How Big Fashion Appropriated Rave Culture at New York Fashion Week

Who benefits when rave hits the runway—and what do we lose?

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Sep 22 2015, 8:25pm

It's 1 AM inside of a 50,000-square-foot warehouse on the Greenpoint waterfront, and an HBA-swathed DJ is furnishing the hangar-ready sound system with MC Bin Laden beats, Rihanna, nae nae—all the shit you want to bump to. Of the thousands of models, artists, podcast directors, and other miscellaneous fashion week types present, it would be generous to say that 60 were on the dancefloor. That's an unusually low headcount, considering the DJ is Venus X, whose (now retired) popular dance party, GHE20G0TH1K, was known for filling venues to capacity.

29Rooms' warehouse mural designed by Hisham Bharoocha (Photo courtesy of Matteo Prandoni/BFA and Refinery29)

The crowd is here to experience the opening night of 29Rooms, a giant pop-up experiential installation presented by Refinery29 this year during New York Fashion Week. Page Six went as far as billing it a "massive Brooklyn rave"—co-hosted by Drew Barrymore. Currently celebrating its tenth anniversary, the fashion blogging giant has transformed the warehouse into a maze of 29 customized rooms, each designed by a different collaborator including photographer Danielle Levitt, Solange's music label Saint Records, women's organization Lower Eastside Girls Club, and major brands like Old Navy, Fossil, and Puma.

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Venus X is no stranger to the fashion world, but it's a little strange to see her perform in a setting in which she isn't an integral element. Venus X's name is synonymous with best friend Shayne Oliver's young but influential brand, Hood By Air. From 2009 to early this year, Venus and Shayne tickled public interest with GHE20G0TH1K, whose eclectic counter-culture attendees inspired and reaffirmed HBA's aesthetic. Their partnership and HBA's unexpected success are, in part, responsible for the fashion world's current obsession with youth subcultures, and specifically rave culture.

The fashion-rave symbiosis dates back to the 80s, but has seen a renaissance since 2012, the year that brought us Chanel x Chromatics, Saint Laurent x Daft Punk, and Rick Owens x Zebra Katz. During last year's NYFW, Alexander Wang and Miley Cyrus raved in a Bushwick warehouse after the designer's show. Miley later joined Jeremy Scott on the runway to debut her line of kandi-inspired jewelry, with the afterparty held at mega-club Space Ibiza New York. Coming full circle, Tiësto—yes, Tiësto!—was spotted in the front row of the HBA show.

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Edgy electronic music has been an important part of the underground fashion world for a while; what's changing is that big brands are starting to notice, and using it to assert their relevance. In other words, the old-garde fashion industry, notoriously resistant to integrating the technology and priorities of youth culture, has been wisening up as of late.

From worldwide fashion week producer IMG's acquisition of their biggest stateside competitor MADE Fashion Week, to Calvin Klein's Grindr-esque ad campaign, the scramble to find what makes millennials tick (or better yet, hit "purchase") is beginning to show in a big way. Which begs the question: Who benefits when rave hits the runway? Can big business and counter-culture help each other out? Does this subcultural appropriation devalue the work of independent musicians, or is all fair in love and techno?

It's worth mentioning that the same warehouse where 29Rooms took place has also been home to Shade—a roving party series from local promoters Ladyfag and Seva Granik that effortlessly brings together the city's underground dance music and fashion worlds onto a sweaty (occasionally giant penis-dominated) dancefloor. In the case of 29Rooms, however, the party felt like an every-which-way mash-up of independent artists and corporate entities.

Petra Collins' The Girls Room (Photo via Ida Hariri/Refinery29)

On one hand, there were charming installations like the one by Canadian photographer and visual artist Petra Collins: a pink bathroom complete with a tub that unlodged nostalgic memories of girlish coming-of-age. In another room, the particle board walls of a Nordstrom Rack room were drilled with eight eye-sized peepholes. When people realized they were looking at scenes of affordable clothes on hangers with themes like Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz, the reaction was unanimous: "Oh damn, I thought I was going to see naked people." Pick a door, any door—behind one you'll find refreshing creativity, behind the other you'll find #brandedcontent staying well within its comfort zone.

The final room was the dancefloor—a space that literally existed in the middle of content and commerce. A lit-up R29 logo hung above the DJ booth, putting the company in conversation with the evening's musical acts: Basement Jaxx, Brenmar, Venus X, and Harley Viera Newton. The non-cohesive nature of this lineup—a big-name British DJ, two underground club acts, and a socialite—provided a diverse musical experience, but also felt like a misguided attempt to cover all bases.


Refinery was hardly the only Big Fashion brand of the season tapping into underground club culture for cool. Ye dropped a track at his Yeezy Season 2 premiere that sampled two classic house anthems from Mr Fingers and Hardrive (Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, and Erick Morillo). Then there was Givenchy, which threw a massive post-show fête in a Lower East Side parking garage transformed into a multi-floor club resembling an automotive junkyard. Tisci called upon Ladyfag to curate the event, who dusted the place with crushed junkyard cars, fluoro lights, relics of 80s club culture, and the obligatory herd of food trucks.

Guests and performers at the Givenchy afterparty (Photo via Givenchy/Facebook)

The Ladyfag seal of approval also meant that, alongside the hoards of A-listers like Kim and Kanye, Liv and Steven Tyler, and Courtney Love, members of the club scene also had a presence. VFiles' own Ruth Gruca, Shaun Ross, and a host of diamond-masked and -assed party people turned up to the beats of A-Trak, Brenmar, and Speakerfoxxx. Party personality Sussi Suss was a crowd favorite, demanding attention with her seven-foot stature and checkered yellow ensemble. Post-show parasites (ourselves included) remembered her vibrating presence from VFiles' Wednesday night afterparty at Space Ibiza New York.

She shook the room, no doubt, but there's a difference between a company like VFiles—which is owned by former V magazine executive editor Julie Anne Quay—co-signs avant-garde socialites than when Givenchy, or even Jeremy Scott, does the same.

Underground musicians and alternative fashion brands help create each other out of a need for representation. Communities that participated in a burgeoning culture—by going to see Speakerfoxxx play since she broke out on the scene in 2011, or buying something from VFiles' webshop as early as 2012—did so because other fashion brands at the time weren't offering anything that catered to them. The success that came from tapping into that market was success born from a sense of understanding, symbiotic in ethic and aesthetic. When new adopting-big businesses rep rave, it's purely as a reaction to the growing popularity of the scene, not as a means to give underrepresented populations a voice.

Buyer beware, to alpha brands, rave culture is as disposable as last season's wardrobe.

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