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Text Valeria Sgarella

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November 2018. Marc Jacobs International was accused of copyright infringement by Nirvana LLC, the company set up by two members of the band — Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic — and by the Cobain Estate, controlled by Courtney Love. They claim that Jacobs is guilty of using the classic smiley — the yellow face that is the band’s logo. Cobain himself designed the smiley in 1991 and used it for the first time on the flyers for the launch party of the album Nevermind. A symbol that was then changed by the British acid house culture in the late Eighties and adopted by several different brands—the most recent being Drew House, Justin Bieber’s clothing line.

Nirvana LLC registered and licensed the smiley and the ‘Nirvana’ logo to various brands including Target, H&M and Urban Outfitters. No license was requested by or granted to Marc Jacobs International, which used the smiley on its $115 tees and $200 sweats, replacing the word Nirvanawith the word Heaven, written in the same font. The formal accusation reads: ‘the brand has used an imitation of the Nirvana image as part of a much wider campaign that also includes song lyrics (Come As You Are) in adverts for the collection and memes with fragments from video clips’.

Up to now, Marc Jacobs International has ignored this legal action.

Twenty-six years of grunge fashion

Way back in 1991, MTV was already showing angry bands from Seattle almost on loop, with their heads of whirling hair, ripped jeans, felted woolen sweaters, checked shirts open to show bare chests, wearing combat boots which could be found in city supermarkets like Kmart or Value, on sale for 5 dollars. Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and especially Nirvana, were the new spokespeople for the suffering and coolness of the younger generations and Kurt and Courtney Love, being the trendiest, craziest duo of the moment, were all over the front pages.

In 1992, Jacobs designed the Bootleg Redux Grunge collection for Perry Ellis. The fashion show was held in a loft in SoHo, New York, and the runway was an anthology of top models: Helena Christensen, Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni, Tyra Banks, and Christy Turlington.

The collection was a compromise between checks and leopard prints, between understatement and revolution. Jacket and trouser suits in pastel colours revealed glimpses of bras in animal prints or electric blue. There were acid green leather dresses embellished with fur and feathers that ended in hems and lace. Fishnet stockings, Dr. Martens and Converse completed the picture: an updated version of the thrift shop, the classic clothing store that was to become the Mecca for those who wanted to dress in grunge style. Thrifting is an actual verb in Seattle that means shopping in second-hand stores.

The show also had an unscheduled moment. A naked Chloe Sevigny stormed the runway, unleashed by Sonic Youth, who were there filming the video clip for Sugar Kane. That collection earned Mark Jacobs the respect of his colleagues. “It’s cool, it’s very New York, and, in any case, Mark is a cool guy,” said Gianni Versace.

The inhabitants of Seattle saw flannel officially back in vogue on the pages of the New York Times. The Style section ran a special piece entitled Grunge: a success story, telling the origins of what had been, up until that moment, a look relegated to lumberjacks up north on the West Coast, to heavy shirts for rainy days spent splitting wood outside. The feature, written by journalist Rick Marin, also included photos: there were two girls, nose to nose, wearing horizontal striped sweaters, a man with a lumberjack shirt around his waist, a still from the film Singles and a photo of Kurt Cobain.

Criticism poured in. “The Seattle music scene, which spawned the cockeyed [Courtney] Love, has inspired a scruffy style on Seventh Avenue so deliberate as to seem dated in the moment it appeared on the runway,” wrote Cathy Horyn in the Washington Post the day after the show. The following March, Suzy Menkes wrote: “Grunge is ghastly” and Jacobs was fired by Perry Ellis. The New York Times claimed that Jacobs had never set foot in Seattle.

That collection inspired by the Seattle street look was to blaze a trail in the history of streetwear, marked by a Jacobs who had never even set foot in the city, as he claimed. Since then, the appeal of grunge in Seattle is still alive and kicking, a sort of local pride. Marc Jacobs was to reiterate it in 2018: “The world needs grunge now more than ever. Authenticity, acceptance, freedom, tolerance,” relaunching that collection presented twenty-six years before for Perry Ellis, in a reworked, updated version.

This time with his name.
A 1992 story of a fake news

Alongside the New York Times feature article was a sidebar entitled ‘Lexicon of Grunge. Breaking the Code’, a guide to the slang used by youngsters in and around Seattle: a mini-dictionary of grunge. Only after the newspaper came out was it announced that the words had been invented on the spot. The author of the hoax turned out to be a twenty-something punk girl called Megan Jasper, a receptionist for Sub Pop Records. A girl whose crest of hair was so high that she had to lean to one side when getting in cars.

Today, Megan Jasper is the Sub Pop CEO.

Kurt Cobain: an accidental mannequin

“He wouldn’t take the glasses off, so I couldn’t really make eye contact easily. Looking back, there is something in those photos that justifies his choice,” said Jesse Frohman. Frohman’s photo shoot in New York in 1993 would be Cobain’s last.

He was wearing white Jackie O glasses and had chipped red polish on his nails. Kids from all over the world  were to hanker after that oval frame by Christian Roth, of the 6558 series. A line that the brand still sells, after rechristening it Archive 1993. Price: £177. The Manhattan Fashion pale green mohair cardigan that the lead singer of Nirvana wore during the MTV Unplugged session in 1993 was then sold at auction for $137,500 twenty-two years later.

Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains brought contrasting elements on stage, as rebellion and indolence. They looked like someone who had just woken up with a neverending hangover, and the stage turned into ruins. They were unkempt. “Kurt was too lazy to wash his hair,”  declared the journalist writing Nirvana’s biography, Charles R. Cross. The message was clear: “You will not have us. You will not have us, capitalist machines. You will not have us, major record labels. You will not have us, strong powers.”

All the symbolic grunge bands ended up being wooed, sooner or later, to the flattery of a powerful record label.

Sub Pop Aesthetics: from Wes Anderson to Charles Peterson

Sub Pop Records was the first to give a visual code to grunge, one which was to appear everywhere: on record sleeves, on posters and in fanzines — the indie label in Seattle that was the first to release Nirvana and Soundgarden. It did so with the slogan ‘going bankrupt since 1988’, given the continual lack of in-coming cash. It was thanks to Sub Pop that grunge became more than just a flash in the pan from the Pacific Northwest, USA.

The grunge aesthetic code had its own local players, such as the artist Jeff Ament, future bass player with Pearl Jam; graphic designers such as Wes Anderson, the brain behind the label logo, and above all the photographer Charles Peterson, at the time just twenty-something, who managed to chronicle grunge: rage, melancholy, sweat. Photos that captured the movement thanks to those flares of light that, until then, had been an unwanted effect of malfunctioning flashes. “Peterson’s photos were what persuaded me to work on a regional sound,” says Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop. “I remember the first time I saw those photos and feeling the energy they produced and thinking, if we can turn that energy into music, we’re onto a winner.”

The sleeve graphics had to make people realize immediately that this was a Sub Pop record: a black strip at the top with the name of the band and title in white. The Sup Pop logo in Microgramma font, again in black and white, the same one today featured on (the few) LPs, posters and merchandise. The same one that saw the label competing with the other industrial giants in Seattle—Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing.

Kurt Cobain didn’t like Marc Jacobs’ 1992 collection for Perry Ellis. Not long after the show, Jacobs sent him a few free garments. “We burned them. We were punkers—we didn’t like that kind of thing,” Courtney Love said at the time.

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