Gary Warnett aka GWARIZM

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When I started writing this blog five years ago, it was the result of being completely exhausted with the state of writing around fashion, streetwear and their connected subcultures. For the most part, you only had a choice between a handful of blogs regurgitating press releases like clockwork with no deeper analysis, or broadsheet newspapers and lifestyle magazines who simply didn’t get what they were writing about.

So when I made the decision to just start writing about this stuff, for me, in the style I wanted, I didn’t really have much of a template or guideline to go off. I knew that I wanted to be engaged with the clothes, culture and references without being stuffy or alienating. I knew that I wanted to get people thinking harder about the fashion industry, about its more pressing connections with broader social issues, without lecturing them or turning them off with obtuse language. There was only one writer out there who really nailed that, and that was Gary Warnett.

For anyone who wanted to know streetwear, hip-hop and subculture on a deeper level, Gary’s blog, Gwarizm, was the original source. His knowledge of the world he inhabited was encyclopaedic, and a simple blog post about a pair of trainers would quickly dart to films, rap songs, magazine adverts, comic books and a milieu of other pop cultural references that always left you, the student, feeling totally clueless in the best way possible.

Over the next few years, I would slowly establish myself in the scene, getting to know people from stores, magazines, designers, distribution companies, PRs and so on, just doing what I could to get by. Every so often one of my peers would ask me, “Have you ever met Gary?” And my response would be that no, I haven’t had the chance to yet, but people kept telling me we’d get along. “Yeah, you and him… you’d have fun together, Gregk.”

I’d received compliments and praise for my writing from a few people in the scene, and it was always nice to be told I was on the right tracks, but when I heard, third-hand from a friend, that Gary Warnett was a fan of my writing, it was a totally different level of pride. I finally met him in 2014, and it went exactly the way anyone who knew Gary would expect; saying hello, asking how he was, and then being thrust straight into a sprawling conversation about trainers and culture, each point ricocheting off into another, him occasionally asking you, “You remember that?” and you, utterly bewildered, just having to smile, nod, and lie: “Ah, yeah? Go on.”

The fact is, I’m sure that 90% of us were completely out of our depth when we were speaking to Gary, but he never let on. One of the best things about him was how totally normal he was, how he never judged – as long as you weren’t a clueless PR or marketing department. He had raw, scathing criticisms of many corners of the industry, but to people as individuals he was the nicest guy in the scene. I would often contact him for advice, quotes, a nod in the right direction and other things, and he was always happy to oblige – a rarity in London’s often cliquey and cutthroat fashion scene.

For people whose outspoken opinions tend to land them in trouble, like myself, Gary was a shining light. He reassured me that you didn’t have to be a yes-man to get by; that you could tell it how it is, cut through the jargon, speak truth to power and survive. Gary was the guy that could be invited to speak at a brand’s event, get up on stage, spend 15 minutes shredding the brand’s product, marketing, PR and overall strategy to pieces, walk off the stage with a smile on his face, and get invited back next week. In a world where everyone’s tap-dancing for a free pair of trainers, Gary did everything his own way, stuck two fingers up at the network economy, and walked home with the trainers anyway. He was punk as fuck, in a very necessary manner.

I heard about Gary’s passing last night, on the way home, and it hit me hard. I had been speaking to him only a few weeks ago about the Nike Skepta collaboration, and a few days before had emailed him for some quotes for an article I was writing for Sleek Magazine. At first, I didn’t quite believe it, but gradually tributes started popping up on Twitter from all across the world and the reality set in. From LA, to New York, to Miami, to London, to Manchester, to Copenhagen, to Stockholm, to Tokyo, and beyond, a lot of people lost a friend last night, and you can feel the pain.

Not only that, with Gary’s passing, we’ve lost a man whose endless knowledge of sneakers, streetwear, fashion, music, culture, society and the intricate webs that tie them all together was totally unparalleled. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that his death is tantamount to the Library of Alexandria burning down. One individual last night summed it perfectly by acknowledging “the many dots we will now never connect”. We’ve lost someone who knew the streetwear brands better than they knew themselves, and knew culture like it was an extension of his own body. Gary was the thread that, through his writing, tied everything we love together.

For me, this is a great loss of a friend, a peer, and an idol, and I feel lucky to have been able to know him. Many other people will have things to say in the coming days, so I’m going to leave it at that.

