy Youngman, I suppose over the past few weeks I’ve noticed an element of streetwear which could be viewed through the same lens as what CVS Bangers communicates. It’s important for me to stress, in closing, that my aim with this piece is not to suggest that blackness is inherently connected to poverty. Rather, I am interested in how streetwear has become the style du jour for Britain’s white, middle-class youth and other sections of white society, and then acknowledge that any system which has elements of class, race and society at play will necessarily carry the weight of issues that accompany it. When you make clothing “for the streets” and then sell it at a price that is exclusionary to many people who grow up in those streets, the effect is a cultural whitewashing. Think of what the connotations are when America’s President talks about “inner-cities”. Then think about what streets “Streetwear” is referring to. Couldn’t they be one and the same thing? And yet we know they aren’t. Why is that?

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Silent Majority Music — To put it most unkindly, trap music is adult contemporary for the prosumer age.

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Balenciaga F/W’17: More ‘Fake News’ than ‘Feel the Bern’

The Gvasalia brothers are a fascinating, frustrating pair. If you’re a fan of fashion, it was impossible to make it through 2016 without coming into contact with the minds behind Vetements. A label seemingly fuelled in part by its avant-garde reconfiguration of style and culture (arguably a continuation of the methods Demna would have learned whilst working at Maison Margiela) and in part by the label’s powerful grasp of Internet culture and the power of hype, Vetements is in some ways something entirely new, and in other ways something we’ve seen dozens of times before. The arguments that erupt around the label’s memetic releases seem unique in their current configuration, but it’s the same as the likes of Duchamp, Hirst, Koons et al; even if people are arguing about whether your work is or isn’t art, they’re talking about you.

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So it is that the brothers have set the fashion scene on fire with £300 DHL t-shirts, wholesale polyester rain-smocks screen printed with a logo and sold for a several-thousand percent markup, weed-grinder necklaces and so on. At one level, Vetements could be interpreted as a celebration of the inherent fashion of everything; that everybody has their own style and swagger.

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Such an interpretation is supported by an item like their brass cigarette-packet holder. In spite of various government taxes, restrictions and regulations, cigarettes are broadly available to all at an affordable price, and are surely one of the most heavily-stylized household goods that we buy at that price. The Marlboro smokers are the bad boys; the B&H smokers are geezers; the Vogue smokers are sophisticated (or, if you’re a Marlboro smoker, too pussy to smoke a real cigarette); and in the world of smokers, the rollie smokers are like that friend that creates their own style, more down-to-earth, less caught up in the bullshit.

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Another interpretation is that perhaps Vetements is a mockery of the hyper-marketed consumer society we now live in. From high fashion to pound shops, it’s common knowledge that we are paying high margins for the products we consume, with wave after wave of new labels stepping onto the scene to provide the next level of premium. Buscemi sneakers, which sell for upwards of £800 a pair, exist because people were already buying expensive sneakers. Jon Buscemi basically came along and made something even more expensive, and it’s one of the bestselling brands in every store that stocks it.

Vetements’ aforementioned weed-grinder necklace falls into this category for me; from luxury glasswares to goldleaf rolling papers to high-end strains, weed culture has warped into a global industry far removed from the “Cheech & Chong” stoner stereotype that dominated conversations before. Thirty years ago, guys in suits would have scoffed at the idea of a £400 bong and said, “A stoner with that much money is only buying one thing; more weed.” Now, those guys in suits are cornering the market.

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Guram Gvasalia’s business acumen has been a prominent aspect of Vetements’ outward-facing identity. Whilst interviews with Demna, the designer, have been rare, Guram has been open about the Vetements business model of limited supply, high price clothing that is intended to sell out and catalyse hype. At times it feels like an art performance in itself; a fashion brand with such a polarising central concept talking about itself only in terms of budget, revenue, income, outcome, profit margins. It reminds me of Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park taking acid and going to the Oscars in dresses, agreeing beforehand that they would not under any circumstances, answer any questions about the dresses, instead deflecting with empty platitudes about other people looking wonderful.

When Demna Gvasalia was announced as the new Artistic Director and Head Designer of historic French fashion house Balenciaga, then, there was obviously a lot of talk about what the maverick Georgian designer would do. Gvasalia’s process at Vetements has largely been an exploration of street style and “ground-floor” fashion; how would this translate into a Balenciaga collection? For the most part, relatively seamlessly; his debut Fall 2016 collection brought Vetements’ signature boxy, amorphous cuts to suiting and tweed jackets, countered with asymmetric styling and jackets that seemed to defy gravity, sitting on the models’ bodies without ever touching the shoulders.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2016

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2016

The biggest conversation point, however, seemed to be the casting for Gvasalia’s two runway shows, both of which featured exclusively white models. After a bit of hand-wringing and comments about curating a particular aesthetic (yawn), casting a diverse range of gay Russian people (close, but yawn) and people from different cultural backgrounds (can you hear me yawning?), the case was closed with the conclusion that this was basically a dumb move on the part of Gvasalia and stylist Lotta Volkova. For my two cents, you’re totally welcome to “curate” an “aesthetic” of exclusively white people, but there are plenty other people interested in pushing that “aesthetic” and they’re not all that great. Be smart.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

A year on, last week saw Balenciaga reveal its men’s Fall/Winter 2017 collection at Paris Fashion Week, and as always in a Gvasalia brothers production, there were plenty of talking points. Firstly, the collection’s heavy use of corporate branding, not only of Balenciaga but of its parent company, Kering, laid bare the multi-billion dollar industry that is concealed behind that magic and mystique of all these historic fashion houses.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Likewise, leather shopping bags and suiting pointed to fashion as a commercial venture. Styling that then paired these suits with garish running trainers and unbuttoned shirts was suggestive of Gvasalia’s own laissez-faire stylistic perspective, and seemed to stick two fingers up to the corporate stiffs.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Much more attention was paid, however, to a particular graphic that appeared throughout the collection, a re-appropriation of the logo from Bernie Sander’s campaign to be the Democratic nominee in the 2016 election. Appearing on navy blue bomber jackets, t-shirts, quilted scarfs and polo shirts, there seemed to be clear nods to typical campaign merchandise and staffer uniforms which, combined with styling that saw t-shirts yanked over hooded sweats and flannel shirts, conjured images of kids on the campaign trail.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

In the current political climate, there’s a multitude of ways to interpret Gvasalia’s use of imagery from Sanders’ campaign in his collection. Perhaps its appearance alongside corporate garb and suits is a reminder that even political campaigns are, in many ways, more about selling a product than creating a revolution… but this doesn’t quite fit. The most convincing argument I’ve heard is that this is a “two fingers” of sorts to America’s newly-inaugurated president, a declaration of progressive values on a global platform, but that falls flat for me also.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Earlier in the week someone tweeted about something they’d observed on Wavey Garms, a Facebook group where people buy and sell streetwear and vintage clothing. There’s been a small phenomenon of people buying and selling uniforms for Deliveroo, the “Uber of takeaway foods” that has been the subject of a lot of negative press recently around how little it pays its delivery riders and their controversial “self-employed” contracts that prevent the company from having to provide basic employment rights like a minimum wage, sick pay or holiday leave. The person described this as “the ultimate refusal to engage in the politics of fashion”.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Put more simply; to buy a piece of Deliveroo uniform ironically, as someone unlikely to ever work for Deliveroo or be in the position where such a job is one of your few options, is pretty shitty, and if you can’t understand why then you need to think a bit harder. The people who have to wear Deliveroo’s clothing every day have been fighting tooth and nail for basic employment rights, and then you’re wearing that same brand as if being an employee of that company is some kind of a joke. It’s comparable to the fuckwits who bought “Make America Great Again” caps as a hilarious ironic joke, somehow failing to understand that their witty joke was putting money into the coffers of the very same campaign they supposedly stood in opposition to. Newsflash: There’s no such thing as a left-wing or right-wing dollar, only dollars, and you gave yours to a hatemonger.

