crash of the london underground
Is London becoming unsustainable for the rebellious fashion subcultures who once defined it?
London: city of experimentation, subculture and underground, where cockscombed punks stroll the pavements side-by-side with mink-clad old ladies, and your closest sex shop is only a stone's throw from Chanel. Old reputations die hard, and while London is still the most diverse and accepting metropolis in the world, those brave attributes of innovation and subversion are no longer as palpable or visible as they once were in the capital. At London's fashion colleges, students are taught about the subcultures that made this city what it is today: dandies, teds, mods, skinheads, punks, ravers. If they can afford those ever-increasing tuition fees - either through family-funding or by indebting themselves well into their forties - they'll learn that these underground movements and the areas they occupied set the foundation for a city constantly challenged by change—a city that's learned to adapt to it. If they can come up with that £9,000-something a year to study, students will hear about Chelsea, Soho, and Hoxton, and how these places once played backdrop to the magnificent freaks and rebels, who made London the world's epicentre for emerging fashion and art, or shall we just call it youth culture?
Those urban bubbles of subculture, of course, have long burst. The King's Road, once home to Malcolm McLaren and posse, is now a polished high street for the Sloane Rangers. Soho, London's red light district with the most famous gay street in the world, is now largely occupied by member's clubs and coffee chains. And Hoxton bears little evidence of the colourful Nu Rave club kids, who roamed its streets only a decade ago. When the main show space of London Fashion Week relocated to the Brewer Street Car Park in Soho this September, it made Gareth Pugh think of the London that shaped his career. His show notes highlighted Soho's "high-speed gentrification" as a "setting for a showdown between creativity and commerce: a battle royal between the drag queens and the developers". The sides of his runway were covered in piles of shiny pennies like something out of the vault of Scrooge McDuck, while Pugh's fetish-masked, flamboyant freak show strutted their stuff in orange and furs. It was a reflection of the tension that's currently shaping London's future, and a warning to us all that the kind of creativity historically embodied by the city's subcultures is fragile and virtually defenceless against the contemporary commercial machine.
While the gentrification of Soho began decades ago, the speed with which East London has been commercialised is even more alarming. Backstage Pugh said he's being kicked out of the Dalston studio building he's occupied for years, because "they want to redevelop it"—Dalston being an area coveted by the cool crowd for less than ten years, mind you. There's no doubt a metropolis such as London is supposed to gentrify and grow, but by speeding up the process to this degree, there's a danger of losing the all-important subcultures traditionally nourished slowly and steadily in these areas. If we're constantly forcing young people to move out further because they can't pay the rent that comes with living next to an Itsu and a Waitrose, we're effectively pulling out creative roots newly sown. With that comes the danger of losing the underground scenes so fundamental to London's image and mentality. The internet and social media, of course, aren't exactly loosening the noose that's suffocating subculture, either: if the first brick of every movement-in-progress gets publicised globally before it's half-constructed, new underground trends and vibes have little chance of ever truly materialising.
It begs the question if the media's greedy approach to underground scenes and London's unreasonable financial conditions for young people have changed the subcultural face of the city for good—if not killed it off entirely? It's a question that begins with another question: when do you actually know if you're part of an underground scene? The closest the millennial segment of fashion gets to that question is probably said Nu Rave era some ten years ago, when Boombox in Hoxton Square was church on Sunday nights and hundreds of people in everyday fancy dress made you feel like you were part of a cult. But because we had already entered the age of social media with party pictures published on various websites the morning after, Nu Rave quickly felt more magnified than under the radar. In an interview in July, i-D spoke to Hillier Bartley's Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley - both fixtures on London's underground scenes in the 90s - about subcultural self-recognition. "We never felt like we were in it, but we probably were in the 90s. Hindsight creates a lot of underground. Actually, being at a rave you really felt like you were," Bartley noted. "You really did. Also, it probably felt a bit illegal, which makes it feel more underground," Hillier said.
You'd have to search hard for a contemporary scene that would provide young people with that same kind of feeling, although here's to hoping it's out there. Or maybe the new conditions in London are simply changing what underground means on an entirely different level. As the media - and social media - continues its obsession with emerging youth cultures that might not actually exist, the age groups associated with subcultural scenes could change to a point where you're actually more underground in your forties than you are in your twenties, just for the fact that your every move isn't illuminated by a constant spotlight. And, of course, because you can actually afford to live in the city and might be close to paying off your student loans. More relevance for the thirty-plus segment wouldn't be a bad thing for the often-too youth-obsessed world we live in, but in London it doesn't solve the issue of area gentrification. If every stop on the Central Line has the same franchised shops and restaurants frequented by the same age groups - and none of them are young creatives - our city will lose that diversity and acceptance on which we've sold ourselves for so long.
Text Anders Christian Madsen