The idea of pre-distressing clothes – purposefully ripping, tearing or slashing threads even before being sold – has been around for years. There are jeans that look like they’ve been run over by a lawnmower, T-shirts that look like they’ve had a packet of cigarettes put out on them and hoodies that look they’ve been nibbled by a rabbit.
So it takes a lot for an item of distressed clothing to make the internet prick its collective ears up. Recently, a pair of Maison Margiela trainers, complete with “heavy distressing” – read multiple rips and tears – on sale for $1,425, did just that. Twitter howled with derision. Before them came a pair of jeans from New York based luxury denim brand PRPS, complete with a “caked-on muddy coating” and a $425 price tag.
Although dropping a few grand on a pair of mangled trainers might sound like the extreme behaviour of a dedicated follower of fashion, the trend can be spotted everywhere at the moment. Gigi Hadid looks out from the cover of September’s Vogue Korea wearing a pair of jeans ripped at the knee. Ashley Graham, Gisele Bündchen and Zoe Saldana have all recently stepped out in the Harlow Destroyed BFF Tee, yours, complete with neck tear, for $72 (£55).
Harvey Nichols group fashion director, Anita Barr, is calling the trend “one of the biggest in menswear for AW17” – they are adding three new brands that offer up distressing, including LA-based Amiri, which decorates T-shirts by shooting bullets through them. New face of Calvin Klein Paris Jackson appeared on the red carpet at the MTV Movie and TV Awards in May in a “Michelle my Belle” T-shirt peppered with holes. Michelle Obama wore distressed jeans (the gateway garment – after all, ripped jeans are so mainstream, even Carol Vorderman has been wearing them for years) wandering around Rome this summer.
It’s a look that’s big on the high street, too. Nick Tahir, head of menswear buying at River Island says it’s been one of their “biggest trends of the last few seasons”. Head of womenswear buying, Leanne Sabatino, says that for the new season River Island has increased its “offering to include nibbled/slashed pieces”, and that, in denim, there has been a “definite uplift in the demand for distressed clothing versus 2016”. Search “distressed” on Asos and hundreds of items come up.
The look might have a habit of jumping the shark: in 2014, Adidas brought out a pair of trainers covered in “handcrafted mud” and in the same year, Japanese denim brand Zoo Jeans championed jeans that had been pre-torn by lions, tigers and bears – oh my.
But the art of ageing clothes has its roots deeper than just fake mud – rips and holes are as synonymous with DIY punk fashion as safety pins and pink mohawks. The grand dame of the punk era, Vivienne Westwood, made clothes with intentional stains, rips and missing arms. And in the 80s, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo forged pieces from faded cottons, sun-baked silks and boiled woollens. In 1982 she decorated a jumper with several gaping holes and called the look “Comme des Garçons lace”. Dutch avant garde designer Martin Margiela, known for his so-called “le mode destroy”, championed distressing.
In the 90s, the grunge movement fed into fashion with tatters and knitwear that looked like moths had been feasting on it. In 1993 Hussein Chalayan buried a collection in his friend’s garden and left it to decay for months. The 1995 collection seen by some as the “show that launched Alexander McQueen’s career” featured white angular-shouldered jackets, shirts and silky dresses with tyre marks on them – one of the models even had tracks running across her body. Later in the decade, Robert Cary Williams became known for his bullet-holed T-shirts. David Bowie wore one in Italian Vogue, Sting ordered five. For the likes of Chalayan, it was akin to conceptual art – as much about the process as the product.
It’s purpose, says Tony Glenville, creative director at London College of Fashion, might be to do with (faux) authenticity: “I think there’s a vague feeling about integrity.” Kanye West creative director and Off-White designer Virgil Abloh, whose designs often feature holes, has been quoted in Vogue as saying it’s about the fact that “no one wants to look like they’re trying too hard.”
For Charlene Lau, a post-doctoral fellow in material and visual culture at Parsons School of Design, in the case of garments such as the Amiri T-shirts, there’s the idea of “street credibility, or the gangster culture associated with that”. And, looking to punk, she says “there’s still an element of rebellion, even if you are buying something that is pre-distressed – pre-ripped or made dirty.”
It can also, she thinks, be about status. Where over a century ago Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” – the idea of excessive spending on wasteful goods as “evidence of wealth” – in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, Lau links the distressed look to “inconspicuous consumption”; flashing lots of cash, but not – at least on a very surface level – looking like you have. In the modern age, consuming conspicuously is no mean feat – luxury lines have more affordable offshoots, knock-offs look increasingly authentic and many high-end labels ape the everyday. And so paying hundreds of pounds for mangled, or muddy, jeans becomes – in a topsy turvy way – the height of luxury.
But the look has come under understandable fire for the morally problematic idea of “dressing poor”. In a 2010 thesis, Kate Louise Rhodes describes how “the wearer can choose to dabble with the look of poverty while simultaneously adding to his or her symbolic waste” given that the distressed look “adds labour intensive ornamentation … that require further processing and manual labour to create them.” Responding to the PRPS muddy jeans, Mike Rowe, the former presenter of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs and an advocate for the value of skilled trades, wrote a Facebook post that has been liked over 21,000 times. He notes that the jeans “foster the illusion of work. The illusion of effort… They’re a costume for wealthy people who see work as ironic.”
So if this is a look that is forever bubbling, why might it be particularly turbo-charged right now? It’s all too tempting to draw a line between violent times and bullet-hole T-shirts, for one. And between an age where fewer people are doing the kinds of manual jobs that make for dirty jeans, and fake-mud.
What we are seeing today compared to what’s gone before is, according to Glenville, “much heavier-handed … a slight overstatement”. In the age of Instagram – where trends are born and burgeon on social media feeds and where designers such as Abloh like to view clothes at fittings through the lens of their iphones – clothes with extra oomph get more mileage on social media.
For Glenville, “I think now people are looking at really distressed clothes that are filthy with oil or mud strains, or shoes that look like they’ve been through a cattledrive, I think it’s to really make that statement.” It is, he says, “very hard to shock anybody… we’ve done fashion shoots on car crashes … what else do you do?” Well, he proffers: “Perhaps the idea of wallowing in filth, and actually getting your hands dirty, is the biggest shock for fashionistas you can imagine.”