The “avant–garde” and fashion have often converged—so much so that they are generally confused. Throughout history, fashion has played an integral role in reorienting public opinion and challenging the status quo. But fashion's arrived at an impasse. Recent runway shows have been chastised for and failing to be inventive. The risk is more than mundanity: fashion’s failure to be experimental is, as trend–forecaster Li Edelkoort concluded in her 2016 “Anti–Fashion Manifesto,” problematic. Fashion is an ethos—one that, without innovation, becomes dangerously regressive. Edelkoort stresses that this doesn’t just leave us bare of exciting new art, but socially stagnated. As she lamented : “Fashion is old–fashioned.”
Penn is implicated in this nouveau–banalité, but if you’ve got a proclivity for athleisure, own a penny board, or are in a frat, one particularly pilfering brand name probably besets your wardrobe: Supreme. Supreme purports itself as a style “rooted” in the streets. It’s (ostensibly) urban, yet urbane; couture, yet languid; sleek, yet accessible. According to style writer Glenn O’Brien, Supreme is not concerned with “getting as big as possible” so much as maintaining itself as “hood.” This veneer is thin: , creating niched () markets, and prove Supreme is anything but “the people’s” boutique. These haphazard PR murmurs fuse two otherwise disparate lexicons, reifying a not just contrived, but disturbing paradigm.
Supreme’s marketing does nothing more than wax poetic. To imply their clientele is as varied as the streets that inspire them is dishonest; a quick scan of their model composition reveals little demographic diversity. Somewhere between the streets of New York and the runways of Paris Fashion Week, Supreme displaced its inspirees.
Let us not speak euphemistically: Supreme’s “inspirees” are not the dilettantes strutting Walnut in Neiman Marcus, but the poor and POC (people of color) who, by popular imagery and structural vulnerability, are irrefutably entangled in our expectations and conceptions of what is “urban.” Low–income, inner–city communities have been the sites of the most significant cultural production of the last 60 years (such as ). Their vibrancy attracts young professionals and artists seeking stimulating but affordable communities; this, in turn, attracts savvy real estate buffs and new–age middle class families, spurring development. This catalyzes a violent feedback loop of rent hikes and development, and the initial population, no longer able to afford their own neighborhood, is forced to leave. The very aura that brings these communities their limelight ultimately boos them off the stage. This isn’t novel; rather, it’s the hackneyed history of gentrification.
While Supreme’s market practices eerily mirror those of gentrification, they’re neither alone nor original. Rewind to the phosphorescence of the '90s and you’ll find Baysie Wightman blazing down Boston streets in her neon best. At some point last century, fashion made a curious turn from high couture to “trickle up”—it wasn’t cool if it wasn’t coming from the streets. Baysie, privy to this cultural shift and many others, was a self–proclaimed “”—an urban scout prowling the streets for inspo well before Pinterest boards. Baysie would take paper, pencil, and her ego out into Boston, walk into the inner city, and ask black kids about what they were wearing and why; they offered feedback in earnest. Uncompensated and uncredited, these kids’ ideas were brought back to Converse headquarters, where she was a marketing manager, to be remade and repackaged accordingly. “The second rule [of cool],” in his feature about Baysie and DeeDee Gordon (her Reebok compatriot), “is that it cannot be manufactured, only observed.” Similarly, disadvantaged urban youth cannot themselves manufacture cool; it can only be observed upon them. In the era that dawned The 700 Club, this activity is unsurprising, but that's not to say it’s kosher. Rather, it corroborates a dark American historical narrative.
Don’t think you're not implicated because you don’t live in Supreme’s Brooklyn or Baysie’s Dorchester; these malfeasances are not endemic to fashion or gentrification, but enmeshed in the historical fabric of our modern political economy. In the turmoil of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a series of workers programs and services, collectively called the New Deal, in an effort to revitalize the economy. New Deal programming was unprecedented, demonstrating a momentous shift from supply– to demand–side economics. This programming reintegrated many of the poor into the economy, but only temporarily.
