It wasn’t supposed to be fashionable. Grunge, the cultural intersection of music and poverty and the Pacific Northwest, was so far removed from fashion that it wasn’t even anti-fashion. Or as James Truman, then-editor of Details magazine said in 1992, “It’s unfashion. …Grunge is about not making a statement, which is why it’s crazy for it to become a fashion statement.…Buying grunge from Seventh Avenue is ludicrous.”
So grunge wasn’t fashion, but it was undeniably a style, one that was spawned in and around Seattle before the logging and fishing industries were decimated, from the days when it was common to see flannel-clad lumberjacks and crabbers putting a dent in their fat paychecks at the dive bars where Bed Bath & Beyond and Abercrombie & Fitch stores now stand. The warm, layered and inexpensive style that suited the Northwest working-class was adopted by the flood of musicians drifting into town. Even the growing tribe of nerds that used funny words like “high tech” and “dot-com” dropped cash on comfy fleece, wool and Goretex at outdoor outfitters like Filson, Pendleton and REI. By the early 1990s, Seattle was quite probably the worst dressed town with the best music scene in the world. And then on this day in 1992 during New York Fashion Week, Perry Ellis designer Marc Jacobs introduced his now-notorious Spring ‘93 grunge-inspired collection, and turned a no-nonsense, efficient style of dressing into a national joke.
On one hand, Jacobs nailed the look. Midriffs were bare, dresses were baggy and printed with granny flowers, flannel shirts were tied around waists and combat boots fit every foot. Except Jacobs’ “flannel” shirts were, in fact, sand-washed silk and his “polyester” dresses were diaphanous chiffons. Three-figure price tags were slapped on clothes that intentionally tried to look polyester.
Paying homage to pop culture is nothing new in the fashion world. Details editor Truman’s “ludicrous” remark comes into play, though, when you figure in that this all occurred during the height of a recession, when the average Seattle barista had a Masters degree and bought thermal undershirts second hand at Goodwill. To boot, grunge culture was also at its peak, and there was no shortage of authentic flannel to be had for a song. Ludicrous, indeed.
Fashion critic Bernadine Morris described Jacobs’ collection as “mixing everything up. …A typical outfit looks as if it were put together with the eyes closed in a very dark room.” But she was quick to applaud his smart choice of decidedly anti-grunge fabrics, ones that had “no air of the ashcan hovering over them.” It was one thing to look like a poverty-stricken teenage musician and quite another to feel—or smell—like one.
The following day of Fashion Week, Anna Sui introduced her own homage to grunge, although her take was a bit more flower-child hippie, and young designer Christian Francis Roth sent out an even more gentrified version, with ultra-soft leggings peeking out from shirts gently tied around waists.
Jacobs, who admitted to never having been to Seattle, triumphed in the grunge trifecta, not because his collection was the best but because Women’s Wear Daily hailed him the “guru of grunge.” Back in Seattle, the same musicians and hangers-on who inspired the look collectively threw up in their pitchers of beer (probably necessary disclaimer time: I moved to Seattle in 1992 at age 21 and was definitely in the eye-rolling crowd). To them (us), most of whom struggled to make ends meet, the capitalization of a thrift-store style was about as classy as championing “homeless chic” or fashion inspired by a devastating natural disaster. And sure, there was the personal indignation that occurs whenever an outsider “discovers” something low-end and exploits it into something saccharine and inauthentic. Still, the rockers weren’t alone: Word of the grunge collections spread overnight, with newscasters collapsing into giggles over collections that seemed like a real-life enactments of Qui Êtes-Vous, Polly Maggoo?. From a public relations perspective, the fashion world couldn’t have seemed more out of touch. (To put it in perspective imagine a young designer today, say, Christian Siriano, creating his next collection based on Twilight.)
Yet the following February, Jacobs got a standing O when he received the CFDA Designer of the Year Award, as presented by Christy Turlington, while Linda Evangelista handed the Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent to Anna Sui. Galvanized, Jacobs announced a week later that he was leaving Perry Ellis and launching his own label, one that would be underwritten by his former employer. What he didn’t mention is that the grunge collections didn’t sell. In late February the New York Times reported, “Though [Jacobs] had delivered a much-discussed and much-photographed grunge-inspired collection for spring, the board of Perry Ellis International did not foresee ever making money on his women’s wear… and decided to stop producing the unprofitable women’s collection that Mr. Jacobs had been designing for four years [since founder Perry Ellis’ death from AIDS].”
Walter Thomas, then the creative director at J.Crew, nailed it when he said, “By the time you see [a trend] in Kmart, it can be three years [after it first hit the catwalk]. The difference with grunge is that it was already for sale at Kmart, not to mention the Salvation Army.” So of course no one bought Seventh Avenue grunge when the real thing could be had for a song.
A year later Kurt Cobain died. The recession lifted and an economic boom took place. Thrifting was no longer a necessity. Seattle was seen as passé and the fashion world sniggered over the dreadful era of grunge and hoped everyone would forget about it.
Then, a few years ago, a change in attitude occurred. Fashion blogs, primarily helmed by women in their early 20s, began digging back into history and took a hankering to the styles of the late 1980s and early 90s. The work of Anna Sui and poor Christopher Francis Roth rarely get a nod, but Marc Jacobs’ collection is hailed as genius. And, admittedly, even strangely, today Jacobs’ clothes look like a fresh take on an old classic. Perhaps he should have waited a few years to commemorate a culture that was not yet out of style. —Ali Basye
Photos: Top, second to the bottom and bottom are by Steven Meisel for Vogue, December 1992. Second from top shows Marc Jacobs with models wearing clothes from his collection and was found at the Fashion Spot. Email me with the original source of these two images if you know them!