Street Fashion and Design in the 1990’s
A while ago Mr Johan Valcke, a famous Flemish defender of design, asked me to give a conference about ‘street fashion’ in Helsinki. I accepted the offer and started thinking about this issue. When I received the synopsis – which was one page long – from the Design Museum, I found the word ‘business’ six times. This made me decide to adapt my lecture.
Business, mostly equated with money and profits, has two sides. On the negative side, profits are often short-term. The business world takes over existing ideas and mostly makes profits at someone else’s expense.
But the business world on the other side can also create opportunities to make things happen which otherwise wouldn’t – in return for profit, naturally – and in both the short and long term. Those corporations make it possible to produce, distribute and show design. I see them as “givers”.
For me, design stands for designers, designer groups, artists and all creative people in the broadest possible way. They may also work in areas like music, fashion, the arts, applied arts, film, architecture, or video… These are all “askers”.
History is an important aspect for museums. They try to save design for future generations and are mostly open-minded, often contrary to the business world whose primary concern remains profit. Museums also provide an opportunity for the general public to see a part of design and to display accepted tendencies.
An important key for their input is time and distance. But the negative side of museums is that they always consist of a closed space. The real world is outside. Besides, people and designers don’t want to be put in a box. They to me are “placers”.
This is, of course, a black-and-white vision. The reality is a lot greyer. Artists can also be businessmen or even museum people. Businessmen can also be artists, and in their job they too have to be creative in many ways. Thus, everything can be a mix of everything, like life itself. Everybody can be an asker, a giver or even a placer. Contemporary
life is a mixture of everything; everybody can be supplementary or complementary. We have to accept that. This introduction is just to tell you that in fact nothing is as clear as it seems. Any idea can change any moment. The truth of today will certainly not be the truth of tomorrow. You can’t pigeonhole people. There are as many trends and ideas as there are human beings. So let me try to tell you something about a certain mainstream of the 1990s called:
In the course of history there have always been different periods of design. Mostly they used to be about the art of painting, but they also had an impact on fashion, architecture, music…
But now these periods are tending to get shorter and faster. In classical art, the artists who became most famous often also created the base for the next trend. Michelangelo’s non finita style, for example, was in my view more important for future artists than his famous ceiling frescoes.
And there was already a tendency that creative people were attracted to each other. Now we see the same things in today’s world of art. Today’s most common tendency, generally called “street wear”, has many faces. We can find its influences in clothing, in music, in art, in the way of living. Street fashion is a part of a culture called hip-hop. It is clearly a new tendency, like Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the fifties…. It is not a derivation, like neo-hippies, neo-Goths or retros, styles which were based on earlier movements.
My first contact with street fashion dates from the sixties and seventies, when hippies took over the world with their message of love and peace. This was a very important movement because it was a way of thinking that incorporated many aspects, both outward and inward. It was a whole new way of living, even on the political level.
The hippies reacted against the tendency of the early sixties. After the Second World War, the Western world was confronted with a golden boom of employment, money and luxury. The result was a lifestyle with no time for simply enjoying life, abandoning the importance of nature and the outdated political ideas of the Second World War. The hippie movement wanted to get rid of 1960s arrivisme.
After the Second World War, the struggle between communism and capitalism continued. The hippies were about the first global group that shared the belief that real communism was in fact not as bad as it had always been represented.
They liked the idea of sharing everything. The ideas of the hippies then started to influence other areas, like music, fashion, architecture, environmental movements, and even the origin of the internet… But the inventor of the concept “hippie” burnt his concept symbolically in San Francisco in 1968 to prevent the takeover and commercial exploitation of the hippie concept.
He failed, and of course it was only later that the notion became a commercial hit and the worldwide boom of the hippie movement resulted.
After the hippie-hype, new trends started, like the punks and Goths. Both, like the hippies, incorporated a whole way of life. The hip-hop of today is also a total happening, incorporating a group structure, philosophy, territory, way of life, clothing… Various areas are influenced by this trend: DJ’s, MC’s, graffiti art, break dancing, fashion, music producers, and men in the street…
Their street fashion is a reaction against all those designer clothes. Fashion addicts wore only black and their expensive clothes had to come from designers such as Ann De Meulemeester or Jean-Paul Gaultier. Hip-hoppers found another way of dressing by buying cheap oversized clothes (XXL – easy to skate in) and old fashion sports clothing (Adidas – cheap) that nobody wanted but made them recognisable to other believers. Their main idea is to be
relaxed, to have no stress, to be cool, to be different, and to chill out all the time; they became a group in reflecting this way of dressing. They created a territory of their own and marked it with stickers, tags, and graffiti. Their group structure was divided into ‘posses’.
