Meet the global scenester: He's hip. He's cool. He's everywhere

Cutting-edge street style is no longer exclusive to London or Tokyo. Today, a generation of hipsters from Helsinki to Hull wears the same brand of T-shirt, downloads the same music, and rides the same bike. Is this the end of individuality, asks Tim Walker, or the start of global cooling?

Thursday 14 August 2008 00:00

The bewildered boy clutches his fruit salad and searches for a seat at the back of the bar. He's wearing a vintage flannel shirt and skinny jeans, a pair of pointed brogues and pink plastic-framed sunglasses. His hair is a peroxide crop in the androgynous, Agyness Deyn style. This hipper-than-thou hangout in the Truman Brewery on London's Brick Lane, with its indistinct electronic soundtrack, is a popular spot. Emos, nu-folkies and post-post-punks mingle on Moroccan-style cushions. A guy in a ripped white V-neck T-shirt is stretched out on the leather couch in the corner, his face lit by the pale glow from his MacBook. For an aspiring scenester like the boy in the flannel shirt, standing out from the crowd is going to be a struggle.

We're in the crucible of London cool, a district so packed with poseurs that it attracts as many satirists as it does followers of fashion. But forget any tired talk simply of Shoreditch twats and Brooklyn hipsters. Across the developed world, from Copenhagen to Cape Town, from Tokyo to Sao Paolo, from Kreuzberg to Williamsburg – from Grangemouth to Guildford, for that matter – today's scenesters all wear the same clothes and accessories, listen to the same sounds, ride the same bicycles, and read the same magazines, e-mailouts and style blogs.

"There always used to be a particular city that was the centre of cool at a particular point in time," says Ted Polhemus, style anthropologist and author of Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk. "But now there's no longer a place where it's 'at'; there's no longer any centre of the world's popular cultural universe. For a time it seemed it would be a simple matter of shifting from London to Tokyo. But instead, street style is everywhere and in places you'd never have guessed it would be."

The Truman Brewery is a microcosm of an international phenomenon. Across the alley from the bar, Rough Trade East – London's coolest independent record store – is celebrating its first birthday with a limited edition run of Rough Trade-branded Converse All Stars, the global scenester's shoe of choice. Next door, there's a hairdresser cutting the "do" of the day, its clients reclining in Japanese Belmont Cadilla styling chairs "for ultra-comfort and design".

There's the local scooter dealership with a rank of Mod-ish Italian Vespas lined up on the pavement outside. And at the end of the row is a clothing store that specialises in stitching together two old pieces of clothing to make something new. Want your pinstripe suit grafted to a hoodie? This is the place for you. And this is what global scenester culture has come to in the Noughties – a succession of styles from the past half-century, patched together to form a single, strangely familiar whole. There's a bit of Eurotrash here, some British punk there, a swatch of Asian minimalism, and a sizeable off-cut of blue-collar chic from both sides of the Atlantic. So how, exactly, did hip get globalised?

Like every other American Apparel clothing store worldwide, the East End branch – a stone's throw from the Truman Brewery – stocks Spandex hotpants and sequined tube dresses, white Eighties gym socks and DayGlo sports sweats, maroon corduroys worthy of Woodstock, even the latest album by French electro-auteur Sébastien Tellier. The shop is so popular it's moving to bigger premises.

American Apparel is an archetype for the globalisation of "cool". The retail chain was founded in California in 1997 with an outsider ethic. Most of its clothes are produced in an 800,000-square foot factory in Los Angeles, and its Canadian founder, Dov Charney, actively associates his brand with the city's multicultural melting pot.

Today, American Apparel is the largest domestic clothing manufacturer in the US, and boasts around 200 stores worldwide – in Canada, Mexico, Israel, Japan, Korea and most of Western Europe. There are outlets in Glasgow, Brighton and Liverpool, and the locations of its London branches read like a historical tour of capital cool: Portobello Road, Carnaby Street, Covent Garden, Camden. The further its global reach stretches, the more easily the company can study and copy street style, before repackaging it and selling it back to the originators of that style, with an American Apparel label attached.

Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing giant, is another outfitter of the global scenester. Until 2004, the chain was known as a cheap and nasty Asian C&A equivalent. Its first move into the UK, in the early Noughties, met with little success. So Uniqlo executives went back to the drawing board and hired top creative director Kashiwa Sato to transform its fortunes.

