With the advent of streetwear’s boom in popularity in the fashion realm and its influence on youth culture, big brands and labels have been able to flourish and thrive. Streetwear titans like Supreme and Off-White have cornered off a large section of what’s popular in the realm of streetwear, and many argue that in doing so, individual style has lacked over the past few years. Fashion, in many ways is a form of self expression; your body is a walking canvas in a sense, and is an outward image of how you choose to express yourself visually. Streetwear over the last couple of years has in many ways turned teenagers and young adults into walking billboards. Nowadays it’s not hard to spot a BAPE camo here, and a large “SUPREME” print there, with the occasional huge OFF-WHITE “X” stamped on the back of a t-shirt. I remember seeing that stuff all the time on campus before I graduated, the same prints, the same styles, the same popular formulas repeated again and again in people’s outfits. To be honest, that’s just how trends go, right? One thing becomes popular and it’s cool, but at some point it goes from a sense of visual astonishment and awe to just a mere raise of the eyebrows.
And I’m sure you’re reading this and thinking, “well, that’s just hypebeasts, they’ve always been that way and they will be the same in the future,” but think about how many people you know own a pair of Yeezy 350s, or a Supreme shirt, or even nowadays an Off-White x Nike shoe. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this either, I myself am a patron of the popular streetwear brands and I too at times emulate the same popular styles. However, I raise the question, what stands out in the general fashionable population, where seemingly everyone is rocking the same silhouettes and brands?
Art In The Context of Fashion
To find that individuality and astonishment, I believe it is important to put fashion in the context of art, and to consider its artistic significance. Dictionary.com defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”. Fashion and art have been intertwined for centuries and it’s no surprise that outward physical design and aesthetic have been associated together. Art has always had a place in high fashion and luxury couture, more famously observed in the timeless designs by luxury houses like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and many would argue that they are to fashion as names like Da Vinci and Monet are to art. And it continues to be that way, in a much more obvious sense as well. Take a look at a shot from Louis Vuitton’s latest Autumn/Winter 2020 collection below; Virgil Abloh has pushed artistic imagery and turned not only the clothing, but the presentation of such, into a work of art.
But art exists in fashion in a much more general sense as well, that is more accessible to the common person than LV and Gucci. Style and aesthetic is extremely important in the design of clothing and clothing silhouettes. However, many people turn to expressing art through fashion in a much more obvious sense. For decades, people would take their favorite fashion pieces or old clothes, and transform them into DIY (do it yourself) projects that bring new life to their clothing; the transformation from clothing to a piece, as one would describe a work of art, whether it be a painting or music. DIY has been a growing trend in today’s fashion realm, with people adding patches or stitching to their favorite pairs of jeans, printing their own work on t-shirts, or more famously customizing their favorite sneakers. Social media has been like coal to the DIY steam engine, as it has become increasingly possible to find inspiration and learn techniques for one’s own work.
Art & Fashion in Big Business
Sneaker customization within its own rite has become a huge part of the industry, as well as the DIY style. As aforementioned, people have been putting their own creative spin on the footwear they love for decades, some famous examples being pro skater Lance Mountain’s famous pairs of Air Jordan 1s, and even the classic Vans checkerboard design, created by skaters in the 70s that would color the midsoles of their Vans with black markers. Sneaker customization today has become its own art form, and the sneaker, in a sense, the modern day artist’s canvas.
The concept of sneaker customization has since been commercialized, from the low end to the high end of the fashion spectrum. Brands from Vetements to Vans to Vlone have been utilizing the style and aesthetic of a customized sneaker, with examples like the Vetements x Reebok Instapump Fury sneaker, which looks as if the wearer drew all types of scribbles and tiny drawings with a sharpie marker, like we used to do in the backs of our notebooks in high school.
Nike has even released multiple iterations of “Lance Mountain” sneakers that depict a scratch-away white or black layer of paint on an air jordan 1, in the same way that Lance Mountain would famously paint his. Even beyond the scope of sneaker painting and colorways, I would argue the DIY style has manifested itself in the huge trend of sneaker “deconstruction”. Since Virgil Abloh has flipped some of Nike’s most famous silhouettes, deconstructing and reconstructing them to highlight specific design elements, Nike and other sneaker companies have turned to the trend of moving iconic shoe elements around, taking them out completely, or even flipping a shoe inside out to highlight the stitching and/or paneling, etc. It’s funky, it’s wild, and it looks as if someone had cut and sew their own footwear to create something new, a work-in-progress of sorts.
Art & Fashion at the Consumer Level
I recently spoke with two creative individuals that are constantly overlapping the realms of visual art and fashion. To them, clothes aren’t only items one wears to cover their body, but extensions of the artistic world, and mediums to express that art. Like any artist or creative, they have their own motivations, inspirations, and styles in their work; things that distinguish them from each other and from other people with the utilization of specific aesthetics and principles. “I pride myself on the time and accuracy I use to produce every piece,” says a NYC based artist who goes by the instagram handle “@OG_sticks”. “Most of the time I just see and think of something that I feel is cool and try [to] produce with the tools I have,” he says in regards to his own thoughts and feelings about his work and what makes it special. @OG_Sticks works with up-cycled button-down shirts, printing enlarged images of the covers of Vertigo Comics’ Preacher, juxtaposing the notion of business and formal attire with detailed images of mangled human faces.
