Style and substance sit shoulder to shoulder in Terry Newman’s new book, which examines the personal styles of 50 literary icons from Joan Didion to James Joyce
“Style is character,” Joan Didion famously wrote. The American writer, whose output is peppered with references to the cultural significance clothes, was talking about the tendency to view someone’s work as a reflection of their person. Specifically, she was writing about her young daughter’s desire to meet Georgia O’Keeffe after seeing her paintings. “She was assuming that the glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker, that the painting was the painter as the poem is the poet…,” Didion tells us.
This is a common, almost instinctive, assumption about artists, wherein the politics of personality and style reign supreme, but is to a lesser extent applied to the literary world. It is telling then that Didion, the well-dressed woman, has become inseparable from her sharp, stylish prose.
London-based fashion journalist and writer Terry Newman takes this idea one step further in her new book, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, which details the relationship between the writing and wardrobes of 50 iconic authors. Ahead of its release, Newman sheds light on the book below.
On the inspiration behind the book…
“I have only ever been interested in two things: books and clothes. When I started thinking about writing a book, it seemed to me that writing about what authors wear would be interesting. When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader and authors themselves were just as interesting as the books they wrote. I was always fascinated by the characters behind the books.”
On style versus substance…
“People sometimes feel that the clothes can be superficial and I have to say, when I sat down to write this book, I thought, perhaps this is a mad thing to do, to talk about such amazing writers and analyse them as per their clothes. Then I realised that is just not how I feel about clothes.
Clothes reveal intense amounts about people; about their character, about their purpose, about their emotions. It seemed to me, to find a little bit more about these authors that I love, that looking at their clothes was a really obvious choice. It can be as revealing as talking to somebody. I can’t talk to Samuel Beckett because he is dead, but looking at his clothes gave me a glimpse of his personality. When people refer to clothes as being superficial, I think they are missing the point.”
On what she learned…
“What I found was that my premise was correct. As I started researching, what was most interesting was all of these authors had a style, they all had this uniqueness. But also the way they wrote about and used clothes in their literature was similar as well. They are all magnificent writers, all of them to a greater or lesser extent use clothes as a way of illuminating character. From James Joyce right through to Tom Wolfe, not one of these authors have dismissed clothes as being superficial in their work. What I feel about clothes, almost all these authors feel. They are important and interesting.”
As it opens up the modernist canon to include both contemporary buildings and lesser-known examples from around the world, a new book asks what modernism means today
In 1910, Austrian architect Adolf Loos delivered a radical lecture railing against what he called ‘the plague of ornament’. Later published as an essay titled ‘Ornament and Crime’, Loos’ polemic was first and foremost a violent reaction to the excess and elitism of art nouveau. For Loos, art nouveau’s decadence was an unnecessary burden on both the powers of invention and human labour. Both, he claimed, slow the tempo of cultural progress. Subject as it is to changing taste, the form of an object, he argued, should last as long as the object lasts physically. This was not the first time a moralising stance has been taken on style, but more than century later, it has proved to be one of the most influential.
A new book, Ornament is Crime: Modernist Architecture, plays on Loos’ legacy and celebrates the architectural language of modernism with a visual survey of extraordinary homes dating from 1910 to present day. As it opens up the modernist canon to include both contemporary buildings and lesser-known examples from around the world, it necessarily asks what modernism means today.
“Modernism isn’t just a style, it’s actually a radical approach to life and to art,” says co-author Albert Hill. “That clear purpose has resulted in great architecture, and people recognise that this is not architecture by numbers, this is not architecture by corporate committee, this is architecture by vision and values.”
In the 20th century, the tremors of modernism were felt in everything from painting to literature, and to underscore the lasting intensity of these values, authors Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill have interspersed silky black and white photographs with punchy quotes, song lyrics and literary excerpts from figures such as Susan Sontag and Samuel Beckett. “Instead of just being about architecture, the book is about architecture’s place within modern culture,” Hill says.
