Published on: Dec 3 2021
Style in Revolt
In the first exhibition of its kind in China, ‘Style in Revolt’ tells the story of how streetwear and street culture became a global phenomenon, from the streets of London, New York and Tokyo to the world stage.
Street culture is rooted in youth and revolt.It is as much a mindset as it is a creative output, or a fashion silhouette. This exhibition maps a modern-day street culture mythology, as told by the people who have shaped it. It traces the chain reactions of socio-economic shifts, conspicuous consumption, artistic movements such as Situationism and Postmodernism and the proliferation of technology.
This is about more than the T-shirt: it is a deconstruction of societal concepts and an experiment in putting them back together to fit the moment, about the recasting of and remixing of ideas and silhouettes.It can be said that street culture is a visual tale, one that adopts spaces and symbolic uniforms and recontextualizes them, layering them with new meaning through customization.It is grounded in public art such as graffiti, and in the form of tangible relics of ‘merch’; in the early aesthetics of punk and DIY culture, and in crude adaptions of vintage, such as T-shirts, army gear and workwear; in the graphics added on as marks of an era.
It is equally defined by ephemeral forums of thought and emotion, like a sonic pulse in music and nightclubs. We might think of this exhibition as a ‘visual playlist’ of commodities that reflect song lyrics, album designs and events. With the electronic era, visual remixes have become a form of content. This exhibition highlights the evolution of street culture’s manifestations in three movements. Exploring the cross-pollination of streetwear brands with music, art and media, it acknowledges the past and its context in the present, looking to the future of street culture as it continues to evolve.
‘Style in Revolt’ communicates a collective ethos of creativity and ingenuity to inspire the next generation to make a meaningful contribution to street culture in China.
Style in Revolt
Punk had wanted to break down the boundaries between art and life, to live in the present and the future, as opposed to the idealized past…
Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, 1991
‘The Genesis’ is the moment that the street became the playground for music, art, different cultures and fashion, to fuse into a new creative force. In this, the blueprint of the underground is embedded: the notion of hyperlinking emerges in an analogue world, connecting dots across the planet.
Art and the avant-garde played a role in shaping the emerging street culture of 1960s and 1970s London, as did free art school education, and a young generation whose ideologies differed from that of their parents and from the establishment. An England in economic turmoil with ‘No Future’ was a breeding ground for subcultures. Urban legend says that Malcolm McLaren – the art school dropout and original polymath, the life and work partner of designer Vivienne Westwood – first interacted with the punk scene in New York in the late 1970s.
The city was in a state of decay and the cultural scene was pulsing with DIY expression, a carnival of street art and poetry to a beat. 1979 marked the seminal drop of the first rap track ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang. After a stint managing glam rock band the New York Dolls in the early 1970s, McLaren hit London ready to manifest his destiny. The Chelsea boutique, SEX, became the epicenter of the punk movement, an evolving concept store and an ecosystem of ideology that resonated with the kids, some of whom would form the band the Sex Pistols. His cultural curation reached a new level of refinement with McLaren’s 1983 album Duck Rock, sampling and remixing multiple genres and global cultures, technologies and mediums, and packaging them together as music and experiences, thus drafting a street culture blueprint and practice that is played on repeat today.
New geographies and relationships came into play. Skateboarding, first invented by Californian surfers to ride waves on concrete in the 1950s, became a global sport that travelled via the movements of American soldiers; by the early 1980s, through the dedicated Thrasher magazine; and later through skate videos on VHS. Skaters were often harassed, socially unaccepted misfits hanging out on the streets and ‘destroying’ property.
Skateboarding, in the early days, was linked to hardcore and punk music – energy, attitude and political and social messages. Less musical virtuosity, more passion, style and a message.
Fairey, Shepard, This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History, 2017
And then in 1986 the Beastie Boys crashed it with hip hop for another hybrid of music and aesthetics.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley released the Macintosh computer in 1984, allowing everyone to create professional-level graphics. The Japanese ‘bubble economy’ was in effect and the public had gone into consumption overdrive. The country became a worldwide video game leader with the release of Pac-Man in 1980, while Comme des Garçons’ debut show in Paris in 1981 changed beauty ideals. Air travel prices – once only affordable to the elite – became accessible, encouraging global circulation, with the youth on economy tickets. Japanese personalities like Hiroshi Fujiwara became cultural ambassadors. Fujiwara, who had met McLaren in London, brought back looks from their punk line Seditionaries and later hip hop records, DJing and skate culture.
The sneaker craze began in 1985 with Nike’s release of the ‘Air Jordan 1’, made for superstar NBA player Michael Jordan the previous year. Removed geographically and culturally from the context of American basketball culture, the Japanese take on the product was more about the appreciation of good design, and its lure as a fashion item adopted by hip hop artists. With this, the sneakerhead culture – and the phenomenon of collecting them – started in Asia. Only shortly before, American designer Shawn Stüssy had traveled to Japan and discovered fashion brands such as Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons, further expanding the idea of what street culture from California could look like. This influence preceded the birth of the International Stüssy Tribe, which in turn created cliques, obsessions and united a global, like-minded community.
Style in Revolt
It’s funny, when I first came to Paris I was chastised for putting jeans and hoodies on the runway. ‘You’re ruining fashion.’
