[KAJIAN ONLINE] The Era of Hype: How Capitalism Killed the “Counter-culture”

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In October 2017, various lifestyle media outlets reported that Supreme has sold a 50 percent stake in its business to the private-equity firm Carlyle Group for $500 million, implying that Carlyle valued the entire company at $1 billion (Cowen, 2018). This was a staggering valuation for a company known for selling t-shirts, hoodies and miscellaneous accessories, such as a brick with the Supreme logo stamped on it and a toy gun that shoots banknotes. No one could have predicted that such a thing would’ve happened when James Jebbia established the Supreme brand in Lafayette Street, New York City in 1994 (Chaplin, 1999). Today, a plain white Supreme t-shirt with the simple box logo in the middle, which was initially sold with a retail price of a mere $48, can sell on the resale market for as much as $1500.

Image 1: Supreme box logo tee, brick, and money gun

On the 23rd of November 2018, Badan Otonom Economica hosted the annual discussion event ESPRESSO with the the theme “Hypenomics: The Value of Exclusivity”, with the initial intention to discuss the phenomenon of “hype” in fashion (particularly streetwear). Eventually, the discussion reached deeper topics, such as how fashion shapes our sense of identity, becomes a vessel for self-expression, and finds itself a target of capitalistic commodification of ideologies and subcultures.

How fashion trickles down from nobility to the people

To start with, Jakarta Post columnist Lynda Ibrahim provided a general framework with which to understand the concept of fashion, or as she calls it, mode . Marie Antoinette, the formerly-Austrian princess who went on to marry King Louis XVI of France, was one of the first historical figures heavily associated with their choice of clothing. Wearing increasingly extravagant dresses and wigs, the influence of her fashion sensibilities are well documented; An appearance in 1775 with a dramatic new hairstyle, called the pouf , with its excessive use of hair powder made of flour in the wake of a severe flour shortage earlier that spring, was met with widespread public criticism (Weber, 2006).

Image 2: Marie Antoinette

Eventually however, all manner of people from aristocrats to prostitutes were copying her style. When the French Revolution came in 1795 and the royal family was imprisoned, it was her wardrobe (which occupied three rooms at the Palace of Versailles) that was emptied and sacked by the mob; the furniture, tapestries and paintings were left untouched. The story of Marie Antoinette vividly illustrates how fashion tastes trickles from the elite classes downwards, and how fashion can become political statements and symbols of ideology.

Clothing as identity

In the context of modern fashion, so too is the trickle-down effect readily apparent; from the blossoming of now-infamous fashion houses such as Chanel, Gucci and Balenciaga in the early twentieth century, motifs and styles conceptualized by executives and designers slowly but surely find its way into common department stores, and eventually into our very own wardrobes. At the same time, however, various counter-cultures thrived throughout the twentieth century; from the hippie movement of 1960s America with colorful bell-bottom pants, tie-dyed garments and moccasins (Pendergast, 2004), to the British punk rock movement from the 1970s to 1980s with spiky mohawks, leather jackets and boots (Hannon, 2010), these subcultures had a distinct anti-establishment philosophy, which rejected prevailing social (including fashion) norms.

Image 3: UK punks circa 1980s and hippies circa 1960s

History also sheds more light regarding the contexts of these movements – the hippies rejected established institutions, criticized middle class values, opposed nuclear weapons and the US-Vietnam war, and embraced aspects of Eastern philosophy (Oldmeadow, 2004), while the punks embraced a wide array of views such as anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-corporatism, veganism and in some cases even anarchism (Glasper, 2004).

How streetwear restyled the world

Max Suriaganda, founder of streetwear consignment brand Footurama , narrates that streetwear as it is understood today grew out of the urban surf and skate subcultures of California and Harlem, New York. Shawn Stussy, founder of now-renowned streetwear brand Stussy, first catered his products towards surfers in California with t-shirt designs taking inspiration from the DIY aesthetic of punk, and later hip-hop cultures (Sande, 2005). Stussy eventually adopted a philosophy which became the main characteristic of modern streetwear: exclusivity, by, as he explains it, “taking a multi-faceted, subculturally diverse, Southern California lifestyle-based t-shirt brand and mimicking the limited feel of a high-end luxury brand”. Max Suriaganda concludes that streetwear is ultimately about “relevance” – to this day, brands such as Supreme and Stussy are still relevant to their (respectively) skate and surf backgrounds.