Although modernism is often historically confined to the 20th century, Ornament is Crime liberates the term by looking at how some of the most respected contemporary architects – including John Pawson, Richard Meier and Tadao Ando – continue to work in the modernist tradition.
“There are very obvious characteristics that these houses share,” explains Gibberd. “Flat roofs, often horizontal bands of glazing, cubic or cylindrical forms. Modernism came about because of new technologies – the possibilities of curtain-walling, and the fact that concrete allowed you to have these open floor plates, huge expanses of glazing – and those still very much apply.”
Many of these defining characteristics were outlined by Le Corbusier in his five points of architecture. With its free facade, ribbon windows, pilotis, roof terrace and open plan, the Swiss-French architect’s iconic Villa Savoye, built in 1929 in Poissy, on the outskirts of Paris, is an embodiment of these principles and remains a benchmark for modernist design. In the absence of surface decoration, Gibberd suggests that modernist architecture becomes about “shape-making”, and like Loos, Le Corbusier and legions of architects since, Ornament is Crime extols the virtues of pure form.
From his south London home, the celebrated chef, restaurateur and food writer speaks to The Modern House about what modern living means to him
I lived in Shoreditch for 20-odd years, as well as Notting Hill, and I wasn’t considering south London before I bought this place. My friend Richard, who’s a search agent, showed it to me on The Modern House website, and I zipped straight over on my scooter to take a look. I said yes straight away. I didn’t even come for a second viewing because I knew I was going to redo it.
Space was the main consideration, but I’ve found that Bermondsey is a really interesting area. It’s also easy to get to any of my restaurants… I nip over London Bridge to get to the Oyster & Chop House. I’m close to lots of bridges here! I visit at least two of my restaurants every day. I’m not really in the kitchen any more; I’ve got lots of other things to look at, mostly overseeing the creative side.
This place is my home, and I also do some work from here: writing and experimenting. I might start doing some cookery demonstrations, like I do in my Kitchen Library at the Tramshed.
I worked with Tekne on the refurbishment. Originally they’re shop fitters, but they’ve fallen into doing hotels and restaurants. They did my Bankside restaurant, Hixter, and the one in Soho. I recently put them in touch with my friend Robin Hutson, who owns The Pig Hotels, so they’ve done the last two projects for him. When Robin buys old buildings for the hotels he clears them out, and he’s given me a few salvaged things for the flat – a shower and some old Crapper loos.
I designed the space, and then Tekne worked as the contractors and architects. I gave them the ideas, and they put it all on paper. We gutted the whole thing, taking it right back to the bare bricks. We played around with materials: the wine racks are made out of scaffold planks picked up from building sites around here – some we paid for and others we were given for nothing. The same with the bookcase. Because they’re old, they’ve got a bit of character.
The kitchen counter is made from liquid metal. You can pour it over MDF to create curves at the edges, and you don’t get joins. Underneath are pieces of cast concrete from Retrouvius; I think they were originally columns in a mid-century office block. I wanted simple, natural oak units, something that would wear in naturally. Cooker hoods are normally so boring, so we went to a foundry and made a semi-industrial-looking unit that’s wrapped over the top of a normal extractor. We went back to the natural brick on the wall behind, which would have been the end wall of the original factory.
The spoon on the wall is a Michael Craig-Martin – it’s the cover of one of my books, The Collection. The ‘Vacancies’ neon piece is a Peter Saville art piece that he made. The fridge came from an antiques shop in Paris. It was made in the 1800s – originally they would have put a block of ice in the middle compartment to keep the whole thing cold. The refrigeration guy that I use for my restaurants converted it and made the top bit to match the bottom. It’s got different sections: dairy, wine, glasses, negroni cabinet!
I buy a lot of stuff from junk shops and reclamation yards. The kitchen lights are from Trainspotters in Gloucestershire, and I’ve collected midcentury Stilnovo lights over the years.