One thing that I hope you will consider; Gary’s website, Gwarizm.com, is still here, but who knows how long it will stay up for. If you have any spare time over the coming days, please consider making sure this invaluable resource is still available in the future by backing it up on the Internet Archive. Just copy the link for each post, paste it into the Archive search bar, and click the “Save this url” link in the yellow box.

Rest in Peace, Gwarizm.

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On Mental Health, Suicide Ideation, and Staying Away from Fast-Moving Trains

Content Warning: Suicide

There’s no easy way for me to broach this topic; no snappy introduction or reference point I could use to make the landing a bit softer. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time but have never really known how to approach it. It was only after watching a particular video last night that I decided it was time to just get it out of me, put it out there and move on, so that’s what I’m doing.

Chester Bennington’s death didn’t hit me as hard as it did others. I was a fan of the band when I was younger, and can remember buying Hybrid Theory at an airport in Spain when I was about 8 years old, but it’s been a long time since I actively listened to them. Regardless, Hybrid Theory, Meteora, Reanimation and Collision Course were great records and definitely on heavy rotation during my younger years.

Anyway, I was scrolling through Twitter last night and there was a video where Chester talks about his depression:

‘I don’t say nice things to myself. There’s another Chester in there that wants to take me down. […] If I’m not actively getting out of myself and being with other people […] If I’m out of myself, I’m great. If I’m inside, I’m horrible. […] This is that moment of enlightenment, where you go, “I could do something about this, and by doing it, I could move forward and get unstuck from this.” It’s like I can live with life on life’s terms. I can experience the entire spectrum of humanity without wanting to get out of it.’

It was something that resonated with me very heavily, and shook me up a lot. The few times I’ve tried to talk to people about my mental state, I’ve talked about having a voice inside my head that is constantly shouting me down. If I think too long about certain things, there’ll be an involuntary spasm in my head, and a second voice will kick in talking about what a piece of shit I am.

On some occasions, it actually goes one step further into a vocal reaction. I can remember, one time, being stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes, and I suddenly blurted out, ‘I want to kill myself’ to an empty room. Or walking down the street on my own, and suddenly saying, ‘I’m such a piece of shit’.

The other way these thoughts manifest, is a case of perception. The first time I thought about suicide, I was around 15-years old. I used to get the train to Brighton almost every weekend, and there would always be fast trains going past on the platform, and every time I would think about stepping in front of them.

It still happens, every so often, that I have to push myself against the back wall or sit down as a sort of security against standing on the edge. I have a bad thing with heights also; if I ever stand too close to the edge of a high drop, I can start feeling myself tilting over. If I’m leaning over a wall or railing, I start thinking about myself climbing over the edge. One way to describe it would be like an almost childlike curiosity, or the way a dog looks when it encounters snow for the first time. Whenever I’m in a new place with a high drop or something that might offer a quick and destructive end, my mind is drawn to it. You develop an eye for windows in tall buildings that don’t have rails or mechanisms to stop the window from opening too far. They become possibilities.

It’s persisted, and persisted, and persisted. I’ve done a few different kinds of therapy over the years, and fortunately I’ve found a few techniques that seem to have helped me find a balance, but for the most part it’s never a case of the thoughts going away. It’s more about finding responses and rationalisations that help me to regain composure. I still think about my own death all the time, but instead of thinking, ‘If I step in front of that train, it’s going to create such a mess for so many people,’ I now think, ‘Well, that means that I care about other people, so I must be a good person, so maybe I shouldn’t.’

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I’m fortunate enough to be an intelligent person, which has given me a lot of tools and skills to be able to combat these things. But one of the downsides of this, in my experience, is that medical professionals, therapists, counsellors and so on, will try very hard to convince you that all the answers and solutions are already within your grasp. I’ve always been very adverse to medications and antidepressants. I don’t like the idea of something permanently altering my mental state. But I’ve been very frank with those people in the past, that I don’t think I am mentally well, and so often received responses along the lines of, ‘Well, hey, you’re a smart guy, you’ll figure it out.’ And I appreciate that. On the good days, I think about that and feel more capable. But it’s not much use on the bad days at all.

