David Gensler was kind enough to provide me with this platform. And, from the beginning, I’ve not been sure the best way to leverage it nor have I been very secure about how best to live-up to the privilege it can represent.
Unlike some of my KDU brethren perhaps, I’m more than spoiled by free access to share my own design work via our website over at Denham. It would be gratuitous to repost work here that we already post over there.
My sometimes (and currently diminished) involvement in the Militant Guild of Rural Tailors Research Group can also be posted elsewhere.
Embarrassingly for Mr. Gensler this can result in the KDU Network’s demotion to a sort-of “miscellaneous drawer” for musings and observations that don’t fall neatly into the other categories. On the other hand these things never fall too far outside my main interests since I’m pretty much a one-recipe cook. The recipe being one for an idiosyncratic soup consisting of ingredients that become more and more predictable as I get older. Those being:
Utility Tailoring (and the archival research associated with it), Menswear Style (excluding much attention to catwalks), Product Narrative (an unhealthy dependence on storytelling), Yankee Ingenuity (in both form & function), Art School Pretense (you can take the boy out of the art school, but…)
I have nearly no interest in “trends” except those cases where design movements are motivated by the same particular blend of popular culture I was raised in and continue to operate within. My great grandfather was a rural tailor in Ireland and my uncle drew the Xmen comics in the 70’s. So if a mix of those atmospheres is ever on-trend then my attention to it can be taken for granted. This posting is more about things in the culture than about trend-forcasting. It’s just some notes on what I’ve been seeing. I should say also that it was partly triggered by a conversation I had recently with the young Dutch stylist Lara Jans.
When I was younger the image of a private solider was always presented as a very frightening thing. The world of the solider-of-fortune or mercenary was still shrouded in sinister secrecy. I remember the US involvement in Latin America during the Cold War when I was an art student in Boston. I wasn’t particularly politically inclined but my memory is that, even then, there were no elements of “professional” soldiering that had come out of those shadows. No matter how prevalent they were their mainstream image was a very dark one.
I spend most of my time reflecting on menswear design and that’s the sole lens through which I’m viewing recent changes in that status-quo. The change I feel I’ve seen is the slow sanitization and de-criminalization of the image of the mercenary. As usual such an undertaking owes something to branding. In this case it appears to be the oddly neutral sounding acronym “PMC” for Private Military Contractor. So now we have PMCs replacing mercenaries and soldiers-of-fortune. Recent articles on Blackwater’s ex-CEO, Eric Prince in Vanity Fair and Fortune Magazine’s cover-story on corporate recruitment of “military elite” place the image of modern military style in some unlikely positions on the magazine-rack.
Ever reliable Mook Books Japan’s additions to the same media landscape include Tactical Gear and Military Gear Catalogs. The Japanese Amazon site leads you on to MilSpec, Gunner and Elite Forces magazines.
Note the direct references to “Military Style” and “PMC” on the covers. Perusing these resources introduces you to some new brand names (at least to me). Like TAD Gear, Crye Precision, Mystery Ranch, Tactical Tailor , 511 Tactical, Volk Tactical, Otte Gear, Propper and Vertx. Brands that reference their “Mission Readiness” or “Operational Athletics” as an explicit feature of their value-set.
But the exercise also introduces you to some new sides of brand names you already know. Like Helly Hansen, Arc’teryx, CamelBak, Smith, Oakley, Merrell and of course Under Armour.
NEW HIGH-END VS. OLD HIGH-END
One thing you learn about military gear when you research vintage is that the older the piece the higher the quality. You only have to read History Preservation’s verbose descriptions of Buzz Rickson’s repro product to get a sense of the situation. Or, discover for yourself by talking with Bob Melet or Graham Cassie in their showrooms in New York or London, or visiting the market dealers at Spitalfields , Clingnancourt, or the Waterlooplein.
I’ve always assumed that this is down to the relationship between governments’ reliance on low-bids, mass production, and the sheer scale of modern armies. But this older is always better rule-of-thumb relates to “government issue” designs. The PMC phenomenon represents something different. The image of the well equipped high-tech private security operator in the PMC isn’t the same as the tattered grimy legionnaire or those biker gang meets Escape from New York guys always getting their asses kicked in old Chuck Norris films . Perhaps there’s something about this other business model (yikes) that motivates name-brands to innovate higher end product.
Stylistically the “look” of PMC MilSpec seems to include some new staples. Black obviously. But the old reliable OG-107 military green has shifted to a sage green. The old arrays of Woodland and Desert camouflages have given way to the newer Multi-Camo. Distinctive esthetics elements like the particular character of contour-lines and signature material-use from brands contributing to this new wardrobe like Under Armour, Arc’teryx and Oakley also seem to be creating a sort of PMC MilSpec look. All of this results in an impression that differs from straight government-issue military in that it feel much less generic. –Almost as if military personnel are being visibly sponsored by brands in the manner of modern athletes.