Those posses consisted of ‘Masters’, ‘Rulers’, ‘MC’s’, ‘DJ’s’, ‘designers’, ‘good- spot seekers’ (for skating, graffiti, parties), and ‘technical people’… These young guys became masters of their specialty and wanted to break out of their neighbourhood.
The whole story then started in the eighties. MTV started to show hip-hop. Rap music, scratching DJ’s, skaters, break-dancers, and graffiti artists became popular and the idols made hip-hop known all over the world. Collectives like the WU TANG CLAN created a whole world for young people not only by making music but also by making a complete clothing collection.
In the 1990s my young son was a good skater and lived in Belgium. On our journeys together we landed in Los Angeles and that was the beginning of my and my son’s interest in street wear.
I met a lot of these young people and saw that they had a lot in common. They all liked music, sometimes made music themselves, and they walked around with skateboards, stickers and posters.
They all wore the same type of clothes. The places they met were all full of graffiti. And so, I learned to know the hip-hop environment. Back in Belgium, my son asked me if he could go back there and try to start a professional career as a skater.
To get a permit to stay in the USA he started a street wear company called SUGAR. Two years later he sold his holding to his partner and came back to Belgium. Here he created a record company called BRICK9000, published the hip-hop magazine B9 and founded another street wear clothing company called Equaleyez.
In those times, everything came out of their own hands. The designs of their clothes, their skateboards, their record sleeves, everything was made by friends in a peaceful way. They didn’t do it for the money but as a service to friends. They were proud to have made a cover of a magazine or a T-shirt. In return they received a skateboard or vinyl records.
What was important for them was to survive with as little energy as possible. A unique fact was that there was no direct feeling of nationality. Race was not important. They just all did nearly the same things. It was already the kind of multicultural society that we are all looking for today.
But here the same problem occurs: the street fashion style is also being taken over by the commercial world. Factories produce Adidas- type clothing, music groups are sponsored by them, great designers like Yoshi Yamamoti create shoes and so on. The takeover has started. Money will take power and exhibitions will follow.
But street fashion belongs in the streets, in the ghettos. But even hip-hoppers have got older now. Society has overwhelmed them, and they have become consumers and money- spenders. They have started to live with e-bay systems, producing street wear (e.g. Punky Fish) and so on. The first exhibitions on street wear will follow.
Probably by now, new trends will already have started and when they are strong enough they will eventually become widespread by themselves. Trend watchers are already on the lookout.
The most interesting evolution at the moment is the innovation of so-called ‘LABORATORIES’. They are trend- watchers but directed by a manager surrounded by a lot of creative people on a free basis. Thanks to the internet it is possible to have people working for the laboratory from all over the world.
The commercial world can shop there or can even ask them to start up cases. Creative people are free to become involved or not, so afterwards they can’t complain if an idea is commercialised.
Corporations should pay those trend watchers or laboratories to find out what is in. Otherwise museums should perform their duty to enrich society from a historical point of view, not by enriching the business world by playing trend-watcher.
The museums are mostly paid out of community funds so they have a responsibility. The capture of ideas today is only for money. The work of Keith Haring has been used so many times and this hype has made a lot of people very rich, while Haring himself is not there anymore.
Museums are not living spaces. They should be a forum that is as anarchistic as possible (Palais de Tokyo, Paris). The entire space people live in can, in fact, be used as a museum. It is better to let people and artists develop independently and to pick out the quality, and maybe some trends or artists
can be shown in museums later. Museums shouldn’t pigeonhole artists. Museums shouldn’t be a steady place; art and design can be shown everywhere. The streets are a museum; houses can function as one. An exhibition of Jan Hoet in Gent called Chambre d’ Amis was a very good example.
Graffiti art only appears to full advantage on the walls in the street instead of in a museum. Graffiti pieces are created in those surroundings and thus can also best be seen there. Furthermore, more people will see it on the streets rather than hanging in a museum. The museums should start coming to the people instead of the reverse.
Different art forms melt together. Artists often work in different areas at the same time. Life became an art form. The street took over. Evolution goes so quickly that it is difficult to follow what happens everywhere. The internet made distances irrelevant. An idea in LA is seconds away from Ghent and Tokyo.
So we all have to look around us every moment of the day and enjoy…
28/01/2021 – The BBC announce a new streetwear series