I’m a very introverted person a lot of the time. I have a tendency to spend days at a time on my own, doing things on my own, or walking around. Ironically, this then brings with it a certain sense of isolation. Being around people is hard, so I have to spend time alone; being alone means I get up in my head; being up in my head makes me think about death and suicide; thinking like that makes me feel like I can’t be around other people; so I spend time alone, and so on. It’s a strange combination; struggling with being sociable a lot of the time on the one hand, but on the other knowing that you badly need it when things start to spiral. It’s one of the reasons I have a tendency to thrust myself into people’s presence, showing up unexpectedly or pushing to meet up and hang out even in the most inconvenient circumstances.

A lot of my closer friends, if they read this, might even find this surprising, as I can really bounce back in their presence. But I think it’s easy to forget that people with mental health issues are usually the most adept at hiding those types of things. Of course we are – when you spend every day living with any mental illness or compulsion, you necessarily develop techniques to mask it from others. I’ve told people before that socialising, going out and being bubbly and entertaining, that’s “dancing” to me. I’m not even necessarily all there. I’m just dancing, performing an idea of a regular Gregk that will hopefully stop people from worrying too much. And the nicest part is that sometimes you really can fall into that role, and it feels totally normal, and for a short time it’s the best thing in the world. But seriously, at the end of the evening, when you’re sitting on the train home or in the back of the cab, you feel yourself slipping out of it again. The whole thing feels fake.

Something that Chester said in that video helped me to make sense of this; that idea that, as a depressive or whatever you call it, the time that we spend “being” something for somebody else gives us the opportunity to get out of our own heads. And I’ve noticed that I am at my best when I’m being a friend for someone, or a brother, or a colleague, or a funny new acquaintance, or whatever else.

A friend came over to Berlin to visit recently and we hung out for a few days, and at the end of it I said to them, ‘I’ve been thinking about death and ending things a lot lately. It always happens, but it’s been extra bad at the moment, but having you here and hanging out and having that friendship has really helped me, and I owe you for that.’

I was really worried how they would react, but they just said, ‘That’s really good to hear, and I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to tell me.’ And that was a big relief. No bullshit, no performative sympathy, no dancing, just an ‘I understand’ and a ‘thanks’.

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Needless to say, a few days after they left, I swung back down again. I sometimes wonder if I am maybe manic, at least to some degree, but it doesn’t feel “erratic” enough, in that sense. My moods follow some sort of a pattern – generally, I’m up as long as I’m keeping myself busy or stimulating myself, and then down for long, extended periods of time, often coupled by, and creating, isolation – they’re just very extreme. But fortunately over the past few weeks I’ve been flying back to London quite regularly for one thing or another and I’ve been fortunate to bump into a lot of really decent people who’ve helped me to find value in myself and keep in balance.

It’s just tough. I work very hard, all the time, and I try to constantly keep myself busy, writing, or working, or going to shows, or art galleries, or flying around, doing whatever. And I’ve spoken to a few people lately who’ve expressed their admiration for me and how much I’ve achieved over the past few years. And it’s so nice, and I’m so grateful for it. But I sometimes wish I could explain to people that most of the time, the only reason I’m doing it is to keep myself busy enough that I can’t find the time to think about throwing myself in front of a fucking train.

In my experience, it’s a common misconception that being suicidal means wanting to die. For me, it’s anything but. It’s a constant fight to stay alive. There’s just this unwelcome voice in your head that is doing everything in its power to try and end things. And having the intelligence and rationale to argue against it often just complicates further, because then that voice just calls you out as a fraud or a faker; ‘You don’t even really want to kill yourself. You’re just pretending.’ I often worry that, if I ever do end up taking my own life, it’ll just be to prove that I can to that voice. I’m certain that’s the case for a large proportion of people who choose to exit.

And I think this is something that all of us need to remember, especially in an age when social media has us all convinced (and trying to convince each other) that everybody else’s lives are amazing, and we’re all being our best selves and living the Instagram-perfect existence. I love VSCO cam as much as the next person. I get joy from having a nicely-curated feed. It feels good to put a new post up on the blog, or do some work with some cool people, or see my name printed in a magazine.

But it doesn’t change the fact that probably at least 20-30 times every day I wonder how much easier everything would be if I just killed myself right there and then. And I really do. I think about it all fucking day. And sometimes I even laugh about it, or joke about it on Twitter, or write it in text messages to myself. But fuck it, at least it’s out there now and if you ever send me an email and I don’t reply, or we make plans and I drop off the face of the earth, that’s what’s going on.

