Suddenly, the heat’s on to stay cool
A couple of years ago, mesh trucker caps, the kind with the peaked foam facade screaming “John Deere” and other never-in-New York logos, perched on the pates of intrepid hipsters in such edgy haunts as Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood.
Now, guys who grace the cover of YM magazine, wear them. In other words, now they’re not exactly cool.
“As soon as Ashton Kutcher adopts a trend, that’s when you know it’s over,” says Robert Lanham, Williamsburg denizen and author of the recently published Hipster Handbook. Ditto Kutcher’s female counterpoint, Avril Lavigne, she of the erstwhile-edgy studded leather cuffs.
Out in a mall store in Massapequa, N.Y., a mere 30 miles from his neighborhood, Lanham spies a succinct illustration of his point: a red-and-white trucker hat with “Dork” slapped across the front in fuzzy black letters. When it makes it out to Massapequa — Jerry Seinfeld says it’s Indian for “near the mall” — the irony of appropriating something so antifashion as a scratchy nylon hat gets lost along the Long Island Expressway.
And guess who becomes the real dork.
What used to require years to migrate to the mall, MTV and, yes, USA TODAY now takes only a matter of months.
Which is making hipsters nervous: How can they stay ahead when the Massapequa knockoff is as predictable as an episode of Punk’d?
“The way culture is these days, everything is so five minutes ago,” says Jon Hein, creator of Jumptheshark.com and author of the book by the same name, which refers to an actual, utterly hokey moment in the long life of the TV show Happy Days when fans knew Fonzie had growled his last “Ayyy!” with any dignity.
“There’s a lot more available to us in a much shorter period of time,” Hein says, from scores of cable channels to thousands of Web sites. “So these cycles keep churning and churning,” faster and faster, until the suburbs can almost catch up to the cities.
Soon the formerly subversive — tattoos, belly piercings and fauxhawks — turn up at the prom.
“The very nature of cool is that not everybody’s in on it, so once people know about it, it’s hard to stay cool,” Hein says. “The shelf life shrinks.” Consider The Osbournes, which returned for its so-many-eth season. Sure, it’s on MTV, but originally it held all the trappings of a hipster hit: a self-parodying patriarch named Ozzy Osbourne who happened to have been the lead singer of Black Sabbath, the bedrock of many a hipster music library. And it riffs on ’50s kitsch, with its Ozzie and Harriet vs. Ozzy and Sharon dichotomy.
But then came Kelly’s album, the Pepsi Twist ads and Sharon’s imminent talk show. “When it becomes so mass-marketed, it loses something,” Hein says. “It reeks, and things go downhill from there.”
When the original Matrix was released in 1999, it proved that rare crossover hit: innovative action sequences hooked the heartland; sleek black outfits and a postmodern structure appealed to those with alternative tastes.
Now with The Matrix Reloaded, those stunts look stale, and the tagline, “Free your mind,” sounds trite. Hein had a feeling the franchise had jumped the shark “when you saw everyone in the neighborhood wearing those Keanu shades.” Not that a sequel spells inevitable doom: At least a couple of the Star Wars movies held up to, if not surpassed, the original.
But part of what’s changing is that huge, historically mainstream companies feel they need to tap into an edgy aesthetic in order to sell their product, with sometimes disastrous results. Witness Levi’s: Targeting hipsters has cost the jeans giant 50% of its market share over the past five years, according to the Zandl Group, a New York-based trend-analysis firm. Instead of promoting their tried-and-true styles, Levi’s pushed belly-baring cuts that few of their traditional customers could pull off.
Another example is Ford, which launched the Focus over a decade ago with an eye toward the scenesters. “I don’t know of a single young teen or young adult who finds that aspirational,” sniffs Irma Zandl, president of Zandl Group. “What self-respecting DJ would want to drive a Focus? Please!” The PT Cruiser had early cool buzz until Chrysler capitalized on it — and Cher bought one.
“If you have to tell someone it’s cool, it’s not,” Hein says.
The mainstream success of trucker hats notwithstanding, Zandl says it’s “very, very hard” to find examples where cool has translated to corporate cash. A couple of exceptions: M.A.C. cosmetics were a West Village secret during the early ’90s; now they’re in stores from Arkansas to Arizona. Red Bull was a curious European elixir a few years ago; now it’s as common as Corona.
