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The State of Affairs and Tomorrow's New Noise :: The Steven Vogel Interview

The State of Affairs and Tomorrow's New Noise :: The Steven Vogel Interview

You know that story about the end times? A blood-red tide begins to turn; a beast rises up out of the sea. “The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast.” Et cetera.

If we’re talking streetwear (not to be fucking dramatic), 10 years ago in 2007, a website called Hypebeast launched. Things had been churning, and by then, everything in streetwear had already began to shift, but the beast was a sign. Bobby Hundreds describes the subculture’s general feeling of world wide web-driven widespread malaise in an ‘08 blog post as a “period where the secret society of ‘streetwear’ and the internet were really coming to a head, and the entire industry and subsequent consumer demographic were raising hell over webstores, news dotcoms, and online blog hype.” (The Internet X Streetwear, the strangest collab of all time!)

But let’s rewind a bit to early 2007, offline, when OG streetwear participant, writer, designer, critic Steven Vogel published the first definitive book on streetwear. Aptly titled STREETWEAR, it was a real labor of love with contributions from key figures like Erik Brunetti and Hiroshi Fujiwara. Think of it as a flash frame of the burgeoning underground subculture before the bubble burst, told by its own pioneers. Since the book was meticulously put together by Vogel, known for his widely respected blog Black Lodges and The Reference Council, it still stands as a trusted documentation of streetwear culture as a fly in amber before the term “streetwear industry” became as ubiquitous as it is today.

I write all this to say: look where we are now. A decade later, it’s 2017, Hypebeast had a record-breaking IPO debut last year, and it’s a good time to catch up with Steven Vogel. Bobby says he’s a “renegade,” Don Pendleton described him as a “modern-day Renaissance man,” and Rob Heppler blogged that he’s “death metal nerd first, streetwear-branding-consulting-luminary second.” These days, “streetwear” (or whatever you want to call this current iteration) is certainly not a priority for Vogel, even though he’s generally known by insiders as a sort of shadowy oracle. He’s writing his PhD about the development of a grassroots left-wing movement and how it can be imagined/restructured outside today’s political dogma. He’s still blogging, working on a ton of secret projects he legally can’t talk about, and “trying to be a good human being.”

In this email interview, we bugged him about streetwear a bit more, and discussed subculture, the internet, the death of professionalism, the cult of the individual, and the artist’s duty when it comes to politics. So let’s let the man speak.

ALINA NGUYEN: I read that during your process of writing Streetwear: The Insider’s Guide, a ton of people didn’t want to be in the book if someone else was. Bobby Hundreds ran into the exact same issues with his streetwear documentary Built to Fail and some bridges were burned. Why is it that these niche subcultures of nerds get so touchy? Is it a defense mechanism? Pure ego issues? Is it because it’s mostly dudes and that’s the nature of boys’ clubs?

STEVEN VOGEL: I can’t even imagine the bullshit Bobby had to go through for that, writing that book was intense enough as it was, but a movie? Damn.

At the same time, as a writer or I guess as movie director when making a documentary, you have to accept people’s decisions, whatever their motives are. I am glad so many people told me to fuck off during that process, it made me re-check my vision and idea, and more importantly taught me that whilst it is one thing to virtually high five each other daily, it is quite another to work together.

“The current social media landscape doesn’t allow for communal platforms; the cult of the individual, or let’s call it narcissism, is what drives those platforms.”

You said you stopped reading blogs and “tapping into the world through the internet” years ago. Is this the same now? Do you still feel that staying artificially “connected” to the world via social media or websites blurs the purity of what your vision can be? What is the ideal (way to be)?

If anything, it has become even more radically disconnected. Yes, I have and use Instagram, it’s certainly a powerful tool. I don’t dislike using technology, far from it, I simply don’t rely on it. My life is very analog. Within my closest circle of friends here, I am probably the only with a smart phone, and I very much enjoy that fact. As far as news, work, education is concerned, I tend to use both the internet and traditional sources to balance the two.

As far as blurring the purity of creativity, yes, the older I get the more outside “inspiration” dulls the work. Yes, I will occasionally go through Google to look and research because it is quicker than going through my library, but that’s a question of impatience on my part, not necessarily being more effective.

Similarly, you told Breaks: “The more you unplug yourself, the more creative you can work always with the knowledge that it won’t let you pay your bills,” and that it took you 10 years to learn that. What else have you learned since?

Just a clarification on the above sentence and I certainly don’t want to beat a dead horse, but you do art for art’s sake, not for fame or riches. You get into tech or wall street for that these days.

I’ve talked with Bobby [Hundreds] and Pat [Hill, our creative director] about how now that all “content” online is marketing, it might be comeback time for the blog, standalone and seemingly honest, with no ads. What are your thoughts on this as someone who had a longstanding insider’s blog [Black Lodges], among others, with no advertisements and a writers roster that grew to over 70?

Sounds great but is impractical romanticism at best. The current social media landscape doesn’t allow for communal platforms; the cult of the individual, or let’s call it narcissism, is what drives those platforms. That’s the culture we live today. That is not to say it shouldn’t be done and I have certainly thought long and hard about getting back to what Black Lodges was 12 years ago. The ease of usage behind using the current social media tools is in the way of that right now, but one day I’ll get around to it. On the other, maybe it’s just time for zines to be brought back to my life.

You predicted what was gonna happen to streetwear almost a decade ago. I’m sure you’re way past even talking about it, but do you still agree with your first assessment, that “greed got the better of all of us” now that a movement which itself assumed it was global 10 years ago has now actually gone global without the same “integrity” it allegedly began with? (This is regarding your writing on Black Lodges that was then reshared by Hypebeast: “We lost creativity because we sold out. We lost the community because we were greedy. We lost our claim to be influential by selling to everyone in the hope of making a quick buck.”)

I’ll go one step further and criticize myself for believing there was ever any other intention than selling out.

Interestingly enough, even in 2010 you were discussing how quickly trends came and went because of the Internet. But you predicted that trends would be replaced by quality. What do you think actually ended up happening and why?

I was wrong with that, too, as I was a little too caught up at that point in time with writing the book on menswear for [Thames & Hudson], Contemporary Menswear. If anything, trends now come and ago by the week. It’s pointless to even consider them, do what makes you happy and feels right for you, but be aware of the fact that you are most likely never be financially successful for it.

“It’s our job as artists not only to reflect, but shape a positive socially inclusive future. I don’t buy the argument that artists need to stay out of politics.”

Can you talk about the design you created for The Hundreds recently, the “Hammer”/“WE GOT THE NUMBERS” graphic (image above)? Patrick Hill, our creative director, mentioned that it’s inspired by old Soviet materials?

Stylistically, it is a mixture of Soviet and communist artwork from the Spanish Civil War with a pinch of early 1900s Union-orientated artwork. Granted, I am interested historically in those subjects, to the point of writing a PhD loosely orientated in that world, but as an illustrator I feel quite comfortable there.

Of course, aesthetically, socially and historically, creating a bridge to those messages, concepts, ideas and activism of the past to our current socio-political situation in the West is important;there were a lot of mistakes made by those resistant to fascism and global fascist-capitalism. Raising awareness to those by incorporating that style into 21st century artwork is my way of drawing attention to those. Even hopefully, opening up the discussion in regards to those mistakes.