And if you ask me how I am and I tell you, ‘Yeah, good’, there’s a 90% chance that I’m lying to you, but that’s fine, because it probably means I care about you enough to not want to scare you off by talking about dying. And if I ever show up at your workplace uninvited, or maybe hang out a bit longer than everybody else, or ask you what the plan is next, just understand that I know I’m being fucking insufferable, but I’m just looking for a bit more time before I have to go back to being “just me” again.

And please remember something I read shortly after Robin Williams’ death; these people do not die of suicide. That is a single symptom, the final symptom, in a long list of ailments and sufferings that constitute depression. Sure, the killing blow might be whatever the choice of exit happens to be, but they start dying long before that. If you make these deaths about suicide, you’ll never find the solution. We have to talk about depression and alienation. The illness itself.

And lastly, I’ll make the joke I always make to help myself to feel better. Don’t worry about it too much, guys. I do think about killing myself a lot of the time. But that’s okay. The rest of the time, I’m just think about killing all of you instead.

R.I.P. Chester, thanks for making this easier.

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Lack of Guidance x Nike ‘Zero Guidance’ Editorial

Football and art-influenced Dutch streetwear label Lack of Guidance dropped me an email today with these images of a new project they’ve been working on in collaboration with Nike.

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Celebrating the Netherlands’ hosting of the twelfth UEFA European Women’s Championship, the photo series shot by Lois Cohen, entitled ‘Zero Guidance’, features 11 women who embody a spirit of following your own path, creating your own rules and compromising nothing.

The shoot takes places at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, which was the venue where women were first allowed to compete in the Olympics at the 1928 Summer Games, so there’s a really solid concept running through the whole shoot. And as a nice finishing touch, the lion in the crest of the Royal Dutch Football Associaton (KNVB) has been transformed into a lioness. And you know how much I love clever little logo flips.

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Purely conceptual, with product strictly not for sale, this is basically a great, sincere celebration of women and sport by an independent label that lives the culture. This honestly dropped in my inbox out of nowhere and I was really taken back by the images, so had to share them with you. Scroll down for the whole shoot and I hope you enjoy. Thanks to Lack of Guidance for sharing.

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Pop-Ups Shut, A$AP Barry the Plumber, and the Next Generation of Tyler

Some quick thoughts on a few things that have happened this week. Might try and make this a more regular thing in the absence of Ulysses-esque streetwear rambles. Who knows.

Louis Vuitton Announces Cancellation of Future Supreme Collaboration Pop-Up Shops.

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So earlier in the week some emails emerged from Louis Vuitton representatives saying they’d be cancelling any further pop-ups. Since then, some other sources have suggested that the stores will be going ahead at locations outside of the USA, so who knows.

In my opinion, the first thing to consider about this is that, for two prestigious brands well-known for their pretty watertight organisation, this is a total shitshow. I asked myself once or twice if this might have been some orchestrated drama to maintain the hype after the initial drop, but I doubt it considering how bad it looks.

What’s going on, then? I’ve got a few theories, and they mostly trace back to the lines. Any brand that collaborates with Supreme knows what they’re getting themselves into – long lines, resellers, and so on. And if anyone in the fashion world knows it, it’s Kim Jones, who’s got some pretty deep roots in the British streetwear scene.

But what’s different here is that this isn’t happening within Supreme’s infrastructure – it’s in Louis Vuitton’s. Their stores, their supply chain, their customer network, and so on. If a bunch of spotty teenagers in expensive trainers and hoodies (said with all love – I used to be one of them) are lining up outside a Supreme store any day of the week, it’s hardly news.

But that same thing happening under Louis Vuitton store signs is something different, and even if Kim Jones knew what was coming over the horizon, it really wouldn’t surprise me if there were some people higher up at Louis Vuitton looking at the hype kid frenzy and wondering if this was a good look for their brand. There were a few stories going round about VIP LV customers showing up to the pop-up events and basically being messed around – so if you’ve got someone who might spend hundreds of thousands with you every season getting mugged off for a few kids buying £500 hoodies, you might start reassessing your priorities.