I bought the cocktail cabinet years ago at the Paul Smith shop. It had a horrible Chinese painting on the front, so I got my artist friend Mat Collishaw to make a replacement. The taxidermy mice in bell jars are by Polly Morgan, and the Bridget Riley is one of the first pieces I ever bought. There’s a shop across the road – a sort of Lithuanian shop – and they were selling what I thought was a mandolin, but I couldn’t work out why it was so big; it turns out it dates from 1903 and was used for slicing white cabbage.
The guitar comes from an event in Lyme Regis called Guitars on the Beach. A friend of mine said: ‘If I get a Fender guitar sponsored, can you ask Tracey Emin to draw on it?’, and she did. I thought it was going to be a silent auction, but it ended up being a raffle at a pound a ticket. So I bought a thousand tickets for £1,000 to narrow the chances down! It’s signed by Paul McCartney as well. I go back to Lyme Regis maybe three weekends a month. I’m part of the local community, I suppose. I get involved in local charity work and I do a food festival, which brings quite a few people to the area.
I made the garden room because the little terrace is quite small. In the summer you can open the doors up and feel like you’re inside and outside. I put the bi-fold doors in, and then got lots of crazy plants from Covent Garden. It’s a nice place to have tea in the morning. I found the old plantation chair on eBay. The artwork is by my mate Henry Hudson, who works in plasticine. That’s an Australian Moreton Bay Bug [on the ceiling]: it’s a sort of prehistoric crab. Then this is an old python skin I found rolled up in a box in a junk shop. I guess there’s a touch of the macabre, but really I just thought this room was crazy enough that you could put anything in it.
I’ve got a fishing and shooting cupboard here. The wallpaper is by one of the guys who works in the gallery, Tom Maryniak; he’s done a few different types of wallpaper in the loos at my Bankside restaurant. And then the wallpaper in the main bathroom is by Jake and Dinos Chapman.
The photographs above the bed are by Susannah Horowitz – she was one of the winners of the Hix Award. Every time we do the award I end up buying something. And this one isn’t from the Hix Award: it’s just two fucking flamingos with a little bird watching… I forget what its name is! The rooflight was already here; it was quite a weird space before, with a pool table and not much else.”
This feature is an excerpt from The Modern House, read more here
The New York issue is now on sale, featuring artist Julian Schnabel, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, Olympic fencer Peter Westbrook and more
Issue 20 of Port is our tribute to New York – a city that looms large in politics and popular opinion and larger still throughout style, culture and design. In it, we have gathered people and portrayals as big as the Big Apple itself.
Mounting a successful return to New York, our cover star for issue 20 is Brooklyn-born artist Julian Schnabel, who speaks to Kyle Chayka about his reputation as “the carnival man of contemporary art”, his recent exhibition at Pace Gallery and a film in the works.
In the style section, we include our favourite looks from the Spring Summer 2017 Collections, and an editorial styled by Alex Petsetakis captures the colourful spirit of David Hockney’s poolside paintings with stripes and soft focus. Elsewhere, a design still-life shoot sees New York-native birds from the Wild Bird Fund photographed with organic designs including an Eames mobile for Vitra and a silver branch broach from Louis Vuitton.
In the feature well, our design editor Will Wiles and photographer Robin Broadbent explore New York’s architectural motifs – from water towers to fire escapes – in a sprawling 38-page photo essay. Next, Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for the New Yorker for over 30 years, invites us into his home and shares an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, At the Stranger’s Gate. We also meet Peter Westbrook, the first black fencer to win an Olympic medal and founder of the Peter Westbrook Foundation.
Highlights from the Porter include a intimate guide to New York, with recommendations and anecdotes from Port readers and contributors including designer Philippe Starck, writer Will Self and restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone. Also in this section, Studio 54 legend Giorgio Moroder shares his experience producing Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, Matthew Combs considers the city’s relationship with rats, and architect Daniel Libeskind muses on the drama and energy of the subway.
Port Issue 20 is available from 12 April. To subscribe, click here
In a series of six short films, Canali explores the craft and construction of some of its key designs
‘Where do stories come from?’ asks Italian writer and director Ivan Cottroneo. ‘Everything starts with a blank page – metaphorical or physical – or a blank screen in a cinema before a movie begins. This is a very significant image and despite everything that is said about writer’s block or director’s block, this image is inspirational to me. I get the urge to fill that blank screen, I want to fill that blank page.’
In a recent collaboration with Canali, Cottroneo – who co-wrote the script for Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love – came together with Luca Bigazzi, director of photography for Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli to create an exclusive short film. The result – Rewind – pays homage to the attention to detail involved in the making of a Canali blazer, from pattern-making to the final stitches.
Now, this narrative continues with Stories of Craftsmanship, which explores the craft and construction of some of the other garments the brand is best known for. Six short films released over the several weeks each focus on an item from the Canali catalogue: The Shirt; The Tie; The Shoe; The Belt; The Sweater; The Trouser. The latest episode, released today, focuses on the construction of a Canali sweater. Watch it here.
Harnessed to one another, models at the Moncler Gamme Bleu AW17 show shuffled along in padded herringbone jackets and oversized knit backpacks with details of reconstructed mountaineering gear giving the collection an essence of bondage
A new exhibition at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery pays homage to the bold and influential style made famous in the north of England
The unmistakable culture of northern England takes centre stage at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery as it celebrates its 40th birthday by showcasing the region’s contribution to contemporary fashion.
Co-curated by editor-at-large of SHOWstudio, Lou Stoppard, and Manchester-based academic Adam Murray, North: Identity, Photography, Fashion sees nostalgic imagery by Alasdair McLellan and Nick Knight juxtaposed against garments created by Raf Simons, Gareth Pugh and Christopher Shannon.
Luxury fashion brands sit neatly alongside looks by Paul Smith and footwear by Adidas, all evoking the styles championed by the frontmen of influential Northern bands including Oasis, Happy Mondays and Stone Roses.
North: Identity, Photography, Fashion attempts to uncover the meaning and influence of a style that was often brash and apologetic, but unforgettable.
‘North’ runs from 5 Jan – 19 March 2017 at Open Eye Gallery Liverpool
Red Wing head designer Aki Iwasaki talks to PORT about the iconic footwear brand, Japan’s love affair with Americana and why making fashionable products isn’t on his list of priorities
With an impressive 111 years under its belt, the continued success of Red Wing Shoes‘ proves that although trends are useful, they are certainly not the basis for a long-term business. While the Americana boom – now a rather distant memory – laced the historic Red Wing brand in the spotlight and their boots in the hands of a whole new customer base, the company was able to ride the wave and, crucially, remain relevant once the ‘Made in America’ noise died down. The key to its success is a commitment to what it does best: no-fuss, tough-as-nails protective footwear.
The business is split into four divisions: a lucrative, workplace-specific ‘Red Wing Shoes’ range that supplies to customers in the construction and manufacturing trade; the ‘Irish Setter’ label, targeting America’s sizeable hunting community, hikers and climbers; ‘Vasque’, which provides outdoors-friendly footwear; and its newest line, Red Wing Heritage.
Originally founded by shoe merchant Charles Beckmann in 1905, the business was inspired by the army of blue-collar workers at the heart of America’s industrial boom. Today, all Red Wing labels carry subtle traces of the original 1900s collection; familiar styles are being produced but have been modernised. While the DNA remains, these performance lines cater to a contemporary audience more interested in present than past, a consumer in search of functionality first and foremost.
However, Red Wing has never forgotten its roots. While ‘archival’ remains an exhausted menswear buzzword, the company has always preserved and protected its history no matter the prevailing trend. Red Wing Heritage, launched in 2005, is the distillation of all those treasured vintage models, faded newspaper ads and promotional posters locked away at its Minnesota HQ.
Producing a collection dedicated to reproducing the best of a bygone era, required a candidate with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the brand’s timeline. A self-confessed Red Wing obsessive since his school days, Red Wing head designer Aki Iwasaki has been with the company for over a decade. A Tokyo native, he has experienced Japan’s long-standing love affair with Americana first hand.
