Everyone who goes through his formative years in a certain decade considers it the golden age. Obviously, the 90s were the best decade ever.
But let’s go beyond facetiousness. In terms of cultural production it is obvious that every decade has the good and the bad. What is more interesting is how much of the good and how much of the bad the zeitgeist of every decade produces, and what gets to hit the mainstream. Why 90s matter is that it was the decade when culture, and fashion as part of culture, took the last stand before succumbing to pure, unapologetic commerce.
My two favorite things are music and fashion, and when the two are married I feel like a kid who got to eat cake and ice cream at the same time. The 90s were one continuous sugar rush. In August of 1991 Peral Jam released the album Ten and a month later Nirvana released Nevermind. This one-two punch delivered a knockout to the entire cheesy hair metal genre that hitherto dominated the rock scene. It seemed that overnight alternative music took over MTV and the radio. The kids have spoken and what they said was, we want something genuine.
In 1994 Nine Inch Nails released its second album The Downward Spiral, and Trent Reznor’s then protégé, Marilyn Manson released its first album Portrait of an American Family. Woodstock was revived the same year and Nine Inch Nails delivered a watershed performance, which along with its video for the song Closer catapulted the industrial genre into collective conciseness.
And then there was Rage Against the Machine, with its relentless, anti-capitalist fury. Hip-hop also came into its own, with the wrath of the ghetto aimed at the American society. And Fiona Apple and Shirley Manson of Garbage sang complicated songs about love, casting themselves alternatively as victims and vixens. And they didn’t have to shake ass to attract new audience – their music and their words were enough.
All the above were a middle finger in the eyeball of America on all levels – the personal and the social, the cultural and the political. Its dirt was dragged out in the open. The energy was palpable, as all of the above were not fringe acts that could be easily brushed off. They were the epicenter of culture.
You were able to sense the parallels in fashion. In 1981 Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, perhaps unwittingly, began a revolution against the facile glamour that dominated the catwalks, fashion’s own version of hair metal. But the revolution did not happen overnight. It was aided in the late 80s by the Antwerp Six, who truly came into their own in the 90s. Belgium became a hub of creativity that everyone was looking to, and into the breach made by Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela pored a slew of incredibly talented designers. Raf Simons, Veronique Branquinho, A.F. Vandevorst, Jurgi Persoons, Xavier Delcour, Olivier Theyskens – these names by no means exhaust the list.
In London Alexander McQueen was making waves with his unabashedly scandalous, politicized shows, but he was untouchable in terms of sheer talent. And then there were the minimalists – the German Jil Sander and the Austrian Helmut Lang, shredding away at fashion’s superficiality with their Occam’s razors.
And somewhere in Tokyo Undercover and Number (N)ine were being conceived by Jun Takahashi and Takahiro Miyashita. Their success was their own, but it might not have happened were it not for the ascent of Comme des Garcons and Yamamoto. After all, it was Rei Kawakubo who encouraged Takahashi to show in Paris.
Most of the designers above were influenced by music. Without music the success of Ann Demeulemeester or Raf Simons or Jun Takahashi is unthinkable. What drew me to their work was exactly the fact that we were coming from the similar cultural space. Their audience had a connection to the work of these designers that went deeper than the mere desire to look cool.
And then everything crashed. What happened was what inevitably happens – corporate capitalism has caught up to culture. The alternative music scene fell apart. In her anti-corporate book No Logo, the author Naomi Klein described Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s widow, as “the decade’s most spectacular ‘sellout’” and described here career arc as an “awe-inspiring sail from junky punk queen to high-fashion cover girl in a span of two years.”
The generation that came after learned (wisely, perhaps) that rebellion is futile in a technocratic state with an established middle class, and it began to favor opting-out instead of rebelling. It’s hard to blame them, but the rise of the hipster as a cultural force and the gutless indie rock it spawned is the very emblem of our cultural impoverishment. A band like Rage Against the Machine is simply unthinkable today. We have become too smart to believe that music can have any political impact.
Instead, what tops the charts today is the sterilized hip-hop, which mostly reminds me of a sly comment Philip Roth made in Portnoy’s Complaint about men from Jewish ghettos – sure, they curse a lot, but deep down they are really nice boys.
Fashion suffered a similar fate. The luxury conglomerates moved in, muscling out or buying out independent designers, who could not compete with their budgets spent on PR, advertising, and lavish shows. Half of the Belgian designers of the golden generation of the 90s went out of business. Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and Martin Margiela – the cerebral holy trinity of fashion were ousted out of their own companies.
In the 90s, if you were a man or a woman who truly knew fashion you wore Yohji Yamamoto, which signaled not only that you were one of the cognoscenti, but also that the cognoscenti were of a cerebral sort. That was the ideal to aspire to. The question to ask is, what do you wear today?
The point here is not that today no interesting, independent music or fashion is being produced, but that it is increasingly rare for it to have impact on a meaningful scale. Today, the good stuff sits on the fringes of culture.
The original version of this article appeared in issue 5 of Them Magazine in Japan