Monday, July 31, 2006

New York Times: The Brand Underground

In the New York Times magazine section on Sunday, there is an article called The Brand Underground, devoted to untangling the deeper meaning behind the recent rash of streetwear brands. My question about streetwear designs has always been about authenticity, but the premise of author Rob Walker's article was more about, in his words, the concept of "turning an idea you have--or maybe yourself--into a product."

Parts of the article are interesting if only because they detail the inner-workings of three, as Walker decribes them, "underground" brands: aNYthing, The Hundreds, and Barking Irons, which the author ends up burying by offering them up as illustration of a entreprenurial dream gone terribly wrong:

By then the brothers had signed a lease on a 3,000-square-foot space on the fourth floor of a building downtown on Bowery, below Delancey. When I visited in May, it seemed like an awful lot of room for a two-or-three-person company. A few antique pieces were lying around, some framed maps, a trunk, a barrel, a fitting dummy. The plan is to turn the back half of the space into a showroom, possibly pulling in some other brands. They were also plotting a Web site — part magazine, part online store for selling some of the antiques they have collected. But the better-garment orders were around half of the minimums that the Turkish factory required, and in late June they were still waiting for deliveries that they had hoped to have a month earlier. T-shirt orders had been around 10,000 — a slight decline from the previous year. The trend-spotting blogs that helped early on had moved on to spotting more upstart brands, with new points of view. Lately, Daniel was suffering from headaches that he couldn’t seem to shake.

Walker clearly sees a lot of irony in the idea that a person would take an underground culture and turn into a mainstream, money-making product. And in fact, he closes with a paragraph that includes a quote from founder of the aNYthing brand and store, Aaron Bondaroff (aka A-Ron), that reads:

“My whole thing now is if you don’t sell out, you sell out on yourself,” [A-Ron] went on to announce. If he could get the money, the resources, he could go bigger, with more creative projects, reaching more people — and he wouldn’t worry about being called a sellout. He raised his eyebrows for emphasis: “I was cool before this thing happened. It didn’t make me cool.” It’s a line of thought that many cultural rebels come around to, sooner or later. “We’re here,” he told me, “to do business.”

I appreciate the point Walker is making mainly because its not a new one--in a post The Tipping Point world, I think we're all pretty well aware that subcultures are often the sources of new forms of creative expression, which are often coopted by the mainstream (though not always as Walker might imply, to the benefit of the originators, who are often left out in the cold when the big bucks start pouring in--see folks like Cool D.J. Herc for details).

But after that, I part ways with Roberts. By the end of the article I am worn out by his attempts to squash a complicated reality into his very neat theory, which paints the current subculture as the emptiest of all, one not only virtually devoid of any creativity, but more willing than any counter culture before it to sell out commercially. He states:

And while some brand-underground participats cite the influence of hip-hop as evidence that their tastes transcend standard demographic categorization (it's a "mash culture" or a "merge culture." and so on), the real significance of that influence may be that no other spectacular subcluture has so exuberantly venerated the leveraging of nonmainstream authenticity into entrepreneurial and material success.

Ouch dude! He may use a lot of fancy words, but what he did in a couple sentences is reduce both underground brands AND hip-hop to a movement built on money-hungry nothingness. Seriously though, how does one measure sell-out speed? And how do underground bands and hip-hop compare to the speed at which Cheryl Crow sold her "Winding Road" song to Suburu?? Or the rate at which The Rolling Stones sold large chunks of their concert space to massive, multi-national corps.?

What I find most annoying of all is his insistance that no art was involved in the making of underground brands. When he describes A-Ron, he states:

He is not an artist, an author, a designer, musician, filmmaker or even a famous skateboarder or graffiti writer.

Really? How can Walker deny that A-Ron is at the very least a designer if not an artist? Later he adds:

Young people have always found fresh ways to rebel, express individuality or form subculture communities through cultural expression: new art, new music, new literature, new films, new forms of leisure or even whole new media forms. A-Ron’s preferred form of expression, however, is none of those things. When he talks about his chosen medium, which he calls aNYthing, it sounds as if he’s talking about an artists’ collective, indie film production company, a zine or a punk band. But in fact, aNYthing is a brand. A-Ron puts his brand on T-shirts and hats and other items, which he sells in his own store, among other places. He sees it as fundamentally of a piece with the projects and creations of his anti-mainstream heroes.

Whatever criticism I have had of street brands, it hasn't ever been that they are devoid of artisitc expression. Just because a person's form of expression ends up being sold or is a brand doesn't invalidate the creativity contained within. That's like saying an established artist's works of art are devoid of artistic merit because they will eventually be sold. The streetwear companies that have popped up over the past five years or so have been a fantastic source of new design ideas not just in the world of fashion, but in other industries as well.

What exactly the current explosion of streetwear brands represents as a form of expression for the youthful generation responsible for it is complicated and an analysis I've been wrestling with for a while. Certainly their existence deserved a more nuanced approach than the simplistic, sell-outs-to-the-man approach the Times gave them.

No comments: