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July 4th, 2001 Elizabeth Dye | Fashion
 

Streetwear: A Definition

Small-batch designers outmaneuver parasitic cool hunters. Now we can all sleep a bit easier.

     
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What is this crazy little thing called streetwear? According to Erik Railton, designer of local line Troop, it's "unique, cutting-edge clothing, design that isn't mass-produced by a big label." Hmm. Words like "unique" and "cutting-edge" are slippery--they've been used to describe Tommy Hilfiger chinos as readily as a Bonfire jacket or a home-silkscreened pullover. Coolhunters make big money compiling "cutting-edge" street trends and selling them to LVMH and Warnaco, spelling certain doom for any bona-fide small-batch style counterculture. So how do streetwear designers stay one step ahead of the mainstream? Rule 1: Ignore the rules and contradict yourself.

"With streetwear, there's definitely loyalty to a brand, but there's also loyalty to something you've never heard of," says Railton, who sells his neutral tones, faintly militaristic t-shirts at Poker Face in Portland and Union in NYC. Imagine the inverse of khaki-clad Gapsters marching in lockstep. Streetwear brands produce small quantities of items, distribute them through limited channels, and hatch offshoots and collaborations with a lickety-split abandon, ever spawning new, out-of-nowhere labels. Sure, there are household names that mass-market "underground" apparel at malls nationwide. But for every Stüssy or Triple 5 Soul, there's a Final Home or Ruby or CCCP, the homegrown brand of Burnside skate-and-snowboard shop Cal's Pharmacy (1636 E Burnside St., 233-1237). This decidedly unfamous stuff sells for one elusive reason: It's cool.

CCCP, which is shorthand for Corporate Coercion/Cal's Pharmacy and (duh) borrows heavily from the propagandistic imagery of a somewhat well-known ex-Socialist Republic, is a series of screenprinted designs that local designer Dan Garland has put together (on T-shirts, sweatshirts and sundry stretchables) to hype the store. Garland studied graphic design at Portland State University and set to work designing the store's promotional materials when he began working there several years ago. He also produces his own line, Grey, which uses abstractions from local Portland imagery--the Old Town Market sign, for example, or a cluster of radio towers. Why does he think streetwear sells? "People respect that you're an individual designing from your own ideas instead of what someone else thinks will sell." Because CCCP produces relatively small quantities (500 of each design, say), the financial risk of a flop is low. And because streetwear designers are dialed in to what the kids are wearing (Garland himself has been skateboarding for years), there are few flops. Railton agrees that streetwear designers have a greater range of motion: "You have more freedom to be political, to take risks. There are only certain things you can do when you work for the Gap."

You can't talk about streetwear without talking about skateboarding. Skateboaders are cities' most public trendsetters, because, as Railton points out, "Skateboarders literally hang out on the street all day." Trends started by skateboarders spread like whispers of a new skate park, with a quiet but virulent intensity. And because skateboarding is, historically, a ruleless outlaw sport that happens under bridges and in drained swimming pools, streetwear keeps a low profile and avoids the busy, well-lit fashion mainstream.

Still, this is America, and culture and commerce must inevitably meet. When I ask Railton and Garland who their target customer is, they hem and haw. "Male, 25 and up...no, 20 and up. I guess. I can't really see someone over the age of 40 wearing Troop," says Railton, "although it would more surprise than bother me." The consensus seems to be that it's not about that matrix of age/race/sex/
income that constitutes a "demographic" to marketeers and typical product peddlers--anyone who appreciates challenging design and an urban-aggressive aesthetic is welcome to wear these clothes.

Yeah, but there are folks out there who can spoil the effect of a street trend. We all know them--the people who play Radiohead in the parking lot before the Radiohead show, the unwashed, bucktoothed, pigeon-toed uncool. Designers are ever on the run from that universally deplored evil: kids in the suburbs. Sure, but don't a lot of skateboarders start out as kids in the suburbs? "It has to do with being part of a certain scene," explains Railton--it's bad juju to wear skateboard clothing if you don't skate, for example. Still, the right uniform plays a big part in establishing your legitimacy in a scene. Oh, the tangled chicken-egg scenario that is streetwear...

As for the threat of coolhunters, Garland and Railton aren't worried. Says Garland, "I think it's funny, the idea that you have to pay someone to find out what's cool. By the time cool ideas hit the mainstream, we have moved on already anyway." Railton sees the ravenous pursuit of cool by the Man as a good thing. "It's definitely healthy--it keeps subculture on the move." Tommy, do your worst.

Odessa Relocates

The best store in town for dresses you can't afford has moved from her too-close-to-Paragon-for-comfort location to 718 NW 11th Ave. Call 223-1998 for more info.

You're Urban, You Like Outfits...

Join the summer sale shakedown at Urban Outfitters. Up for grabs; beaded flip-flops for $14.99 (were $26), a striped double D-ring belt for $5.99 (was $14), a camo skirt for $24.99 (was $38). 2320 NW Westover St., 248-0020.

Shortcut to Cool

The Coolest Shop on Earth wires you in to streetwear style, offering record bags from Kappa and ESDJCO, clothes from Cat and Sinister, and a whole lot of other brands you're not yet cool enough to have heard of: www.coolestshop.com.

 
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