What happened when I spoke to the man behind those ‘Fuck Dazed Magazine’ t-shirts – the mysterious fashion critic known only as STEVE OKLYN
Last week, the Instagram and Twitter accounts of various fashion insiders lit up with images of t-shirts which rattled off a list of expletive missives aimed squarely at fashion stores, magazines and individuals. FUCK VETEMENTS. FUCK COLETTE. FUCK DAZED MAGAZINE. You get the idea. But the provenance of the t-shirts – a brand called 99% YOUTH, and a French website called Apar.tv – seemed vague and mysterious.
Well, sort of.
For the last year or so, I’ve been getting emails from a man who calls himself STEVE OKLYN. Arriving in my inbox every few days, the messages are brief – usually a URL or two, his name, and that’s it. Assuming the dispatches were simply automated spam, I ignored them – until, back in the summer, one subject line caught my eye: ‘SOVIET BLOC’. I opened the message, clicked the link, and began reading the article it led to – published in February, it was a bluntly-worded critique of the ‘Eastern gang’ currently conducting a “full assault invasion” on fashion.
“This Eastern gang and its collaborators includes designers, stylists, photographers, models, journalists, brand directors, magazine editors, the owners of FASHIONWORLD conglomerates and a cadre of sycophants,” it read, before listing off members. First off, the Vetements crew: Demna and Guram Gvasalia, Lotta Volkova, and DJ Clara 3000. Then, slightly surprisingly, Rei Kawakubo. And the name after Kawakubo’s?
Mine. There I was, Emma Hope Allwood, in at number six and presumably one of the “cadre of sycophants”. But hey, I figured – at least I was in good company.
Curiosity took over – I’d never heard of the website it was hosted on, nor of its author. So I began looking around – STEVE OKLYN, it transpired, had written a series of similar pieces; often unstructured or extremely stylistically abstract, consisting of lists of names or short paragraphs and images. More importantly, though, he was the founder of NOT VOGUE, a website created in 2011 on which were posted abstract critiques of the fashion industry comprised of juxtaposed images and text. I listened to a 20 minute interview with him, where, voice clearly disguised and identity concealed, he discussed the machinery of the industry. I found some of his points hard to disagree with. I thought about interviewing him. I decided against it.
Over the following months, it seemed STEVE OKLYN’s vision expanded: he emailed me (and, I imagine, others) links to a project called 99% YOUTH – there were mock ups of garments, like jackets which promoted the extinction of fashion conglomerates, and yes, the aforementioned t-shirts. Still, these seemed like photoshop experiments rather than actual products. They weren’t for sale... until they were. When the tees started going viral, I did what I’ve never done before: I hit reply. Less than 24 hours later, I was calling STEVE OKLYN at home. He picked up on the first ring.
HELLO, STEVE? IT’S ME, SYCOPHANT
What you need to know about STEVE OKLYN (yes, it has to be in capitals) is that STEVE OKLYN is not a man at all. It’s an invented persona, an identity which, according to the man behind it, has surpassed its anonymous creator to exist independently, having evolved, he says, into a computer state he likes to call s/O Systems.
Despite speculation over the years that OKLYN was the pseudonym of an influential but disillusioned fashion insider, this is not the case. What seems to be true, however, is that the man who picked up the phone to me has been a firsthand witness to some of the biggest subcultural movements of the twentieth century. He studied under the superstars of conceptual art – names like Joseph Kosuth, Richard Artschwager, and Robert Ryman, and claims to have grown up in New York’s creative community, alongside people such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Keith Haring and Basquiat. “All these now iconic personalities were friends,” OKLYN says. “They were very much part of a community. This other person, my birth entity, was fortunate enough to be a witness.”
So in 2017, what made him fix his target on the likes of Demna Gvasalia and, even more unlikely, myself? Or, as he puts it, “How does someone who’s not involved in fashion wind up at 60 years of age attempting to antagonise, provoke and break the private handshake codes of advanced fashion for young readers?”
