Knowing more, do I actually know more?

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The more educated I become as a consumer I slowly begin to feel that I know far less. What am I talking about? Let’s begin with what I now know. I am aware of the names and locations of almost every leading store in the world. I can rattle off a series of nicknames for popular Nikes and name the artists that Puma has recently employed for shoes that are yet available. I can recognize weave structure in jeans (a slight exaggeration actually, my previous forays into textile history have actually been woefully inept), understand various print techniques and pick apart the subtle details of a nylon jacket in a few seconds. In essence, this is merely a transference of Charles Montgomery’s 14-Points of connoisseurship from their original intent of evaluating antiques (in the most traditional vein: furniture, metal work, textiles and prints/paintings) to brand new consumer goods. Color, construction, maker, material, place of origin, etc.; these all play a role in how I now see and dissect a product.

Some scholars (like Grant McCracken) later pushed the need for investigating cultural constructs surrounding consumer goods and the formation of a social self in object study. With this type of model, the life of an object and how its cultural associations are formed are considered. Thinking about streetwear in 2007, I am struck by how much information the consumer can learn about any given product prior to release. The artists back story is readily available, the shop owners biography and leaning, and all the hands at play in a given shirt are understood. We are told how and why an object is culturally important even as it has yet been put to the test. Sure, all of the information we are fed becomes part of the cultural constructs, and in an odd way reinforces an idea I have been kicking around (alone, to myself) about streetwear’s subtle corollary to modernist design.

Certainly streetwear is not about forging a utopia, and the theoretical underpinning is less complex. However, there is something about formulating a purposeful identity that brings new meaning to an objects social self (established before by many greater thinkers than I). Sure, this linkage is tenuous, and the supposition is about why something is dope rather than why something works. I still believe there is a minor thread of expressed functionality that somehow draws the two together in my imagination. The interest in modernist silhouettes when streetwear company’s branch into furniture and the influence of Joseph Albers’ color theory on Nike make a far more compelling an argument for the connection. Aron sure as hell isn’t Bruno Taut, but with enough internet buzz one can sense that he might be on to something that people will follow. It’s perfection in shared ideals rather than faultless design.

Ahead of the internet became streetwear’s preferred playing field, and before there were even a handful of specialized sneaker boutiques, my battles were fought in the pages of Eastbay and the floors of various chain athletic shoe stores. By no means do I mean to inflect an air of generational hostility. Instead, I point to a fundamental difference in my consumption habits from youth to adulthood. And that brings me to what I knew then.

In my early days of sneaker fanaticism, digesting the pages of Eastbay and memorizing model names and colorways options, I was overly aware of the market place at large. I understood how my choices were distinct from the mainstream, not only because they were different from the majority of my mates, but also because my purchases involved direct comparison. It started simply, which of these colorways are likely not to excite my peers? By virtue of a broad outlook, I actually knew what general releases looked like; I actually knew the product line of more than two or three companies.

Nowadays I know only what the niche that has captured my attention has to offer (with the rare exception of a few outdoors brands I follow), and the excitement of discovery and search has dissipated. I was reminded by this in part by reading Peter Thornton’s Casuals. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a young Liverpoodlian traversing Europe on train and stumbling on the most fascinating foreign sportswear. I was just a young New Englander passing through ski shops, skate shops, malls and catalogues always finding new things to piece together into a pseudo-organic identity. My story is definitely not exciting and I was certainly not breaking new ground.

What I was doing was learning how to piece together a series of seemingly unrelated goods on my own power. Today, I know much more than I did back then. I buy things that have some degree of quality and design savvy. Then, I just worked to find something that spoke to me on its own terms. And, so when I say that I fear I know much less even with a newly formed education, it is because there was a time before the internet and before boutiques where my purchases were made outside an overt social construct. I knew the names of every product, today I only know how to look at them.


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