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This phenomenon was arguably central to the DHL t-shirt that made Vetements the hottest brand of 2016. Sure, the t-shirt was produced in co-operation with DHL and was supposedly inspired by the delivery drivers that Gvasalia interacted with on a nearly-daily basis, but what does that actually mean? It’s unlikely the money that Vetements paid to DHL will trickle down to the employees, so instead we’re left with an anecdote about a fashion designer looking at the delivery driver collecting their packages and seeing a fashion statement, creating a product that none of the people who have to wear that logo every day would likely be able to afford. Maybe I’m being thick, and for that I apologise, but I don’t get what’s so clever about it.

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Do you not then get a bit of a lump in your stomach at Gvasalia’s latest flip? Let’s interpret it as a tribute to a man who is a champion of civil rights, gender equality, progressive taxation, living wages and the causes of working and middle-class communities; someone who wanted to finally tackle the gender pay gap, poverty, social segregation and the plight of marginalised groups across the United States. How does creating product that will be sold to a customer base composed almost-exclusively of people whom aren’t affected by those issues (or are in such a position that they are able to disown themselves of it) create a tribute?

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Okay, so maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s a two fingers to Donald Trump? Right. In case you hadn’t noticed, Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination ended almost six months ago after he was flattened, not by Trump, but by his own party. And last time I checked Trump won. I’m not sure Captain Combover is going to give that much of a fuck. If this is a two fingers to Donald Trump, it’s like getting back at the kid who beat you up by showing him a photo of all the kids you pushed out of the way to earn the privilege of connecting his fist with your face.

So is it a celebration of Sanders’ fundamental values? Perhaps, but look around you; the people who are affected by the issues Sanders championed don’t have time to sit there making toasts to Mr. Six Months Ago. Sanders was an important, prominent voice, but people are much more concerned about NOW.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

With the Republicans gearing up to tear apart the Affordable Care Act, transgender people are working overdrive to build up a stockpile of hormone treatments and necessarily medical supplies to survive in a nation that is becoming increasingly hostile to their existence, once again. Women are doing the same regarding birth control, with many now looking to secure long-term reversible contraception, not only because birth control is fucking expensive, but because if they get pregnant their access to abortions is likely to be severely affected. Many prominent black activists, academics and figures on Twitter are now being painfully clear to their black American audiences: get a gun, learn to shoot, learn first aid, learn to grow your own foods and so on. Things are serious right now. Nobody has time to celebrate six months ago when things could be torn apart by February.

Which is kind of why I’m sat where I am about this Balenciaga collection. Between all-white castings and a fascination with cheap, “working-class” iconography like Champion sportswear, cigarette lighter stilettos and so on, the Gvasalias actually seem pretty tone-deaf about the shit they play with. I don’t quite see the self-awareness and irreverence that would make me think this is worth celebrating. If there really is some deeper message in there then it’s too convoluted and complex to be relevant to the people that really need support right now. While everybody else is going out into the streets and making sure their values, philosophies and belief systems are heard loud and clear, I’m loathe to defend the possibility of a fashion brand doing the same thing with a smirk and a whisper. You don’t topple a tyrant by winking at the camera; you do it by calling them out in no uncertain terms and joining the fight.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

What’s most ironic is that for all the channelling of Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the implicit values that accompany it, the Gvasalia brothers seem much more aligned with a practice favoured by America’s right-wing; fake news. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it doesn’t even matter if we get caught out for it afterwards, just shove it out there and create a stir, because people will click through, they’ll talk about it, and we’ll dominate the conversation. Furthermore, like America’s Idiot-in-Chief, they seem to hope that by creating a new conversation piece, good or bad, that they might be able to distract onlookers from all the other times they’ve been completely tone-deaf.

To their credit, they have. But it’s empty of substance or anything of value. For all the talk of left-wing echo chambers, this Balenciaga collection really feels like it’s dancing on its own. Thanks for the irony, Demna, but I’ll be giving my money to the ACLU, Safety Pin Box and Planned Parenthood instead. I suggest others do the same.

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Supreme x Louis Vuitton — Whatever.

There’s a famous quote from Dennis Green, the late coach of the Arizona Cardinals, following a game the team played in 2006 against the Chicago Bears. In the first half of this game the Cardinals amassed a comfortable 20-point lead against their opponents, only for the Bears to completely turn the game around in the second half, eventually winning the game 24-23.

In the post-game press conference, Green approached the microphones, and responded to the first question with a shrug, and the following statement: ‘The Bears are who we thought they were.’

After repeating that sentence a few times, each time increasing in volume and rage, he adds, ‘and we let them off the hook!’ before punching the microphone and stepping down from the podium. The Cardinals had had a twenty-point lead and they knew exactly who their opponent was, but they got complacent and the result was not a surprise. It’s not the pain of being taken unawares. It’s the pain of seeing something coming a mile off and still letting it get you.

Just over two weeks ago I responded to a leaked image of a Supreme x Louis Vuitton sweater with a meandering rant comparing the New York skate brand to Adam Sandler. Though the sentiment of the piece was sincere, the spirit was partially tongue-in-cheek. After all, is it really possible to draw comparisons between Adam Sandler and Supreme? One is an aging relic of American contemporary culture with a diminishing stock of relevance and worthwhile things to say, and the other is Adam Sandl— thank you, you’ve been a beautiful audience, good night!

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This week, at Paris Fashion Week, the collaboration between Supreme and Louis Vuitton was unveiled in full, comprising pretty much everything from keyrings and cardholders to skateboards, trunks and leather handbags. According to an unverified leaked price list, the collection will be priced between $200 for one of the co-branded bandanas to nearly $6200 for the trunk. Maybe you’re one of those people who thinks they’ll just get a key ring instead. Breathe in. $340. Breathe out.

How does the collection look? Ugly. This is the epitome of a collaboration in which the brands have reduced themselves to their signs and slammed the two together with reckless abandon. Think of it as the fashion collaboration cut-&-shut. Take Supreme’s iconic red and box logo, and the Louis Vuitton monogram, and slam them together violently like a child simulating the final showdown between his Action Man and Dr. X figurines. Nuance, subtlety, class, dignity, out the window. This is Supreme. And Louis Vuitton. And that’s pretty much all it is.