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The other thing that’s happened is the same thing that happens with every Supreme collaboration – the stores opened, people bought stuff, and it’s up on Grailed and eBay half an hour later for a crazy mark-up. I’m sure one or two pieces will sell in the immediate frenzy, but with the product already expensive enough, I’m not convinced the resale market for this stuff is going to be as promising as people think. So you’ll end up with a bunch of deadstock Louis Vuitton sitting on Grailed and eBay for months, maybe eventually selling for just above retail or even below. Again, not a good look for Louis Vuitton at all.

And then of course there’s the simplest explanation – Louis Vuitton probably got loads of pre-orders and purchases from VIP customers and ran out of stock. Again, they’re a luxury fashion brand who make a large bulk of their sales with customers barely setting foot in a store. This massive, international retail spectacle was a bit of an anomaly, and it’s possible the stock just sold out.

But I’ll return to my previous point; if you’re a VIP Louis Vuitton customer, and you’ve dropped anything from 20k to 100k on the most prestigious and talked about fashion collection of the year, only to see loads of it showing up on eBay and with every Tom, Dick and Harry getting their hands on it, you might be a little bit turned off. Let’s be real; elitism and exclusivity is a massive part of fashion, and I wonder if there wasn’t even a fraction of Louis Vuitton customers experiencing some disappointment that their exclusive streetwear collection has effectively turned into a free-for-all.

Once again, if I’m not mistaken, Kim Jones has given us exactly what we thought he would. So those are my thoughts on that.

The A$AP Bari Saga

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Earlier this week some footage surfaced on the internet which appeared to show A$AP Bari, “fashion” “designer” and one of the least talented members of A$AP Mob, sexually harassing and assaulting a woman in a hotel room. Like all innocent parties, Barry the Plumber took the usual route of dismissing the video as fake, going silent on social media, then releasing a statement that him and the girl are friends and nothing happened, despite her saying he’d been arrested by the London Met Police and was currently in custody. Who to believe?

There’s a lot of different angles to discuss here, but what really struck me quite quickly was how comment sections and Twitter feeds, at least to begin with, were pretty unanimous in their condemnation of Barry from Eastenders and his behaviour. This seems like a positive thing, but then you consider that many of these young men are the same ones that would have defended individuals like Ian Connor, Ched Evans, Bill Cosby, Johnny Depp and so on when they were facing similar charges. Indeed, I’ve seen a lot of individuals tying this back to Barry from Burnley and Ian Connor’s beef last year over the accusations surrounding Connor’s own behaviour, as if Big Bald Baz’ emergence as a sex pest is some sort of vindication of Ian.

Hot Take #1: It’s absolutely possible, and more than likely, that both Barry’s Auto Repair and Ian Connor are both unpleasant individuals. The two already have a complete lack of talent, toxic masculine attitudes and cynical opportunistic tendencies in common, so don’t be so surprised that those things converge like this.

But secondly, bear in mind that the initial condemnation of Barry Big Bollocks was the result of that video – a fifteen second fucking video. So many of these guys that will do anything they can to dismiss and invalidate women’s claims of abuse and assault completely changed their tune once they were confronted with a tiny glimpse of the kind of behaviour they try to defend. It’s a vile video, and I’m not surprised that so many of these naïve young men had a change of heart once they had their values checked.

But it’s depressing that it should take a video, one that exposed the victim far more than it did the perpetrator, for people to start calling this shit for what it is. This is a problem that affects all men, whoever and wherever we are. And if you’re a guy, and watched that video, and couldn’t identify even a fraction of yourself in the footage, however small, then you’re either a saint or a liar. There’s an attitude of sexual entitlement, power and dominance in that video that affects all of us as men, and we need to start putting each other in check, because that shit is toxic, and we’re a danger to women, children and ourselves as long as we allow it to continue.

Needless to say, conversations have already begun to shift toward “well, girls know what they’re getting into when they go with these guys” and other shitheaded, victim-blaming tactics. It’s depressing, but not surprising. That’s why it’s even more important for us to start getting a grip on this, and have the courage to call out guys around us – friends, family, work-colleagues or whatever else – when they behave like this. It’s toxic, pure and simple.

Tyler’s Back!

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jason L Nelson/SIPA/REX (3790104c) Tyler the Creator Tyler, The Creator in concert at the Stage AE, Pittsburgh, America - 04 Jun 2014

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jason L Nelson/SIPA/REX (3790104c)
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Tyler, The Creator in concert at the Stage AE, Pittsburgh, America – 04 Jun 2014

As you probably heard, Tyler, the Creator’s new album, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, leaked earlier this week, and there’s been a lot of talk about the content, subject matter and particular lyrics.

