Originally published in
March 2016
Style tribes are dead. Long live style tribes.
Birds of a feather flock together. It was always thus. Subcultures have long informed fashion as each generation has used their appearance to express their identities and allegiances. From the Prohibition era swing kids to the 1950s teddy boys, likeminded souls united to forge the shock of the new, both through their actions and wardrobes. Then came the youth quake of the 1960s and all hell broke loose. The high fashion rulebook was ripped up as the streets began to dictate style. London was swinging with mods and rockers, hippies heralded the summer of love and rude boys took no prisoners.
Photography Sandra Freij

Arguably this ground swell influence was crystallised in the early 1970s when Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood opened 430 King's Road, which would come to be called Seditionaries as the Sex Pistols announced the blistering arrival of punk. It was to here that scenesters flocked to buy provocative t-shirts and fetishwear that identified them with the anarchic movement. This heralded a golden age for street style. Blitz kids in pirate hats (Westwood again) posing for Derek Ridgers’ lens, hip hop fans in (My) Adidas, indie kids in Doc Martins, casuals in Sergio Tacchini and UK garage devotees in Moschino (expertly documented by Ewan Spencer) have all gone down in the annuls as moments when young rebels rejected mainstream values and took risks to build their own brave new worlds (wearing matching outfits).

The term ‘style tribe’ was coined, or at least put into common parlance, by social anthropologist Ted Polhemus. In his book Street Style (1994/2010) he writes: “The street is both the state upon which the drama of contemporary life unfolds and the bottom line metaphor for all that is presumed to be real and happening in our world today. As high culture has given way to popular culture, it is the litmus test of street credibility that is crucial… Like holy relics, street style garments radiate the power of their associations. Styles that start life on the street corner have a way of ending up on the backs of models on the world’s most prestigious catwalks. This shouldn’t surprise us because the authenticity which street style is deemed to represent is a precious commodity. Everyone wants a piece of it.”

In 2016 however, it’s become hard to define distinct tribes due to the advance in technology, globalisation and social media. The millennial generation live digitally where they have access to the world at a swipe of a fingertip and in doing so are bombarded by images, sounds, cultures and voices that go way beyond their local nightclub or a handful of magazines. Meanwhile high fashion continues to feast on retro references at an alarming rate – where would Hedi Slimane be without grunge (hello Courtney at the AW16 Los Angeles show), Jeremy Scott without rave or Diane Furstenberg without disco (fair enough, she was at Studio 57 the first time around). Fashion week street style has become a paid-for commodity breeding a reality where being an ‘influencer’ has become a profession. Cool hunters gobble up fledgling scenes in the blink of an eye. And fast fashion copy and regurgitate all of this back at us before anything has had a moment to be cool.

So are youth tribes dead? Well no. Because now, as we face recessions, regressive governments, climate change and the looming spectre of Donald Trump, young people crave a sense of belonging and activism more than ever before. Yes our world has shrunk but that means we also live in diverse societies where shared experiences are crucial to a representation renaissance that goes beyond ephemeral likes, regrams and snapchats. So in 2016 the most fresh and fierce designers are catering to the next kaleidoscopic generation of catch-me-if you-can mavericks.

Charles Jeffries follows in the glorious lineage of Leigh Bowery’s Taboo with his Loverboy knees up in Dalston. What started out as a way to fund his Central Saint Martins MA has sinve become a mini movement among east London’s queer community as he took to the Fashion East MAN roster for AW16. The show featured ‘drunk’ tailoring, champagne cork-cage chokers and both backstage and catwalk full of his fellow revellers. “It’s gender-queer, it’s powerful, it’s misfit, it’s angry, it’s sweaty,” Jeffries has said of his collection as much as his club full of extravagantly dressed bon viveurs including designer Matty Bovan and model Hari Nef.

In a similar vein Nasir Mazhar’s logo-laden tracksuit aesthetic stems directly from his love for and emergence from the grime scene (last year he collaborated with MC Skepta) and has garnered him a cult following in the process. For AW16 he introduced a gothic flair with bondage boots and caps. Nasir’s devotees, and those of London’s other urban warriorwear creators such as Liam Hodges, KTZ and Bobby Abley have defiantly soiled the line between the catwalk and sidewalk.

In Paris the Vetements collective was born out of their urge to write their own script and make radical clothes for their friends Denma Gvasalia heads up a cast of undercover talents and collaborates with the likes of stylist Lotta Volkova, model Paul Hameline, DJ Clara 3000 and photographer/casting director Pierre-Ange Carlotti to host shows in a Chinese restaurant and a sex club. Their recent photo book captures the lo-fi, hedonistic microcosm that surrounds them. Having grown up in Georgia and worked under the best (Margiela, Jacobs, Ghesquiere, Bierendonck) Denma’s appointment as creative director for Balenciaga has the fashion hoi polloi gripped. As does Gosha Rubchinskiy, who draws on skinheads, skaters and punks for his cyber-cast Paris shows inspired by his own adolescence in Russia. His designs, zines and photography make him the poster boy for post soviet youth, clad in hammer and sickle prints and crisp Reebok classics.

New York’s gender fluid underground movement is infiltrating fashion and shaking up its traditionally commercial fashion week. Young designers are championing body positivity and inclusivity and inviting their peers, the city’s outsider artists, ballroom protégées and activists, to come out to play. Newbie Gogo Graham fits her DIY dresses to her trans models. Eckhaus Latta’s post-apocalyptic AW16 show starred the design duo’s muse, Juliana Huxtable. Their former interns Moses Gauntllett Cheng made their catwalk debut by baring breasts and buttocks in minimal knitwear. Chromat’s caged swimwear looked a million bucks on DJ Speakerfoxxx. And Vejas Kruszewski promotes a genderless vision full of futuristic cosplay pilgrims.

Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air leads the way since launching Hood by Air. For AW16 he wrapped his ferocious models in luggage wrap or head to toe in PVC. Hirkash aka Liquid Geezus stole the show as he ran down the runway in hooker heels. Yet there was more Hood by Air worn by the attendees than the models. A sign that this brand and its spiritual labelmates are creating the cultural uniform of now. They are their communities and rather than preaching to them, they uplift them through mutual respect.

Beyond the fashion week circus, young tribes continue to bubble up too of course. From Johannesburg’s dapper Sartists to Tokyo’s peco kei, new niche subcultures help to define us like never before, and this time we’ve got the selfies to prove it to our peers. David Bowie, perhaps the ultimate style tribe pied piper, was right. We can be heroes, forever and ever. What’d you say?