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I really don’t care for any of the explanations Kim Jones has given for inspirations and themes, such as the denim pieces being inspired by the jacquard denim first introduced by Marc Jacobs during his time at the French fashion house. I don’t care for stories about his time working for the distribution company that first brought Supreme into the UK. I don’t care for his romantic rambling about Supreme being woven into the fabric of New York culture itself. Kim Jones has a history in and connection to streetwear that can’t be disputed, and if any high fashion designer was going to collaborate with Supreme, it should be him, without a doubt. But the collection is ugly. You guys, fucking hell, the collection is ugly.

The oversized box logos and visual assault of red is ugly. The slamming of Futura Heavy Oblique onto any leather surface that can ostensibly hold it is ugly. The orthopaedic nursing home shoes are ugly. The ‘Sup’ ‘Sup’ ‘Sup’ ‘Sup’ ‘Sup’ ‘Sup’ ‘Err, nah, bye’ accessories are ugly. I do not like this ugly sham, I do not like it, Sam I Am.

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Supreme has done high fashion collaborations before that have worked. Its collaborations with Comme des Garçons SHIRT were particularly impressive, as was the collection it released with Visvim almost a decade ago. The collaborative suits and jumpsuits that they released with Adam Kimmel around 2011-12 were severely underrated. But this is ugly.

The collaboration marks a lot of firsts. It marks the first time that Louis Vuitton has collaborated with a streetwear label. It also marks the first time that Supreme has exhibited its product in a runway presentation. But the collection is, first and foremost, ugly.

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And yes, it’s pretty historic; a 163-year old Parisian fashion giant collaborating with a New York skateboarding company that’s scarcely over two decades old is not something that happens every day, and certainly it’s worth noting for that reason. That reason alone, however, because the collection is ugly.

I can see the gains in this collaboration for Louis Vuitton, I suppose. In an age where kids are styling Palace tracksuits with Gucci sneakers, and Vetements is making some sort of statement about streetwear as high-fashion, Louis Vuitton has drawn the ace card by collaborating with the brand that first bridged those gaps between high fashion and street fashion and is, in its own world, equally as iconic as Louis Vuitton itself. I don’t really get what this does for Supreme though, still. The prices are far beyond anything the brand has released before, the product is completely removed from the “gear for skaters to look good in” aesthetic that supposedly underpins the brand’s aesthetic, and the spectacle itself smacks of this air of high-fashion finally validating Supreme as a credible fashion label, or at the very least has this feel of a gatekeeper of fashion “opening the gates” for a label whose essential identity was always about not really caring what other people think and relishing in its own outsidership. That, and of course, the collection is ugly.

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So the press and media gets all excited, and we hear about David Beckham coming to view the collection and blessing us with the following hot take courtesy of WWD: “I’m here to support Kim [Jones], and the collaboration with Supreme is just incredible […] I love everything about New York, there’s nothing I don’t like.” How utterly grotesque. Almost as grotesque as the collection itself, which is ugly.

Nothing good will come from this collection. There is no good design in it whatsoever. It embraces the gaudy, garish, “expensive and overly-branded for the sake of being expensive and overly-branded” aesthetic that attracts only people with more money than sense, people who need to be relevant at any cost, and desperate people hoping to fill the void in their lives by spending more than anybody else. If H&M’s high fashion collaborations attract hoardes of shoppers who will be able to own a piece of fashion design for a more reasonable price, expect this collaboration to attract a handful of people who masturbate to the idea of their own expenditure, climaxing at the thought that they are the proud owner of something that other people can’t have. Expect people who care not for Supreme, nor Louis Vuitton, but for the idea that this Supreme x Louis Vuitton bag, engorged in red and oozing with the bubbling pus of a printed ‘Sup’ graphic, is loud, in your face, and lets you know that on one day, in one store, they spent far more money than you on something that is very, very ugly.

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I said that Supreme was like Adam Sandler; tired, complacent and over-indulgent in the notion that at this point in its career it can churn out any old dirge and know that revenue will exceed budget and a lucrative return will be generated for stakeholders, regardless of quality or content. I said that Supreme was like Adam Sandler; a household name wilfully placing all of its chips on the very notion of the value of its semiology alone, unwilling to make the slightest effort to create something of aesthetic value. I said that Supreme was like Adam Sandler; an over-indulged relic of American celebrity culture whose every public appearance is a twisted demonstration of how crass the concept of celebrity can be when left unchecked. I said that Supreme was like Adam Sandler; an ostensibly celebrated figure in their field who, despite still having the attentions of an audience that knows what they are capable of creating, is all too happy to just kick back and create something very, very ugly.

Supreme x Louis Vuitton is what we thought it would be.

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With ‘Godfather’, Wiley is Celebrating the Legacy of Grime

A few months back I wrote a piece lamenting the lack of in-depth knowledge of Grime in the wake of its achieving mainstream popularity. There was an eagerness amongst mainstream music journos to spread the word to their audiences, but nobody seemed to be doing anything more than basic research before doing so. Skepta. Shut Down. Boy Better Know. Done.

This was exemplified only a few weeks back by an Evening Standard review of Skepta’s performance at Alexandra Palace that complained about songs being “restarted” and audiences “going home unsatisfied.” The general consensus about this review is that the Standard sent along a music reviewer completely unequipped to review the artist on the stage, but a cynical part of me wonders if this wasn’t deliberate; if there’s anything the past six months have taught us, it’s that there’s plenty people out there willing to use outrage on social media to drum up some publicity. I’m sure the Standard were grateful for the click-throughs.

With mainstream coverage of Grime in 2016 largely confined to articles about Skepta — the release of Konnichiwa, its subsequently winning the Mercury Prize, his interactions with Drake and so on — I suppose it’s you could perhaps understand why a journo might walk into the scene and not fully comprehend the scope of the genre. And separating it from everything he achieved last year — which was nothing short of incredible — Konnichiwa might have been Apple Music’s album of the year, but it was far from the best grime album ever. It was a milestone of how far the grime scene has come since 2001, and symbolic of a sentiment that it was about time one of the only truly original genres to come out of the UK in the past two decades received some recognition, but it was far from representative of what grime is at its heart. This is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement.

When Wiley announced he would soon be releasing a new album, then, ears pricked up. When he said it would be titled ‘Godfather’ and might be his last ever release, things got much more exciting. Thing is, even when Wiley went through one of his many reinventions, he carried the scene with him. This is the guy from Pay As U Go Cartel, Roll Deep and BBK; the guy who brought countless young MCs into the 1Xtra studio for their first freestyle on Westwood; the guy who took UK garage and made his own genre, ‘Eski’. You don’t have to like him; but you have to respect him.

