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Denim DIY
Karlheinz Weinberger

Rebel rebel

The youth subculture headed by Karlheinz Weinberger that started denim DIY in Zurich

This week we're running a special #DIESELTRIBUTE takeover in celebration of Nicola Formichetti’s new role as artistic director and his newly launched Tribute collection. From exclusive mixtapes to behind the scenes footage from Nick Knight’s campaign shoot, we’re exploring all things Diesel, denim and DIY – rounding it off with an exclusive Dazed Diesel party this Thursday.

Switzerland might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of landmark events in counter culture, but during the fifties and sixties, Zurich was home to a rebellious youth subculture that not only challenged the conservative post-war bourgeoisie but also pushed the early beginnings of denim customisation.

Known as the Halbstarke (the Half-Strongs) and immortalised by Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger, the small community of rocker misfits adopted a subversive, homoerotic and amped-up interpretation of American youth culture and its heroes. With their articulated quiffs and single earrings, the gangs went all out on denim customisation: metal bars and strings were bolted and laced through jeans in place of zippers, they wore elaborate, oversize belt buckles depicting Elvis Presley and James Dean and denim jackets painted in gang names and covered in DIY studs, insignia and raccoon tails.

Weinberger’s books Rebel Youth and Karlheinz Weinberger: Photos 1954-1995 give a fascinating look into these early denim DIY experiments of outsider culture. By day, Weinberger worked in a factory warehouse but his free time was spent shooting gritty portraits for gay magazine Der Kreis (The Circle) under the pseudonym Jim, zooming in on bikers, rockers, beatniks and motorcyclists who used customised denim as a core part of their defiant anti-establishment message to polite society and as a way to show their gang allegiance.

Their rebellious and fearless spirit still carries momentum today, not least in relation to Nicola Formichetti’s #DIESELTRIBUTE collection, where denim and leather has been altered to the max entirely by hand using chains, studs and moto club patches inspired by the Diesel archives, giving individual life to each piece. Because even though denim’s omnipresence may have made it the normalised uniform of the masses, customisation still has the ability to take the fabric to a place that’s anything but the everyday.