“How does someone who’s not involved in fashion wind up at 60 years of age attempting to antagonise, provoke and break its private handshake codes?” – STEVE OKLYN
It began back in 2010, after OKLYN read an interview with Carine Roitfeld prior to her departure from French Vogue. Asked what made someone fit for the magazine’s coverage, she simply declared: “You’re either Vogue, or you’re not Vogue.” That was it – inspired by the members' club snobbery suggested by her statement, he registered notvogue.com and soon the site began – using the framework provided by his conceptual education, OKLYN took aim at fashion’s insider nature, creating a conceptual experiment which was “a perfect integration between modernist and contemporary art theory and modern online journalism”.
With the Libyan war having just begun, he chose a graphic of both Anna Wintour and Colonel Gaddafi with their shades on for the logo, as if they were perched together on a prestigious front row. He posted prolifically. A standard entry clashed image and text in a way that cast the content in new light – a quote by Jean Baudrillard about America as a fictitious entity would be posted above an image of Ralph Lauren, fashion’s pre-eminent all-American myth maker and his socialite friends, for instance.
Running for several years, NOT VOGUE earned STEVE OKLYN interviews with publications like Bullett and Hunger, as well as a spot in the Barbican’s exhibition of Vulgar fashion, which is open until February 5th (he’s there, displayed on an iPad, alongside Steven Meisel’s infamous plastic surgery cover from Italian Vogue). The site had over 500 pages until, in October 2015, OKLYN decided he was done. STEVE OKLYN himself wasn’t, however – after some time, he found a new outlet on Apar.tv, the French site headed up by Cécile Montigny and Aurélien Poirson-Atlan. He started emailing me – and then he turned his attention to t-shirts.
SELLING T-SHIRTS TO PROTEST FASHION
Complete with a lengthy and (sorry STEVE) suitably pretentious manifesto, 99% YOUTH is a collaborative project between OKLYN and Apar. Its name stems from recent cultural conversations around the power wielding “1%”ers, combined with the fact that “consumerist and journalistic machinery” feeds, vampire-like, on the idea of youth. The t-shirts, which take aim at everyone from top tier designers to LVMH, PR powerhouse Karla Otto and ‘FASHIONWORLD’ insiders, are an attempt to distill the “doctoral dissertation” length and depth of material which comprised NOT VOGUE into messages which are attention-grabbing and accessible – and would spark a sense of consciousness or rebellion in a 15 or 16-year-old who doesn’t want to fit in.
After all, how else do you get a teenager’s attention? “We all know that messaged apparel is probably one of the single most important platforms of youth culture in the world today,” OKLYN explains. “You can go from the highest level, say, Vetements, and down to Aries, or your Cali DeWitt experiments, or Fear of God, even Bieber’s tour merch. If I was 16 years old and politicised, I might want to associate with 99% YOUTH over this more commercialised, industrialised point of view.” Add in Instagram, and you have the recipe for attention.
As I'd thought, STEVE OKLYN’s fashion designs (there are three different iterations, dubbed ‘Fuck the icons’, ‘Fuck their fictions’, and, finally, ‘Fuck them all’) were indeed just photoshop creations not intended to actually be produced. But a friend of the Apar founders – a French Hollywood producer, no less – decided to put up the cash needed to fund a few hundred of them, and they were made in LA. The irony of retailing t-shirts which protest the fashion system is evident, especially via a website which also offers luxury hotel reviews and brand consultancy. So why actually sell them? For OKLYN, it’s twofold. Firstly, it engages directly with the mechanics of the fashion industry. “We went, ‘How do we see this operating in the real world?’” he recalls. “I said, I think the best way is to mirror the actual system we’re commenting on: let’s sell them.”
“We all know that messaged apparel is probably one of the single most important platforms of youth culture in the world today” – STEVE OKLYN
Secondly, if you want to reach young people, you need to speak a language they understand (beyond just saying ‘fuck’ a lot). He argues that for them, buying something simply makes it mean more; it infers a greater value on it. “Somehow, the object, the t-shirt, the hoodie, the sneaker, gets a higher dimension of authority, meaning, and importance if you buy it,” he says. “You see the kids lining up outside Supreme every Thursday. They want to buy. All they know is consumerism, they don’t know conceptualism – as soon as they come out of Supreme, they’re ecstatic. ‘I bought this’ is a very significant part of the transaction and their sense of self worth.” There’s no real profit involved or motivating 99% YOUTH, he says, despite the fact that the €100 collectors edition designs certainly aren’t cheap.