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If there’s anyone in grime who’s equipped to tell the whole story, it’s Wiley. And with Godfather, it feels like that’s exactly what he’s trying to do. This is a grime album in 2017 that says, ‘If you’re paying attention to us now, that’s fine, but you’re going to do so on our terms.’ No watering down. No grime-trap crossover. No over-production. No US rapper co-signs. Godfather is an auditory history lesson.

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First, the beats. With production from the likes of JME, Dot Rotten, Rude Kid, Teddy and Wiley himself, Godfather is rooted in classic grime production. Those trademark Eski sounds — Super Mario click-clocks, arf-arf synths and dustbin snares — are littered throughout the tracks along with the signature of every producer. Teddy’s booming kicks and guttural basslines; Preditah’s syncopated rhythms and dancing violins; Darq E Freaker’s quicktime intros and mad, bouncy drops that made Next Hype the track that breathed a new lease of life into a genre that most people had forgotten about. If you’ve grown up listening to Grime, then the way this album sounds just makes sense.

808s, moody horns, screeching violins, syncopated hi-hats, hand claps and choral melodies. Everything in this album stays true to the grime we grew up with; even U Were Always, Pt. 2 tips its hat to those sugar-sweet, emotional tracks that artists like Tinie Tempah were dropping on Channel U back in the day. And everything has been put together perfectly, using each element to its strengths. Ghetts sounds his best when he’s spitting over a racy beat with stabbing cello melodies, and that’s exactly what you get here.

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Which leads to the features. With the appearance of Jamakabi, Flowdan and Breeze, Wiley takes us back to the days of Pay As U Go and the birth of grime. Then you’ve got Roll Deep, with Scratchy, Manga and J2K and Little Dee (via his OGz teammate P Money), leading to Boy Better Know — Frisco, Skepta AND JME — and finishing with Chip and Ice Kid, two younger artists that Wiley brought up in the scene. You’ve even got Devlin appearing on track 2, whose feud with Wiley created one of the grime scene’s most memorable diss tracks. I don’t know a single grime fan who can’t quote at least the first 4 bars of ‘Extra Extra’. Maybe the two artists have patched things up since then, but by putting Devlin on his album, it feels like Wiley demonstrating that even during the beefs, he was leaving his mark.

Thanks to a roster like this, the flows are unapologetically grime as well. Flowdan and Jamakabi’s deep, dark patois-laced vocals take us back to grime’s roots in Jamaican dancehall and jungle music. Ghetts and Devlin bring the rapid-fire, angry delivery that made The Movement one of the most respected teams in the scene. Newham Generals and President-T demonstrate the ways artists flipped and experimented with the rhythm and made it their own. P Money comes through with the metaphor-heavy lyrics and overhanging bars that made his 2008 SB.TV freestyle a pivotal moment in grime. And then, of course, BBK come through with that inimitable flow that has made them masters of their craft; original, authentic and straight-up entertaining.

Then there’s Wiley himself. As I’ve already said, Wiley has been a master of reinvention in the scene. Garage, eski, grime, funky house, pop, he’s done it all over the years and always managed to make it his own, and every flow gets showcased on Godfather; half-time, start-and-stop bars that leave the listener hanging for more; off-beat flows that leave you rolling your shoulders and bouncing up and down in your chair; skippy rhythms that seem to move faster than the beat itself. We all know Wiley’s voice when we hear him, but you never know how he’s going to flow, because he can literally do anything with a beat. He’s like the Radiohead of grime; even the people who say they hate him, when pushed, will admit there’s at least one track they like.

I saw a tweet by someone yesterday that summed up my feelings about this album perfectly; “If this is really Wiley’s last album, he’s going out on one hell of a high”. This is it. Looking at the album as a whole, Godfather is basically Wiley showcasing everything that has made him one of the most important British artists of the 21st century — the kind of artist people petition Tower Hamlets build a statue of. No doubt, this album is a celebration of everything Wiley has achieved, as a producer, as a performer, as a rapper, as a leader and as a champion of the scene. But it’s also more than that. It’s a celebration of the entire grime scene; the cliques, the crews, the beefs, the battles, the beats, the bars, the flows, the freestyles, the olders, the youngers, the outsiders, the icons. In what might be his last major release, he’s doing the same thing he’s done throughout his career; bringing the scene with him, and making sure you listen.

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Unboxing Videos are Pointless. Stop Doing Them.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it in the future and I’ll say it right now; the Internet is great. So great, that it basically moves faster than anybody knows what to do with it. Though the people creating the content are at the heart of the Internet, the platform’s potential is miles ahead of contemporary human thinking, and as we catch up, it simply moves faster.

On top of that is the problem that human thinking hasn’t really approached the problem of the Internet in a way that’s conducive toward progress or improving existence. With its potential to inform, engage and educate the people, the Internet could be achieving incredible things in broader society — even more incredible than what it has already — but because it’s been leveraged primarily as a platform of sales and commerce, all of our best and brightest minds are being put to work finding out how to sell shit to you better rather than unlocking its potential in different spheres. It’s a far more complex discussion than can be covered here, but the Freakonomics podcast has a great episode on the subject if you’re curious.

YouTube pretty much exemplifies that fundamental issue of tech moving faster than the human imagination. When the service launched ten years ago, very few people predicted the scope of its potential. From memory, for the first year or so it was dominated by home videos and old flash videos you used to find on eBaum’s World and Newgrounds. Music videos eventually found their way on there, not always legally, and then Vevo came in and tied the whole game up. Now it’s got everything from entertainment and memes to educational and instructional videos, the latter of which are undoubtedly brilliant.

Some of the best examples of YouTube being put to good use is instructional and educational videos. I genuinely can’t fathom how people coped as adults before YouTube came along and basically showed you how to do all that grown up shit that you figured would never be a problem for you. Likewise, product reviews for things like tech, music and film work really well on YouTube’s platform. I especially like being able to see how interfaces for tech products or gameplay before buying. These kinds of videos work, as demonstrated by how gaming is one of YouTube’s biggest categories.

For every great idea, however, there’s a dozen fucking terrible ones. As long as the concept of unboxing videos have existed, I have absolutely loathed them. It’s only in the past few days that I’ve been able to articulate exactly why this is. This is no exaggeration; I really fucking hate unboxing videos, and I hate the people that do them. If you have ever done an unboxing video and are reading this, understand me clearly; I hate you.

Fuckwits.

Fuckwits.

The reason that demonstrational videos work so well with things like technology — both hardware and software — is that the product is dynamic. That is to say, there’s some action of movement or action to the product that can be demonstrated visually, whether the interface of a new phone or the action of a power drill. It allows a potential customer to see the product in action and find out if it performs the way it should. If Apple boasts that its latest iPhone has the best user interface yet with 50% faster loading speeds, you can test that in a video, quantify it, hold it up to scrutiny and inform people.

Clothes and shoes are static. They are lumps of fabric, leather, cotton and other materials. Beyond basic features such as zippers, buttons, laces and other components with which we are all completely familiar, they do not move. There is nothing for you to demonstrate about the product. Getting a static item like a pair of shoes out of a box and waving them around in front of a camera achieves nothing more than still product shots on a webstore; as a matter of fact, it often achieves less because those photos were taken in a professional setting for the express purpose of selling the product in the best possible light, whereas you are just some twat in his bedroom with a GoPro.