During his tenure, Iwasaki has overseen the leap from niche heritage sub-label to household name, reintroducing a series of classic Red Wing models from the Postman Shoe to the Beckman range. Each release is a reflection of both America’s social history and the brand’s own development. Here, Aki Iwasaki talks growing up, making it in America, and why the Japanese have a taste for authenticity.
When did you first discover Red Wing?
At school, actually. I remember my friend was wearing a pair of Red Wing Chelsea boots – they were really popular at that time, around 1995. I thought they were so cool but I couldn’t buy them; they were very expensive back then and I was a poor student. I eventually managed to get hold of a first pair of brand new Pecos Western boots, which were big in Tokyo.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Saitama on the outskirts of Tokyo. I originally studied industrial design as I wanted to be a car designer – the auto industry is huge in Japan – but it was a very difficult course, so I gave up.
My second interest was fashion. I’d always been into footwear, specifically, so I took a job at a company called Midori International, which dealt with lots of major shoe brands in Japan.
How did you end up working at Red Wing?
I was very lucky, actually… one of Midori’s brands happened to be Red Wing. Whatever your role, the first stage when you join Midori is to learn how to make footwear. I had to work at a Japanese shoe factory for three months, trying out lasting, cutting, sewing, etc. I didn’t enjoy it all, to be honest, but I was able to make my own footwear, which I loved. Realising what I was and wasn’t interested in, I started doing press and marketing for Red Wing Japan soon after the apprenticeship.
How do you source material for the Red Wing archive and what is your favourite find?
I use eBay a lot. I visit flea markets in America and Japan too.
It’s difficult to choose a particular favourite; I personally always wear vintage Red Wing. The hardest pairs to find are vintage Engineer Boots. If I see those I buy them straight away!
How would you describe the differences between the Japanese and American market for Red Wing products?
The Japanese market prefers the authentic vintage styles. They believe that Red Wing has to be very rugged and very tough, just like the original work boots. They like really thick leather and a firm feel to their footwear. The Red Wing Heritage market is newer in the US and Europe, so they’re more flexible about the image of Red Wing. In general they prefer softer, more comfortable leathers. Japan’s top seller continues to be the Moc Toe boot, while America really likes the Iron Ranger.
Is ‘Made in the USA,’ still important to you?
Yes, for me personally, for the market and for our brand, ‘Made in the USA’ is still really important. For the customer, it’s about the ideas of quality, toughness and durability – the sort of thing they associate, for example, with American-made automobiles. The US is known for its trucks not its compact cars; ‘Made in the USA’ is about strength and that’s what Red Wing is about.
How important to the business is the Heritage line?
Heritage is growing, I’d say it’s around 30 per cent of the overall business. Our work boots market though is much, much bigger, which is a good sign as it means that people still want to wear them for their original purpose.
How do you balance old and new at Red Wing?
We continuously produce several products, like the Moc Toe boot, which was created in 1950. That’s more than 60 years ago and the Pecos has a similar lifespan. These styles are like an everlasting product and the consumer expects these original models from us. But to stay fresh and relevant we try to experiment with different types of leather, for example. Comfort is really important, not just for Red Wing, but for footwear in general; often, vintage pieces are impossible to break in. This is where old and new meet: our specially developed cork base and leather insoles make a huge difference.
How much, if at all, are you influenced by trends?
We recognise that part of our audience is the fashion market, so we are always aware of what’s going on. Our priority, however, is making the best footwear possible, not necessarily fashionable footwear.
What’s the future for Red Wing Heritage?
We adjust where necessary, but importantly we must stay true to our roots. For example, we see the fashion market is moving away from Americana… that bulky product. We’ve added a more refined look to the collection (for example, the Beckman line) but we’ll never change our core range. That will always remain.
