When I first moved to Berlin back in August 2016, I was already aware of 032c. Though the publication was actually founded way back at the turn of the millennium, over the past few years it had been quietly making its name as a fashion mag with a twist; a place where you’d find an extensive essay on Brutalist architecture right next to an interview with Frank Ocean; a magazine which responded to the current era of “post-truth” with an entire issue dedicated to answering how to “find truth in an age without facts”; a fashion publication that sits somewhere between the authoritative voice of mainstream magazines like Vogue and i-D, the down-to-earth attitude of independents like Marfa Journal or the UK’s LAW magazine, and the raw, DIY spirit of countless xeroxed and stapled underground zines.
Much like many of Berlin’s best known cultural landmarks, whether the Mustafa Gemüse Kebab stand in Kreuzberg with its trailing lines, the infamous gay fetish club and techno institution Berghain, or the König Galerie, situated in a 1960s Brutalist church that also houses the magazine’s own offices, part of the allure of 032c is the sense that it offers something that only it can. It takes its name from the Pantone color code for the distinctive shade of red that appears on every cover, and that’s something which quite effectively sums up the magic of 032c – something which at first glance seems complex or opaque, but is actually quite simple once you dig a bit deeper.
So in the first few weeks of my arrival, when I wandered around Kreuzberg and spotted people walking around in 032c crewnecks, I figured they must have been employees, and that this was a uniform of sorts for the team – one of the few work uniforms you would want to wear, given the kudos the name carries.
When I found out later that it was simply merchandise the magazine produced and sold to the general public, at first I wondered why people would want to wear merch for a print magazine, but the more time went by, the more sense it made. Not dissimilar to Supreme’s distillation of New York cool, or Palace’s paradoxically irreverent reverence for turn-of-the-millennium London rudeboy swagger, when someone wears a piece of 032c merchandise, they’re signifying themselves as an insider of the magazine’s identity; one that closely mirrors the spirit of Berlin itself.
Berlin is a city of paradoxes. It’s home to a bustling scene of art galleries and collectors, but its most exciting moments are found at spontaneous installations and performances in abandoned warehouses and rundown office blocks. It certainly doesn’t do nightlife the same way as London’s West End or New York’s West Village and Meatpacking District, but it’s home to some of the most unique, respected and inaccessible clubs in the world. You’re unlikely to visit a Michelin star restaurant unless you’re deep in the west side of the city, but you can get a decent meal for under a tenner on almost every street in the city.
But most importantly, Berlin doesn’t really do “fashion” – least of all with a capital F – but every corner of the city oozes style in its most decadent and depraved forms. It’s a visual onslaught of tribes and subcultures that, by almost any metric, simply shouldn’t work. And yet on a typical walk down any of the city’s streets, you’ll encounter denim-clad crust punks, Rick Owens-esque techno kids, workmen in boilersuits, young Turkish men in figure hugging tanktops (and tracksuits when it gets cold), backpack hip-hop heads in trucker caps and massive Osiris sneakers and, of course, the run-of-the-mill German, a style which I can only describe as the cast of King of the Hill fed through Google Translate a few times, purchased from stores with names like Camp David and New Yorker. Every fiber of your being tells you it just shouldn’t work, and yet it’s impossible to imagine the city any other way.
I’ve previously described the 032c formula to the uninitiated as talking about fashion by talking about anything but fashion. Joerg Koch, the magazine’s editor-in-chief and founder, summarizes it differently, highlighting the flattening of distinctions between various corners of cultural into what he refers to as a “BIG FLAT NOW”.
“One of the central ideas behind our work and research at 032c is that we live in a global context where art, fashion, music, film, politics, and pop culture have been brought together into one interconnected field. We don’t believe in preserving niches for the sake of preserving niches. Even in Berlin, as more people pay attention to the city, people are becoming very protective of the city. To us, this sentiment is undemocratic.”
032c have long been purveyors of the intersection of high-brow and low-fashion, both in their editorial and merch line – personal highlights include the provision of an iron-on graphic packaged inside their Summer 2017 issue allowing readers to create their own “bootleg” merch, and another recent T-shirt featuring the logo of dearly-departed browser Netscape (shout out Mac OS 9, you weren’t perfect, but you had your charm).
This interplay of almost pre-millennial nostalgia and constantly forward-thinking content is an interesting one; it makes 032c seem equal parts proactive and reactive. But which is it? “I would say we are active,” Koch responds. “When you’re producing a magazine that comes out twice a year, you have to be in the business of looking into the future. Anything too concerned with “right now” will inevitably be old.”
“Our work moves towards ideas of how we want to live in the future, given the circumstances of our time. Our dossier on ‘How to Find Truth in an Age Without Facts’, for example, was not a response to current politics, but a way of strategizing for the future given the current state of affairs.” It’s a sentiment that radically alters the magazine’s content. Far from being reflective or reactive, 032c recontextualizes the here and now into something anticipatory. The present moment is not something documented, but a prediction itself.
