House Of Style: Street Fashion

Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze at the X-Girl streetwear fashion show in 1994.
Photo: MTV

The late-’80s and ’90s gave a lot of look. Some good. Some tragic. We had Cross Colours, baby barrettes, metal lunchboxes used as purses, over-plucked eyebrows, all-velvet-everything, crochet, chokers, clogs, Contempo Casuals, JNCO, Chanel in pastel terry cloth—it was a crazy time.

No matter what you wore, who you aspired to wear or just how many sartorial regrets you have, one thing was certain—it was a celebration of experimentation and personal style.

Now, I realize that my statement is skewed by my having been a child during the period. Someone who was susceptible to things like blue hair dye, small T-shirts, large trousers, and a brief flirtation with thinking tongue rings were cool. But the resonance of the years can’t be denied in terms of what it meant for street style.

House of Style was a fashion news show that started in the late-’80s and ran until 2002 (with a brief stab at a reboot in 2007). It chronicled, among other things, the rise and fall of the supermodel. Alongside the denouement of an aesthetic ideal that championed buxom, flawless, big-haired goddesses, we began to long for something simpler–something vulnerable, slightly damaged and relatable.

Kurt Cobain made the cardigan cool. Kate Moss lived in a black tank top. As fashion became more low key, the focus shifted from technical tailoring and rigid structure to something we could mimic by manipulating fit and rejiggering found items. A ringer tee also helped. In his Todd Time segments, Todd Oldham taught us the fashion alphabet. He taught us not only what was cool but why and how it was cool. He dissected runway trends—even his own—and instructed us on how to rip them off.

Todd Oldham makes a sandal out of a combat boot in 1993.
Photo: MTV

Oldham showed us how to dye our hair with Kool Aid and also how to cut it. There was never a preamble of why you’d want backpack zipper pulls that were made of twigs or how best to use a hacksaw or roofing nails, he just set to work. The result was often incidental, it wasn’t really about making a peep toe combat boot it was about the fearlessness and the gumption of taking saw to shoe. He even showed us how to make a fashion show at fashion week.

Todd Oldham had figured out the cloistered industry, become a successful designer and casually thrown us the decoder ring and map. It was the rise of DIY.

Doing it yourself, however, didn’t mean that you personally had to crochet a zillion macramé skullies (hello sad etsy boyfriend). It meant going backstage with Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur to talk about how she cut up tanks and took permanent marker to them. And it meant following Naughty By Nature into Jersey Janitorial Supplies on a shopping trip to witness them make industrial jewelry out of chains and padlocks. But it also meant the purest form of “for us by us”– starting your own company and your own brand to sell to your friends and like-minded others who loved the same things you did.

Treach of Naughty by Nature goes shopping in Newark in 1995.
Photo: MTV

Street style, to me, denotes a number of things, the most straightforward being the clothes you see regular kids wearing out and about, all over the world, at any point of a given day. We saw examples in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, over a decade before Pharrell Williams collaborated with BAPE’s Nigo to launch BBC and years before Gwen Stefani would allude to the Gothic and Lolita aspects of the neighborhood with her L.A.M.B. line.

We hit the streets of London to talk to teenagers wearing throwback sneakers and their parents’ winter coats. And we interviewed countless college kids in cities from New York to Cleveland. Street style encompasses thrifted things, handmade or jerry-built articles but it also means streetwear. As in, “sportswear with a heavy reliance on graphic T-shirts before moving into the cut-and-sew space with sights set on the eventual inclusion of mid-to-high-range outerwear and denim.” Obviously.

Streetwear (at least to me) also includes labels founded and designed by musicians, actors, artists and downtown darlings, provided they weren’t prohibitively expensive and was marketed towards kids who listened to hip-hop or independent music. The only exception insofar as the sentiment being “so streetwear” but the pricepoint being “not even a little bit at all” is any piece of clothing that the late Stephen Sprouse was responsible for. But then again, that guy is impossible to categorize and I’d be foolish to try. He was one of a kind.