Port and Levi’s® Made & Crafted™ meet award-winning designers Matteo Fogale and Laetitia de Allegri to discover how they are using simple techniques and unearthing unique materials to shape the future of their industry
In a technology-obsessed age, where over-designed furniture and deconstructed food dishes snapped from above can command more online coverage and ‘likes’ on social media channels, how do modern-day creatives resist the lure to overcomplicate things, while still continuing to develop? To answer this, we meet award-winning design duo Matteo Fogale and Laetitia de Allegri, all styled in Levi’s® Made & Crafted™. Like Fogale and de Allegri, Levi’s® Made & Crafted™ – the contemporary, sophisticated collection within Levi’s® – is creating tomorrow’s classics by building on a successful reputation for quality product, using meticulously sourced materials (like Italian hand-waxed leathers and proprietary selvedges denim) and state-of-the-art production techniques. Here, we sit down with the design duo and delve into their approaches to innovation.
Uruguayan Matteo Fogale and Swiss-born Laetitia de Allegri met while working at Barber & Osgerby, the leading industrial design studio responsible for creating Vitra’s Tip Ton chair (2011) and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic torches. It was here that they came to appreciate the “vision of making something that you really believe in”, and learned some of the simple principles that helped lay the foundations for their own partnership, which began four years later.
“Barber & Osgerby have a really interesting approach to design where they don’t sacrifice, or compromise too much what they want to do, they just stick to what they believe,” Fogale tells me. “I think that’s a really important lesson.”
The pair’s first breakthrough project, the -ISH collection (2014), saw them build a beautifully clean line of furniture and tableware using old denim, paper and cotton. As well as winning them recognition from the design community, it gave their practice a focus: recycled and repurposed materials.
“The material we used for the collection was already on the market, but it was used in a very industrial sense,” says de Allegri. “We brought it to life, and showed the beauty of the material through a different way of using it.”
Now located in northeast London’s Blackhorse Workshop, a creative hub for ‘makers’, located in a quiet backroad in Walthamstow, the duo spend hours poring over materials online and in sample libraries, digging through fabrics and compounds that could be given a new purpose. Rather than highlighting the fact that they’re using sustainable material to produce furniture pieces, Fogale and de Allegri are advocates of an understated approach.
“We like that people might not really know that it is made from waste, I think it’s interesting,” Fogale says. “ doesn’t have to shout ‘I’m recycled, I’m made out of discarded glass and wood’. The material could be as precious as any stone or metal, but then made in a sustainable way.”
In the past, Fogale suggests, recycled material was often associated with ‘cheapness’ and bad quality, but that appears to be changing. Specialist manufacturers, such as London-based Smile Plastics, have been working with designers to release high-end recycled materials that look and feel organic – some are even designed to contain natural-looking blemishes). Fogale and de Allegri see this as an opportunity to push sustainable product design even further, while continuing to uphold their refined, minimalist aesthetic.
“Smile made this material out of recycled yogurt pots, by mixing the plastic and the aluminium foil of the pots, and they created this beautiful material which is very unique,” Fogale says. “That’s really interesting because it means you’re not designing just a chair, or a piece of furniture – you can also choose how it looks by controlling the look of the material itself.” “Each piece would be unique and you’d never have the same one twice,” de Allegri adds.
Reworking existing materials may involve complex chemical reactions, but it provides a simple solution to the environmental question, while resulting in individually characterful products that break away from the hegemony of mass production. And because of online tools and a growing appetite for customisation, Fogale and de Allegri can now focus on making bespoke pieces based on customers’ own desires.
“People now want more customised products and things they can change, like the colour or the size,” Fogale says. “This is where the digital world is really good – it’s becoming really interesting because it’s almost a tool in-between the buyer and the designer: you can produce basically on demand.”
“However,” Fogale continues, “at the same time you risk losing your identity as a designer as we choose the colour we want our product to be because we think it looks good or works better. How much you actually want to allow people to be a part of that is quite difficult.”