Sato's strategy was to make Uniqlo a global brand, but one unafraid of flaunting its modern Japanese origins. Now the company's website is world class, its store interiors sleek and minimalist, its global logo (in both Roman and Japanese script) ubiquitous, and its clothing cutting edge and inclusive. Today, Uniqlo has almost 800 stores worldwide, including outlets in the UK, US and France. What Sato was looking to replicate, he recently told Creative Review, was "the ultra-contemporary cool aspect of Japan, its pop culture rather than something traditional and Japanese-y." He'd tapped into the global scene.

Down the street from American Apparel, past the London College of Fashion, is The Old Blue Last, a shabby-chic pub where Vice magazine, style bible to the global scenester, hosts regular parties. Outside, a blackboard advertises "fuzzed garage, punk, post-punk, freakbeat and more in an anything goes night of really GOOD music".

Once, style tribes defined themselves by their music. There were disco divas, electro heads, hippy West Coast rockers.... But in the age of the MP3, anything really does go: Parisian lounge jazz bands can cover the Ramones (as did Nouvelle Vague); Belgian producers can make a Kylie Minogue song sound like The Prodigy (as did Soulwax); and DJs can drop The White Stripes into a hip-hop set – Mark Ronson made his name on the New York club circuit doing just that.

Today's music scene is a global swapshop. One of the coming bands of this year, for instance, are Johannesburg's Blk Jks, whose style choices include the global scenester's familiar Elvis Costello "dork" glasses, 1970s ski vests, vintage Nikes and, yes, skinny jeans.

The band that defined the US branch of the global scene was The Strokes, a quintet of monied Manhattanites posing as Lower East Side hipsters. Lead singer Julian Casablancas's vocal persona is insouciant, unimpressed, too cool to try harder. His latest project is the song "My Drive Thru", commissioned for a Converse advertisement; the ad is the centrepiece of Converse Century, a celebration of the company's first 100 years, and a smart marketing campaign that condenses decades of global youth subculture and rebrands it for the mainstream.

The print element of the Converse Century campaign features a row of international, intergenerational scenesters, each wearing their pair of Chuck Taylor All Star trainers – among them are Hunter S Thompson, James Dean and Sid Vicious. The UK version of the print ad features Joy Division's Ian Curtis; the French version, actress and singer Jane Birkin; the Chinese version, singer-songwriter Cui Jian. Converse means cool in more than 20 languages.

When the first edition of the glossy freesheet Vice came out in Montreal in 1994, its founders could hardly have believed that, 14 years on, it would be sought out by 900,000 readers on five continents. Now, the Vice empire includes a clothing chain, a record label and an online TV channel.

The Vice aesthetic has had an abiding influence on global scenester style. The magazine's photographers popularised a street-verité photographic vernacular, with touches of soft porn and a sense of menace. The Vice Photo Book, a collection published earlier this year, boasts images of guns, sex, drug-taking, blood and vomit.

It's no coincidence that American Apparel's often controversial advertising campaigns imitate the Vice look, nor that Vice photographer Terry Richardson is the principal photographer for Uniqlo's in-house magazine, Paper. His style has countless amateur copycats worldwide, whose photos have found a home on fast-growing photo-sharing websites such as Flickr and MySpace. Snapping away at a party in Portland, Oregon, or in Harajuku, Tokyo, a global scenester can disseminate their local style worldwide before sunrise.

"People like Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson just took pictures of their friends on basic cameras," explains Andy Capper, the UK editor of Vice. "American Apparel and Uniqlo are doing what Vice did, which is to stop using expensive models and Photoshop. They use point-and-shoot photography, which is more honest and exciting. Cheap digital cameras and the internet popularised that."

Outside a bar in Shoreditch, near the Vice offices, there's a guy handing out flyers for a club night called Shoreditch is Shit: The Worst Night of Your Life. On the flipside are instructions for how to play "cock, muff, bumhole", the variation on paper, scissors, stone created for Nathan Barley, a satire of scenester life aired on Channel 4. Making fun of the global scenesters is futile, for they love nothing more than to mock themselves. Everything a scenester does is rendered in air quotes: ironic moustaches, ironic trucker caps, faux-offensive Urban Outfitters T-shirts, white guys with afros, or musical acts with names like Does It Offend You, Yeah?

