Around the concrete caves of Southbank and the long lines of Lafayette Street, the square around Monument à la République and through the picturesque metro stations of St. Petersburg, you’ll find hundreds of kids – young men, some women – who look like they’ve walked straight off the catwalk.
They’re not necessarily cover model-handsome – perpetual shiners and chipped teeth, kerb-gashed eyebrows, pavement-burnt skin, and years of smoking cheap weed can definitely zap a healthy glow – nor are they tall enough for most casting directors, but their style has been pilfered wholesale by menswear designers the world over all the same.
“I like that young kids from America and Russia look the same and have the same moods and hypes,” skate-inspired Gosha Rubchinskiy told Dazed, a designer whose garish juxtaposition of Russia’s tricolour, American iconography and Cyrillic script put across skateboarding staples has seen him dubbed both the most exciting thing in menswear and the hoodied harbinger of seriously bad taste.
Vetements – the divisive Paris-based design collective that’s got fashion industry tongues wagging furiously – had one of its first major wins with a skate-ready oversized Thrasher-style hoodie, as worn by Kanye West. Spurred on by the swell of interest that followed Ye’s endorsement, the collective took shipping company DHL’s yellow and red logo T-shirts, subtly tweaked the design and then sold its updated version for £185 a pop.
And people lost their minds. Tabloids thought it was an April Fool’s joke. Vetements’ goofy brand-jacking and poseur-skewering price points ooze the bitter irony of skate (or, at least, skate mag) humour, so it’s little wonder the item was so refreshingly controversial. “[Our aesthetic] is ugly, that’s why we like it,” a grinning Gvasalia told The Guardian.
And that’s not to mention the stratospheric rise of Supreme. While the daunting atmosphere of the brand’s birthplace has waned in recent years – “People [could] pick up on your scent… It [was] a hard world to gain respect in,” music video director Vashtie Kola told The New York Times of the brand’s Lafayette Street store in the 1990s – Supreme’s place at the top of the streetwear mountain is totally secure.
Embraced with open arms by the fashion industry despite its frostiness with media outlets, the label’s acerbic British founder James Jebbia meets half-arsed questions about the nature of his brand with relish typical of skate-meets-streetwear culture: “If you don’t understand us, then what’s the point?”
Luckily, many brands do indeed understand and have bought shares in the hypebeast Kool-Aid. And while fashion is hardly known for its subtle appropriation – pick a culture, any culture, and you can bet it’s been plundered by creative directors for every ore of inspiration – skateboarding’s continued influence on menswear seems more natural than most.
Completely at odds with the clean sophistication that rode the coattails of #menswear’s late-noughties ascent and the self-serious ‘street ninja’ aesthetic that followed, the easy lines, comfortable form and fun, collage-construction of modern skateboard outfits definitely suit today’s generation of new designers.
Born of a generation that learns about subcultures and their insignia online as much as in real life, many young creatives are voracious consumers of iconography and aesthetics, hungrily devouring so many disparate sources of inspiration that they rarely subscribe to just one coterie and – in the attempt to create something new – readily mash a number of aesthetics together.
For skate, that means looks that seamlessly mix the old and the new, that fuse surf and punk with hip-hop and grime, and are built on such divergent influences as analogue photography, private Facebook boards, Soviet brutalism and London’s ‘roadman’ style as much as north-east England’s terrace-casual, New York hypebeasts and hippy Californiana. Ask skate’s arbiters of taste to namecheck their reference points and they probably couldn’t break it all down for you, but they know what’s real and what’s off. The entire culture was built on picking out frauds after all.
“Skateboarding develops perception at a young age, because you learn to look at things differently,” said pro-skater Alex Olson in a recent video for Louis Vuitton advertising the brand’s casual leather luggage range. Skaters like Olson (79.7k followers on Instagram), himself the designer of cult skate brand Bianca Chandon, Dylan Rieder (137k Instagram followers) and British skater Lucien Clarke (59.3k) have become as important figures in men’s fashion as anyone you’d spy on the average Paris Fashion Week street style gallery.