Photography Pani Paul Styling Scott Stephenson, Alex Petsetakis Photography assistant Liberto Filo Grooming Davide Barbieri at Carenusing Bumble and bumble
Rebecca Arnold, fashion historian and lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, traces Gap’s heritage back to 1960s America – a time and place defined by social unrest, liberal politics and the birth of pop culture
The year of 1969, when Gap was born, was a tumultuous time and era. America, still a fairly young country, was navigating domestic issues and finding its place on the worldwide stage. Such circumstances naturally had played a role in the formation of Gap. In the midst of the Vietnam war there was also a new liberal approach forming with pop culture and rock at the forefront. Taken from The Gap Document, the following essay by Courtauld Institute of Art lecturer Rebecca Arnold helps contextualise Gap in late 20th century history and sets the scene for the birth of one of the most influential and democratic clothing brands around today.
Rebecca Arnold: If 1950s California had been viewed either as a realm of glamour, dominated by images of Hollywood, or a land of suburban conformity, then by the mid-60s such contradictions were completely reimagined: it was no longer a contrast between luxury and white picket fences, but one characterised by a state driven by ideas that encompassed peace and love as well as rebellion and conflict. As Time magazine described it, in its 7 November 1969 edition: “California is virtually a nation unto itself, but it holds a strange hope, a sense of excitement –and some terror – for Americans.” This notion of California as a synecdoche for the United States as a whole was underlined by the title of one of the articles inside: ‘Laboratory in the Sun: the Past as Future.’
Encapsulated within this heading was California as an experiment, its mythic history – a land of promise and plenty, populated by pioneers seeking a new life, and the potential clash or accommodation of this otherness (with New York and the East Coast as the flip side), within the movements for change that emerged during the decade.
As Time outlined, California was “the mirror of America as it will become, or at least as the hothouse for its most rousing fads, fashions, trends and ideas.” Journalists flocked to the state, eager to catalogue these changes in an anthropological search for the new creeds that might just spark national rebellion. Clothing, slang, habitat and music were all described to readers, as though in a National Geographic story of some distant tribe – as both the same but so different from their own lifestyle. For Timethis meant “the surfing boys and leggy girls, the hikers and farmers and futurists, the kooks and the activists are all part of the scene – arbitrarily chosen parts, some more valid than others, but all typical and yet unique. The force that binds them together, the soul of California, is the search for a better life carried on by 20 million individuals, a tenth of the US population.”
While focused on generalities, seeking coherence in an amorphous, fluid realm that it could not quite comprehend, Life magazine, on 18 July 1969, connected changing attitudes in California to those springing up across the country. In its article, ‘The Commune Comes to America’ – which was even more keen to connect this strange present to a fabled past and potential future – image and appearances were a central trope in its description: “Their hair and dress, their pioneer spirit, even their Indian tepees evoke the nation’s frontier beginnings. These young people are members of a commune, which they have created for themselves as a new and radical way of living… The youthful pioneers, unlike the earlier Americans who went into the wilderness to seek their fortunes, are refugees from affluence.” Lurking beneath such essays was the older generation’s suspicion that something had happened to their children that they couldn’t comprehend – that 60s youth had rejected the consumer dream they had so eagerly embraced, or maybe teenagers had just never quite learned the social rules, or how to behave and appreciate the lives their parents had provided them with. Instead, they flocked to the West Coast, its warmth and sunshine a beacon of hope, or at least a refuge that might enable new ideas and ways of being to incubate.
This political and cultural shift split the country by age and outlook, and created the much-discussed ‘Generation Gap’ that would inspire the name of one of the most iconic American brands of the 20th century. The Gap was the product of the older generation – embodied by its original owners, Donald and Doris Fisher who were in their 40s by this time. But they observed the young people around them and channelled what they saw into a way, not just of dressing, but of retailing that united past and present Americas. From their first San Francisco store in 1969, located on Ocean Avenue, they recognised the youthful pull towards informal clothes that broke with restrictive sartorial etiquette and sought democracy and equivalence between diverse groups. It is striking that The Gap’s first product was Levi’s jeans – a garment so rich in mythic significance, born on the new nation’s frontiers, yet rooted in workwear’s hardy pragmatism.