So, when 032c announced they would be presenting a full fashion collection at Pitti Uomo earlier this year, it was impossible for anyone to quite know what to expect. But ultimately, the final product was unquestionably born from the city the magazine calls its home.
Inspired by the experimental Black Mountain College of North Carolina, whose alumni includes the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and John Cage, 032c’s collection combines a number of distinctive elements in a way that mirrors the college’s groundbreaking, interdisciplinary approach. This could even be seen in the decision to host in Florence’s historic Palazzo Medici Riccardi, surrounded by the extravagant murals of its Renaissance hall. Attendees described the show as more performance art than presentation, but the centralizing of art and expression from location to product is true to the art-led ethos that made Black Mountain College so influential in its time.
Surrounded by numerous forms of “high art” and expression, the clothes themselves, often simple and unimposing in their design, reinforce the Berlin ethos – elaborate in spirit, but practical in application. As pole dancers and spoken word poets performed in the space, models walked through in clothes that wouldn’t look out of place in the everyday, such as Fashion Director Marc Goehring’s plain blue boiler suit, complete with some discreet Birkenstocks (hey, you can take the boy out of Berlin…). Most noteworthy was the inclusion of a shiny gold “032c” belt buckle not dissimilar to the kind that you could get custom-made in malls across the globe in the early ‘00s.
Numerous elements throughout the collection spoke to what is, in my eyes, 032c’s raison d’être – the elevation of cliché and kitsch. But 032c’s understanding of those things goes beyond their first-level meaning. After all, alongside the boiler suits and belt buckles you had fleece jumpers, crewneck sweatshirts over button-up shirts, draped leather dresses and garments adorned with ornate art graphics.
Put simply, in the age of digital media where everything you could ever wish to know is at the end of your fingertips, 032c understand that almost everything is, in its own way, tired and played out. Even the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, with its jaw-dropping Renaissance decoration, loses its impact considering many of us have seen countless renditions of similar scenes without having ever been to Florence. All information is available, all the time, and there’s no reason one medium should be held in any higher esteem than another.
I don’t say this to sound cynical, nor to accuse 032c of cynicism either. Far from suggesting high art is no greater than common culture, 032c’s collection speaks to the same spirit that informs their magazine and much of our own lives – that, increasingly, the hierarchy itself is coming down. You can live in a flat in south London, and wear vintage workwear or ‘90s sportswear, work as a graphic designer, a waiter, a café barista, a nurse or any other profession, and enjoy fine art and theatre on the weekends.
Many of us, in our daily lives, are already living the lifestyle that 032c expresses; a ramshackle mix of high and low. The very positioning of their clothing output as “merch” more than fashion proper speaks to the way many of us understand fashion in our daily lives – not as something followed religiously, season-to-season, loyal to a single brand, but a collection of symbols and signifiers we use to express ourselves.
It’s this which is the key to 032c’s appeal; a tacit understanding that, however much we all might love consuming fashion, streetwear and style in our daily lives, it’s never been the thing that totally defines us. We’re on the periphery of fashion, and fashion is on the periphery of our lives. It’s a fashion magazine, that covers fashion, by talking about virtually anything but fashion itself. By the same token, the appeal of 032c’s mag-cum-merch formula is celebrating culture itself, without ever necessary claiming to be “the culture” (shudder).
But it’s this healthy level of detachment that seems to empower 032c’s creative output. Much of their merch releases have proven incredibly prescient when it comes to predicting current and upcoming trends; their heavily MotoX-inspired collection from Spring/Summer 2017 preceded a similarly-inspired collection by Rihanna and Puma, and the use of Birkenstock sandals as the uniform for their debut collection is arguably suggestive of a pending “sneaker fatigue” brought on by the Attack of the Giant Sneakers engulfing fashion right now – come on, is it pure coincidence that Balenciaga followed up their smash hit Triple-S sneaker with a comically exaggerated take on the unfathomably naff Croc sandal?
It makes you wonder what 032c is really doing. They reach into the past through nostalgia and reference. They engage with the present by reflecting on current affairs. And they look into the future by painting a vision of the future? And yet, in spite of this, Koch disagrees with the idea that 032c is attempting to make comment on the world around it.
“We were never about commentary. From the beginning, we’ve always been about research. And if you look very closely at history and its reflections in the present, it’s sometimes easier to see what’s coming next. Building a fashion brand, for us, is a way of making these proposals through designed objects. But, in terms of ideas, it all comes from the same place.”
People don’t wear 032c to pledge allegiance to 032c. They do so to pledge allegiance to whatever it is that defines them culturally in their daily lives. It’s a one-size-fits-all way of showing you believe in whatever you believe in. What was the collection name again?