This impression comes through to me not just from the apparel gear itself, but also not surprisingly in the worlds of, toy design, paint-ball, computer-games and films. The BBC miniseries Occupation among others makes clear references to the idea the PMC organizations provide much better “gear” than the real army. The battle for the Oscar between the former spouses responsible for Avatar and The Hurt Locker ensured that whichever won a PMC vibe would permeate the Academy Awards.
There are obvious echos of the earlier “Supermodern Wardrobe” movement and labels like CP Company, Final Home, Griffin, Maharishi, Mandarina Duck Apparel, Vexed Generation, WTaps, Puma 96 Hours as well as more recent work from some of those same brands (Stone Island Shadow Project) along with projects like Tobie Hatfield’s Nike SFB tactical boot. And this newly claimed midpoint between standardized government-issue colors and camos and the more neutral black and sage realm of the PMC also resonates a bit with newer labels like NAU and Aether Apparel.
Now. The odd thing is that the other phenomenon I’ve been noticing includes designs from some of the exact same labels as the PMC/MILspec scene above with very similar functional features. But the impllied politics of this other current couldn’t be more different. Call it “Hippy Mountain”. Or Techno-Psychedelic Or, just Technodelic.
This feels like the latest avatar of Grunge, except there’s not much grungy about it. There’s also a bit of what Die Antowoord might call Zef style (modern and trashy and also includes out-of-date, discarded cultural and style elements). Specifically the signature neo-outdoor movement of the mid-nineties with Nike ACG’s bold challenge to conventional brown-shoe world of hiking. -I was acting director of creative services at Timberland in those days and we didn’t know what hit us when they dropped the first ACG Air Mada in purple, bitter chocolate and toxic-green. Also the fluorescents of Oakley Shields and the true blues and yellows of Patagonia fleece of that period.
As with PMC/MILspec you can scan the displays of any Tokyo newstand.
Besides the shared name-brands and outdoor-technical features common also to PMC/MILspec., the strains running through TECHnodelic share spiritual kinship with some of Grunge’s value-set. The fact that these hippy-ish fascinations couldn’t be further from the ethos of PMC/MILspec isn’t so surprising. Army surplus subverted with peace-sign patches and worn with tie-dye was a staple of late 60’s early 70’s hippy style. Function just makes for strange brand bedfellows.
Also like Grunge there are streams of influence which seem to emanate from the Pacific Northwest. Fixed Gear Culture, Native American motifs, Music Festivals… Not to mention a sort of mecca for performance outdoor design. Mix all of that with a chaotic blitz of new psychodelic color and print and you’re starting to get the picture.
It goes without saying that anything goes here. But there are one or two newish fundamentals. See the ealier rant on Menswear STRATA for some context, but an example is the art of pairing your shorts with your leotards.
That combined with the impact of technical bags and other non-apparel gear operating in the capacity of styling accessory to some degree sets up a world that reminds me only a little of the bygone days of Teva river sandals, Adidas “Equipment” outdoor, EG Smith slouch-socks, smart-wool and the not-so-bygone days of Birkenstock. But its particular mix of high and low-brow outdoor style and its mix of high and low-tech (there’s plenty of hemp hanging around here) and its global skim character sets it quite apart from those days. As it should since that was all before the first Ipod and this all on-time for the first Ipad. Check-in on Nanamica to get a sense of the freshness.
Another element that sets it apart from prevous decades’ variatons on colorful outdoor is the fashion-show of it all. At least in the able hands of the Japanese.
All that remains is for the TECH/nodelics to insert daisies into the nozzles of the PMC:MILspec.’s HK MP5s. In the meantime, like Swiss watch companies in WW2 selling government contract time pieces to both sides of the conflict, brands like Merrell, Arc’teryx and Helly Hansen have no problem bridging the stylistic and possibly political divide. Function and design transcend.
And of course the US brandscape has blurped out a conveyer-belt version allowing all the star-bellied Sneetches to get something new stamped on their tummies. And of course it’s this US entry that bludgeons nearly all of the nuance out of the style reducing it essentially to a logo-carrier proposition and squeezing out most of the room for interpretaion by tweaking the woodstock logo to announce its virtual hippy village without the benefit of metaphor. Yes. We get it. It’s like one of those Free City experiments. Yes. Let’s just leave it at that, -go ahead and call it Free City.
Finally, since I mentioned it was a conversation about some of these things with the Dutch stylists Lara Jans, I’ll steal an independent image or two of hers that rub up against the technodelic.