by Bobby Hundreds
I write a lot of controversial shit.
This is nothing new. It started long before immigration reform blogs or calls to “Defend Muslim-Americans” on T-shirts. I have no problem being the agitator when it comes to politics and protest.
Yet, nothing seems to affect my audience more than when I express support for women. I can write a blistering essay on police brutality and race in America and tolerate a few jeers in a comments thread - but documenting the Women’s March (or launching this womenswear brand)? I’ll watch Ks shed off my Instagram following; my Twitter replies lodged with hate. White male avatars glaring at me behind locked profiles. Unfollow. Fuck you, libtard.
I find this amusing, but if you’re confused, let me explain. I come from Streetwear, a male-dominated space. Guys deserve their private clubhouses, to bond over Fantasy Football and hard liquor, steakhouses and skateboards. For young men involved in subculture, fashion, and branding, Streetwear provides this haven. Although responsible for decades of innovative design and youth movements, street culture, historically, has been unwelcoming and often unkind to women. At best, females are quiet girlfriends on the sidelines. At worst, their bodies are stripped and contorted into sexualized T-shirt graphics for teenagers to wear. I’m guilty of this, too.
So, the backlash to feminism from my audience – although a total drag – isn’t unexpected. Not a lot of dudes reciting Gloria Steinem in an auto body shop. And, not a lot of streetwear designers sharing conversations with writer and actor Lena Dunham in her home about the scene’s haunting misogynistic undertones.
It’s near dinnertime and we’re playing with Lena’s dogs in her living room. Her place is reminiscent of Tom Hanks’ playground loft in BIG. Half-furnished. A quarter-lived-in. She even has an adult nanny brewing some sort of hearty soup. I’ve been having so many Supreme conversations this week, on the heels of the Louis Vuitton collaboration. But, Lena is talking about a different period of Supreme and New York streetwear - one that we’re both better acquainted with.
“I remember I’d ride my bike over to A New York Thing in the summer and feel like the lamest loser. It was so powerful, that feeling of being ignored. And it was also such a scene that evaluated women based on their body, so unless you had drugs for people or you were really hot, there was no space for you.”
I remind Lena that although the streetwear attitude tilts in women’s disfavor, the guys are well familiar with the snobbery. Early streetwear was founded on this bias. There’s a strange, masochistic, self-esteem thing going on with streetwear customers who brave customer service hell to score that limited edition sneaker.
Do you know what Kewpie dolls are? Miniature, creepy naked babies with swirly hair. Lena collects them. There are maybe a hundred of these figurines on her kitchen counter. I’m twisting one’s head, and Lena is scrubbing through her phone, searching for a photo (“It’s so egregious. I just take pictures of everything, when it’s not necessary. I screencap Facetimes. I want to remember everything!”).
“Oh! Here it is,” she looks up. “That’s Harold and my cousin. And he was like, the coolest. Literally, there was no one I thought was cooler.”
There are two young men in this photo of a video still. They’re styled in flannels and caps in such a way that the film could be last week’s, but it’s from the ‘90s. “Harold” is the late, great skater Harold Hunter. Lena Dunham’s cousin is Jesse Ross, a fixture of New York’s downtown skate scene, the KIDS moment, and even a streetwear brand proprietor – his label was called Blockwork. It was his influence in young Lena’s life that opened her eyes to streetwear. “When I was in high school, he would give me all these hoodies and he would always have all this Supreme shit that he had gotten from dealing drugs that I didn’t understand. So I’d be like, ‘My cousin gave me this Supreme shirt!’ I remember feeling super proud. But, I didn’t understand that all that stuff was reinforcing some patriarchal idea of branding women.”
By “all this stuff,” Lena’s referring to streetwear’s primitive roots, long before the resellers and rap merch. There was a definitive attitude around brands and designers back then, fertilized in the obscurity of the underground. This “Keep Out” allure is what amplified a logo’s Cool index. But, there was hardly a female voice being heard.
“When I wore Vision stuff, like, oh yeah, the face of Vision was Mark ‘Gator’ Rogowski who punched a girl’s head in and murdered her. Or, like, I used to go to Alife all the time because I was really into Dunks as a teenager. But I would go in and it would be this thing like, unless you were the cutest Last Night’s Party girl, they didn’t even want to fucking talk to you. There was just no brand that spoke to, like, wanting to look kind of just fun and young and down, without wanting to look like you were somebody’s girlfriend.”
Lena Dunham, ironically, is somebody’s girlfriend. Her boyfriend, pop singer and songwriter Jack Antonoff, is in the studio preparing for tour. “I love that my boyfriend makes really great merch for his band, and I love wearing it, but I also struggle with being the girl in her boyfriend’s merch. I would much prefer him to wear a girl’s hoodie than for me to wear a Bleachers shirt. Just because I think there’s a weird history of women being dressed in insignias belonging to their male partners.”
This was, after all, the springboard for Jennifer. I felt like there was an asymmetry around women’s infatuation with men’s fashion. From boyfriend jeans to concert T-shirts, it’s much more common to see a woman in her dude’s leftovers, than vice versa. Lena agrees, “It’s the same way when my mom was like, in the ‘50s, and she wasn’t allowed to wear pants to school. It made her fetishize male clothing. And then she wore a suit for the entire ‘80s.”