Image 4:Skaters in the 90s

Starting from the 1990s, sportswear brands such as Nike, Adidas, Puma, and Champion also contributed greatly to the development of the streetwear aesthetic, with sneakers, trackpants and hoodies becoming staples of the streetwear look. According to Lynda Ibrahim, the growing popularity of this style simply reflects the changing sensibilities of modern society; the utility offered by such clothing is far more appealing than expensive stuffy suits and dress shoes. Other factors also play significant roles; According to Nielsen Music’s latest semi-annual 2017 report, hip-hop (including R&B) is now the biggest genre in the US, overtaking rock music for the very first time. This shines more light regarding the breakthrough of streetwear into mainstream culture – rappers are the new rockstars, and they have brought their urban fashion sensibilities with them into the spotlight. As with luxury fashion, trends trickle down from the elites to the people, and in this case, rappers and celebrities could be understood as the new “elite” class of modern society.

Kanye West and A$AP Rocky; contemporary proponents of streetwear

The death of counter-culture

It goes without saying that analysts and trend forecasters at luxury high-fashion did not miss the rise of streetwear, and its breaking into the mainstream. One high-profile example of this is a collaboration between Supreme and Louis Vuitton in 2017, which produced a hoodie that costs upwards of $7 thousand. Another collaboration between Supreme and The North Face resulted in a $600 backpack. Various luxury brands such as Gucci and Balenciaga have also released products specifically catered to streetwear enthusiasts, such as the Gucci Ace and Balenciaga Triple S sneakers. These examples illustrate the efforts of luxury brands trying to fit in with the new “cool”; an unprecedented phenomenon, considering that historically, these luxury fashion houses were the ones dictating fashion trends.

Gucci and Balenciaga sneakers

Their efforts seemed to have not went in vain. The consulting firm Bain and Company released a study in October 2017 regarding luxury fashion. High-end streetwear seemed to have boosted global sales of luxury personal goods by 5% this year to an estimated €263 billion ($309 billion). The difference between the streetwear phenomenon to previous fashion movements is glaring – the youth no longer adhere to specific counter-cultures or subcultures with anti-establishment ideologies; rather, they are successfully courted by gigantic fashion houses who appropriate “street culture” and profit off these stylistic sensibilities. Plenty of literature is available regarding luxury fashion goods; people buy them not for their utility, but for their perceived social value (Ko, 2012). In this way, capitalism is engulfing subcultures and melds them together into the indecipherable mass of the fashion industry.

According to Sarah Soeprapto, co-founder of creative economy thinktank Laboratorium Ekonomi Kreatif, this marks an age where the youth has lost their sense of purpose and identity. As opposed to the hippies and punks of the twentieth century who fought for their respective causes, the youth of today don’t seem to feel an urge to fight against the establishment. One reason for this is perhaps simply that the modern world is one with much less intergenerational conflict than it has been decades ago; as Lynda Ibrahim puts it, “our generation fought against Soeharto, who is your generation rebelling against?” And so, the youth readily accepts Supreme, Off-White, BAPE and other major brands as the new “cool”, adopting their tastes from celebrities, who in turn receive routine sponsorships by brands who pay them to wear their products.

Ultimately, it would be difficult and perhaps even presumptuous to make any normative judgments regarding modern society. In any case, we might be able to take solace in realizing that “hype” is nothing more than perceived social value manufactured by brand managers in boardrooms.

References:

  1. Cowen, T. (2018). Supreme Just Became a Billion-Dollar Streetwear Brand. [online] Complex.
  2. Chaplin, Julia (October 3, 1999). “PULSE: LAFAYETTE STREET; ‘Kids’ Welcome, Dress: Baggy”. The New York Times. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.
  3. Weber, Caroline (2007). Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. Picador. ISBN 978-0-312-42734-4.
  4. Pendergast, Sara. (2004) Fashion, Costume, and Culture. Volume 5. Modern World Part II: 1946-2003. Thomson Gale. ISBN 0-7876-5417-5
  5. Hannon, Sharon M. (1 January 2010). “Punks: A Guide to an American Subculture”. ABC-CLIO.
  6. Oldmeadow, Harry (2004), Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions, World Wisdom, Inc, ISBN 0-941532-57-7.
  7. Glasper, Ian (2006), The Day the Country Died: A History of Anarcho Punk 1980 to 1984, Cherry Red publishing, ISBN 978-1-901447-70-5
  8. Sande, Steve (2005-11-06). “Street Threads”. San Francisco Chronicle.
  9. Nielsen Music (2018). S. Music Mid-Year Report 2017. [online]
  10. The Business of Fashion. (2018). Streetwear Bringing Steady Growth to Global Luxury Market . [online] [Accessed 25 Nov. 2018].
  11. Ko, E and Megehee, C. (2012). Fashion marketing of luxury brands: Recent research issues and contributions. Journal of Business Research.

Contributor: Miftah Rasheed Amir

Editor: Fadhil Ramadhan

Design: Yosia Kenneth

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