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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

By Alina Nguyen

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.

Recently the drawings you’ve been posting on your Instagram have been statements about Trump, racism, nationalism, left vs. right wing politics, etc.—can you talk a bit about this? Have current politics lit a new fire with your new work? What is the importance of art in regards to politics?

I have always been politically aware and active, starting from the age of 12-13, when I first went to my first anti-fascist demonstration here in Germany. That is an important point though, I grew up in Cold War Germany—life here is political, no matter what you feel. Even without statues, we all know what our grandparents did here during the 3rd Reich and allowed to happen. Specifically for myself, being a half-breed German / English whose families fought on sides, it’s never been an option to NOT to be political.

With the rise of Trump—and granted all that shit started before he even showed up on the political scene—I have seen movements in the US that eerily remind of this country’s history, and whilst I can only dedicate so much time to American politics, I owe a debt to that country, so I have and always will find time to contribute in what I feel is a positive social context to an American discussion.

As to the importance of art in politics, shit, it’s our job as artists to not only reflect, but shape a positive socially inclusive future. I don’t buy the argument that artists need to stay out of politics—that’s for entertainers, but our responsibility is another.

I read Windowseat’s interview with you a few years back where you mentioned the “frauds and leeches” that exploit niche cultures for money to sell back to ignorant youths... What are your thoughts on this? How do we combat it/how can members be more protective? Is it impossible to not be exploited? Is it just up to us to evolve and move the fuck on? What do you think will be widely exploited next?

I am not entirely sure it is anyone’s “job” to combat these things, the sellout of any niche isn’t particular to ours or let’s [take] hardcore for example. It has always happened and will continue to do so. I believe that we as consumers, participants, and creators have an individual responsibility to maintain a level of self-worth, quality, and direction. Fact is, when I was 12-15, I didn’t have a clue what was what, and a group of much older fine gentlemen took it upon themselves to educate me, or at least, provide me with a foundation from which I then could go on exploring. That’s my personal responsibility as I understand it these days.

I don’t think the question of which is important as subcultures per se are over. The “kids”—and I don’t like calling the younger generation that as I find it demeaning—don’t give a rat’s ass as to how we experienced the ‘80s and ‘90s. That’s us clinging onto an easier past than what the present tense looks like.

A large part of your personal design aesthetic comes from music. Would you say music was your first love? What were some early designs, whether it be cover art or a tour poster that you really loved and opened up that door for you? I love how tour posters function as a time capsule, with its own expiration date on it...

Music is the be and end all for me. Everything I make, everything I do comes from music.  What type of music I play directly influences what kind of art I make, illustration, writing, my own music and so on. Hence I put a massive importance on music as art—I probably take it way too seriously, but music to me needs to be uncompromising in its craft and execution, emotion, purity of intent and context, and in no way am I mellowing with age. It’s gotten to the point in the last 5 years that I exclude people with interest in pop music in my life as I just cannot deal with their shallowness. Of course I am acutely aware of how stupid that is, but it’s a means to illustrate how important music is to me. There is not a moment in my day, other than sleep, where music isn’t being played.

So whilst music design per se hasn’t played much of a role in my work, it’s music itself that is integral.

You’ve mentioned Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur, about how “professionalism” is being ruined by people doing things because they can because of the internet. Especially in this age of untruth, and the lack of accountability in politics and media, what do you have to say about that and its relevance today?

It’s eerie how on point Andrew was with his book, but also he failed to realize and/or acknowledge the corruption of intent behind the institutions that created professionalism. It’s almost beyond comprehension to realize that seemingly everything you know and thought is build on lies and corruption. With that, the cult of the amateur is more important today than I thought then, as it CAN (not will) help build an alternative narrative, one which POSSIBLY might be without an agenda.

Can you talk about some of your recent work, with who, and with what personal intention behind each project? I know you’re picky with who you work with and that you deliberately don’t do projects solely for money.

Sadly not, there are a lot of signed NDAs out there. I have done some on and off work with Sonos these past few years, which has been fun to bridge that gap between music, tech, and culture, I have also recently starting working with an old friend of mine here in town who owns a sizable online and brick and mortar shop (allikestore.com), which has been eye-opening as to how far advanced online marketing/sales have gone since I last worked in the clothing/sneaker world 10 years ago. So whilst there are a number of fun and exciting projects being released in the next 6-12 months, mostly, I am here writing my PhD, drawing, raising my son, and trying to be good human being.

Can you tell us more about the PhD writing?

I am currently writing for a PhD, and specifically about the following: developing a grassroots left-wing movement outside of any previously known and any political spectrum, and how the left can re-invent itself outside of the existing political dogma and be a positive rational humanitarian movement in the 21st century.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BO4EbLsgUf5/?taken-by=stevenvogel

What is the function of clothing/style? Obviously beyond utility, protection, etc.

You’re asking a German? A nation famously devoid of any interest in fashion outside of functionality? In all honesty, I try not to think about fashion at all, the less I think about it the happier I am, keep it nice and simple is my motto, hence an excess of black T-shirts and black shirts.

Don Pendleton asked you to pinpoint events in your formative years that made you interested in music/clothing/counterculture, and you said: your first music gig/loud music, skateboarding in NYC, and seeing a FUCT tee in ’94 for the first time. What was the shirt and why did it open that door for you?

It was the “Jaws” and Ford Logo Flip tee by Fuct, by then I was aware enough to realize what kind of impact you could have with design.

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