In my head, there’s really nothing wrong with any of this. Personally, I just want to see a women’s brand catch on in such a way that men pursue it. But, for Lena, this frustration stems from a history of co-opting culture through fashion. “I really want to have clothes where I can put them on and not feel like I’m inherent in the appropriation of somebody else’s culture. I look back at pictures of myself in high school and I’m wearing fucking Timbs from the mall, huge nameplate earrings, a leotard I got from Dr. Jay’s, and I had a Baby Phat hat. Like, what an idiot. But I just thought that that was the look. I thought that that signified to people that I understood. What it actually signified to people was that I had enough money to walk from my parents’ house in Brooklyn Heights to the Fulton Mall and buy anything I wanted.”
“My whole high school – which, was a Brooklyn Heights high school of mostly white kids - all the girls were dressing like they lived in Boyle Heights. It was crazy. I look back at some of the shit I did with my eyebrows and I’m like that is racist. Those were racist eyebrows. Because I had zero knowledge of what they signified culturally or who they belonged to. I was a white teenager who wanted to be beautiful and subversive, without understanding anything, like that white people historically impose a narrative of exoticism and subversion on black and brown bodies.”
“I’m going to say something to which I’ve never said to anyone…”
“…but, when I was in high school, I got a weave in the Fulton Mall.”
“Yeah. I got full cornrows, weave down my back. Just cause I thought it was really cool. I had seen Gwen Stefani with cornrows and I was experimenting. I wore a bandana on it, and it went down to my butt. And I kept it probably for like a month. It makes me cringe all over my body to think I had red cornrows all down my back. And at the time I was like, ‘That’s my look!’ There was no conversation about cultural appropriation in my world. None.”
This visual of Lena with cornrows is everything, but I can’t knock her. “I had bleached dreads at some point,” I mutter. Hey, it was the ‘90s, and things got weird. Now that I think about it, this is why it’s become so important in my brand-building to construct narratives that make sense. There has to be purpose behind what we do, outside of, “it looks cool.” Otherwise, we risk looking like imbeciles in the archives.
Lena compares this to a funny story about a skate T-shirt. “Spike Jonze is a close friend of mine and he gave me a lot of stuff from—what’s he… he has Girl, he has Lakai, Chocolate, and one other company whose insignia is like these skulls? I forget what it is…”
“Crailtap! So I have a Crailtap T-shirt and I remember going to a coffee bar and I was wearing it on like a Saturday and this dude was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re into Crailtap?,’ and he acted like I was the dream woman. And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And, I was getting, like, really flirted with. And he kind of looked at me like I was the genius of our time and I was like I have no fucking idea what my T-shirt means.”
This is what it comes down to - appreciating what your fashion says about you, and understanding its history. These days, Lena is into designers who aren’t motivated by sexiness, like Fenty by Rihanna (“The clothes are weird. And they’re not about impressing men, it’s about feeling comfortable.”) and vintage Todd Oldham (“he was representative of a period in fashion where… it wasn’t about being sexy”). She’s also traded in her nameplate necklaces for crystals. “It’s like my own. I love the look of a bunch of layered necklaces. I used to wear a bunch of chains—I don’t do that anymore. I don’t feel like it’s the right look and it’s the right move. This is my way of feeling that same kind of power.”
Jesse Ross died two years ago.
“My cousin had this crazy streetwear collection and (after he passed) my aunt was like, (to his friends) ‘You can all just go into his room and take stuff.’ And I remember just being like, ‘That is a representation of what this entire thing is.’ Like, just go into his room and take stuff.”
For Lena, so much of her streetwear recollections are mired in darkness and misogyny. “I don’t have one friend that came out of the late ‘90s, early 2000s, New York scene, without really being super damaged physically and emotionally by the whole experience. I just feel like everyone was taken advantage of, abused. I just feel like that was the culture. And it was racist, even as it was inclusive, it was racist.”
As with Jesse. “My cousin was a really terrible misogynist,” she admits. “I loved him a lot, but he was a really terrible misogynist who wasn’t able to see women as anything other than an accessory to coolness. But, also a really interesting person who probably could’ve done it a different way, but was so surrounded by this… you know?”
This. Yes. I know.
We’re jumping into a Lyft now. The night is black and cold here in New York and Lena is wrapping up a quick hello with a beloved neighbor on the sidewalk. She whispers, “He voted for Trump!” and teases him about his camouflage jacket. “Are you starting a militia?,” she quips. He rolls his eyes and she jumps into the car.
When we’re settled into the back of the Corolla, she’s flipping through her phone again, half replying to texts, half staring out the window as we weave through the Lower East Side. Because she’s Lena Dunham now, and not just Jesse’s cousin, some of those apparitions from New York’s downtown past have materialized.
“It’s funny because I’ll run into some of those guys now and they’re like, ‘What up, we go way back!’
And I’m like, ‘No. We don’t.