Nathan Barley himself ran a scenester website – or "urban culture despatch" – called, and the internet has been a key factor in the globalisation of hip. Through mailouts and blogs, the tropes of eclectic style tribes the world over are quickly integrated into a single street style. The keffiyeh, once a signifier of solidarity with Palestine, now signifies nothing but cool. The fixed-wheel bike is now the global scenester's favourite ride. China's cheap Holga camera, once a well-kept secret among professional photographers hoping to achieve that lo-fi look, is now an essential urban accessory, and the results of its use are plastered all over Flickr. Albert Hammond Jr, The Strokes' guitarist and boyfriend of Agyness Deyn, had one hanging round his neck at the T4 on the Beach party.

"Trends aren't transmitted hierarchically, as they used to be," explains Martin Raymond, co-founder of The Future Laboratory, a trend forecasting company. "They're now transmitted laterally and collaboratively via the internet. You once had a series of gatekeepers in the adoption of a trend: the innovator, the early adopter, the late adopter, the early mainstream, the late mainstream, and finally the conservative. But now it goes straight from the innovator to the mainstream."

The global scenester stays on top of what's cool worldwide by reading such urban culture despatches as The Cool Hunter, a blog begun in Sydney four years ago by Bill Tikos, which reports on the hippest fashion, furniture, and design culture. The Cool Hunter has more than 600,000 unique visitors per month, who pore over the contents of its licensed offshoots in the US, UK, Turkey, Italy, China, and Japan. Its global audience allows Tikos to homogenise cool worldwide.

The Vice weekly e-mailout, with images from the global scene, and listings for Vice events in each city, is not unique. Le Cool, also emailed, calls itself "a free weekly cultural agenda and alternative city guide" for European capitals. Flavorpill does the same job for London and the US. It also makes sure scenesters are on the same page with weekly music, art, fashion, and literary mailouts, and Activate: "world news filtered by flavorpill".

Not even geopolitics is beyond the boundaries of cool for a global scenester: there's a vague pro-organic, anti-Bush sentiment uniting them all. For more precise examples, look at American Apparel's pro-immigration political activities, or Vice's "Iraq Issue" of 2004, which covered the conflict from a new, Vice-centric angle – following, for instance, the travails of an Iraqi heavy metal band. The magazine's pet topics may be controversial, but they aren't self-regarding.

"We're more of a news magazine than a fashion magazine," says Capper. "Even if we're writing about a band we try to put some social context in it. We're The Economist meets Rolling Stone – but back when Rolling Stone was good."

In the 7 August edition of the JC Report, Flavorpill's weekly fashion mailout, Erin Magner reported on 'The Death of Trends' on the catwalk. "In 2008, the only prevailing trend is that there are no prevailing trends," she wrote. "It's not just designers who are contributing to the end of boldface trends ... consumers, too, are rejecting the commandments of the editorial elite, taking inspiration from peers around the world to craft their own interpretations of style. Rather than buy into one trend from head-to-toe, like the 'preppy' or 'punk' movements of decades past, consumers are appropriating eclectic influences and remixing them like a DJ does with music."

"Fashion is a borrowed medium," says Martin Raymond. "It's pick-and-mix, it's retroactive and it's nostalgic. So you get a chronological misfit of products and references, mashed together to create something completely different. Think about nu-rave: it's a product of Eighties romanticism, a product of punk, a product of straight edge and of old rave. The growth in cool-hunting websites and businesses has led to the decay of the traditional time scheme between an emerging group doing something, and it being spotted, embraced and codified. It used to be a year, then it was six months. Now it's about six days. We have 3,500 trend-spotters stationed around the world. I sit down with them four times a year, and we'll find that the same trend has cropped up in about 25 different cities."

As this "borrowing and referencing" takes place not in capitals of cool like London but on an international scale, via the internet, the result is that same brand of individuality is sold, worn and celebrated the world over, simultaneously. If a global scenester starts wearing their underpants around their neck in Sao Paolo tomorrow, by next week boxer shorts would be sold out in Berlin. Ted Polhemus explains, "If you Google 'street style', you can see street fashion photography from all over the world. What's interesting is not just the images from London or Tokyo, but those from places like Helsinki, Zagreb, Mexico City, Jakarta, even Tehran. People always ask me, 'What's the next big thing?' but there will never again be a next big thing. The future of fashion is that all of these places will participate. There will never ever again be one 'the place'."

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