I’m not going to speak on that, as nothing’s really been confirmed yet, and it’s all just media speculation and conjecture. But I will say that Tyler really does just seem to get better and better as time goes on. This new album is something special, and I think he’s going to go down in history as one of the most influential musicians of our generation.

Outside of that, he also announced a new partnership with Converse this week, and I wrote a piece for Sneakersnstuff looking at the broader context of the partnership and how Tyler’s a perfect fit for Converse, so feel free to click through and read that here.

Safe.

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The Practical Untenability of Vetements in the Mind of Someone Thinking

The University of Goldsmiths has quite a few success stories in the creative field to its name; Sarah Lucas, James Blake, Malcolm McLaren and Margaret Howell to name but a few. But if there’s one individual that Goldsmiths really likes to pin to its hat, and hammer into the heads of every person that studies there, it’s Damien Hirst. That was my experience of it, anyway.

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The important thing that we were taught to understand about Damien Hirst, from an academic perspective, was his particular approach to art and creativity. Rather than treating art as a strictly creative endeavour, focusing on the art and nothing else, Hirst took an approach to his artistic process which was, in fairness, quite groundbreaking; he understood that the art world was just as much about the people in the room, and the way the art was sold, as it was about the art itself.

As a result, during seminars for a few of my courses we were given all sorts of articles and studies into the Young British Artists (YBAs) – how Hirst held their debut ‘Freeze’ exhibition in an empty building in South London’s docklands, deliberately laid out to imitate art collector Charles Saatchi’s recently-opened gallery. Not only that, Hirst then rode around London in a black cab, personally “chauffeuring” important people to the exhibition, including Saatchi himself.

When you study the Freeze exhibition and its subsequent legacy as a formative moment in the creation of the YBAs, it’s hard to ignore Hirst’s unique grasp on art not only as art itself, but as a system of symbols and experiences and, most importantly, business. He arguably perceived the art world as an extension of marketing and PR. He knew that if you could get a load of people in a room with Charles Saatchi, and get Charles Saatchi to buy something, then everyone else in the room would be watching, and there would be a much higher chance of them getting out their wallets.

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Following Hirst throughout his subsequent career, those same elements of marketing and commerciality keep popping up. The simple and visually-pleasing aesthetic of his popular spot pieces, a series of paintings of various randomly-arranged spots in geometric grids, has lent itself to merchandise from t-shirts and fine china to a collaborative skate deck collection with Supreme. As for the paintings themselves, the last rough estimate put their total number at over 1000.

So too with his elaborately-named spin paintings – straightforward, easily replicable pieces that can be literally knocked out and shoved on a wall as quickly as possible. I probably sound cynical, but Hirst literally donated one to the Burger King in Leicester Square during the London Olympics. It was titled, ‘Beautiful Naked Psychedelic Gherkin Exploding Tomato Sauce All Over Your Face, Flame Grilled Painting 2003’. I am not joking. Google it.

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Even his famous large-scale installations of animals preserved in formaldehyde, for all their bombast and extravagance, have that same element. It’s a familiar trope, eternally associated with the Hirst name, which can be placed in any location to give its surroundings a touch of modern art chic. By all accounts, I’ve heard the Tramshed restaurant in Shoreditch has pretty average food. But there’s a massive Hirst in there. So it’s always going to be busy.

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A few years back, Hirst exhibited a number of his spot paintings in eleven Gagosian galleries around the world, simultaneously. In a Time interview with Belinda Luscombe, Hirst is asked what his motivation for doing so was. He explains that at the Gagosian gallery, they advertise the other exhibitions taking place at other Gagosian locations around the world, and Hirst had never seen one artist with their name at every gallery simultaneously. So he decided to do it.

A few years later, Hirst opened his Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, South London. Since opening, the gallery has played host to a number of modern artists whose artistic integrity has been endlessly debated, such as Jeff Koons. There is also, of course, an expansive gift shop full of Hirst’s signature skulls, butterflies, spots and so on. I always try and hold myself back from my most pessimistic tendencies, but one can’t help but wonder if Hirst opened a gallery so that he could then have a gallery to put himself and his mates in, because being in a gallery is what validates an artist to broader audiences. If you build it, they will come.