So how do you add something to give the viewer a better insight into the product? I guess you could describe the features, like the materials and what it looks like and so on. Because there’s genuinely nothing better than watching someone pull a pair of Vans Eras out of a box and then confirm that, yes, the canvas feels like canvas, the sole feels like rubber, the lining feels like lining and the print looks like a print. Extra, extra, read all about it: Denim jacket feels like denim. I cannot begin to describe how much these vacuous commentaries make me want to bash my own brains in with a claw hammer.

Let me know when you achieve a first worth talking about.

Let me know when you achieve a first worth talking about.

And guess what: ecommerce already had this bit fully fucking covered as well. If there’s one thing you can be sure about when it comes to buying stuff online, it’s that you’re going to be given a pretty detailed description of what the product actually is; it’s kind of how buying stuff online works. So when you unbox that waterproof jacket and confirm that, yes, it feels waterproof and is red and has a label on the inside and comes in a plastic dustbag, you literally sound like some Alex Jones InfoWars moron searching for a conspiracy. There is no magic or trickery going on; you bought something online, you were told what it would be, it is what it is, and yes, you are a fuckwit.

Evidence that the format is fundamentally flawed: I picked a random computer game in my head and searched “Witcher 3 gameplay” on Youtube. Top video: 7.5 million views. I searched “Supreme unboxing” as well. Top video: 100k. Even accounting for the difference in audiences for gaming and streetwear, the evidence tells us one thing: Nobody fucking cares.

Which leads us to the real reasons these videos exist, and it’s got sweet fuck all to do with providing something of value to people, and everything to do with dick-measuring contests and a desperate attempt to validate stupid purchases and “me first” hype races. With video titles like “I SPENT $3000 ON SUPREME?!” and “Unboxing $2000 worth of supreme Heat!”, the whole process exposes itself as people spending obscene amounts of money and then trying to reverse engineer some sort of justification. ‘I’ll unbox it online,’ they tell themselves, ‘and that way I’m not throwing money into a pit, I’m providing a service!’ Return to my first point: You are providing no service whatsoever.

I’m a child of forum culture, “What Did You Wear Today?” and “Latest Pick-up” threads, so I get the basic premise of sharing information with likeminded people about stuff, but the idea of dressing this up as some sort of informative service is absolute horseshit. Sitting in front of a webcam screaming about how everything is sick and confirming that an item of clothing has stitching, labels and graphics is the epitome of vacuous tripe. I am reminded of a product description for an item I was looking at on Grailed the other day, where the seller had helpfully confirmed the quality of a shirt as, “when you feel it, you know”. A nice soundbite, but absolutely nothing of substance whatsoever.

One of the banes of the streetwear & fashion industry is its fawning over fuckwits who do absolutely nothing, and I’m sure that some of these unboxers have great aspirations towards eventually becoming one of those fuckwits, getting contacted by the brands to be seeded free stuff and be welcomed into the upper echelon that is “Influencer” status. Newsflash: If you openly boast about spending hundreds of dollars on a brand on a weekly basis, why the hell would they change that dynamic in any way? It’s like the morons who go to Supreme’s London store every week spending stupid amounts of money and even cleaning up litter around the store afterwards. Surprise, surprise, you’re still not in the Supreme Team and Jason Dill hasn’t asked to be your best mate; you’re a tool.

Brainless fuckwit in "Brick is brick" shocker.

Brainless fuckwit in “Brick is brick” shocker.

During the US election campaign a prominent Twitter user had a “one size fits all” response for people who attempted to derail her discussions into big election arguments: Post Your Vote & Go. Don’t drag other people into your bullshit, don’t turn your personal view into a vendetta, don’t force people to engage with discussions against their wishes. To channel that same spirit, if you’re spending money on something because you like it, then do it. Go ahead. If you’re doing it in order to have new “content” for your shitty YouTube channel in the hopes that it will somehow make you relevant, interesting or some sort of respected pundit in the fashion world, stop. You are achieving nothing. Buy your shit and go.

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Mastermind Japan or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Soil the Legacy

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There have always been certain brands which carry a certain air of superiority. Often it’s the ones that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience in person. A bit like that story about John Peel never meeting the bands he loved out of fear it would spoil the magic image he’d created of them, sometimes your favourite label is one you’ve only ever encountered on the pages of a magazine or through a screen.

The other thing that creates this effect, obviously, is price. It’s basically what luxury brands trade on; we’re the most expensive and hardest to acquire, ergo we are the best. It’s this which informs Chanel’s policy of never holding sales or discounting its products in duty-free, for example; our product is this price for a reason, and if you want it, you will pay that much. Likewise with Hiroki Nakamura’s visvim. Certainly the brand’s mythology of pursuing the apex of quality and traditional production is part of the reason Nakamura’s label is so coveted in both the streetwear and menswear worlds, but if you don’t think its hype also comes down to the fact that it’s straight-up fucking expensive, then I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to sit down, Nigel, because you’re smoking rocks.

The list goes on; Hermes Birkin bags and the notorious waiting list just to buy one; Goyard, whose product can only bought in person at one of their handful of global stores; Goro’s silver jewellery, each piece of which was hand-crafted by Goro Takahashi and would only be sold if a particular piece matched the customer’s personality. Though it probably can’t be correlated on a graph, there’s something to be said for the effect that price, mystique and availability (or lack thereof) have on consumer behaviour, and when you start your consumer life in the hyped up world of limited editions and instant sell-outs that is streetwear, getting hold of one of these coveted pieces can be better than any drug.

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And it’s probably this which made Masaaki Honma’s luxury label Mastermind Japan one of the most respected labels in both the streetwear and high fashion spheres. Using little more than the colour black and a skull logo, between 1999 and 2013 Honma created a label synonymous with opulence, class and unparalleled streetwear cool. At the heart of the brand’s edge was a water-tight operation that never leaked any information, absolute silence that let the clothes speak for themselves and intricate approaches to even the simplest garments resulting in truly breathtaking pieces. Oh yeah, and it was all expensive as shit, as well. Like, really fucking expensive.

That expense can probably be broken down into three segments. Firstly, Honma had a penchant for cashmere, silk, luxury leathers and things like Swarovski crystal details. Supposedly this started out in the early years when the brand was struggling so he just went all-in thinking it would be his last collection, and then stores started buying. Then there were technical aspects of the manufacture that required skilled construction. For example, t-shirts with Swarovski details would often utilise several layers of fabric to prevent them from scratching against the wearer’s skin and or becoming detached, if I’m reliably informed. This sort of attention to detail was consistent across all Mastermind product, and complex work requires skilled labour, pushing prices up. Then there’s the third reason, which is basically, “We’re expensive, fuck you.” Literally. Mastermind was the expensive streetwear brand and did it fantastically. If you saw somebody wearing Mastermind they were the streetwear equivalent of Harry Enfield’s ‘considerably richer than you’ character. Glorious, glorious bastards.