Denim had become a social leveller, a favourite of sportswear and workwear designers and, along with cotton and gingham, it now truly epitomised American style. And the ‘s’ word is significant – style, not fashion. It was not a mere fad to be worn and discarded, but something with more depth and longevity – it suggested the wearer had more understanding, more knowledge of how to present their own image. Levi’s denim, as seen through the lens of The Gap, was recalibrated in relation to 60s youth. In the Fishers’ hands, retail became about supplying a universal staple, but one that spoke to and of the individual – to the pioneer rather than the conformist. The first store united this iconic garment with contemporary pop culture – Levi’s were sold alongside records in a shop decorated with vibrant reds and oranges, and were spiralled on the walls to echo the discs themselves. Even the logo spoke to the current mood – all lower case letters in curving sans serif, with ‘the’ tilting rebelliously down towards ‘gap’. This sense of connection was fundamental to The Gap’s success – in terms of the clothes, which spoke to American heritage, rather than the hierarchical, trend-led fashion industry of the ‘Old World’. And, in its focus on the customer, The Gap focused on clothes that people could appreciate for their hard-wearing, well-rounded design and for the range of sizes that ensured good fit (the latter a matter of extra importance for a younger generation who lacked the sewing skills of their mothers).
This type of clothing and this way of dressing were present everywhere on the streets of San Francisco and in every city across the West. What was particular to California, though, was the oft-documented idea that it was both hothouse and microcosm of the movements that were shaking the establishment. From the Black Panthers to the feminist movement, California was the locus for change and unrest, challenging the status quo and engaging with politics. It spoke both of disquiet and hope, a belief that the world order could be recalibrated.
Photographs of the period testify to these ideals and to the range of events dominating the news in the latter half of the decade – the Watts rebellion, the UNESCO Peace Conference, the Altamont Festival, the Zodiac killer, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley – a host of seemingly prophetic and cataclysmic events that simultaneously suggested rupture and utopia. Images show hippies in jeans worn with cheesecloth shirts, American Indians clad in denim and plaid work shirts during the siege of Alcatraz, street scenes of people dressed in combinations of simple garments that spoke of American heritage and the country’s fondness for comfort and practicality. This is not to say, though, that these clothes were bland; they embodied anti-fashion – and that ‘anti’ is crucial – connecting them to contemporary politics, underlining that they are not passive. They were against fashion as something dictated from on high and removed from life as it is being lived.
In Joan Didion’s 1967 essay on San Francisco, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, she identifies a romantic longing for community and authenticity among the inhabitants’ confusion, protests, half-comprehended slogans and drugs. This sense of a generation’s contradictory impulses – to break from the past, but to reconstruct history as myth; to become a fully realised individual, but to be part of a group underscores her analysis. She describes her encounters with teenage drifters searching for something they cannot name or describe, in fragmented paragraphs that mimic the social ebb and flow: “A new group is supposed to play in the Panhandle today but they are having trouble with the amplifier and I sit in the sun listening to a couple of little girls, maybe 17 years old. One of them has a lot of makeup and the other wears Levi’s and cowboy boots. The boots do not look like an affectation, they look like she came off a ranch about two weeks ago.” The girl may feel rootless and disconnected, but her clothes provide a comforting link to the past.
It is this sense of authenticity that is crucial – American clothes that speak of American lives – however confusing and diverse these may be. It is little wonder that Gap’s origins drew upon past and present to establish a brand that could provide not just designs that were tried and tested, that worked on the body and that fitted into your wardrobe, but clothes that had emotional resonance, that felt ‘real’. These are not anonymous clothes, they are clothes imbued with history – personal and national, which continue to be worn, because they are about American style that transcends trends, transcends nation even. Jeans, T-shirts and checked flannel, all these items seem universal, and yet, when well designed, well fitted and connected to the authenticity of American counter-culture, they create something unique and mythic.
This essay features in ‘The Gap Document’ by Document Studios, an ongoing publishing project by Port’s fashion features editor David Hellqvist, which looks at brands from an editor’s point of view and select stories that are relevant to the readers, rather than being dictated by the brand’s in-house marketing team. Previous Document clients include Timberland, Kickers and Adidas