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So there’s some context about Damien Hirst, his art, and my understanding of it. And it’s important for me to stress that my often cynical tone when talking about Damien Hirst is coupled with a genuine admiration for the way he’s managed to balance creativity and commerciality. It’s something that I imagine many creative people, myself included, aspire toward, but few of us ever achieve – certainly none to the level that Hirst has.

The reason I bring him up, however, is to talk about something completely different. I’m actually interested in applying a similar lens to Demna and Guram Gvasalia and their Vetements label.

Over the past two years, Vetements has unquestionably been one of the biggest stories in the fashion world for a long time. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere in 2016 to become the must-have label for high-fashion insiders and Instagram influencers alike, Vetements has completely changed the game through its ability to appeal to virtually every corner of fashion consumers without compromising itself amongst any other.

Product has been selling out virtually everywhere it appears, and buyers have been scrambling to get it in their stores – and with Demna now Creative Director of Balenciaga, the historic fashion house is also experiencing similar fortunes. But the thing with Vetements is that it’s clearly an elevation, or pure modification, of basic streetwear; sweats, jeans, sports jackets and so on. Of course, collections present a whole range of silhouettes and styles, but what sells, and sells well, is that core selection of branded, everyday pieces.

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And with that blend of hyper-normal pieces and hyper-inflated prices, Vetements has attracted much of the same controversy and criticism that has followed Damien Hirst throughout much of his career. Their collections have been interpreted at some points as making fun of the fashion industry and its stuffy, exclusive attitude, and at others as a massive joke being played on the people that buy their products. Considering the restrictive prices of their pieces, it’s difficult to find basis for the former interpretation. For most of us, Vetements appears to be a practice in paying luxury prices to look as normal as possible.

This may or may not be the case. In fact, as time as passed and subsequent collections released, I’ve warmed to the idea that Vetements might actually be a sincere celebration of boring, mundane, everyday fashion. Street-casting models, styling looks that clearly imitate regular people, and eschewing ornate tailoring in favour of ready-to-wear designs that are ready-to-wear in an aesthetic sense as well as construction, there’s definitely something enjoyable about a label which shoves high fashion’s elitism back in its face by turning benign clothing into the chicest thing on the catwalk.

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It’s impossible to not see the parallels between Vetements and Hirst, also, in the shadow of that famous quote about modern art by Craig Damrauer: ‘Modern Art = I could to that + Yeah, but you didn’t.’ Just as how one of the most frustrating things about an artist like Hirst is his unbridled success creating simple and unchallenging product, so there must be that same thing going on when people look at Vetements creating elevated Champion hoodies and selling them for £500. They took stuff we’ve been wearing forever and sold it to a new customer – or in some cases, right back to us – for an obscene mark-up. Justifications about quality of construction and premium materials are virtually moot. Mate, it’s a fucking hoodie with a screenprint. Calm down.

Guram Gvasalia, CEO of Vetements and business mind behind brother Demna’s creativity, has been quite candid about the financial thinking behind the brand. In an interview with WWD earlier this year, he speaks almost mechanically about numbers, demographics, statistics and sales figures. He talks openly about Vetements’ system of enforced scarcity ensuring the brand remains rare and high-priced – not unlike Supreme’s well-documented ‘always produce less than you can sell’ philosophy. They eschew pursuing their own online store, and one has to wonder if there isn’t a touch of Hirst as well; when you’re an established high fashion brand, opening your own direct-to-consumer store makes sense; when you’re trying to establish yourselves, you get your product in other people’s stores, alongside those same brands. You validate through association. And most importantly, you get your name on those brand lists.

But this democratic restructuring of the fashion world, sadly, isn’t quite what it seems. For all the fun and irreverence of Vetements, the Gvasalias remain an incredibly privileged pair; we’re almost led to believe that it took a degree from the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp, followed by positions at Margiela and Louis Vuitton, for Demna Gvasalia to simply create regular clothes for normal people. The irony of the brand certainly operates on multiple levels.

Fundamentally, the reason I find myself looking at Damien Hirst and Vetements in such similar lights is because of the conclusion I always draw about the former. For all the amazing things Hirst has achieved, if not as an artist then as a marketer and self-promoter, it’s often so difficult to see where the broader art world has benefited. Stories have abounded about other artists having their careers made when Charles Saatchi begins buying their pieces, only for their “stock” to plummet when the same guy begins dumping them.

