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Tracing fashion’s obsession with heavy metal

From Justin Bieber to Vetements, Kanye and Pusha T, the subculture’s signatures are everywhere. But why?

Look at any street style roundup and it’s hard to miss: the gritty aesthetic of heavy metal has found a new home in the world of fashion. Of course, the industry has a long and complicated relationship with pulling inspiration from underground culture – with everyone from independent brands to household-name high fashion labels having dipped their toes in the seas of subculture. (Remember that time H&M sold fake band t-shirts, and someone made websites for them that suggested they were neo-Nazi groups?) Still, up until recently, heavy metal’s influence on fashion was mostly recognisable in the form of tattered clothing or ripped jeans. Now, graphics and imagery are showing up everywhere from the buzzy French label Vetements to the merch of tween-idol-turned-style-icon Justin Bieber. But why?

There could be a number of reasons to explain the shift. It could be the emerging generation of designers who grew up with knowledge of the metal scene. It could be that this is the age of Tumblr, where every niche subset of culture is cataloged and can be thrown on a moodboard with a click of the mouse. Or, like a lot of recent trends in fashion, it could possibly be traced back to influence of Kanye West and company.

Back in 2013, West (under his DONDA alias) commissioned artist Wes Lang to create a number of graphics for his Yeezus Tour. The designs – featuring menacing skulls, grim reapers and bold logos – were strongly reminiscent of tour merch from the days of late 80s metal. While it was somewhat groundbreaking for a mainstream rapper to adopt that aesthetic, West respects art – and Lang is a reasonably established name within the art world, with some of his work having been collected by MoMA. Also, with a little help from his super famous family, those Yeezus t-shirts were everywhere.

Regardless of your opinion of Kanye and his circle, it’s near impossible to deny the impact throughout all levels of fashion (look at the way blackletter fonts have surged in popularity after West debuted the Cali Thornhill DeWitt designed merch for his latest album). Since the Yeezus tour, West has undeniably ushered in a new era of grungy style. The 90s heyday of flannel and cheap, ripped denim has been replaced by draping yourself in luxe distressed goods, with a whole new generation of style-aspiring dudes, including the likes of Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik, having jumped in on the trend within the past year. It didn’t end with West – the very next year, his collaborator Heron Preston (of #BEENTRILL fame) released t-shirt he designed with the two surefire signs of extreme metal merch: a nearly illegible logo and ‘Pale Horse’ biblical imagery.  

Fast forward to 2016, DONDA looked to dive further into the world of underground music for West’s signee Pusha T. The artist tapped illustrator Mark Riddick, a huge creative force within the death and black metal scenes, to bring his signature style to his Darkest Before Dawn tour gear.

“I’d rather someone who knows about metal create something like this than someone who is completely removed from the genre” – Mark Riddick, the metal artist behind Justin Bieber’s Purpose merch

“I don’t know anything about hip-hop or current popular music so I had to ask my colleagues who Pusha T was,” confessed Riddick. The artist went on to explain how DONDA art director Joe Perez had reached out to him to create a “skeletal ‘King’ playing card” – and that he had no idea how the illustration he delivered was being used until he saw the official release.

The request seemed right up Riddick’s alley, as he has been creating menacing artwork for extreme metal bands such as Morbid Angel, Rotting Christ and Exodus since 1991. Perez declined a request to comment for this story, citing that he wasn’t allowed to give interviews, but Riddick sung his praises, recalling how the art director showed a genuine interest in his work by purchasing an original framed illustration and a copy of his book. Little did Riddick know that a few months later he’d get yet another call to work outside of his usual realm – this time, for Justin Bieber.

When Bieber and his camp officially unveiled the merchandise for his Purpose world tour last month, the teen-icon merchandising cliches were gone, and in their place were bold fonts, vintage-looking patches and a menacing logo. Sure, there are still some cheesy photo t-shirts, but for the most part the singer had completely embraced a new, aesthetic that seemed inspired by anarchic design collective Vetements (who themselves paid tribute to him in their last collection). Selling at a pop up with NYC underground fashion hub VFiles, the Bieber merch wasn’t exactly what we had come to expect from a pop megastar.

It was later revealed that designer Jerry Lorenzo, of Fear of God fame, was behind the collection and hired Riddick to help out. Bieber, a longtime support of Lorenzo and his work, had reached out to commission the effort. Both the singer and designer bonded over a mutual love for vintage rock and metal t-shirts and wanted to channel that passion into this new collection. Lorenzo admits he’s not a “metalhead” but still appreciates the music and the imagery associated with it, and he also sees no issue with tapping into a niche music scene for commercial use by a mainstream pop artist.

“I’m never concerned with a particular scene in creating a vibe for an artist. It is important to me that the vibes we created (for Justin) are consistent with his influences – and they very much are,” explained the Los Angeles-based designer. While the sentiment is there, it’s definitely open for debate how much Justin Bieber actually has in common with the world of metal. That scene is known for its harsh anti-Christian beliefs and misanthropic view towards ‘normal’ society. Prominent metal bands have played concerts on stages adorned with severed goat heads and have drenched audience members in animal blood. Back in the 90s, a number of church burnings and murders were famously attributed to black metal. These aren’t exactly the vibes one would consider to be consistent with Bieber’s influences. Terry Butler, bassist of the iconic death metal band Obituary, offered his thoughts: “Normally I wouldn’t care, but when I see Bieber wearing a shirt like that, it seems very out of place and fake.” Both sides raise valid points.

Musicians like Kanye, Bieber and Pusha T aren’t the only ones to adopt this new heavy metal-inspired look. Back in March at Paris Fashion Week, Demna Gvasalia sent his latest Vetements collection down the runway to a Sisters of Mercy album, complete with a pentagram jumper, blackletter fonts and a death metal style t-shirt complete with a menacing skull print. It wasn’t the first time the brand had dabbled with such imagery – Gvasalia and his label have been quick to rise ever since Yeezy was seen in their black metal inspired logo hoodie back in 2015. Up next to weigh in after the Vetements show were streetwear icons Supreme, who debuted a collaborative collection with Black Sabbath, the band often credited for having founded the metal genre.

The world of fashion has a long and complicated relationship with pulling inspiration from underground culture. There is a fine line between paying homage and seeming exploitative, and many designers have failed to find that perfect balance. While it’s harmless for the popstar (or a fashion fan) to like the look of the metal scene, it’s important to remember that there is an unspoken meaning behind its visuals – the look and feel of heavy metal stands for something that goes deeper than a trend. Musicians and brands don’t need to stand for that same message, but it should at least on their radar. There’s a right way to do it though – by tapping those who know what they’re talking about, or opting for collaboration rather than simple appropriation. Riddick knew it would be risky for an artist like himself – one who is deeply ingrained in the underground metal scene – to take on a client like Justin Bieber. But, as he put it – “I’d rather someone who knows about metal create something like this than someone who is completely removed from the genre.”