As a phenomenon, streetwear’s influence is incalculable. From an underground network of home-grown “designers” cutting and printing Tees in their garages to the cult runway sensations of today, it’s come a long way from its DIY origins. King Adz is a streetwear disciple. He’s also the author of This is Not Fashion: Streetwear Past, Present and Future, the new bible for the streetwear cognoscenti and top of every street savvy reading list from here to LA. We got in touch to find out more about the enduring influence of British street culture and the subcultural codes that have defined a nation’s style for decades.
What made you write This is Not Fashion: Streetwear Past, Present and Future?
There was a moment, a few years ago, when I wanted to buy a book on streetwear and there was nothing out there that documented or distilled the cultural history from year dot to right now. There were a couple of books that grabbed a brief moment in time but nothing complete; nothing that examined it in any depth like Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige. I pitched the idea to a couple of publishers and then we went to work. Wilma (my wife and co-author) did all the in-depth academic research, and then we talked about what streetwear actually was, for a while. When we had our ammo lined up I sat down and wrote the narrative.
How would you sum up the effect of subcultures on what we now call street style?
Street style is a glorious by-product of certain subcultures. They both feed one another in a beautiful vicious circle, but invariably along the way, consumerism gets involved and it becomes shopping. And on this path to monetary success, the subcultural elements that made it so unique in the first place are diminished.
Downtown NY, Punk, Hip-Hop, Preppy/Ivy League, Dressers/Casuals, Club/Rave culture, Internet, Street Art, Paninaro, and not necessarily in that order. These are the subcultures the book examines in depth, and what we define as streetwear today has grown out of. Streetwear isn’t one thing. It’s not about hip-hop, punk, grunge, skating – but it has minuscule traces of all these things in its genetic makeup. Miniscule meaning niche, and niche is the starting point of anything culturally relevant be it clothing, sounds, food, art & design, or writing.
Image credits: Hero image photo courtesy of Crooks & Castles, ‘ADZ and Wilma’s favourite Stüssy ad of all time, photographed by David Dobson: streetwear represented by the West African Chapter of the Stüssy International Tribe’ © David Dobson/ Stüssy
What are the most surprising and significant British influences on streetwear culture uncovered in your book?
That the genesis of streetwear actually began in Britain with the aristocracy and their tailored, posh ways. This was probably the biggest sartorial influence on what our American Ivy League cousins chose to wear when they were being all preppy and sporting and trying to emulate the British Upper Classes. That same energy in turn pushed the Ivy League influence into the world of Hip-hop. This is a crazy chain reaction on the streetwear family tree.
Do you think the rise of social media and our modern culture of over-sharing have had any positive effects on subcultures and streetwear?
Social media means you can launch your streetwear label without having to spend vast amounts of money to tap into the traditional media streams, if you know how to build a following. Jump-up kids with their fresh streetwear range (a tee and a hoody) can get some much-needed traction without having to save up, borrow from their parents or work a mcjob. All you need is a garment, an iPhone, and a little bit of data.
Is buying into a brand without understanding the culture around it pure tokenism, or does it have some value?
I don’t think streetwear can be examined in such a binary way. It’s both something you buy superficially as a consumer and something deeply cultural at the same time. You can’t choose one without the other, and the ephemerality of all street culture means that it will forever be mutating into something else. I like seeing clueless kids queuing up outside of Supreme or Palace because this tells me that there is something new looming over the horizon. The only brand I ever got a little teary over was Stussy, when it tipped over into the mainstream and everyone and their mum started to show out for brand. But I knew it was just a temporary blip as time slipped, time rolled, and then the focus shifted to another ‘dope’ brand. All the while I just kept rocking the Double S and kept my mouth shut, or tried to anyway.
Image credits: ‘The Trash and Vaudeville clothing store at St Mark’s Place in New York’s East Village’ © Viviane Moos/Corbis
What subcultures have had the most influence on you and how has this manifested itself?
Preppie, Greensleeves/West London Reggae scene, Skating, Paninaro, and the Beastie Boys (who are their own unique and brilliant sub-culture) are my primary influences. It means that I have ended up looking like a preppy skater who’s ‘gone wet look crazy and messed with your head.’ It took me 48 years to get to this happy sartorial place. I have a soft spot for Van’s Half Cabs and for a decade or so wore nothing else. Forget 5 Broken Cameras, I’ve got 20 destroyed Half Cabs. I wear an Oxford button down shirt with a pair of faded blue Levi’s most days even when I am not being all grown up and taking meetings.
Talk us through the significance of the casuals and terrace culture on streetwear.
I wore a Green Fila BJ tracksuit when I was a 14 year-old casual, and have the same one now (just in a bigger size) to remind me of how far I’ve travelled as a human. I never acknowledged, nor practised, the football hooligan element, but I did like the way you got to do up your top button and give it extra large. This was the 1980s, which was a bad time to be growing up in suburbia, so what you wore played a vital part in keeping you from going mad. I still do up my top button, along with every 20-something hipster in the western hemisphere. This is the Casual legacy. It’s had a lasting influence, as if you don’t do up that button you look like an off-duty accountant.
The movement was always about sportswear – always a keen eye on a golf jumper, which was really a throwback to Preppy leisurewear, but re-positioned at the end of the seventies in and around football grounds across Britain. Like I mentioned earlier, no one subculture has defined streetwear, they all make a contribution.
