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Pretty vacant

From the catwalks of Milan to MTV’s “Total Request Live,” punk imagery is being used to sharpen the edge on the plastic state of the music industry and the drab, uninspired blah of most high-end design. Snapshots of punks used to be a novelty for tourists in England and New York. But now similar pictures are popping up in high-fashion magazines and glossy music pages such as Vogue, Maxim, Elle, Spin and Jane, which have all had punk-themed fashion shoots and articles in recent months.

Yet, some nagging questions persist: Is it a horrible thing for conventional fashion designers to use punk as an inspiration? And at what point are mainstream consumers no longer invaders or posers, but normal or even chic for sporting clothes originally thought of as anti-fashion statements?

From Detroit to New York to London to LA, punk rock spawned vast incarnations and visual twists to be found in a wide range of subcultures. And now, punk is a hot look that’s everywhere from Urban Outfitters to Somerset, with celebrities such as Britney Spears performing in shredded layers, studs and bondage pants, while Lara Flynn Boyle showed up at the Oscars in an androgynous suit with a rhinestoned and tattered vintage rock T-shirt.

Perhaps it’s just about time that punk became a trend again. Maybe it was Marilyn Manson and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, the cultural breakdowns enabled by the Internet or simply our nostalgia-obsessed society that have made the masses take note of fashion’s former antagonist. Conventional society plays with this challenging look every few years, but never has it been manipulated so blatantly or with such disregard for punk’s original motivations. Exene Cervenka, co-founder of the LA band X, said in the April 1999 issue of Jane magazine, “Tattoos and little boys’ black shoes and white anklets and lunch boxes — that was stuff I was doing in the mid-1970s. Now you go to a show and see women dressed like that and they have no idea that stuff came from me.”

While almost all fashion trends dip into history or another culture, many argue that to draw from a previous look, seemingly contradicting its initial value, belittles it. Others contend that this pattern shows how everything is a matter of perspective. Punk took the mainstream’s ideals and trashed them with safety pins and graffiti the same way that Vogue and Tommy Hilfiger are taking punk ideals and stomping on them. The difference is that the punk expressions were political and social commentaries, but these new looks are created for the sake of mass marketable fashion and big bucks.

With rock and design mixing increasingly over the past few years, it seemed inevitable that those fundamental figures of rock — the punks — would push their way back in. Musicians are being hired as models for everything from makeup to blue jeans. The rock-fashion mix has been endorsed further through award shows and exhibits created to celebrate this creative and, of course, lucrative relationship.

Many in the fashion world appear to have adopted the trend simply as a profitable source of inspiration. It certainly is a moneymaker, with designers such as Dolce & Gabbana showing graffiti-covered jeans for $230 and Lasscaux reproducing a Smiths band T-shirt for $78. The Tommy Hilfiger Collection has tartan patchwork pants for $1,300, and a sterling-silver wallet chain is available from Chrome Hearts for $2,750(!)

At least the increasing popularity of the stereotypical punk look is benefiting some within punk’s style community as well. Tish and Snooky Bellomo’s vibrant Manic Panic hair dyes and beauty products started with $200 in 1977 and now gross $5 million annually. Another example is the huge increase in sales and popularity of Dr. Marten’s shoes and boots. While begun as more comfort-friendly alternatives to traditional army boots, the shoes became a punk and subculture staple. But the ’90s trend of pushing styles dubbed “alternative” into the mainstream, culminating with the current status of punk as hip, has helped push Dr. Marten’s business into a whole new stratosphere.

Once something becomes popular, it gets watered down and changed, and obviously doesn’t hold many of the same meanings it once did. Thus, those who adopt the trend from the high-fashion point of view can have their hipster status and maybe learn something too about tolerance from those who originated the thought-provoking images. And while it may evoke a cringe, purists and revivalists of the style can retain their version with its intended meanings not really intruded upon too much, especially since the fashion industry is so ever-changing that what is “hot” now probably won’t be so in six months.

Carrying on a look that was an important expression of another time period could be thought of in two ways: first, as positive nostalgia that reinforces and supports the ideas of that time; second, as simply a lack of ingenuity and creativity. But it’s debatable whether those who hang onto the original punk rock image are “keeping it real” or turning into cartoon characters. This is particularly true for the two-dimensional, overpriced paper dolls that the designer trend produces. Punk themes are definitely not worn out, but their visual components could greatly use a makeover.

Punk’s visual inventiveness, which began as a jab at the boring and shallow, now is giving a similar punch to modern repeaters through high-fashion punk imagery. Perhaps, in a twisted way, that’s effectively carrying on punk’s spirit and legacy by keeping everyone on their toes.

After all, when punk fashion originator Siouxsie Sioux was asked (in an interview for England’s the Guardian Weekend) how she would like to be remembered, she replied, “As a thorn in the side of mediocrity.”

Monica Sklar, a fashion student at Wayne State University and a Metro Times stylist, was fired from a local music retail chain five years ago for getting a facial piercing. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com

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