why is fashion so obsessed with hacker culture?

Since the mid 90s, fashion designers have been captivated by fantasies of the cyber goth underground. But don't hackers really just wear cargo pants and pool slides?

by Alice Newell-Hanson
26 May 2016, 10:45pm

Watch our full VICE on HBO episode with Edward Snowden for free below and read more of our privacy and security coverage here.

Fashion and hacking have a complicated relationship. Exhibit A: the infamous hacking group Anonymous' declaration of war against Louis Vuitton. Exhibit B: the "Condé Nast Hacker," an over-zealous fashion blogger who downloaded and published 1,100 unseen images from Condé's archive in 2009. And exhibit C (#neverforget): that time a coding wizard filled the Vogue UK homepage with velociraptors wearing Marc Jacobs pimp hats.

But if hackers like to poke holes in the fashion industry's tendencies towards secrecy and self-seriousness, the fashion world is nonetheless content to mine hacker culture for inspiration season after season. The idea of a mysterious underground of nameless anarchists, of dark rooms filled with glowing computer screens, anti-establishment schemes, and hooded rebel nerds just sets something off in designers, especially those with gothic leanings — see Alexander Wang, Rick Owens, and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy.

Since the release of cyber punk cult classic Hackers in 1995, fashion has been creating its own glamorized hacker avatar. She wears oversized leather jackets, billowing trenchcoats, and shit-kicker boots. But where did this PVC-loving techno idol actually come from? Not the labs at MIT, and not the carpeted, strip-lit conference rooms of DefCon, aka the hacking community's prom.

A survey of DefCon event photography reveals two schools of thought about how to dress for sticking it to the world wide web. The first actually involves no thought at all, or as little thought as possible. When you're navigating the NSA site backend or trawling for photos of naked celebrities, who has time for putting together a look that says anything other than, "I can sit comfortably in a desk chair in this for up to 24 hours"? Adopters of this approach opt for cargo shorts and Fruit of the Loom T-shirts screen-printed with the logos of software companies and previous years' DefCons. They love a hiking boot or adidas pool slide. The second type of hacker also rejects sartorial norms, but comes from the other end of the fashion spectrum — from a place somewhere near the spiritual home of steampunk. Popular accoutrements include mohawks, kilts, and oddly proportioned top hats.

"The very concept of hacker ethos is that you're this lone wolf, ideologically-free individual to go off and do whatever you want to do," a coder from Google told Forbes during a recent DefCon. It's that spirit of rogue individualism that seems to inspire runway designers, more than the strange homebound hiker chic of most IRL hackers. That, and the aestheticized fantasies of hacker culture presented by movie directors. While Carol Lim and Humberto Leon openly paid tribute to the turtlenecks and sneakers of real-world hacker idol Steve Jobs in their first-ever Kenzo menswear collection, historically, designers have been more likely to reference fictional hackers from the big screen than the hoodie-wearing stoner kids of suburban garages.

Just four months after The Matrix hit US cinemas in March 1999, John Galliano presented a Dior Haute Couture collection which, his team explained to Vogue's Hamish Bowles, was "deeply inspired" by the movie. Conceptual black vinyl coats trailed behind models wearing holster-like belts, berets, and ashen eye makeup that recalled the iconic narrow black glasses of hacking's high priestess, Trinity.

There were also echoes of Trinity in Riccardo Tisci's spring/summer 12 Givenchy collection of inky leather tailoring and trench coats. And, in keeping with fashion's lasting obsession with all things 90s, pitch-black oval sunglasses are currently at large on the streets of New York's Chinatown and on the Instagram accounts of Bushwick-based internet artists.

In a very literal reference to another classic scifi film, 21-year-old Canadian designer Adrian Wu accessorized the bubble-hem dresses of his fall/winter 12 collection with Guy Fawkes masks during one Toronto Fashion Week. "Adrian Wu's Message Baffles Audience," the Toronto Star reported. The masks were a reference to Anonymous, and "a commentary to the specific comparisons between North American Politics versus European Politics and how it effects [sic] Human Rights by citing the movie 'V for Vendetta,'" Wu later offered in a press statement.

But fashion's favorite hacker movie is, for sure, Hackers. Like so many semi-ironically beloved "fashion movies" (other top picks for you: Eyes of Laura Mars, The Hunger, basically any movie with a David Bowie cameo), the film's value lies entirely in its aesthetic. If you want a realistic portrayal of infiltrating a supercomputer, look elsewhere, and also you probably don't want to see that. If you want to watch two insanely cool and beautiful teenagers (Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller) being insanely cool and beautiful in a lit hacker nightclub called Cyberdelia populated by rollerblading goths, you're in luck.

Angelina Jolie, in particular, as prodigious high school hacker Kate Libby, has continued to inspire designers. Her looks, created by iconic costume designer Roger Burton (also of Quadrophenia), have left traces on the collections by French super house Vetements. Head designer Demna Gvasalia's body-dwarfing colored leather moto jackets immediately recall Kate's jacket of the same style. And her high-necked turquoise Quicksilver rash guard feels perfectly in keeping with the Vetements silhouette, and the brand's knack for appropriating unlikely logos.

Vetements fall/winter 15. Photography Harley Weir.

At Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière's futuristic leather creations and thick-soled shoes also evoke the techno goth vibes of Cyberdelia. He even backdropped his spring/summer 16 show with videos that featured Oculus Rift and NASA technologies. And, to promote the collection, he teamed up with Japanese coder and video game designer Tetsuya Nomura for an ad campaign starring any computer lover's ultimate dream girl, Lightning from Final Fantasy.

Ghesquière, like a growing list of other major contemporary designers, is fascinated not just by the aesthetics of computer culture, but also by the technological possibilities it offers for the future of fashion. "The Maison has always pushed the boundaries of reality and dreams. Real, virtual, incarnate, metaphorical," read a press release for the Lightning campaign. And in that future (or even in our present) of lightup dresses, talking watches, and 3-D printed everything, the hacker — disruptive, dark, and DGAF — is fashion's ultimate spirit guide.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Still from Hackers

Christian Dior
Louis Vuitton
The Matrix
John Galliano
hacker culture
hacker fashion