Note: I can’t believe I have to say this, but 40-year-old Rocky spoilers ahead...
On my flight home from Paris, I watched Rocky. The original Rocky. The one that Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in—the highest grossing film of 1976, which also won Best Picture at the Oscars.
There are so many themes that went over my head as a kid. I remember it as a straight boxing movie: a dogfight in a ring. But, Rocky is actually a movie about the American working class. Blue collar Philadelphia (with its hobos and trashcan fires) is the main character, not Rocky Balboa or his opponent Apollo Creed. Above all, Rocky is a tale of passion, and not just for its love story between the title hero and his girlfriend (I bet you don’t even remember that Rocky loses in the end. The judges’ decision is overshadowed by his frantic search for Adrian). This is a tale of underdogs and champions and why you need both to paint a complete picture of the sport.
I was in Paris for Fashion Week. Straight up, I have never been interested in Fashion Week as I’ve held little esteem for high fashion. Fashion, to me, is cast in the very faults that I despise most about Streetwear’s underbelly: the snobbery and elitism, the pomp and politics, the demarcations of social class. All the theater around high fashion distances me from what I care most about: the design. I look for the shortest distance between people and product. That feels most honest. I prefer the utilitarian purpose of T-shirts, sturdy denim and a simple hooded sweatshirt. (This is probably because I shopped in swap meets and surplus stores [not upscale boutiques] as a teenager [still do, admittedly]). As a designer, I believe that is all we are called to do: dress the people in quality stuff, make them feel good about themselves, and in the romantic ideal, change the world for the better.
I confess, however, that I have never attended Paris Fashion Week. Opinions, without experience, are just wild guesses! And so, upon receipt of personal invitations to visit some shows, I saw a convenient excuse to spend the new year in Paris and learn something different.
First, consider the setting. Paris is 2000 years old, the home of the Mona Lisa and the City of Love. Against the backdrop of Gothic cathedrals and Art Nouveau architecture, high fashion descends upon the city several times a year with monogrammed luggage and checkbooks. Rows of art galleries are converted into sales showrooms, like rococo tradeshow booths. In many ways, this is not unlike an Agenda Show—breakthrough designers crossing their fingers as Japanese buyers pick through their first collections. But, instead of a food truck in the parking lot, there’s a century-old bakery wheeling out sleeved baguettes on the cobblestone sidewalk. Get it?
Fashion shows and presentations are the draw. In ten minute increments, the world’s most famous designers offer the results of all their hard work over the last several months. Ancient churches and museums are metamorphosized into million-dollar runway spectacles. Some say the real exhibitions are outside. There’s just enough rain to soften the light as the paparazzi swarm like locusts around Bella Hadid. Luka Sabbat disappears into the back of a sedan. There are long lunches in the day, lush parties that coil into the night. Everyone is dressed to impress. It works.
It is hard to be cynical when you are faced with the enormity of it all. There’s a lot of hype, but it’s also much deserved. Billions of dollars are coursing through the veins of Paris’s streets during Fashion Week. This is the main stage, the front line of design, laying out the clothes for the rest of the world to wear tomorrow.
In Rocky, Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa exist on opposite poles. Apollo is the sport’s flashy star, Ali with a marketing background, a precursor to the savvy Mayweather. He is both heavyweight champion and polished businessman, a successful black man with a white secretary. Rocky, conversely, is a debt collector, scraping the bottom of the barrel. While Apollo dictates orders behind a mahogany desk, Rocky wakes up shivering in a grey flat and feeds his pet turtles.
The two boxers seemingly have nothing to do with the other, but in a twist of fate, they need one another to move forward in their careers. That’s the film’s epic paradox and what makes Rocky remarkable. On the eve of America’s bicentennial anniversary, Apollo Creed concocts a masterful plan: he orchestrates an exhibition fight with Rocky Balboa, a no-name, amateur bruiser from Philly.
“Because I’m sentimental. And a lot of other people in this country are just as sentimental, and they’re nothin’ they’d like better than to see Apollo Creed give a local Philadelphia boy a shot at the greatest title in the world on this country’s biggest birthday.”
The fight goes the full fifteen and as I touched upon earlier, the results are inconsequential. What matters is that Apollo, the mainstream star and celebrity, depends on the underground, local hero to maintain his relevance. Rocky is how Apollo stays in touch – Rocky is his connection to the people.
Rocky, meanwhile, takes advantage of Apollo’s platform for exposure. More importantly, Apollo’s high profile gives Rocky something to aspire to. Earlier in the film, Rocky defends Apollo to a hater: “He took his best shot an’ became champ—What shot did you ever take?”
Apollo symbolizes the American dream. It’s what keeps Rocky fighting.
Weezer’s “Only in Dreams” showers down on Off-White’s “BUSINESS CASUAL” show. I watch the models whisk around the room’s perimeter in the forthcoming collection. Twisted tops, a white Jordan collab and something Beastie Boys even! Designer Virgil Abloh—this being his show—stands atop both planets of high fashion and streetwear, yet he modestly ducks out of his grand finale. There’s rumors this week that he’ll take Kim Jones’s spot at Louis Vuitton. Even if it’s false, I can’t help but mutter, “Damn, that’s pretty cool.”
On Friday, I’m inside of the living movie that is AMIRI’s first Paris Fashion Week presentation. I admire everything about it: the stony rock band (that Mike plucked off the Santa Monica streets), the candle-lit room, the boots. Eventually, high fashion will have to let go of streetwear’s hand, and AMIRI plays an alternate ending. The clothes feel entirely rock and roll, but if you squint hard, you’ll find the residue of streetwear in slouchy hoodies and graphic T-shirts.
As I take in more shows and presentations (AMBUSH, Heron Preston) throughout the week, of course, I have to wonder, “Is this about the design? Or the designers?” Of course, that’s a question that’s remained open as long as Paris Fashion Week’s existed.
But, there is one answer I know for sure. If it’s not about the dress, the production or the pageantry, Fashion is unquestionably inspiring. How can you not be moved? Fashion’s aspirational value is just as important to the whole. To many designers, this is the pinnacle, the destination, and they work their entire careers to chase it. Without Apollo giving Rocky something to strive for, the Italian Stallion would have stayed a lowly debt collector. Apollo Creed is the mainstream—the marquis—and the money. He sets the stage for Rocky to climb up and eventually own.
And what about the underdog? What is high fashion without its Rocky: the dark horses and longshots? High fashion must acknowledge and correspond with the smaller players on the street or else they risk disconnection.
High fashion and true streetwear circle each other like boxers in a ring, like a spinning yin-yang. They rip from one another and riff off each other, but they cannot live without the fight. Paris Fashion Week is the Main Event. The Virgil Ablohs and Mike Amiris keep the rest of us designers looking up and moving forward. Even if their design is amiss, their trajectory is something to marvel at and hope for. So that one day, the belt can change hands.
Only in dreams.