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This approach acquired the brand a considerable number of celebrity and industry endorsements as well. An obscenely expensive brand producing exclusively black clothing with some healthy servings of ostentation and completely stone-faced demeanour? Of course Karl Lagerfeld fucking loved it. With friends like that, you don’t really need to go seeking approval of people that are lucky if they can afford to buy one of your t-shirts.

Part of what I liked about Mastermind was the minimalism of it all; that Honma created such a signature aesthetic with little more than a skull logo and the colour black. I wouldn’t necessarily have worn every single piece, but a bit like when you see somebody really pulling off a Rick Owens outfit, there’s something about a 100% Mastermind ensemble that looks incredible.

Then again, I can admit that what also made Mastermind so intriguing to me probably was the extravagance. I’ve got a tendency to fall for Japanese brands above my price bracket — Visvim, White Mountaineering and Junya Watanabe to name just three — but the thing with those brands is that I could head into central London and find them in Dover Street Market, and pick them up, and feel them, and get some sort of understanding of what the product was. It breaks that first rule of mystery. I’m sure if I’d travelled to Tokyo during the brand’s operations this would have been torn down in seconds, but I didn’t, and I never got to see Mastermind product up close.

Damien Hirst, there, looking expensive as shit

Damien Hirst, there, looking expensive as shit

When Honma announced the brand’s closure in 2013, it was the icing on the cake to the whole story. Think of a fashion label that did nothing except make the most prohibitively-expensive, mysterious clothing with seemingly no regard for external forces whatsoever just shutting shop and moving on. Retiring undefeated is a rarity in fashion. Even the historic fashion houses fall in and out of favour with the trends. Mastermind had a 12-year run of success, declared they had achieved everything they wanted to do and literally disappeared. No encore, no curtain call, gone.

So why, why, why, why, why, why, over the past eighteen months or so, has the brand returned as an absolute bastardization of everything they originally seemed to represent?

It started out benign enough, the odd shoe collaboration here and there. The question didn’t go unasked even back then — ‘I thought Mastermind closed down?’ — but the releases had the air of a one-off, so nobody kicked up too much of a fuss. Then suddenly apparel collections started showing up on webstores, but not the classic Mastermind stuff. Just black tees and hoodies with big fucking skulls on it. And yeh, you might even be sitting there now going, ‘But that’s all Mastermind was anyway.’ But it really wasn’t.

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A WILD TRASH APPEARED!

Onwards it went, collab after collab, hoodies and t-shirts and jackets and sneakers, luggage and watches and fluorescent beakers (allow me, I’m feeling Seussy). And yet nobody seems to be asking the question.

So can somebody please just confirm the fact that Mastermind post-2013 is just a massive, cynical licensing deal already? Normally I’d be inclined to give props to Honma for transitioning from legitimate fashion label to a Walt Disney “can we put Mickey Mouse ears on this?” operation without any word getting out, but it’s so transparent and grotesque that it’s insulting.

EXTRA EXTRA READ ALL ABOUT IT, THIS IS HOT TRASH.

EXTRA EXTRA READ ALL ABOUT IT, THIS IS HOT TRASH.

Mastermind did its share of collabs back in the day, but there was some semblance of rhyme and reason; which footwear brand is Mastermind going to collaborate with? The most expensive one, duh, boom, visvim x Mastermind, that’ll be $1200 please, fuck you. Fantastic. Even collaborations with less “upper-echelon” brands like Timberland produced something in keeping with a broader aesthetic created by Mastermind’s collections.

Reassuringly expensive.

Reassuringly expensive.

But none of that exists anymore. There is no elaborate, larger-than-life hypergothic streetwear-meets-high-fashion monolith; just crap hoodies and t-shirts and brain haemorrhage-inducing collaborations, one after the other. It’s tasteless in all senses of the word.

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This is a brand that created custom Goyard products, embroidering their skull & bones logo onto iconic pieces using even more Goyard fabric. This is the obnoxious, humiliating extravagance that Mastermind represented, whether I was invited to partake in that or not. The current form that Mastermind has taken is basically another Fragment Design or Uniform Experiment, placing their emblem onto the product of other brands. The thing is, there’s something about the way Fragment Design does it which works, and in a way that you’d never want it to for Mastermind. Fragment Design is a celebration of classic design. Mastermind Japan should only ever be a celebration of one thing; Mastermind Japan.

Mastermind JAPAN was a brand of mystique, intrigue and impenetrable cool. Mastermind 2.0 is a hot dumpster fire. The product will sell out, the kids will line up, the hype for a simple skull & crossbones will endure, but it will be nothing more than a hollow imitation of the original thing. Frankly, it’s tragic.

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In 2017, Supreme is the Adam Sandler of Streetwear

I think about Adam Sandler a lot. Not necessarily out of choice. A few years back I stumbled across a podcast by two Kiwi comedians, Tim Batt & Guy Montgomery, called ‘The Worst Idea of All Time’, in which they watched and reviewed Adam Sandler’s ‘Grown Ups 2’ once a week for a year. The podcast brought some good into my world — mainly the opportunity to listen to two bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Kiwis slowly descending into Happy Madison-induced psychosis — but also some bad. As a result of indulging so whole-heartedly into this podcast, listening through the series multiple times, my mind is awash with quotes from Grown Ups 2, conspiracy theories about Happy Madison’s accounting practices, and general thoughts about Adam Sandler.

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So it went when, earlier this week, my attention was drawn to what was allegedly a leaked image of a piece of clothing from an upcoming collaboration between New York skate brand Supreme and historic French fashion house Louis Vuitton. What appeared to be a t-shirt embossed with Louis Vuitton’s monogram in velour, interspersed with massive Supreme box logos at various angles. A few years ago you probably would have struggled to pinpoint how a collaboration like this would turn out; certainly, there’s elements of this suggested joint venture that take you by surprise. But really, this is just enough to stimulate your eyes for a few seconds, and then you realise that it’s everything you thought it would be, and nothing more.

And so it was, sitting at my desk today, that I thought of Adam Sandler.

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Like Supreme, Adam Sandler is an interesting character. A darling of Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, he came up alongside some of the comedy greats of that era, like David Spade, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers and Chris Rock. And then even if you haven’t actually watched any of his 90s films like Billy Madison or The Waterboy, you’ve surely heard from somebody about how great they were, right? How many incredible quotes are littered in every scene?

And if you have watched those films — if you, like so many people, grew up with Sandler — it’s impossible not to feel some sort of endearing sentiment when you think of him. Certainly, I haven’t watched a Sandler film (Grown Ups 2 excluded) since Mr. Deeds, and that was when I was maybe 11 years old, so regardless of the actual calibre of his filmmaking, my memory of Adam Sandler is unbreakably connected to 11-year old Gregk’s childish enjoyment of his films. Eric is pregnant! Mr. Penguin!

