Sunday, March 26, 2006

Street Couture



The relationship between high fashion and street wear goes back a long way. In a recent book called "The Essence of Style," by Joan DeJean, there is an anecdote from the spring of 1677, when "an inexpensive gray serge cloth" worn by Parisian shopgirls was adapted by "ladies of the court" who liked the fabric's look and incorporated it into their elegant wardrobes. This is how it has seemed to work ever since — right up through the archetypal example of the "grunge" style associated with the Seattle music scene appearing on the runways, courtesy of the designer Marc Jacobs (then working for Perry Ellis) in the early 1990's. In other words, the streets are raided for ideas and inspiration that get reworked in a couture context — "the aura of wealth and luxury," as DeJean wrote of the 17th-century version of the high-low mash-up.

All of this implies tension between street populism and couture exclusivity. But in the last few years, as some sneaker shops have come to resemble highfalutin art galleries, it has been a little less clear who is borrowing what from whom. Consider, for example, Supreme. It's a thoroughly downtown apparel brand with a shop on Lafayette Street in Manhattan and is associated with the culture of skateboards. On the other hand, the devotion and the pickiness — or, if you prefer, the snobbery — of the Supreme consumer compares with that of the high-end fashion consumer. (Vogue once ran a "tale of two boutiques" article pointing out the similarities between buyers of Supreme and Chanel.) And its products extend well beyond T-shirts and sneakers: Supreme's current line includes $130 sweatshirts with quilted details and $180 jackets in a custom plaid. Even GQ's "Style Guy," while musing that he may be the only gray-haired customer to frequent the store, called a pair of the skate brand's khakis, of all things, his "absolute favorite."

When the first Supreme store opened in 1994, James Jebbia, its founder, didn't really know, he says, much about the skateboarding crowd but was intrigued by its rebelliousness and creativity. He worked hard, then and now, to be true to that scene, right down to hiring local skaters to work in the store. "A lot of the kids from downtown New York are very, very particular," he says. This was his target: the tough, skeptical audience that wanted, say, clothes you could get only if you were in the know. These kids were more like a couture consumer than a mass one. And thus he is hardly alarmed to see his brand being mentioned in mainstream glossy fashion magazines. In fact, Jebbia considers Supreme a lifestyle brand along the lines of the French clothier A.P.C. — and, actually, Marc Jacobs.

Supreme now has three stores in Japan (where the distinction between street fashion and high fashion is at its murkiest) and one in Los Angeles. Things have changed quite a bit since the mid 1990's, of course. A huge number of brands — from big corporations or individuals with three T-shirt graphics and a blog — are now chasing the discriminating street-couture consumer. In an environment of hyperfickle customers, Supreme's longevity may be the most surprising thing about it. Jebbia seems a bit weary of outsiders regarding the scene as some sort of racket based on nutty kids who will stand in line for hours to buy a limited-edition T-shirt. He points out that the interior of his Los Angeles shop was designed by Harry Allen & Associates, the same firm that did the celebrated Manhattan boutique Moss. "We're a proper company," he says, sounding slightly exasperated. "We wouldn't be in business if it was just T-shirts." Of course, every new Supreme line does still include T-shirts, often met with demand that far outstrips the intentionally limited supply.

But it's the consistency and quality of the more substantial, higher-end pieces that he says he thinks have helped Supreme survive in a volatile business; he is still focused on that picky core customer, who these days is more demanding and harder to impress than ever. "We're not trying to make stuff for the masses," he says, but rather for "the few who know what's up." And so, after decades (or maybe centuries) of seeing their rebellious creativity hijacked, the marginal outsiders, for once, have managed to co-opt the elites — by appropriating their exclusivity.

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