So, there the t-shirts were, sitting on Instagram and just waiting for someone to bite. About six weeks went by with no one paying much attention. And then one day, they exploded – shared around staff at all the titles named, and appearing on the social media accounts belonging to the likes of Bryanboy and The Fashion Law, as well as popular feeds like Ecce Homo and WilliamCult. OKLYN believes it was Purple's Olivier Zahm who started it. “He's one of the key protagonists in all of STEVE OKLYN’s narratives,” he says. “He decides, ‘I think I need to post this to show how cool I am’. But I think he was being sincere, he actually liked them.” For people (myself included) posting the images became a way to show that they were in on the joke, that if they laughed along, they couldn't be laughed at.
DAISY CHAINS AND LISTS OF NAMES
The way the t-shirts exploded online thanks to a few key players speaks perfectly to STEVE OKLYN’s mission – the experiment came full circle. Along with his Apar collaborators, he’s motivated by a “a very sincere, humanistic concern”, a desire to expose the spiderweb of power dynamics and relationships which hold the industry together, to question control, objectivity and motivations. Who’s being funded by who? Who’s friends with who? In the age of information, who decides what’s worth paying attention to and why?
This recently manifested in a three part series of articles, consisting only of names – starting With 250 (DAISY CHAIN), reducing to 100 (ECHO CHAMBER), and finally boiling down to 50 (COCK RING). “I wanted to see if I could capture the whole political environment – and it was intellectually exhausting – in 250 names,” OKLYN explains. “We recorded them, turned it into an audio presentation. There’s a very complex history of naming names. It’s not childlike. It can be one of the most devastating things.”
“He’s motivated by a desire to expose the spiderweb of power dynamics and relationships which hold the industry together, to question control, objectivity and motivations”
It should be noted that there certainly exists a degree of snideness within OKLYN’s writing. Sometimes, it feels more like a temper tantrum than a comment on an industry – like one piece, entitled WHEN. The statements veer from the unjustified (‘WHEN WILL 032c MAGAZINE STOP PUBLISHING’), to the unnecessarily cruel and personal (‘WHEN WILL SOMEONE NOTIFY LILY MCMENAMY THAT SHE’S NO LONGER NEEDED’) and the outright conspiratorial (‘WHEN WILL FASHIONWORLD ADMIT IT’S A CONTROL AND SURVEILLANCE AGENCY’). There’s also the one piece that includes the line: “I AM NOT EMMA HOPE ALLWOOD AND I AM PROUD”. Cool, thanks!
These works are intentionally antagonistic, but the author insists there is no real malice. You get the sense that these people exist more as constructs than as human beings to him, that he takes issue with the power structures they apparently represent not who they are. “I have absolutely no negativity, no harshness, anger, aggression against anyone – especially the younger creatives in England,” he says. “These people should live their lives – this is the way they want to express themselves, make money, pay the bills. Everyone should get all the traditional success they desire.” It’s the conglomerates, the “industrialised, globalised multibillion dollar complexes” he’s most concerned about.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I called up STEVE OKLYN. Here was a man, half way around the world from me, who had actually dedicated time to including my name on lists of people he deemed capitalist propaganda officers. Would he scream at me for brainwashing the impressionable minds of the young with my unashamed love of Gosha? Would he lay waste to Dazed’s editorial integrity? Would he offer to send me a free t-shirt? (Size S, FYI). The answer: none of the above. And despite our differences, we actually got on pretty well – his mischievous laugh is bellowing and contagious, and it was kind of amazing to have a discussion with a sixty-something fashion outsider who’s so clued up on Vetements.
A question remains, though – is a t-shirt that says ‘FUCK COCO CHANEL’ really going to ignite a generation’s minds, or encourage them to think differently about fashion? I’m not sure, but whatever you think of 99% YOUTH, it was provocative enough to get people talking, thinking, even arguing. And that was exactly the point.