What influence do you think the North of England has had on street style?
The North is an attitude that you just can’t bottle. I spent many years living north of the border and when the London bubble gets too much for me I drive up the M1 for a dose of the real. Some Southerners don’t know much about the North, and a little part of me hopes to keep it that way, as a lot of street style comes from the attitude you give out. Two people can wear the same clothes and one can look like a tool (to quote a Northerner), and the other cool-as-insert-expletive. This is all down to your attitude. The North has that in buckets. I think we should perhaps gloss over the whole 22-inch flares from Aflek’s Palace during the Madchester years, but everyone has a skeleton or two in their closet – including me with my 2-Tone-and-trilby moment. The North also gave us the Perry Boys, our love for a khaki windcheater, and a penchant for Clark’s desert boots worn with a quality pair of jeans.
Image credits: Photo by Adam Bryce, ‘Split Knee pants from the Silver Spoon collection by òL New York, modelled by Joe James’ © Dexter Navy/ òL New York
Tell us about your experience of subcultures and streetwear in ‘80s London – what made this such a seminal time in streetwear?
When I was studying at St. Martin’s in 1989 I met a couple of guys – Owen and Gee – who ran a small shop in 253 Culture Shack in Ladbroke grove. They would fly into NY with no luggage and bring back as many clothes and trainers as they could that would not be available this side of the pond. Apart from having a great source of clothes, it taught me that you had to mission to get decent clothes, and so I would search out shops around the outer boroughs of London to find garments I thought were different. I remember finding a navy blue Umbro warm-up cagoule made with a heavyweight navy cotton with a giant white logo on the right breast, from a soccer store. I wore it until some fashion student discovered where I’d got it and copped one herself.
There is way more choice now but that doesn’t mean the clothes are any better. Most clothes were not all that back then, but by the end of the ‘80s streetwear had begun to emerge as a subculture. A new industry was being born. Today, tastes have become way more refined, way more sophisticated with time. Back then I would be over-excited with a simple bit of re-purposed sportswear, but now we’ve got engineered garments constructed by scientists when they’re not splitting the atom.
You rally against fashion at a time when your subject, streetwear, is ironically “in vogue”. What’s your take on the appearance of ‘street’ trends on the fashion week runways? What has been the effect of their appearance in the mainstream?
When you think of street culture you think Banksy, vegan-burgers, the sound of grime, and fresh-to-death streetwear that flies off the shelves and has people queuing around the block. I don’t see anyone doing that in Knightsbridge or Chelsea outside the designer store (unless they drop a collab). Street culture has most definitely come of age, and most of the high-end designers are now looking at the street to plunder it for the catwalk. When we started the book, streetwear was still a subculture, but for one reason or another it took so long to come out that now it’s mainstream. This is a good thing for the sales of the book but somewhat messes things up for my beloved street culture. Like I said earlier, it’s a beautiful vicious circle. Pop will eat itself. I both love and loathe the fact that some 15-year old in Rotherham is into ‘streetwear’. This dichotomy is killing me.
Image credits: ‘Wanda and Kabelo, aka The Sartists, dressed to the nines, topped off with Simon and Mary bespoke hats and classic eyewear, Johannesburg, 2014.’ © Aimee Pozniak; art direction by Jana & Koos
In terms of cult streetwear brands, can you tell us a bit about where in the cultural matrix the following sit and what their seminal moments on the streetwear scene have been, and how you think they fit into street culture now as a result:
Was and will forever be the maverick’s choice of outerwear. I love the outlaw connotations. I’m a huge Drake fan and thought it was great when he started to rep the brand, but from speaking to a few people who have spent years investing their hard-earned cash in their coat collection, this had a detrimental effect on the cultural capital of Stone Island. But, this will soon pass. Stone Island is an almost-perfect streetwear brand.
The coat of choice for the Paninaro, which gives the brand somewhat of a hefty shine in the world of streetwear. I loved the moment when L.E.S. hoods began throwing on Moncler puffers in 2003 with black jeans and black Timberlands to stave off the cold NY winters. Again, the realities of street life rubbing off a little on a label.
That moment, in 1994, when Snoop bounced onto the SNL stage wearing a Tommy Hilfiger rugby shirt, was when Tommy reached the tipping point. Even though it turns out that Tommy may have had no investment in street culture at the time, he created those sailing jackets that we all loved and wore, and for that we have to give him a lifetime pass – which we should also extend to Ralph Lauren.
Where is streetwear going? Are there any subcultural groups defining the movement now?
The next important chapter of the streetwear saga will play out across Sub-Saharan Africa, with a special focus on South Africa, with subculture movements like Pantsula and the Cape Flats/Mitchells Plain Kullidz. They are the inspiration for a lot of the streetwear brands, such as Tempracha and Young & Lazy.
I’m also really fascinated by the new wave of Russians who are majorly influenced by the casual movement. This is a glorious example of everything I’ve been talking about, enough so that I will contradict myself and make an exception to what I said earlier about fashion – I am interested in what Gosha Rubchinskiy is all about.
My final thought is that our generation will be the first to wear sneakers till we die.
Image credits: ‘Crooks & Castles, showing some authentic attitude.’ Courtesy Crooks & Castles