My success is only made possible because as a generation we are all becoming the establishment.
Darling, Michael. “Virgil Abloh: A Hundred Percent as Told to Anja AronowskyCronberg.” Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech", DelMonicoBooks·Prestel, Munich, 2019.
‘The Boom’ was the chain reaction of creativity, sampling and DIY ingenuity becoming a global phenomenon, the moment where key polymaths thought the impossible and disrupted the global fashion system. These figures constantly reference a myriad of disparate creative forces that are appropriated and celebrated. The already undefinable genre of clothing and expression morphed again, the internet and Wi-Fi in full effect. For the most part, the hard shift in focus changed from movements and projects to people, formulas and the worship of heroes.
A soundtrack was provided by London’s James Lavelle and his label Mo’ Wax, founded in 1992. Lavelle included toys along with his records, commissioned the New York graffiti artist Futura 2000 for his record sleeve artwork, almost becoming a brand. The Japanese designer Nigo would discover Futura this way, though he was already repackaging the art, music, clothing and commerce model to make his own mold, taking his love of Americana, hip hop, graffiti and spinning it with Technicolor pop and next level retail concepts. The rise of hip hop globally would make him an ambassador for a series of artists that, along with hip hop, lead to streetwear becoming a mass medium.
The brand Supreme, launched in 1994 with a ‘Box’ logo that riffed on the work of artist Barbara Kruger, would provide another blueprint, one that followed the impact of Stüssy and the turn to collaboration. Lavelle is widely known for his street-with-an-art-filter POV, as a provocateur and orchestrator of FOMO, much like Japan’s Ura-hara brands – with limited products and round-the-block line-ups, the will to blow up, but to stay underground.By the mid-2000s US hip hop and streetwear proved to be a mainstream commercial success and an influence sewn into every corner of the cultural fabric. Once a defiant statement against a class system, hip hop became commercial and luxury a reality, rather than an aspiration. Enter artist Kanye West and Virgil Abloh who would become the avatars of streetwear and street culture.
A love of subculture and sneakers fitted into the lifestyles of high fashion designers Riccardo Tisci and Kim Jones and that of Raf Simons, an Antwerp-based stan of music and graphic art. When Tisci landed at Givenchy in 2005 and Jones at Vuitton in 2011, they created a direct pipeline from their youth to high-fashion runway products: a mirror of the explosive energy of hip hop, sneaker culture and social media. These high-fashion designers were also fans, collectors and connoisseurs. Together they would sew a new street cultural narrative.
Computers became phones in our pockets with 24-hour access, with the voices of individuals matching the influence of high-fashion brands, magazines and long-established power players. But social media and the stars it generated with their self-referential culture became about cut-and-paste creation, hero worship and a scarcity model that rendered products that were once about unity and community into accessible tokenisms of another era; a cultural tipping point defined by the excess of everything. This morphing from the more rebellious and democratic street-level culture to the bloated, overground profit-focused market sparked a tabloid cynicism.
Style in Revolt
This is a new power relationship. Let’s call it The Great Reversal.
History is littered with these switches, moments where the magnetic poles of meaning reverse. ShumonBasar, ‘The Great Reversal’, Dirty Furniture Magazine, 2021
The designers associated with Street Luxe could be quantified as fashion dissidents who manage to balance the hierarchy of the traditional runway system and what it means to be a voice operating outside of the system. For a long time, entering into mainline high fashion dictated that entry required a certain type of education: the right internship and the right employment pipeline to become a ‘designer’ at a house that is owned by a group. They have had to take lessons from both street culture and the high-fashion world in order to operate on both levels. They ask, ‘Hasn’t the world evolved? Why do you belong here and not us?’ From afar, it may seem like they are going through the motions, making an assemblage of the past. And yet, they are rebels with a cause, taking the codes of streetwear and making them appear on the runway or through other presentations.
Evolution never stops. It has mutated and splintered into different directions and subgenres. The overtly street became an abstraction of street and lost its initial essence. But 40 years after its genesis, change is to be expected. The ambiguity of streetwear and street culture’s identity and roles today may be a blessing. At once commercial and mass market, there are also brands who consciously choose to carry on the tradition of social commentary and community action. In a departure from Malcolm McLaren’s approach, a characteristic of ‘The Now’ is to be commercially driven, with purpose.
Many are founded and run by women and people of color who are creating new narratives. Perhaps the world is challenging enough without the artist’s provocations, but here we can go back to McLaren and the Situationists’ thinking: ‘The role of the artists, as they saw it, was to create challenging situations.’*1
Streetwear is once again a bottom-up revolution of empowerment that reaches from the concrete to the towers of power. In the end it’s the participators and innovators who define what it means now. In the myth of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, our street culture heroes are returning with the elixir of experience. The Now brands are ambassadors rooted deep in community, and there is substance to them. They are part of a continuum, building brands within an economic model that also harnesses progressive politics, social confrontation and personal truths.
*1 Shannon Price, ‘Vivienne Westwood and the Postmodern Legacy of Punk Style’, www.metmuseum.org, 2004, originally by Nils Stevenson, Vacant: A Diary of the Punk Years, 1976–1979 (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 8.