A Conversation With Steven Vogel

Initially, I thought Steven Vogel was a cynic. Here, I was faced with a man who had quite literally written the book on streetwear – the first of it’s kind, at least – and worked with a host of people I too aspired to work with. And yet, he didn’t share my youthful excitement about any of it. In fact, he seemed quite nonplussed by it all. He was older than I am, so I thought that probably had something to do with it. What I was missing was that he had seen this industry and these people at close quarters and instead of being caught up in it all – like so many do – he saw this world for what it was and the numerous ugly characteristics which it held. In time, I came to realise that Steven Vogel was not a cynic; he simply knew the truth. For all its charm and allure, streetwear/menswear/whatever bastardised term you wish to give it, is essentially an interlinked industry which packages and commodifies individuals and ideas, with the help of large marketing budgets, and sells them to unknowing kids. And that’s fine – I happily buy into large parts of it- but being aware of it is important. I guess that’s what Steven Vogel opened my eyes to.

Beyond the money-grabbers and charlatans, of which there are many, there are those who have not had their heads turned by the lure of cheap money or undeserving notoriety. The landscape of streetwear has changed greatly since the day that Vogel penned his first work in his 2006 title, but throughout these years he has remained a valuable commentator on clothing, culture and most things in-between. The return of the Black Lodges blog at the turn of the year was a welcome one – as a source of ad-free comment. This tied into a corporate re-jig of Vogel’s Hamburg based creative agency, Freebird Bureau, which had largely operated under the BL moniker for several years. Through Freebird Bureau, Vogel has worked with the likes of Burton Snowboards – commissioning a series of collaborative art projects – as well as running the Berlin leg of (capsule) show (although, that side of things is handled by the woman behind the Lodge, Nina Vogel). Today, Black Lodges acts as whatever the fuck Steven wants it to be, collaborating with friends at the likes of Quintin Co. and Altamont, as well as releasing art, or music mixes, or scented candles.

I first met the Hamburg-based creative little under two years ago, via the internet of course. I’m sure he probably viewed me with suspicion, informed by several fly-by-night kids who wanted taken under his wing in search of some misguided notion of making it in “streetwear”. And, initially, I’m sure I was probably naïve and a general annoyance. Yet, we became friends and there is no one who has influenced me – sans hashtag – as much as him. What follows is an interview drawn from over a month of back-and-forth emails, touching on everything from the nature of streetwear today, journalism, publishing and Vogel’s creative endeavours. Like the man, the conversation is multi-faceted and laced with what may seem like cynicism to the uninitiated, but what is more likely the harsh truth.

We might as well start at the beginning. 

What was it like growing up in Germany as a skater, into punk, metal etc? Obviously, being a skater wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now…

Well, I left Germany when I was 13. I started getting into “cool” shit around 11, thanks to my neighbour Patrick, who was 15 at the time and one rad dude. Skating certainly came much later, around 14 I’d say. It was definitely music and politics first, then art (i.e comic books).

Also, I hated Punk, still do to be perfectly honest. No, it started with death metal and goth, some thrash at the time and playing guitar. I also, again thanks to my neighbour, joined Antifa at the age of 12, and that got me into all kinds of trouble with the local skinheads, but those years were pretty important. Hell, I got to play my first couple of gigs, realized that yes, guitar players no matter how shitty they are, do get pretty lucky and the political involvement has stayed with me ever since.

And then you moved to London for University? 

How do you make the transition from would-be history teacher to working within streetwear. I’m guessing the less structured and stifling nature of the latter had something to do with it. 

No, I then moved to Warsaw, Poland where I went to an American School (hence the accent) and then I moved to London in 96. I was set on becoming a history teacher when I started university, but it took London all of one week to change my mind. London at the time, especially being 18, was pretty amazing. In retrospect, it was the best city in the world to be young & dumb and willing to have a good time.

I don’t think it was called streetwear then, I worked in a denim shop and then a skate shop, again, not to be cool, but to pay rent. I don’t think anyone, or very few anyway, involved in whatever you want to call was aware what it would turn into But maybe I was just a dumb 18 year old at that time.

