The thing about endangered creatures is that by the time you notice they’re in trouble, it is probably too late to get them back. The same can probably be said of subcultures. Beautiful or colorful, anomalous and strange, largely unnoticed however distinct, members of subcultures consume, create, disport and express themselves in ways that are starkly different from the greater boring mass of humankind, and this makes them both fugitive and special. It also tends to spell their doom.
This thought came to mind last week in Venice, where Dior Men took over a major intersection in the funky beach neighborhood of Los Angeles that for decades symbolized skate and surf culture to stage its menswear show. Etienne Russo, the brains behind the production house Villa Eugénie, painted the street blue and created a 30-foot fabric wave backdrop for the event — a one-night stunt, or a 10-minute one if you discount an hourlong wait for the action to begin, months of lead-up and whatever surplus was required for the Dior honchos to figure out that the label needed a therapeutic infusion.
An IV drip of California was prescribed. This took the form of the designer Eli Russell Linnetz of the label ERL. A fashion world Zelig, Linnetz grew up at the beach. Although he studied film, Linnetz has turned up in Kanye West’s design studio and directed videos for Teyana Taylor; was Lady Gaga’s personal photographer; dresses ASAP Rocky; is a finalist for the prestigious LVMH prize; and is a quirky ubiquitous presence in the realms of style.
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The Venice he would have known as a child of the 2000’s looked a lot different from the city of today, however. Whereas Abbott Kinney Boulevard (“A.K.” to locals), the town’s main commercial artery, was then a ragtag stretch of dive bars and mom-and-pop shops, it is now a slick stretch of upscale retail shops, fancy restaurants and pricey wine bars.
Yes, you still see wet-suited surfers cycling along with short boards under their arms and locals dressed in motley get-ups of tie-dye, fleece, Birkenstocks and checkerboard Vans. But the skate-rat-surf-hippie vibe that once defined the place has been largely supplanted by the cashmere hoodie chic of the bros who have transformed Venice into one of the West Coast’s major technology hubs.
A defining element of both surf and skate cultures was that, for the people involved in those pursuits, day jobs were a means of paying bills so you could do what you loved. (Ask any contractor in Southern California whose crew vanishes when the surf is up.) The way people dressed for those sports was improvisatory, unselfconscious and driven largely by practicality and thrift. One pioneer surfer was the hotelier Sean MacPherson’s mother, Janet, who in the days before wet suits were commonplace, scavenged cashmere sweaters from Goodwill to insulate her from the frigid Pacific. That’s the vibe Kim Jones, the Dior Men creative director, was presumably after when he tapped Linnetz as a collaborator.
And while the partnership produced stuff that was certainly intriguing in terms of style, palette, embellishment and proportion — vast puddled trousers, bejeweled and oversize shorts, fisherman’s sweaters embroidered with pearls, marl hoodies cut in the pattern of a wave, sneakers so chunky it looked as though the wearers had forgotten to take them out of the box — the result left a viewer feeling glum.
Forget the obligatory suits in padded silk satin in Dior’s signature dove gray (and said to have been inspired by Gianfranco Ferré’s stint at the label), the essence of the show was baldly the tiny glittery saddle bags, worn cross-body and inspired by skater key-chain wallets, that are certain to make cash registers sing around the world.
Meantime, many local subcultures have been marginalized to the point of extinction. Venice, like so much of Southern California, is no longer a place where anyone can exist comfortably on the fringe. A fashion review is not a natural place to point out the extremity of the state’s homelessness problem or even necessarily to note the omnipresence of Los Angeles’s tent encampments and the fact that people are reduced to sleeping beneath bus shelters or freeway overpasses.
Still, driving to the Dior Men show, this critic passed a typical sight — a man wandering the roadway, trailing a blanket worn over his head as though he were a defeated warrior. It happened that the final look in the Dior Men show was a model luxuriantly caped and trailing what looked like a blanket.
The visual echo was surely unconscious on the part of Linnetz. At least I hope it was.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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