Since his debut in Ian Passmore’s cult 2004 film Hello Coco, native Londoner Clarke has earned the moniker of MVP of Brit skate culture, winning sponsorship from grail brands Palace and Supreme as well as the securing the privilege of developing his own custom colourway of SUPRA shoes. The world he comes from is engaged and knowledgeable, and the world he inhabits now is no less exciting.
“I just feel stoked to be able to do what I’m doing,” Clarke told VICE. “I have a little reflect from time to time and think, ‘This is actually pretty fucking sick.'”
Still, some are quick to dismiss the proliferation of skate culture in modern menswear as a callous attempt to jump on what’s hot.
“If you need a pithy sound bite,” says HYPEBEAST writer Ben Roazen, “I’d say, if I see another brand co-opt the skate wave by releasing a $200 shoelace belt, I am going to scream. That shit made me say the phrase ‘fucking poseur’ out loud for the first time since freshman year of high school.”
But even cynics can understand the appeal. “I think skateboarding’s greatest contribution to fashion right now is less of an aesthetic and more of a projected attitude,” adds Roazen. “A lot of menswear and streetwear types these days put on a front of aloofness, whereas these kids really don’t care…”
While some skaters might gripe that designer brands are hocking their look for big money, they at least won’t have to worry about people edging in on their actual turf. Unlike athleisure giving people a false sense of fitness or basketball trainer fetishists thinking they could – now that they’ve bagged some LeBrons – probably, if they, you know, wanted, hit that outside-J, nobody is under the assumption that they can skate just because they wear a cool new hoodie. Who’d clean up all that blood?
And, being honest, who doesn’t want to feel like one of the cool kids? A little bit of distanced cosplay won’t kill off a sport that regularly pumps out $500,000 prizes in competitions and a booming indie label scene, with brands like Chandon, Quartersnacks and Jason Dill’s Fucking Awesome popping off.
What’s made the world of menswear so exciting in the past near-decade is the informalising of the language of fashion. Far from being scared off, hundreds of thousands of men are embracing an industry that once felt shut-off to them. And with many skaters recognising courting fashion is a necessary evil to keep the sport they love alive, what’s the harm?
“To be honest, I’ve dressed the same way since I was 14 years old so maybe I’m not best placed to comment on the fashion side of skateboarding,” says Ben Powell, editor of long-running British skate magazine Sidewalk. “But with that said, soft goods make money for skate companies so they can afford to do things like pay riders, go on tour, make videos [etc.,] which is obviously good. Wear what you want.”
While much of 1990s skate fashion is thankfully lost to the sands of time – chain wallets, peaked beanies and trousers so baggy they had a three-foot arse-crack and hems that caught on your wheels – the attractiveness to outsiders, that who-gives-a-fuck attitude, remains.
It’s all about a few quality items that look like they’ve been worn-in a bit, like you’ve fallen – sorry, bailed – and scuffed yourself up a bit. It’s mostly black with pops of neutral colours (khaki camo, off-white) or it’s about throwing together clashing colours and fits (baggy shirts and narrow but not skinny jeans and chinos) with some footwear that’s not box-fresh.
“Avoid looking like an overgrown fuckboi by not wearing head-to-toe Palace if you’re over the age of 30,” says stylist and Mushpit co-founder Char Roberts. “Unless you are actually a member of Palace, in which case rock on.”
“Skate culture is meeting [what might be called] ‘scally’ culture, breeding an interesting hybrid – think a Champion hoodie with a Supreme five-panel cap, a pair of tight-fit Lacoste tracksuit [bottoms] with an oversized long-sleeved Nike top or an overwashed white T-shirt.”
Roberts is pretty clear in her advice to keep a steady head when tapping menswear’s current skate flex. “Unless you’ve actually spent your teens by Canterlowes [in Camden] or Southbank, one or two references [to skate culture] is perfectly adequate.”
Think of it like sprezzatura for kids with scabbed-over elbows who listen to Eric Dingus. You need to look like you belong, even just a bit. But anything more and you’re in for a faceplant.