Style Tribes | Lula


Birds of a feather flock together. It was always thus. Subcultures have informed society for generations as young people use their appearance to express their interests, beliefs and allegiances - from the Prohibition era swing kids to 1950s teddy boys. Then came the youth quake of the 1960s and all hell broke loose. The high fashion rulebook was ripped apart as the working class streets began to dictate style. London was swinging with mods and rockers, hippies heralded the summer of love and rudies donned their Sunday Best. Arguably this ground swell of anti-establishment influence was crystallised in the early 1970s when Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood opened 430 King's Road, which was called Seditionaries by the time 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 Martens, 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 united with likeminded souls to forge the shock of the new, both through their actions and wardrobes. 

The term ‘style tribe’ was coined, or at least put into common parlance, by 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 because the authenticity which street style is deemed to represent is a precious commodity. Everyone wants a piece of it.”

Today however, it’s become hard to define distinct tribes due to advances in technology, globalisation and social media. The millennial generation live online where they are bombarded by innumerable images, sounds 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 von Furstenberg without disco? Fashion week street style has become a paid-for commodity breeding a hyper reality where being an ‘influencer’ is a profession. Cool hunters inhale fledgling scenes in an instant. And fast fashion copies and regurgitates all of this back at the masses before anything has had a moment to just be.

So are youth tribes dead? Has everything become so homogenised, hyped and picked over that revolutionary style is a thing of the past? I don’t think so. No. Because now, as we face recessions, regressive governments, climate change and the 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 now the most fresh and fierce designers can and must still cater to the next 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 means of funding his Central Saint Martins MA has since become a mini maelstrom among east London’s queer community as he took to the Fashion East MAN roster for AW16. The collection featured ‘drunk’ tailoring, champagne cork-cage chokers and a 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 such as 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 Skepta) and has garnered him a cult following. For AW16 he introduced a gothic flair with bondage boots and caps. Mazhar’s devotees, and those of London’s other urban warriorwear creators such as Liam Hodges, KTZ and Bobby Abley have defiantly besmirched the line between the catwalk and sidewalk.

In Paris the Vetements collective was born out of their urge to write their own sartorial script and make radical clothes for their friends. Denma Gvasalia heads up a cast of undercover talents and has collaborated 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, Ghesquière, Beirendonck) Gvasalia’s appointment as creative director for Balenciaga has fashion’s 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-whatever underground movement is infiltrating fashion and shaking up the city’s traditionally commercial fashion week. Emerging designers are championing body positivity and inclusivity and inviting their peers, the city’s outsider artists, ballroom voguers and party animals, to come out to play. Newbie Gogo Graham fits her DIY dresses to her trans models. Eckhaus Latta’s AW16 show starred the design duo’s muse, Juliana Huxtable. Their former interns Moses Gauntlett Cheng made their catwalk debut by baring breasts and buttocks in minimal knitwear. And Chromat’s Intel-powered glowing swimwear looked a million bucks on plus size and lost-limbed models whose catwalk mantra was ‘ You are now a #chromatbabe. Walk Fast Powerful Strong. Women taking over the world!’

These names follow in the footsteps of Shayne Oliver of CFDA-winning brand Hood by Air. For AW16 he trapped 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 live their communities and rather than preaching to them, they uplift them through mutual respect – and multiple zipper hoodies.

Beyond the fashion week circus, young tribes continue to bubble up around the globe. 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. David Bowie, perhaps the ultimate style tribe pied piper, was right. We can be heroes, forever and ever. What’d you say?

Publication: Lula

Helen Jennings