Labels, such as “streetwear” usually come after anyway. It was the same with football “casuals” etc. Is it strange to see what that world has become and how it’s transformation into a multi million pound business has changed people you came up with? Does “streetwear” even still exist? What I’m getting at is that in those early days, it seemed more like a set of ideals than a style of clothing. You wrote about this back in 09 or something – the need for a return to the community that existed in the wake of the global financial collapse. Have things worsened or improved? 

I am not even sure that I care anymore, truthfully, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Personally, I got carried away with the euphoria of it all in those days and misunderstood a lot of peoples intentions. Especially, when Black Lodges as a zine became more popular. I think people sold the idea of a community really well back then and yes, there were some genuine friendships started in those days that have carried through on today, but they aren’t and weren’t built on the backs of clothing brands.

And I didn’t come up with shit, certainly not streetwear as we understand, I merely wrote one book about it. Others can claim that, I certainly cannot.

As far as the community goes, our Black Lodges community is great and continues to grow and get better by the day, some of us are involved in making things that have aesthetically something to do with what people consider to be streetwear and some dont.

For those unaware, what is Black Lodges? Other than the world’s coolest drinking club. 

It certainly is one of the finest drinking clubs in the world, that is true.

It started in 2005 after I had finished with Hypebeast as an online magazine that dealt with whatever I was into, mostly music, art, partying and shit like that. It soon turned into something larger, we released a bunch of cool shit over the years and it sort of is what it is. It’s a club of really great people that get together to not only drink, but put wrongs right, and most of us happen to work in this industry of ours. These days it is my creative outlet outside of the agency work I do, I guess you could call it a brand.

In terms of output, Black Lodges is refreshingly pure. There’s no real marketing to it, it’s all done by yourself, from dying candle wax to hand drawn prints, and it doesn’t follow any trends – I know every brand says that but it’s mostly bullshit. It seems like the antithesis to most current brands…

Black Lodges as a brand exists completely outside of any commercial realm, which is why it appears to be pure I guess, I make whatever I feel like, whenever, and irrespective of it making money. Which is a serious luxury, I realise that.

So you founded Black Lodges/Freebird Bureau, and while you were doing so you were also in the process of writing Streetwear, correct? Tell us about that process. I know you went to Japan and America for it. 

I didn’t actually do any travelling specifically for that book, I was lucky that a lot of the agencies work (Freebird Bureau) took me to the places I needed to go to for the book as well. The process of writing, or at least editing such a book is tiresome and tedious, but the outcome is great.

Would you have done it (streetwear) any differently? It’s easy to forget that it was written at a time where there was no real blueprint for these sorts of books.

Yes, sure. I think it needed more brands in it, and a few that are in there shouldn’t be in there, but that’s easier said than done, especially in hindsight. I was intimidated by a lot of the politics that came up during the making of the book and afterwards. I think now, I should have pushed a few people harder.

What bits or the book were you most proud of? The amount covered by one person is astounding. And how does it differ from your upcoming book, contemporary menswear?

Proud is the wrong word, I was glad when it was all said and done. I am still at odds with it some days and some other days, I pick it up or someone reminds me of it, like now, and yeah sure, I am stoked that T&H let me do it.

The big difference between the new book and streetwear is that I am co-writing it, which helps heaps. I think this new book is more thorough on a journalistic level than streetwear. I think it will be interesting though if people still buy books in 2014 though.

So, how did the idea for Contemporary Menswear come about? I came on board later, but the way I conceptualised it in my mind was that it was streetwear grown up. You see all these guys at trade shows, who would have worn Stussy or Bape, now wearing Red Wings and selvedge denim. And, I guess, it’s grown up in that print publications about menswear/streetwear have become a lot more refined in recent years due to the competition in that market. 

Initially, I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, only that at the time, I wanted to write another book for Thames & Hudson. And it is important to note, if it wasn’t for Andrew Sanigar and his team I would not have bothered. They truly are some of the most professional, patient and pleasant people to work for and I am very grateful that 7-8 years ago they entrusted me to write my first solo book for them. Conceptually, it made sense to me to try and represent this scene for what it was, in a similar way to the “streetwear” book, at least structurally. I don’t want to give away too much content wise, but I think all three of us pulled off a very solid and insightful social analysis of the modern independent menswear scene without resorting to the boring, and poorly executed self-irony associated with it.

