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Cultural Exchange

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to the post-modern world.

Now get a life.

Don’t like your neighborhood? Join a virtual community on the Internet. Don’t like your gender? Get an operation. Don’t like your class, culture or current clique? Go . . . shopping.

Clothes make the post-modern man. Or do they? Casual fashion in the new world, especially for young men, has gone full circle--from reliable class signpost to a shell game of mobility with endless choices. Guess who I am today! A snowboarder? A prep? A gangster?

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A railroad worker’s boxy jeans and jacket have become a mainstay of adolescent snowboarders shredding down the slopes. The country club attire of the grandpa set now adorns the backs of B-boys who sometimes belong to a different kind of “set.” The chinos, Pendletons and Dickies jeans adopted by street gangs have, of course, gone west to surf shops and uptown to boutiques.

Fashion can be liberating. “One of the things about American culture that is so amazing is that we all have opportunities to pick and choose,” says Todd Boyd, a popular culture expert based at USC. “And it’s always interesting who picks what.”

Or it can be exploitative, with manufacturers cashing in on new American phenomena: the credit card gangster and drive-by shopping. As with post-war beatniks, ‘50s rock rebels and ‘60s soul fans, today’s urban culture has become a removable badge of hipness. And thus, say critics, the language of fashion is devalued.

But today this communication is two-way.

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Many suburban white kids seem to want to dress like Snoop Doggy Dogg with a surfer-skater twist. But a lot of African American kids in the big cities seem to want to dress like skipper Dennis Conner, with a baggy, B-boy twist, too. (Young women’s fashion is even more trendy, has more identities to mix and match but is less obsessed with street-tough style; a different beast, to say the least.)

“Fashion is so subversive,” explains Ann Hollander, author of several scholarly books on fashion. “It tries to do a slightly forbidden thing. So it doesn’t surprise me that these two different kinds of kids would try to ape each other.”

Is it appreciation, or appropriation?

“The people who should be directly benefiting from this are not,” says Boyd, who is African American. “That’s exploitation at the highest level.”

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Indeed, the beneficiaries of this culture exchange often are white-owned apparel companies, from the New York offices of Tommy Hilfiger (annual sales, $400 million) to the suburban Southern California digs of dozens of “streetwear” companies that sell largely to suburban kids. Streetwear sales, in fact, are one of the hottest elements of the $10 billion youth apparel market.

The pioneers of commercial streetwear have a deep appreciation for inner-city culture, say those involved. “In a way, the cultures meld with each other,” says San Diego’s Richard Kenvin, a local surfing legend and owner of Stoopid clothing. “A lot of white kids are incredibly knowledgeable about hip-hop culture and in a way, it’s recognition and appreciation.”

In Tokyo, the infatuation with American street culture sometimes reaches extremes, with some youths donning Afro perms and freakish tans. American kids can take the culture just as lightly too. Body FX, for example, is a line of hair products that allows for temporary weaves, braids, dreads and streaks. Many of the looks are Rasta- and rap-inspired. “We’re giving kids a way to say, ‘Hey, we can be cool but we don’t have to get grounded for it,’ ” says spokeswoman Pia Larson.

“It’s just an image that they’re trying to portray,” counters Tony Green, a 35-year-old child psychologist, as he hangs out with a younger group of African Americans at Jesse Owens Park in South-Central L.A. “They don’t come from where we come from.”

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“Out here, it’s about character,” he says. “You could look like a bum and still be a killer.”

The character of American popular culture has for decades been shaped by inner-city want--doing the most with the least. In music it meant small, money-saving quartets that created the heyday of jazz in the ‘50s--or a penny-wise turntable-and-microphone set-up that spawned rap in the ‘70s. In the late ‘70s, it meant wearing long-lasting denim Dickies, cheap canvas Nikes and prison garb as a badge of honor.

Then there was ‘80s status chic: Fila, Sergio Tacchini, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. In the early ‘90s, a Brooklyn gang called the ‘Lo Lifes went one step further, from appropriation to expropriation, by stealing and then wearing preppy Polo gear almost as a political statement.

Today this “prep urban” style involves wearing oversize Polo, Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger. This was not a cut-and-dry case of reverse appropriation: “It’s all about appropriating and then perverting the style of the ruling class and doing in knowingly,” argues Steven Daly, co-author of “alt.culture,” (HarperPerennial, 1996).