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And so it is, sitting here at my desk, that I think of Supreme.

Because, as I’ve said countless times before, I came into style and fashion through Supreme, with their unique way of presenting style; the idea that you can still just be a comfortable, normal guy but do it with a little bit more swagger than other people. And when I think back to some of those initial releases that caught my eye, they still seem great, even if I wouldn’t wear them today. And I know the history of the brand, and how it has permeated every corner of culture from punk and hip-hop, to film, to art, to literature, to technology and beyond. Supreme is littered with pop culture ephemera that represents the world I love, and I can’t help but feel some sort of fondness toward it. But then, as I’ve just said, I probably wouldn’t wear some of those favourites today.

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And so it is, sitting here at my desk, that I think of Adam Sandler.

I know, like everybody else, that Adam Sandler’s reputation, if not his box office take, has gone a bit awry in recent years. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in 2015, Sandler openly admitted he uses his films as an excuse to have a paid holiday, citing 50 First Dates as an example — originally set in Alaska, Sandler asked, “Why not Hawaii?” and got his wish. And sure, I’d be inclined to accept that maybe this was just Sandler telling a joke, but he hasn’t done that properly in fifteen years, so instead I’ll commend him for his honesty.

And Jesus Christ, if only it stopped at sheer conjecture and speculation, but during the epic Sony email hack/leak of 2014 there were countless emails between executives and producers discussing how Sandler is basically an asshole who provides minimal returns to the studio for the amount of money thrown at him, as well as the phenomenal admission by Sony Pictures Entertainment president Doug Belgrad that ‘you couldn’t fix what was really bothering him that he isn’t the guy he once was and nobody can make that better for him.’

I walk this lonely road, the only road that I have ever known. Don't know where it goes, but it's only me and I walk alone.

I walk this lonely road, the only road that I have ever known. Don’t know where it goes, but it’s only me and I walk alone.

In the podcast, something that Tim Batt regularly uses to describe Adam Sandler and the rest of the cast, extras, set dressers, editors and indeed director of Grown Ups 2 is the phrase, ‘mailing it in’; the idea that these guys are literally not even bothering to show up on set anymore, and basically doing the minimal amount of work required to get the job done, regardless of whether they are talented or capable enough to actually do better.

You only have to look at the cast of Grown Ups 2 (Sandler, Spade, Rock and Kevin James alongside the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Peter Dante, Jon Lovitz, Nick Swardson, Steve Buscemi and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, supported by an neverending list of even more pointless cameos) to know that this is basically an elaborate scheme, constructed by Sandler, to get as many of his mates paid for doing as little work as possible. Look through the extended cast on IMDB and you will find countless members of Sandler’s own family in the extras, including his wife and nephew. I literally would not be surprised to find out that the catering was provided by a shell company owned by Sandler or one of his clan. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son Patrick is in there, for God’s sake, and the kid cannot fucking act to save his life.

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Grown Ups 2 was filmed on a budget of 80 million dollars, and almost the entire film takes place in a Kmart. The closest thing you get to high-budget filmmaking is a CGI deer that kicks off the movie by pissing on a sleeping Adam Sandler’s face. I have no idea where that $80 million went, but you literally cannot see it on the screen.

And yet, aren’t all of Adam Sandler’s films simultaneously something new, and exactly what you’d expect? You don’t know what you’re going to see on the screen in detail, but you know it’s going to cost a lot, grab everybody’s attention for even a fleeting moment, and eventually turn into a massive disappointment — even more so if you actually went out and spent money going to see it.

And so it is, sitting here at my desk, that I think of Supreme.

Because increasingly I find myself faced with this strange cognitive dissonance, looking at each subsequent collaboration, each release, each announcement, and thinking how tired and predictable it seems to have become. Could I have predicted a collaboration with Supreme in 2017? No, but I couldn’t have predicted Grown Ups 2 either. But if you’d asked me what it would be like, I’d have told you that it would be shit. That velour Louis Vuitton sweater, emblazoned with what must be half a dozen unnecessary box logos, is exactly what Supreme is in 2017; a bloated, tired, overpaid, under-creative industry giant who’s practically begging their audience to just tell them to pack the fuck up and call it a day.

And so it is, sitting here at my desk, that I think of Adam Sandler.

Adam Sandler doesn’t make comedy films in 2017 because he’s a comedian. Adam Sandler makes comedy films in 2017 because he’s Adam Sandler, a guy that makes comedy blockbusters, because he’s Adam Sandler… a guy that makes comedy blockbusters. In his defence, a long time has passed from the days of him having to prove himself on SNL. Why should he even care if people think he’s funny or not? He’s already done more than enough to prove that. That’s why he’s not Adam Sandler the comedian anymore. He’s Adam Sandler, the guy that makes comedy blockbusters. But then one has to wonder why this complacency has taken such a firm grip of Adam Sandler.

This single, photoshopped image contains more plot and is more fun than the entirety of Grown Ups 2

This single, photoshopped image contains more plot and is more fun than the entirety of Grown Ups 2. Also, at no point in Grown Ups 2 do the characters drive go karts.

I guess it just reaches a point where, by virtue of being a guy that makes comedy blockbusters, you are confronted with the idea that it really doesn’t matter what you put up on the screen, you’re virtually guaranteed to smash the budget and make a profit. This is why Adam Sandler gets away with taking $80 million to make a film in a Kmart where virtually nothing happens; because that film then rakes in $240 million. Even if $79 million dollars of the studio’s money is going into some cavernous pit that eventually ends up in Sandler’s back pocket, that’s still $160 million profit in the end. So why should they care? If you want to know why so many talented comedians with great ideas get shafted by the industry while Adam Sandler signs a four-film deal with Netflix and tells the press that he decided to do it when he realised that Netflix rhymes with “wet chicks”, it’s because Adam Sandler makes way more money.

And so it is, sitting here at my desk, that I think of Supreme.

Because the Internet has been the greatest thing that ever happened to Supreme. It’s propelled their brand to every corner of the globe and turned their clandestine exclusivity into a global commodity. Now every kid in every town can be a part of that exclusive club. And they will throw money at it, no matter what. And Supreme has realised that, twenty years in, subtlety is a boring game.

Why take the time weaving nuance and class into your pieces when you can knock together a CAD by 11:30, call it lunch and go take some photos of Jason Dill smoking cigarettes in a squat flat and still make the same amount of money? Supreme is a brand that now simply is Supreme. It’s not a streetwear brand. It’s not the bridge between high and low fashion. It’s not the originator of downtown cool. It’s Supreme. And Supreme makes clothing that people will pay silly money for regardless of what it is or how it’s made. Because it’s Supreme, and Supreme make clothing that people will pay silly money for. And the online mags and blogs and Instagram influencers will post about it, and everyone will love or hate it, and the people who hate it will be confused, and the people who love it will throw all their money with reckless abandon and bathe in the lake of warm piss that is owning a piece of Supreme clothing that people were talking about for about one week.