He also paints jeans and tees as well, adorning them with famous cartoon characters from shows like Codename: Kids Next Door and Rocket Power. Each of his pieces is a 1 of 1, and gives them all the same high level of precision and dedication.
“ I’ve always been a huge fan of cartoons from the 80s,90s, and 2000s which is my foundation. Nostalgia is something that everyone can relate to, It’s creates a mesmerizing effect on people. So a lot of my art involves cartoons that I grew up with and a lot of my freestyle art has a cartoon feel as well. As I got more into fashion I started researching fashion designers and people who have a different view compared to the average individual. One particular collection I was really inspired by was Raf Simons SS 17 Robert Mapplethorpe over sized dress shirts that include photos from Mapplethorpe’s archive. I really admired the shape of the shirts and images that Raf decided to go with. So I figured I should do the same by using cartoons from childhood.”
On a more commercial level comes the work of Lynk Jones, a recent graduate from the School of Visual Arts in NYC. He is the founder and creative head of DESPERADO (@desperadoworld on instagram), an up and coming clothing label that is ripe with imagery reminiscent of the old American West, and western values of honor and villainy, hence the name DESPERADO. Lynk expressed how he originally came to New York for school in 2015 where he studied animation, which he mentions didn’t take a liking to. “…I needed a better way to express myself,” says Lynk, “On a whim the homie said I should take a screen printing class and it’s all history from there.” Using stark, contrasting colors and a bevy of bold text, DESPERADO utilizes a combination of image and text to portray messages so striking they model old school propaganda in a sense. All the graphic tees are done by Lynk utilizing the screen printing process, producing bold contrast in the graphics.
“I’m a huge fuckin' dork so a lot of Desperado is inspired by anime and books and things like that, not so much in design but in themes and ideas I put into my clothes… my favorite brand is Undercover so I think I took their affinity for bold and dark graphics and molded it to myself. And they have a sick slogan.”
Just like these amazing artists, many other young people are turning to DIY and applying their own personal spin on clothing, whether that entails making a 1 of 1 piece or creating their own brand. According to a 2018 paper written by YouGov’s Head of Custom Research, Jack Weber, approximately 37% of people aged 18–24 have personalized an item of clothing. Also in recent years, Instagram has forwarded the trend of clothing personalization, with artists such as @Jynwaye and @imran_potato, among many others, gaining fame for their designs and the labels they created from their art. Owning a piece from one of these influential social media stars is cool, and creating the piece yourself is often seen as even cooler.
I asked the artists I spoke with about their thoughts on the “trend” of artistic personalization of clothing, “Absolutely there is,” says Lynk, “but I don’t think it’s a bad thing per-say. People should be allowed to express themselves in any way [that] suits them. You can’t be mad at the hustle.” On the contrary, @OG_Sticks warns about clout chasers, and those who rush into the craft without doing the proper preparations and research. “A lot of people are in it for the wrong reasons I feel and that’s what holds people back [from] becoming successful at their craft. Everyone is trying to get from point A to C without going through point B which is the most important and fun part. I’m not against anyone starting a brand or trying to do things to improve their current situation but you have to know what the f*** you’re talking about and have a reason for why you’re doing it. Lack of knowledge shows.”
In What Ways Is This Trend Affecting Fashion?
Personalization of clothing may be a great thing for fashion, one of fashion’s best recent trends in fact, for multiple reasons. For starters, the flow of individuality and personal style can be like a breath of fresh air for the general fashion atmosphere. Of course, there’s nothing actually wrong with not customizing your sneakers or printing your own t-shirts, but uniqueness in fashion is something many people yearn for: a way to stand out in what they wear, even amongst their fashionable peers. Also, the spirit of customization and DIY inspires the industry, and challenges them to do interesting things within the trend of personalization.
The second reason why it’s great is because its sustainable; fashion’s biggest issue is that it’s wasteful and generally harmful to the earth. Fast fashion and the direction that many big retailers take with following every new fad in the industry isn’t good for our planet, and it causes people to turn over their closets every couple of seasons to keep up with what’s “hot”. In doing so, this keeps fashion (as well as its associated industries) as one of the highest polluting industries in the world. Painting over a pair of pants can add new life to an old piece of clothing, which would be better than buying a new pair from H & M every two months.
All in all, fashion has always existed with the expression of self in mind. However one chooses to stand out, or not, is completely up to them. However, more and more young people are looking towards being their own designers to be seen as stylish and cool. What do you think? Is the trend of personalizing clothing cool and important for fashion and more specifically streetwear to move forward? Or should we leave the design work to the brands and labels that have been doing it so well for so long?