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For Hirst, now estimated to be worth over £300 million, that’s not really a problem anymore. You might remember Hirst’s famous diamond-encrusted skull, ‘For the Love of God’, which sold for $100 million dollars. The skull was, in fact, purchased by an anonymous investment group or ‘group of businessmen’. Allegedly, one of the members of that group was none other than… you guessed it, Damien Hirst. I’ve even heard rumours that Hirst has a storage facility full of his own artworks somewhere, basically propping up the price. It sounds crazy, but think of it like this; if I keep selling a piece of artwork to myself for £10 million, then someone else comes along and buys one for £10 million, then I’ve made £10 million.

My point is, for all the change Damien Hirst has effected upon the world of art, there’s only really been one winner. Him. The majority of modern art that has decided to follow in his footsteps has been vapid, uninspired and bloated with cash. Art galleries’ obsessions with funding from wealthy investors and ever-more extravagant projects rarely do much to inspire people on the street. And the people who might travel to Venice to see Hirst’s latest exhibition this summer, for example, are unlikely to dig out exhibitions by other, lesser-known artists in the city at the same time.

And that’s kind of what I’m worried about with Vetements. On the one hand, I see a brand that has been doing interesting, exciting things to deconstruct fashion and its elitism in funny and tongue-in-cheek ways. But on the other hand, I see a brand who, like Damien Hirst, have identified the marketing and salesmanship in fashion, and turned that into the art of their creations.

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The problem with that, though, is fashion doesn’t really operate in the same way as art. Art is (arguably, or at the very least should be) about pure creativity; aesthetics; things that look nice and possibly provoke deeper thought and intellectual engagement. When art engages with commerce, as it necessarily does in the modern world, it does so in spite of its purer intent. Hirst turning the commerciality into the art itself is a form of a snake eating its own tail. It’s this which probably makes debates about him so never-ending; it’s the art about the thing which is killing art, which is the art. Get it?

But fashion isn’t really the same, though marketers have been working increasingly hard to convince us otherwise. Fashion can be artistry. There have been few designers over the years who genuinely have created art through clothing – Cristôbal Balenciaga, Martin Margiela, Raf Simons, and the like. But they did this in spite of fashion’s primary function, which is to basically sell product. The majority of fashion designers are not artists. They are people who make product to be bought. It’s just that.

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This is why so many designers associate with artists and the art world; it validates their product and gives it that allure of artistry to make it more than clothes. Collaborations, presentation locations, music and so on. All of these things are basically an attempt to make fashion more than what it is. And so what? I love it. I really do. And many of us really do love fashion. But we can, at the same time, recognise that fashion is just stuff being sold, desire being created and money being made.

So: Art creates, in spite of sales.

But fashion sells, with the help of art.

So when the Gvasalia brothers bring that cynical, marketing and money-centric mentality to Vetements, ironic or not, it doesn’t work in the same way as Hirst – to me, at least. Because when you present a fashion label to me and laugh about how absurdly expensive and restrictive and bloated it is, it just feels dirty and crass. Fashion fans are basically begging our favourite designers to tell us lies, sweet little lies. We know we’re wasting our money. Just let us believe we’re doing something else. This isn’t a ‘snake eating its tail’ scenario. It’s just a total short-circuit.

So Vetements ends up feeling like this nasty, mean-spirited project which, as I said earlier, takes money from its customers whilst giving them the finger. Guram Gvasalia’s declaration that he would never buy Vetements at the prices that he set is kind of grotesque and offensive, like a sexist, racist comedian like Roy Chubby Brown telling you he doesn’t actually agree with the material he’s written.

Where does that all leave us? In a situation where the Gvasalia’s become global sensations, Demna gets brought into an historic fashion house to apply that same formula to that brand (thus penetrating the inner-circles; watch it spread now), fashion magazines and editors are chomping at the bit to write about it and cover it, and people at the end of it all, somewhere far away from all the eye-rolling, eventually buy it. But none of us win. Except for the Gvasalia brothers.

Bit like Hirst, really.

With thanks to: Daryoush Haj-Najafi & Katrice Dustin

 

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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?

READ:
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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