And Supreme will take that money, and call all of its mates up and go hang out at a lake in Stanford, Connecticut whilst Shaquille O’Neal, dressed as a police officer, points a loaded gun at four legends of 90s comedy and tells them to ‘Put your hands in the air, and wave ‘em like you just don’t care’. And then Colin Quinn will climb up and slap his hands against an ice cream machine in such a way that it looks like he’s shitting everywhere. And David Spade will roll down a hill in a giant tire and Shaq will stop it with his groin. And all the women will be wearing push-up bras. But then I realise that, once upon a time, I too enjoyed throwing my money at things like that, and maybe this is just growing up. Maybe Supreme hasn’t changed at all; maybe I have.

And so it is, sitting here at my desk, that I think of Adam Sandler.

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2016 sucked and I’m going to tell you why

Another year gone by, and if there was ever a time to feel cynical about the state of things, December 2016 is certainly it. To parrot the same tired phrase as everybody else, this has been a really shit one.

And of course there’s no doubt in my mind that you were screaming out for me to come through with some reflections, considerations and predictions so you can add “tedium” to that long list of things that 2016 rubbed in your face this year.

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First up, this has been a year of literally celebrating mediocrity. If there was ever an indicator of the tragedy that is journalism in 2016 — particularly online — it’s the end of year “Best of” lists that trumpet absolute garbage because they either don’t know any better or they’re just terrified of looking irrelevant. Prime example: Drake – Views. Nobody thought this was a great album. Everybody thought it was his weakest work yet. Tired, repetitive, clichéd, meandering and ultimately going nowhere. And yet there it is on countless publications’ end of year listicles for no reason other than sheer terror that it might affect their credibility to try looking like they actually have an opinion instead of firing off the same dozen names plus whoever the flavour of the month is.

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The same is true of The Life of Pablo, though in softer terms. Of course there are bangers on there, and it’s decent enough by Kanye West’s standards, but ultimately it was a mess; badly-produced, poorly-assembled, overly-long and a case study in amateurish practice masquerading as artistry. When Kanye released Yeezus it was a deliberate attempt to disrupt, offend and smash the music industry; an album full of abrasive sounds, schizophrenic structures and provocative lyrics. There was method to the madness. The same is not true of TLOP. Shitty lyrics and fabricated celebrity feuds, crap soundcloud throwaway tracks about Yeezy sneakers, artist features that either squander potential or end up being utterly superfluous, confusing co-opting of another artist’s song with just enough alterations to make it something new? Like a lot of our generation I have a lot of respect for Kanye West and the things he’s done throughout his career, but this album, objectively, was sheer mediocrity; the by-product of too long spent in the Kardashian media-manipulation machine and the yes-men echo chamber. He’s not the messiah. He’s a very naughty boy. Round that off with hanging out with Donald Trump and standing by his side, looking like a cross between the MAD magazine mascot and a prize pig, and he can take a fucking seat. Get help, get well, love and respect, but you’re in the bin for now.

And so the same phenomenon of terrified pundits praising average efforts and being too scared to risk passing up the opportunity to get click-throughs and ad-revenue has soaked thoroughly into fashion and streetwear also. To be clear; fashion mags have always chased these things, but it certainly seems like we’ve reached a point where the objective is solely that, with no actual focus on providing a particular, crafted opinion or tone-of-voice anymore. “Controversial” think-pieces revolve around simplistic, barely-edgy discussions that skate around the subject without alienating potential advertising and sponsored content clients, and objectively shit product is heralded and hammered into your skull on a daily basis because god forbid you might think one of these websites hasn’t heard of Anti-Social Social Club or VLONE.

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I’m hoping that 2017 might be the year when streetwear finally swallows its own tail; when these high-fashion labels trying to convince you they’re gritty and street-level are forced to confront the fact that the people whose essences they co-opt can’t afford their product; and these shitty t-shirt brands charging $50 for a screen-printed Gildan tee are finally told to get in the fucking sea and stop trying to convince themselves and others that they’re doing something revolutionary. Low-end shysters chase the high-end dollar, and alienated high-end brands with no ideas chase the cultural kudos of the low-end. It’s utterly exhausting. There’s nothing clever about charging young kids through the nose for a screen-printed hoodie. You’re not a genius. You’re not a marketing mogul. You’re not a social media influencer extraordinaire. You’re a snake-oil salesman, and 80 years ago people would’ve covered you in tar and feathers and run you out of town. Public service announcement to anybody reading this: Stop following charlatans on Instagram because you’re scared you won’t know what to say at the next contrived industry event. People who talk about those guys only do so because they themselves are eye-wateringly boring.

That same over-saturation and housing bubble effect can’t come sooner for collaborations, either. Over the past four years, big brands and indies alike have completed the final cycle of bastardising the notion of collaborative endeavour. Fewer and fewer collaborations carry that allure of the idea of likeminded spirits coming together to build on each other’s talents; more and more now leave a lingering, putrid stench of desperate attempts to make a particular silhouette or trademark relevant again, or to bolster a new release with the validation of aforementioned t-shirt brand charlatans whacking their logo on the heel to reassure you that the hype isn’t dead just yet (OBJECTION: it is).

It’s been a great year for me musically. I was lucky enough to see some of my favourite artists multiple times. Stars of the Lid, ambient/drone duo signed to the Texas-based Kranky Records, went on an extensive European tour and I was fortunate enough to catch them at the Barbican Centre and a red brick neo-gothic church in Brighton. It was the closest I’ve had to a religious experience in a church and sounded absolutely phenomenal. I’ve sung their praises multiple times on this site but seriously, if you’re partial to downtempo and minimalist music then you really should be listening to Stars of the Lid already.

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At the Barbican show, the band was supported by Claire M. Singer, a contemporary classical musician who performed ‘The Molendinar’, a 25-minute piece performed on a mechanical drawstop organ — not an electric one basically. It’s a powerful study into how precise control of wind through pipes can affect dynamics, tone, pitch and so on, and it’s one of the best pieces of music I’ve heard all year. Try playing it really loud in your apartment so your neighbours think a church has moved into the flat above.

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Fans of more animated music should divert their attention to Mssingno, who recently released a 24-minute mixtape entitled ‘M1 – Personal Trainer’. Loaded with samples from the likes of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Imogen Heap and the like, it’s safe to assume the featured tracks have been released in this manner as getting legal clearance for a proper release would be an absolute fucking nightmare and would probably never happen. I especially want to draw your attention to the Ariana Grande song around 11 minutes in which makes me want to dance around in a pink faux-fur mini skirt spraying prosecco and glitter all around the room. No homo? So homo. Don’t @ me.

It’s been 1200 words and I can feel this piece heading down a totally different road for a different day, so I’ll leave it there. Should any of the things I’ve hinted at in this piece come true, then I want you to think of them as predictions and carry me through the street, praising me as a modern-day Nostradamus. If they don’t, then it’s just stuff I wish would happen and doesn’t really matter anyway. Duplicity. It’s man’s greatest gift to himself.

That’s it. 2016’s over. Shop’s closed. Fuck off.

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