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Note From Kim: Fashion's Problematic Love Affair with Youth Culture

summer_kim.jpgI know, I know. It's been beaten to death, but I can't help but continue to wonder why the Met Ball (celebrating the opening of the Costume Institute show Punk: Chaos to Couture) was so cringe-worthy this year. This spring, the Metropolitan Museum's fashion exhibit and annual gala -- usually the pinnacle of fabulous glamour and spectacle for the who's who in the world of fashion stars and fashionable stars -- seemed painfully awkward and a bit wrong. Was it because the show itself was lacking a connection to the culture that inspired it? Was it watching the fashion and celeb VIPs celebrate this raw, radical, angry culture that they would have never gone near with a 10-foot pole had they been around it when it was actually happening? Was it Billy Norwich chitchatting about punk with the rich and famous on the red carpet? Or January Jones musing about her Siouxie Sioux-inspired eye makeup? Sarah Jessica Parker's Mohawk hat? Oy.


Artist Paul McCarthy's subversive "Balloon Dog" at Frieze art fair

Brit fashion critic Suzy Menkes asked in her review, "How could Andrew Bolton, the brilliant and cerebral museum curator, whose blockbuster shows have included the Alexander McQueen retrospective and last year's fusion of Elsa Schiaparelli with Miuccia Prada, have made punk seem so dull?" Ultimately defending the premise of the show (if not the execution), Menkes mused, "The true punks -- those who lived and survived that moment -- should find an exquisite irony in the idea that their no-future kick at a dead-end society should, 40 years on, have moved from a defiant statement from society's impoverished and self-proclaimed social outcasts to a display of clothes for global celebrities and the super-rich having a ball."

The Economist ran a piece last month on the subject, titled simply "An Embarrassment," declaring that "doing punk through the clothes is like trying to do hippiedom with peace symbols. Punk was never about the threads." They also pointed out that to look at punk only through the attire, rather than the beliefs, is to make a cultural error. "How on earth were A-list celebrities ever expected to pull off the 'fuck you' look?... Punk was never going to work at a society bash because the women couldn't bring themselves to make the necessary departures from style....How can a slavish attention to fashion ideals be counter-cultural? How do fabulous jewels and ludicrously expensive accessories express the ideology of the angry and dispossessed?"


Courtney Love stars in Hedi Slimane's punk Saint Laurent campaign

I couldn't resist asking my favorite radical-thinking friend (and Paper's senior editor), the curator and underground culture hero Carlo McCormick, to weigh in. He told me, "Though I haven't seen the show at the Met, my suspicions are that it is wrong in every way and that its failure goes to the more problematic way that fashion is used to co-opt the radical energies of youth culture. The '60s were not about bangles and beads, though it was a convenient package for the industry to use to commodify what was of course an anti-materialist sensibility. Similarly, grunge was not about flannel shirts and lumberjack attire -- it was, in fact, about repurposing the energies of the punk era that had somehow failed most spectacularly in America.

The legacy of punk rock is not torn T-shirts, safety pins, black leather, Mohawks, fishnets, fetish-wear or crazy-colored hair dyes. I hesitate to call anyone 'punk' who is not of that generation. These things are, after all, particular to their era, but on a more general level I think we can see punk attitudes and strategies still today."


Vivienne Westwood pays proper tribute to punk at the Met gala, January Jones does not.

Carlo's right. Although the Costume Institute's recent show is definitely not one of them, brave punk-inspired cultural moments are happening in front of our noses (even in mainstream culture) every day. Many applauded Vivienne Westwood's dis of the Costume Institute show on vogue.com (asked what pieces in the show were her favorites, Westwood said she liked her own designs and would leave it at that) and her in-your-face support of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks hero Bradley Manning (she wore a laminated photo of Manning safety-pinned to her gown on the red carpet at the Met Ball). Hedi Slimane's shocking Fall 2013 show for Saint Laurent, which horrified many reeked of a punk mentality -- and consequently shook the foundation of the 51-year-old French fashion house. And talk about a dis -- look at Paul McCarthy's gigantic balloon dog sculptures at this year's Frieze New York -- enough to give Koons collectors apoplexy.

And thank God the kids are continuing the punk legacy. Just last week I was invited to the premiere of a new film made by some friends called Pig Death Machine. As the director Jon Moritsugu (also known in the underground scene for cult classics like Fame Whore and Mod Fuck Explosion) and his wife Amy Davis (a former Paper contributor, who stars in all his films) explained in their press release, the "triumphant" film is about "a brainless bimbo who is transformed into a total genius after eating rotten meat while a misanthropic punk botanist babe gains the power to talk to plants." Pig Death Machine even includes some glittery "bacon animation!"


Still from the underground film Pig Death Machine

Somehow I can't picture fashion editors, stylists and hot celebrities getting half as excited about Pig Death Machine as they did about the very un-punk-like fashion exhibit at the Met. But have no fear, because remember what Heidi Klum always says about fashion on Project Runway: "One day you're in and the next day you're out." I'd bet money that all this punk talk is moot by now and that fashion peeps will soon declare punk passé as they steel themselves to hop onto the next big thing. How punk is that?

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