You mention the boring and poorly executed stuff. In the past five years, the number of menswear/men’s fashion magazines has multiplied. It’s quite interesting that there’s been such a resurgence of print within this niche, despite being an internet-driven business. But, like you said, so much of it is done badly. Why do you think this is? A lot of it seems like a waste of paper…

Without wanting to shit in anyone’s coffee – and it is imoprtant to note the good stuff more than the bad stuff- but as much as the internet is a blessing it has a bad side to it. Andrew Keen wrote a great book about this, called “The Cult of the Amateur” in which he claims that the web 2.0 (so, user generated content ) is ruining professionalism. I couldn’t agree more. Fact is, and I know this may be painful for a lot of people, most people shouldn’t be doing what they are doing only because you can. Having access to self-publishing tools doesn’t make you a writer, publisher or editor. Additionally, the lack of accountability takes away the weight of professional writing.

Do you think there’s actually people out there who care about artisan japanese furniture? 

Sure, absolutely, and they probably cared about it before some spotty teenager wrote about it on his blog in the hope of generating ad money.

You’ll speak to a lot of these editors and get the feeling they’re still making it up as the go along. I’m sure people have probably thought that of me in the past – probably with good reason. So, what are the positive aspects and the good stuff? 

Occasionally, someone will put out a truly selfless piece of published work. Just for the passion of it, they exist and they are great. When people write about something completely outside of any commercial realms, free of ego and pretence, you get these amazing bodies of work. I realize that this idealism to the 10th degree but that’s what gets me off.

Can you give any examples, what was the last piece of writing that made you feel like that?

No, I haven’t come across one in our industry for a long time, saying that is really good. Not always covering my interests but it’s definitely up there.

Let’s move on and talk about your design work. You’ve recently worked with Altamont and you’re currently working with Bowery. Tell us about those, both in terms of the process and aesthetically. 

You forgot Edwin, Eat Dust, Quintin, Lightning Bolt, Roland Sands Design etc.

It’s pretty simply actually- I only work with friends and brands whose output I can associate myself with, and if they let me do what I want to do. I am not a graphic designer that chucks out work based on briefs etc- I have an idea, draw it, if they like, they take it, if not, that’s it. It’s very simply in that regard, and I draw for my own sake not to make money.

Yeah too many to list. Tell me about the Bowery project, with the Vietnam War vibes & military deadstock. That interests me. 

That’s a one-off fuck-you jam with Blake who runs the Bowery down in Australia. He emailed me one night saying that he had access to a bunch of old military deadstock and seeing that he has screen printer handy, we figured, let’s knock out some graphics, call it Full Metal Fuck You (yeah…it’s awesome, and we’ll be the only people wearing it) and I knocked out some graphics for it. It’s these kind of projects which are most fun, I mean, I don’t have the patience to actually build a freakin’ clothing brand, these one off limited projects are much more like it.

Yeah, it looks great. Projects purely made for the sake of enjoyment are so rare these days. Even ten years ago, everyone seemed to have their own little side project. Now, it’s all business all the time. I personally think that’s a creatively stifling environment, but also a boring one. You only need to look at the amount of painting by numbers collabs to see what I’m getting at…

Of course, but we live in stifling times. We all got older and got responsibilities and the constant climate of fear over the past 10-13 years has done the rest. The more you unplug yourself the more creative you can work always with the knowledge that it won’t let you pay your bills, it took me ten years to figure out that I shouldn’t insist on my creativity paying my ways. When and if it does, awesome, but peoples insistence of this is just as stifling.

Will it change, is there a way for it to change? Or is the damage already done? Personally, I think it’s irreversible. I think the new generation is fucked, because they’re coming into a world/industry where these norms are so engrained. But I’m cynical like that..

I think there are always going to be going against the grain and making cool shit for the sake of it. And again, thanks to the net, these people are now sometimes even easier to connect with, which is great, because being the drop out asshole can be lonely at times. Generally speaking, every generation has been fucked, look at where we are and have, but there are always beacons out there, you just have to decide for yourself what you want to do. More importantly, never let anyone tell you to drop out because that’s just replacing one slave master with the another, albeit, with the possibility of better drugs.

Black Lodges:
Freebird Bureau:

Calum Gordon is a Glasgow-based writer. You can read more from him here

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