This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
At its best, streetwear mixes social commentary with in-the-know references and an irreverent attitude. Today’s sociopolitical climate makes it evident that there’s plenty of other things to talk about beyond clothes—the disproportionate amount of police violence directed towards black people, minorities’ citizenship being called into question because of the color of their skin, and a whole new breed of fuckery bubbling from a toxic alt-right culture.
But on the contrary, this is exactly the kind of paradigm that allows streetwear and youth culture to shine brightest. When there’s legitimately things to rebel against, and causes that can unite people who share that mindset, its subversive power becomes more self-evident. Brands like Pyer Moss, BornXRaised, CLOT, and Patta aren’t just making apparel, they’re using it as a medium to push their ideals forward, not as a way to court customers, but educate a new generation and activate communities all over the world.
For BornxRaised, the passion behind the West Coast brand is informed by a subconscious longing for the Los Angeles era of the ‘90s, where founder Chris “Spanto” Pinlup grew up. Since 2011, the homegrown brand aesthetic has been cultivated by Spanto and his partner 2Tone, embracing the area’s melting pot of urban culture–blending Chicano, hip-hop, punk, and skate. It paeans to a bygone era as a remedy for modern gentrification. It’s a wearable bastion of the city’s former grittiness, continually pushed to the fringes, but still fondly remembered by true Angelenos.
“If you look at BornxRaised over the last six years, the theme has always remained exactly the same. The clothes may pivot from time to time but the underlying ethos will never change,” says Spanto. “Everything we reference or talk about is a direct reflection of our lives and story. BornxRaised is basically a love letter and scrapbook we’ve written to and created about our lives.”
They pay homage to that spirit by shining a light on those who’ve helped build the realness that informs their gear. Their use of Gothic blackletter typeface–a Chicano cultural imprint that has been appropriated over the years by many—was commonplace among gangs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It used to be that if you were caught wearing it without being affiliated, you’d get checked by the streets. In recent years, it’s become diluted through its usage in mass market culture, but Spanto continues to utilize it to remind people of its roots.
“In the beginning, almost no one understood our references,” he admits. “It was just an art project that turned into an actual business. The farther and farther we run this marathon of an industry, I try to open up a little so that people can grasp our message and understand our ethos better. Our brand isn’t the easiest to decode, because there’s a lot we’re saying.”
Now when people think of Los Angeles, they most likely think of the glamorous Hollywood facade, the streetwear shopping mecca of Fairfax Ave, or the Instagram influencer-littered streets of Venice Beach. But Spanto and BxR are doing everything they can to make sure the old L.A. and everything it stood for, and who it stands for, are not lost.
“At the end of the day, I think ultimately we’re speaking up for the little person. The person that had it rough growing up. The people that make up this community,” he says. “That’s why we don’t use casting agencies or models unless we know them. We like to communicate a story that’s real.”
On the other side of the world, Hong Kong-born label CLOT is charting a two-fold path towards representation and education. The Asian city has long been a hub of trade, where global cultures meet and proliferate in the east. In the process, they’re not only making waves for Asian faces in the industry, but also creating a conversation about cultural appropriation and global interpretations of streetwear.
“We support all types of people from all walks of life—and of course—we're paying homage to our own culture and background on a world stage,” says CLOT co-founder, Kevin Poon. “We love to represent the culture of inclusion—not exclusion, and CLOT brings a unique East-meets-West vision to the world not only through fashion but in everything from culture, art, music, and lifestyle.”
Poon and his partner, Edison Chen come from very multicultural backgrounds, growing up in both Hong Kong and North America. So they know how important it is to be inspired by and inclusive of other cultures because of the unique point of view they’ve inherited. That was evident in their collab-heavy 15-year anniversary “PAST.PRESENT.FUTURE” capsule collection as they worked with other progressive, global brands like sacai, Fear of God, John Elliott and SOME WARE. Their retail outposts, JUICE, just opened their first American flagship in Los Angeles, showing the city their unique blend of labels and making CLOT even more accessible stateside.
“By having such a big platform like CLOT, it's important to use it to shed light on how multicultural the world is through our own unique point of view—whether it's our own Chinese heritage or inspirations from our travels,” adds Poon. “You'll start to see a lot more influences from around the world told through our own unique vision.”
Poon and Chen’s Chinese heritage comes through the brand naturally because it is instilled in everything they do. While they don’t try to force or actively show it off, they take CLOT’s role and influence in the Chinese culture very seriously. That goes a long way for Asian-Americans and Asian people in general—who often don’t find themselves represented on the creator side of streetwear despite making up a sizeable portion of its consumer base.
“Our CHINESES HUAREN capsule collection is our way of representing Chinese youth to the world,” explains Poon. “The designs and products are all influenced by various aspects of Chinese culture and are meant to represent and usher in the new generation of Chinese youths—all the new creatives and innovators—because there is so much to be proud of.”
And the conversation around representation in the industry is consistently one that is had without enough action that breeds satisfaction. The lack of diversity in this industry has played a big role in how Dutch sneaker and streetwear titan Patta grows their business, as they continually look for opportunities to advance the inclusion and the celebration of cultures that aren’t represented the way they should be in the overall fashion industry—not just streetwear.
Patta co-founder Edson Sabajo recently spoke with Nike’s Black Employee Network, touching on what it takes to build a company and Europe’s sneaker culture as a minority. And it’s this type of representation and education that Patta’s brand director, Lee Stuart, thinks is imperative to infiltrating the current ill-informed mindset of his fellow countrymen and, hopefully, the rest of the world.
“Looking at all the controversial and outright racist, ableist, sexist, exploitative and economically oppressive decisions still being made in this industry, it’s safe to say that it's obvious that the industry lacks diversity,” says Stuart.
“In the Netherlands there is still a huge blind spot when it comes to this country’s racial history and the impact of its history of slave-trading,” he adds. “So we have partnered with The Black Archives, a huge database of books on that past, bringing the subject to our audience’s attention on a monthly basis. You’ll see our cultural backgrounds reflected in our casting, but also cultural signifiers are to be found in our designs every season.”
By that, Stuart alludes to the use of Surinamese imagery, and even phrases in Sranang Tongo, an English-based creole lingua franca utilized by many Surinamese people. Stuart and crew understand the balance between providing education, speaking to marginalized communities, and serving a broad consumer base. After all, their core brand pillar is the inclusive slogan: “Patta Got Love For All.”
They just want to make sure they hold themselves accountable by being inclusive through diverse and eclectic casting, authentic references to their culture and background growing up and, most importantly–inclusion by promoting a spirit of continual self-education.
“For a brand, it’s a thin line between explaining and preaching. I think Patta usually sits on the ‘if you know, you know’ side of things, but transfer of knowledge is one of our core values and we definitely try to take our responsibility,” says Stuart. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, and going forward we will be using our platform more to try and hopefully educate our base.”