By the New Deal, the US celebrated high employment, widespread economic growth, and decreased inequality; the poor had been, to some degree, effectively absorbed into the economic mainstream. The New Deal’s demise is hotly debated, but most would agree that it buckled under its own weight: codified racial discrimination and precipitating stagflation. By the '70s, corporations and new–age conservatives blocked politically and took over, focusing on welfare rollback, increased privatization, and supply–side economic redistribution. These policies and ; by the time Baysie was hunting out in Boston, inequality in the United States had returned to the levels of the Great Depression.
But what does this have to do with fashion at Penn? Well, everything. Our modern political economy is, by design, one in which the urban poor’s access to work is contingent. In fashion, the poor ebb and flow in and out of style; in American capitalism, they ebb and flow in and out of the labor market. In sociology, fashion is understood as a reflection of cultural trends and individual identity, but also as a metric of innovation. Fashion is a plane on which we graph creative ideas and is, therefore, an impetus for cultural and economic change. This has implications for not just how we see others, but understand their economic utility. This is what Li Edelkoort explained: fashion provides insight into cultural norms. When it stops challenging those expectations, it ceases to catalyze growth, economic access included. At Penn, this manifests itself in cultural centrism: how many people do you know who venture past Baltimore? If fashion continues casting the aesthetics of the poor without including the poor, it will only reflect the harmful political economic patterns to which we’ve grown so accustomed; if Penn’s fashion aesthetes continue to leave West Philadelphia unrecognized, they will only regenerate the harmful stereotypes embedded in our institution’s perception of our community.
Incorporating urban low–income communities conditionally isn’t incorporation at all—it’s cooption. By relegating them to swells of cultural or economic vitality, we denote poor and POC communities as disposable, ultimately excluding them from the trends they inspire and the economies they resuscitate. To co–opt is to homogenize. When we wear their clothes and absorb their jobs, we believe, falsely, that they have become a part of us; in reality, we have merely rendered them invisible. This plays out across all geographies and scales, Penn being, if anything, emblematic. There is a long and chronicled history of appropriating inner–city communities, albeit in or , in Paris’ Fashion Week or, in our case, West Philadelphia.
Penn’s sense of fashion is monolithic at best: a quick walk down Locust and one is besieged, almost exclusively, with Boss sweaters, black Canada Goose trenches, and—of course—an infamous swarm of adidas Originals Stan Smiths. This is only a knock on Penn’s insipidity as much as an indictment of its ignorance. Lest we forget those trainers we tirelessly stomp across campus are an offshoot of the Adidas Superstar, originally popularized by basketball icon Kareem Abdul–Jabbar. He credited his exemplary 1975 season to the shoe, and soon after black athletes and urban youth began donning the now–iconic trainer. It was after many years and multiple cycles through mainstream fashion that low–cut adidas began hitting the pavement of Locust Walk with such ferocity, arguably following the company’s in 2014. It was around this time that Adidas' resurgence transcended the markets of the black–urban cultural figures who had previously popularized them (including but not limited to: Run–D.M.C., the B Boys, and Missy Elliott) and bound their way to our school. If anything, Penn slothed its way to Adidas, adopting a trend that was well past its second resurrection.
Penn need not be fashion–forward, but it should be critical. We occupy a sensitive position; as an institution of acclaim and financial means entrenched in one of the most segregated and impoverished urban communities in America, we must be familiar with not just our roots, but the those of the communities that surround us as well. Fashion publications at Penn do nothing to engage the rich and unique cultural production that flows out of West Philadelphia, despite being one of the most prolific contributors—of people, ideas, and content—to the worlds of art and music. While Penn does not directly funnel campus style off of West Philadelphia, its style is gauche for its lack of perspective. Fashion at Penn challenges no status quo and demonstrates an uncomfortable degree of homogeneity, two major red flags. As our economic and political history demonstrates, this marks us complicit in the absorption of (the image of) the poor and, as Li Edelkoort would say, old–fashioned.
West Philadelphia, flecked with , , and , is ripe with fashion fodder. The streets past 40th are diverse and experimental—the people’s panache is obvious. As Penn regurgitates ritzy photo shoots, West Philadelphia continues churning new trends and extraordinary cool á la Amérique. As Penn students, we shun West Philadelphia as poor, degenerate, and dated; this is wrong. We clamor within our ivory towers for the next big thing, when, really, it’s just around the block.