And then there’s the trickle-up phenomenon. Just as runways and fashion magazines stole the safety pinned look from late-’70s punks, posh stores from Barneys New York to Fred Segal in Los Angeles are peddling pricey versions of such heretofore hipster chestnuts as plastic floral mules, Vans slip-on sneakers and, yes, trucker hats.
Cool is to style yourself as a burly blue-collar working man with a penchant for Pabst Blue Ribbon when your only calluses come courtesy of joystick jockeying — with the so-low-tech-it’s-camp Atari 2600, naturally.
But then the masses discover a hipster staple — as they did bluegrass music, thanks to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? — and the cool refrain becomes, “Yeah, but I’ve been listening to that since (insert long-ago date).”
At Wet Seal, a chain store in Massapequa’s Sunrise Mall, the ’80s new-wave look trotted out by hipsters over the past few years is in full revival mode: low-slung belts, black rubber bracelets and silver-dollar-size hoop earrings.
Lanham shakes his subtly sideburned head. “That should tell you something,” he says, pointing to the stacks of Teen People and Rolling Stone positioned by the register.
Oh, how the mighty have famously fallen: Once an arbiter of edge, Rolling Stone has devolved into the Tiger Beat for the 18- to 30-year-old set, according to some sneering types. What’s taken its place? Arty titles like Black Book and The Fader.
At a store called Tees Me, T-shirts emblazoned with shiny (read: not vintage) Rainbow Brite and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles decals hang on the racks. A few doors away, Hot Topic features a Strawberry Shortcake beach towel in the window. Again, it’s new — and that’s a big no-no: Hipsters taking an arch look at icons from their childhoods would insist on authentic relics from the era, not mass-marketed reproductions.
But cool is also “about finding something extremely underground, like, I don’t know, Thundercats,” Lanham says, referring to the ’80s animated TV show.
To Diana Kramer, wandering the mall in dark-rimmed eyes and a belly-baring tank, cool is more elusive. “You can’t define it. It’s what you like. It runs differently in everyone’s mind,” she says. “You can be trendy or you can choose to have your own style.” The rapper 50 Cent, the clothing line Phat Farm and the rock group Good Charlotte? Trendy. “They’re what’s in, what people want to believe is in,” says Diana, 14.
Her friend, Allison Monfort, bemoans “all that preppy stuff” at H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch, precisely because it’s contrived cool. Hot Topic, too, is patronized largely by “poseurs,” says Allison, 13, a padlocked chain around her neck and chipped red polish on her fingernails. She’s partial to thrift stores in the East Village.
She should check out Beacon’s Closet in Williamsburg, a hipster emporium of Johnny Cash records, ratty roller skates and shrunken polyester shirts.
“Ooh, this is cool. This is rad,” marvels Jordon Davis, holding up a crimson leather jacket with a healthy pair of lapels. Lanham’s internal hipster barometer detects little trace of irony.
Davis, 19, an aspiring model and artist, is an Angeleno on his inaugural visit to New York. “I get a Silver Lake vibe out here,” he says, referring to L.A.’s Williamsburg analog.
Clad in black cowboy boots, tight blue jeans and the studiously shaggy haircut Lanham dubs the Casablanca, Davis is “more classic,” says his friend Roz Dunn, 24, a real estate agent/party promoter/bartender who lives in nearby Fort Greene. “I’m crazier.”
Dunn’s uniform includes black motorcycle boots, light blue jeans secured by a ribbon belt and a white acrylic sweater capped by puffy sleeves and lace trim — the kind your mother forced you to wear in fourth grade.
In Williamsburg, separated from Manhattan by the East River, those who dwell north of 42nd Street are frowned upon as B and T (bridge and tunnel) opportunists.
Lanham has an epithet to describe this completely uncool crowd: midtown.
And Bianca Casady is the antithesis of midtown. Strolling cellphone in hand along Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s main catwalk — er, street — she’s wearing a houndstooth jacket over a tunic that looks like it was swiped from a candy striper (a friend made it), piled on top of some blue sweatpants featuring a faint camouflage print. On her feet: white sneakers from the Air Jordans heyday
“My influence is really tacky street fashion. I’m really into gold, cheap gold,” says Casady, 21, a writer/ clothing designer/singer/filmmaker.
“Oh, and I cut hair, too,” including the bleached blond electromullet (Lanham’s term) she’s currently sporting.