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Of course, these street statements lose their cache quickly. It’s only a matter of microwave transmission before Snoop’s new hockey jersey or Coolio’s new ‘do ends up on MTV. Hip-hop music itself proudly claims Polo, Hilfiger, Timberland. (Rappers Mobb Deep: “Me and Hilfiger used to move through with vigor.”) Those more devoted can turn to any number of magazines--from Arena to Vibe--to catch the latest look.

“For the majority of people, when they look at ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ or something of that nature, it’s like looking at the J. Crew catalog” argues Daly, who is British. “It’s obvious suburban kids just want the trappings of an interesting and difficult life, but they don’t actually want to experience anything difficult.”

The downside to oversize fashion these days, in fact, is the hassling kids can get for dressing like wannabes: “You might get stopped by police, you might get bothered by gang members,” says Do Hyung Kim, who counsels troubled youths in Koreatown. “It does put you at a certain risk.”

But suburban kids can’t always appropriate. Take the “prep urban” stance or the reemerging “ghetto fabulous” style, so named by music mogul Andre Harrell (to describe the attraction to Louis Vuitton et. al.) A white kid still ends up looking like, well, a white kid. (“These are staples of their mom’s and dad’s wardrobe,” Daly says.)

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“When you see it on some teenager in the Valley someplace, its clearly not the same,” says professor Boyd. “The brilliance of African American culture has to do with improvisation. The minute something becomes popular in a mainstream way, African American kids already move on to something else.”

Of course, shopping for one’s identity is not always a black and white choice, especially in Southern California. Consider the African American kids who slam ’63 Chevy Impalas a la Mexicana. Or the Mexican American teens who have made KPWR-FM (105.9) L.A.'s No. 1 station--based largely on its rap programming. Or the vast number of Koreatown youths who ride in turfed-out cars, listen to hip-hop and identify with the inner-city.

And check out the intersection of Pacific and Windward avenues in Venice, a place where the surf meets the street. A white kid around here might very well “claim” these streets. He probably surfs, or skates. And he’s not afraid to represent the neighborhood through fashion.

“I wear what I want to wear,” says blond surfer Mike Massey, 19, who sports the gangsta-skate label called Dog Town--Venice’s nickname.

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This is where the modern streetwear industry--part street, part surf, part skate, part snow--was born. Smaller companies put their labels on a look--baggy jeans, work shirts and graffiti-inspired Ts--that kids on the street were already sporting.

Venice’s Bronze Age label was established in 1987 and now features graffiti-inspired T-shirts, baggy walk shorts, snowboard gear and even a juniors line. “ ‘Ghetto surf’ is what we like to call it,” says designer Ray Flores. Last year the company did nearly $7 million in sales.

In 1989 Fuct in L.A. and Stoopid in San Diego followed suit. The next year Fresh Jive came along with gangsta jeans and tongue-in-cheek Ts. Then dozens of other companies--often based in Orange County--jumped on the bandwagon and fed the youth market’s switch from neon surf wear to bad-boy streetwear. The coast to coast “mall-ification” of streetwear helped sales but hurt street credibility.

The final straw was when street styles flowed even further uptown, to that mythical place called high fashion. Anna Sui put Adidas stripes on her dresses and designers from Chanel to Gucci did top-of-the-line backpacks. “Runways,” says one retailer, “are streetwear driven.”

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That has inner-city kids on the run, trying desperately not to look like some pimple-faced punk from Orange County who is trying to look like them. And it can hurt even inner-city apparel makers.

Cross Colours, one of the few black-owned companies to tap into the streetwear phenomenon, went out of business in 1994, besieged by poor management, finance troubles and a fickle market.

To stay fresh, the rest of the streetwear industry has toned down its gangsta vibe of late. The styles of ska music and prep urban fashion have influenced designers to play it retro--using plaid patterns, structured sweaters and tailored pants. At the same time, club looks that are metallic and body conscious--"high-tech"--are in.

But most agree inner-city fashion is still a factor. And on a recent summer-like spring day, the Venice boardwalk is brimming with ghetto styles.

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“I’m just dressing comfortable,” says 16-year-old John Hayes, who happens to be white and who sports loose shorts around his hips, a white tank top, two gold chains and a hard gaze. His fashion choices, he admits, evoke interest on the streets. Sometimes gang members will ask, “Where you from,” he says, throwing up his hands like a rapper.

He’s from Chatsworth.


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