an ode to stone island, the brand that britain misunderstood
How did the Italian label end up being claimed by so many subcultural movements?
About a month or so ago, while scrolling through my Instagram stories, I came across the account @stonedislandpatch. The concept is pretty simple: pictures of notable figures with poorly Photoshopped Stone Island badges on their left sleeves, typically with a caption that reads like it’s been lifted from one of the many trashy, football casual novels published in the mid-aughts.
“Toffee wrapper, mate. Got it on German eBay. Supreme did a version but personally I wouldn’t go near it. *spits*’’ reads one, under a picture of David Bowie, his long black mac transformed into something reminiscent of a piece from the Italian sportswear brand when it was helmed by Massimo Osti. (This is not a coincidence -- despite the poor photoshopping skills, there’s often a deft execution, applying the badge to garments that look like they could just about pass for Stone Island.) Another picture, this time of Conservative politician Boris Johnson donning a grey parka, features the quip, “Congratulations You have just been dealt by the Bullingdon Bushwhackers. Again” -- evoking the physical calling cards of British hooligan firms during the 1980s and 90s. There’s one of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, resplendent in his moody Stoney hoodie, with the caption “Millwall Ai Weiwei” -- a play on the football fixture suffix denoting whether you’re playing at home or away.
There’s something intriguing in how a venerated Italian fashion brand can also be such a source of comic absurdity. While, in recent seasons, fashion brands have created memes to sell products, and memes as products, these have typically been of the same dynamic: the fashion brand is telling the joke and you, a knowledgeable, discerning consumer, are in on it. Here, Stone Island is the joke -- one that you imagine those at its headquarters in Milan never signed off on, let alone fully appreciate.
This is the duality of Stone Island, purveyors of beautiful, iridescent outerwear and a totemic representation of white, British masculinity. It’s the uniform for lads -- or at least those wanting to ape the characteristics of the lairiest at your local. It is also an incredibly innovative label, with brilliantly constructed garments, that does little in the way of relying on gimmicks or marketing tricks to sell its twisted, utilitarian creations. It is both cool and deeply uncool, embarrassingly loud or stylishly flamboyant.
In recent years, Stone Island has perhaps garnered most of its attention by collaborating with NYC streetwear powerhouse Supreme and being sported by the likes of Drake and Travis Scott. This was not the Stone Island I grew up with. I don’t mean that in the sense of another hackneyed football away-day story, the kind that lend themselves so well to @stonedislandpatch captions, of weekend warriors from Stoke who once travelled forty-handed to Arsenal and ran them all over town.
But in a sense, they’re linked. When, as a teenager, I first started paying attention to clothes -- an interest that, in a roundabout way, came from seeing groups of young guys at the football in esoteric, Scandinavian mountain jackets and adidas trainers -- I would browse forums, largely populated by retired football casuals and dedicated to their weekend uniforms, filled with outfit grids created by middle-aged men. At the time, I never stopped to consider simply how odd it all was.
Imagine for a moment, growing up spending your Saturdays tearing about terraces or jaunting across the country in little feral packs of lads resplendent in the finest European sportswear: Cerrutti, Benetton, Fila. Imagine the heady, jittery mix of nerves and anxiousness that would fill you at the thought of violence that potentially lies around any corner that day, as you meet an opposing pack of equally amped-up boys.
Now imagine the same man, older now. The kids have grown up and moved out, Saturdays maybe consist of trips to Ikea with the wife instead. The house is still. Slowly he removes his 1989 Stone Island Ice Jacket, or something similar, from the cupboard, and with the care of the shop assistant you might find in a boutique store, folds the jacket on the bed. He pinches and preens until there are no creases, ensures it is at right angles to the shirt and trousers he’s also laid out. He takes a picture and leaves the room to go post it on this forum. This is what tethers him to that subculture, to his youth and all that laddish bravado. And there’s something about this that is touching and sentimental, even a little bit poignant.
But mostly, it’s just really fucking funny, because it’s a Dad with some highly questionable politics and some sepia-hued memories of a punch-up which have manifested themselves in a jacket that changes colour when the temperature changes.
But cross-generational, chest-out posturing is not what Stone Island is. Not entirely. In a foreword to the book Ideas From Massimo Osti, which charts the many creative endeavours of Stone Island’s founder, the editorial director of Pop and Arena Homme+ Ashley Heath recalls encounters with Paul Smith, Tom Ford, and Giorgio Armani during the 90s. Each time he was wearing an Osti creation (sometimes Stone Island, sometimes other brands created by Osti) and each time they enthusiastically approved. Today, Stone Island has changed little: it’s still creating some of the most bizarre yet pleasing fabrics and garments, in the same vein Osti did.
The brand is all these things. And probably more, when you factor in that the brand has been adopted by various scenes -- grime, rap, Milan’s Paninaro. It runs just about the full subcultural gamut, and yet there’s something inherently British about it at this stage. That the phrase “get the badge in” exists, due to the fact you often see teams of Stone Island-clad youths tilt their bodies ever so slightly in group photos to ensure that you know what jacket it is they’re wearing, is testament to its status in the UK. “Getting the badge in” connotes a certain cultural awareness or cachet. It acts as a symbol for a certain style of steely posturing -- or makes you look like a bit of a twat. Sometimes, it’s all of the above.
A brand can mean all things to all people. It’d be easy to try to draw some grand conclusion from this about what the semiotics of Stone Island and its off-shoot meme accounts tell us about young British males today. Maybe it’s about a sense of identity, and how a certain label can come to act as cultural short-hand, so much so that it becomes the subject of intense pride and internet ridicule. Or perhaps it’s that a certain absurdity runs through all fashion-led subcultures. It would be foolhardy for a brand to try and be all things to all people, and yet in a strange sense Stone Island almost is: it’s at once a badge of honour, and the punchline to a daft piss-take.