27-01-2021

THE PERPETUAL MUTATION OF NORMALITY

Exploring the concept of normality through the lens of fashion. By José Paz Ferreira.

In the mid-70s, my mother ventured to Lisbon on a one-way flight from Angola, still a Portuguese colony at the time. Surprisingly,  one of the first obstacles she would have to face while adapting to her new life in the metropole was found within the boundaries of her closet. Her dresses were cheerful and exuberant, wearable portraits of freewheeling summers and carefree strolls in Luanda. Alas, she quickly had to come to grips with how ill-suited these were in a conservative dictatorship built upon austere habits and ascetic mentalities. In essence, the aestival tones depicted too stark a contrast with a grey city, and the flamboyant cuts were undoubtedly more adequate to southern hemisphere temperatures.

It wasn’t normal.

Fortunately, a few decades later, Lisbon represents exactly the opposite. The city grew into a vibrant and cosmopolitan hub, proudly embracing its past yet restlessly conjuring an even brighter future. It’s a heterogeneous capital, which still suffocates some of its quirks through social segregation. Nonetheless, it is starting to accept that breaking norms might in and of itself be normal.

In the second half of the 20th century, every cultural movement that burst into the public sphere seemed to involve a cross-cut aesthetic break. Somehow, time and time again, mainstream fashion managed to appropriate elements from subcultures that had often affirmed themselves via their revolutionary nature. We seemed to enter a cannibalistic cycle of cultural appropriation.

The hippie movement saw some of its symbols entrench themselves into pop culture, with an influence that has now lingered for over five decades. We observed a similar phenomenon with grunge, bred from angst and isolation, to quickly be rebranded as a « hair-sweat-and-guitars » style. This look was best popularized by Kurt Cobain – who, as Mark Fisher described it, « knew he was just another piece of the spectacle ».

Soon after, surfing – for decades perceived as a moderately hostile culture – not only saw its cottage industry convert into a plethora of global brands but also became another mainstream staple. The latest victim (or beneficiary, depending on the reader’s point of view) is irrefutably streetwear. The seamless blend of hip hop and surf-skate cultures is now taking the world by storm.

On the one hand, brands such as Supreme (which, ironically, was recently sold by a Private Equity firm to Vans) have had vertiginous booms. On the other hand, we have witnessed a widespread cultural takeover by some of the movement’s most visible faces. The most influential of them all might be Virgil Abloh, the controversial founder of Off-White. Besides being appointed to one of fashion’s most coveted roles, becoming Louis Vuitton’s creative director, Abloh has produced IKEA furniture and Evian water bottles. And who would have thought that the irreverent but often uncivil Tyler The Creator, one of Supreme’s first endorsers in the rap game, would end up associated with brands such as Lacoste, Levi’s or Converse?

Slowly but surely, we’re starting to get a glimpse of the movement’s meteoric rise in Portugal. Simultaneously, the market has been flooded with local brands, characterized by ethical and transparent productions and sustainable values, greatly benefitting from the prosperous Portuguese textile industry. Finally, it seems unequivocal that the country proudly boasts the highest number of bikini and beachwear brands per capita in Europe. This fascinating variety is what constitutes the unique wealth of the Portuguese fashion industry.

Amid this constant whirlwind, we are left with everlasting doubts concerning what normality is meant to represent, how it should be perceived and why it should be (dis)respected. While this subjective reality deconstructs and rebuilds, expanding with each culture it engulfs, few elements survive the test of time. The timeless classics. Not only do they embrace their eccentricity, they also put it front and centre by merely confronting it with the risk of having to be normal.

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