Spurred by the clothing of streetwear pioneers of the ’70s and ’80s, like Stephane Raynor’s Boy London label and Shawn Stussy’s OC surf-hip-hop brand, kids wanted increasingly specialized clothes. Not couture, mind you, but something that was as exclusive and personalized. Their fashion would be bespoke not to dimensions or textiles, but to what they and their crew were inspired and motivated by.

Everything had to do with being in on it. It was the winking acknowledgement that Boy London was a hat tip to homosexual hooliganism and recognizing that the logo on the Stussy 8Ball jackets was a play on the Chanel monogram. And that to get one, you had to be a member of their tribe.

In 1991, House of Style visited the dudes behind the Beastie Boy approved X-Large.
Founded by Mike D, Eli Bonerz and Adam Silverman, the brand would grow to include flagships in Los Angeles and Manhattan and the brick-and-mortars became the stomping grounds of cool kids and skaters.

Mike D and Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys in 1991.
Photo: MTV

In 1994, X-Large’s sister store X-Girl opened down the block on Lafayette Street, in the same area as Supreme, Triple 5 Soul and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop. To announce their arrival, X-Girl threw a renegade street fashion show in soho during NYFW just after the Marc Jacobs show. House of Style chronicled the hubbub and the excitement is palpable. X-Girl founder Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is enormously pregnant and touts the virtues of their approach to fashion and co-founder Daisy von Furth, speaks in impassioned, exacting language about who they’re addressing, why skater chicks needed their own damned pants and the evils of lycra.

X-Girl designers Daisy Von Furth and Kim Gordon at the X-Girl streetwear fashion show in 1994.
Photo: MTV

Spike Jonze and then girlfriend Sofia Coppola held clipboards under a white sheet with the lo-fi X-Girl logo (designed by the director Mike Mills) spray painted on top and though meant in a mock-earnest manner, when Coppola says, “You too can have a fashion show,” she was absolutely right. The X-Girl fashion show was a triumph for style that was not beholden to the fashion establishment.

It wasn’t just OK to be un-perfect and off-kilter, it was cool. And if you just did something you loved, the hope was that success would follow. We learned from Wendy Mullin that crafting beautiful embellished guitar straps for Courtney Love and Kim Gordon can turn into a bona fide retail business fittingly called Built by Wendy that includes every category of clothing and books on how to sew your own. Sadly, Wendy’s house has recently been shuttered (just this summer actually), namely her New York flagship on Centre Market Place, but you can still find her and all her breezy basics online.

There were a number of awesome, independently-owned operations that suffered casualties, Walter Cessna’s label, Dom Casual, offered clothes stitched from stolen American Airlines blankets and towels jacked from the Ritz Carlton and they were slapped with a cease and desist but not before we featured them. Liquid Sky, the NYC record store (that eventually returned to Brazil after the 9/11 attacks) where Chloe Sevigny famously worked started making their own T-shirts and pants and we gave shine to those too.

Sofia Coppola at the fashion show for her line, Milkfed in 1994.
Photo: MTV

The same year as the launch of X-Girl, Sofia Coppola made Milkfed. A company that simply plugged holes that she felt existed in the marketplace. Whatever she sought and couldn’t find, she’d whip up. She even goes so far as to say that she does not at all consider herself a designer. Which is well and good but the former Chanel intern did make a mean tank dress.

X-Large among others like FreshJive, PNB, Haze, Ecko, Staple, Claw Money, 10Deep, HUF and BAPE heralded a movement that covered subculture scenes from hip-hop, to graffiti and from graphic design to skate. For better or worse, the barrier to entry for becoming a designer was no longer dictated by the fashion elite.

Of course, new high/lows would be discovered even in a democratized world. It would eventually become a source of derision that anyone with Adobe Illustrator and a Hanes Beefy blank T-shirt (especially if he himself were wearing camo and had ever been invited to the Nike campus) would be exalted as a streetwear wunderkind. Just as there would be enthusiastic eye-rolling targeted at the droves of hypebeasts camping outside of boutiques to buy rare sneakers that fetched thousands on the secondary eBay market. But for all the limited-edition elitism and copycats, time would prove there were true artists among the ranks whose work merits attention. Those creators would never make the pages of Vogue and that was just fine for everyone.