#12: Denim & Supply Henley

Dear Ralph,

Over the last couple of letters we have talked about brands that are part of the Ralph Lauren family but aren’t Polo. We’ve talked Double RL. We’ve talked Rugby. And since we talked, however briefly, about Dennis Hopper in Santa Fe as a style icon, now seems like as good a time as any to talk Denim & Supply.

Denim & Supply is, I guess, aimed at the “youth market”. It has a “downtown” vibe, with an excess of pre-fading and distressing. There are edgy graphic prints. You can expect to find paint splattered on the back of a canvas field coat. I’m trying to be delicate here, but the truth is it just feels like a bad imitation of Polo.

Being “down market” from Polo, it is more affordable, but it still feels very expensive for what it is. If you’ve learned one thing about me in these letters it is that I love a good deal; so I never end up in the men’s clothing section of a department store without passing the sale rack. And rarely am I not rewarded. The discounts on this line tend to be very good.

It is the only rational way I can explain why I own four of these:

cof

They are all different enough (not really) but have one thing in common: none of them are the perfect “southwestern-inspired Henley”. I think we both know that I’d have to spend real money, RRL money, to get the kind of shit I’m talking about. Chance the Rapper will demonstrate:

Chance-The-Rapper-Los-Angeles-2017-02-12_L0tleVdPNy1nd2hBODRMaG1XX2JLUHRVckhMQT0vMTM1eDA6OTk2eDEyOTEvNjQweDAvNjMxMGM0OTYtNDUxMi00NTRhLWJlYmItZjQ0OGJjMjQyOTE1

It is a compromise brand. When it was launched in 2011, we were at peak-Navajo print in fashion. It felt like even the USB turntables at Urban Outfitters had some type of beacon print on them. It was this popularity and hipness – more than the imperfect nature of the shirts, more than the vague whiff of post-hippie-me-generation style, more than the distant specter of cultural appropriation – that made me reluctant to wear them.

I think we are far enough away from the moment that no one would accuse me of being “on trend” for wearing a Navajo-inspired shirt. But the question of cultural appropriation, raised five years ago by the Navajo Nation when they sued Urban Outfitters (sparked by a very inappropriate pair of panties), remains. Urban Outfitters has settled their legal dispute with the Navajo Nation and are working together to supply genuine Navajo jewelry to its customer base. This is a nice end to a story that started ugly, but the sad truth is the customer base for Navajo prints that Urban Outfitters had five years ago has probably vanished.

Their website is littered with luxe hoodies and jogging pants, Japanese lettering, and an ironic ‘90s-style Tommy Hilfiger windbreaker. I’m not being relativistic here when I point out how the plundering of certain pasts (in this case the detritus of the ‘90s, with slouchy denim jackets and pins and big Hilfiger logo shirts) is unremarkable. But I think there is a lesson here, and one that answers the question that always gets asked whenever people are upset about a Shaman’s handprints or a headdress appearing on the runway: why does this keep happening? Why do seemingly smart, successful, creative, liberal people keep making the same mistake when it comes to cultural appropriation?

The answer is simple and it is ugly: fashion thinks of all culture as garbage. This might sound like a condemnation, but I am not judging the outlook. (These thoughts have something to do with Merzbow, the Japanese noise musician – but they might have to wait for another letter.) And here is why I am not judging. The appeal of Navajo prints (aside from the obvious graphic appeal and wonderful colourways) is that they feel like they will last forever: they evoke deep cultures, tradition and roots. The fact that our culture is garbage (not judging) makes them all the more appealing because they seem to be outside of the system that turns everything into garbage. It is why it is so jarring to see a beacon print on a cell phone case.

And while I’d like to pretend that I am motivated by a deep respect for Native American traditions, the truth is that I am motivated as much by a romanticized notion of the West and by an idea of “authenticity” that is oppositional at best, and rooted in a revolt from the very garbage culture that places these shirts in malls. On top of that, I’m only buying them if they are on sale from a brand that I hold in contempt.

Everything is grist for fashion’s mill. The past is plundered, reallocated, stitched in new ways to drive new demand for old things. Four seasons every year, year on end. It is not remarkable that fashion occasionally blunders into cultural appropriation; it is remarkable how infrequently (considering the massive amounts of pure product and desire it has to produce) it happens.

I could go on, but I won’t. You know how it is.

Until next time,

S

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