Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beanie or bobbles: why mainstream fashion editors don't understand men's style

It started with beanie hats. Or rather, it started with a column in the fashion section of The Times about beanie hats late last year. A column that typified everything that’s wrong about style journalism in the UK.

The gist of the story was that the writer had noticed with the onslaught of the cold weather, men had started to wear beanie hats. This was backed up by pictures of young chaps in said hats mugging for the camera in a satisfyingly urban location in London. A nothing piece.

But the story infuriated me – not because I particularly dislike beanies – but because it completely ignored that the real winter hat of the moment was not the beanie, but the bobble, worn by ‘himalayan scallies’ and ‘heritage’ types the country over for the last two years. Anyone with an interest in men’s fashion would have noticed this.

It may only have been a small piece but it symbolised how uninformed mainstream fashion scribes are  – and always have been – about street style outside London. If this writer, the paper’s fashion editor no less, had even bothered to leave the chummy, mwah-mwah capsule of the capital then she’d have witnessed disparate men’s fashion scenes flourishing all over the country. And, probably, the odd bobble hat.

From End Clothing in Newcastle to Eleven in Sunderland, Oi Polloi in Manchester and Weavers Door in Liverpool – British menswear has undergone a revolution in the last few years with a look coalescing around workwear, preppy, mod, casual and extreme weatherwear. And it’s been ignored in favour of fawning pieces on designers whose clothes we’ll never wear and whose reference points mean nothing to us.

Great Britain is not a big country – a trip to Manchester or Liverpool takes two hours from London, while another hour will get you to Leeds or Newcastle. But if you’re writing about men’s fashion it might as well be the size of Brazil, such is the coverage these cities receive. It’s no coincidence that the London press completely missed the advent of what would become ‘casual’ in the late 1970s and Madchester ten years later. If it wasn’t in Soho, it wasn’t happening.

A couple of year’s back, The Sunday Times Style magazine devoted a whole issue to “the new style tribes”, a mish-mash of imagined whoppers and whopperettes living some privileged  Performance-like existence in Westbourne Grove where beautiful rastas share their weed with Jemima and her oh-so-bohemian pals.

And they got away with it. They got away with it when British menswear blogs like Oneupmanship were charting the rise of workwear and the frenetic trading in brands like Façonnable on ebay. They got away with it as young men in their late teens and early-20s tried to relive the casual era of their fathers by buying T-shirts that referenced the period in their tens of thousands. They got away with it, because those who knew what was really happening had no way of contradicting those who didn’t.

This isn’t a rant about or against London by the way. The magazine is based in the city, and we consider it to be one of the greatest places on earth. The anger comes the laziness of the capital’s lifestyle journalists and the fact that actually finding stories comes a poor second to getting free clothes and going to parties you’re not invited to.

As journalism becomes increasingly badly paid and jobs only open up to those who can afford to work for free for years on end, the gap between the style press and regular men who have a real interest in fashion will just get wider and wider.

They’re not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Gangs of Brazil

This piece originally appeared in Nuts magazine

Brazil is on the up. As the sixth largest economy in the world, it’s going to spend the next few years under the global spotlight while it hosts both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

There’s just one problem: its one of the most deadly places on earth, with criminal gangs and police stuck in a cycle of indiscriminate killing that leaves thousands dead every year. Only the drug producing states of Colombia and Venezuela have a higher murder rate in South America.

Two weeks ago, Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paulo was plunged into chaos as gangsters and cops indulged in an orgy of killing which saw 140 people murdered in just two weeks.

Sao Paulo is not alone: the northern city of Maceio, has become the murder capital of the country while Rio de Janeiro, traditionally the most violent city in Brazil, is trying to change the impoverished conditions that allows crime to flourish. Murders are down, but they remain at levels unthinkable in Europe.

So, what’s the reason for this bloodshed? The answer is drugs – and one in particular.

Brazil is the world's largest consumer of crack cocaine. The right to control that market is simply too lucrative for criminals to ignore. And they’re willing to kill to get their share.

Here, Nuts lifts the lid on Brazil’s cities of murder.

Sao Paulo
The biggest city in South America (pop. 11m), Sao Paulo hit the headlines a fortnight ago when police and gang members brought bloody war to the streets. The city’s main gang is the ruthless “Primeiro Comando da Capital” which has controlled the drugs trade here since its formation in 1993.

For years the PCC were seen as peacemakers in Sao Paulo, keeping crime down by their total domination of the streets. But crackdowns by the police led to resentment and the targetting of cops by the PCC. This year alone 92 policemen have been gunned down by the PCC – murders often ordered by gangsters in jails. Overall, 982 people were killed in the first nine months of 2012.

The PCC is run like a legitimate organisation with members (called “brothers”) paying a monthly fee of around $270 – used by the gang to buy weapons and drugs, and to finance bail for members under prosecution. Each PCC soldier also has to swear an oath of loyalty, and once a member has joined, leaving is not an option.

Rio de Janeiro
One of the most beautiful cities in the world, but also one with terrible levels of inequality, Rio has been plagued by gang violence since the early 1970s. Unsurprisingly, the gangs dominate the <favelas>, the slums that cling to the city’s hillsides.

The main criminal gang is the “Commando Vemelho”, formed in the 1970s when left-wing revolutionaries were put in jail by the right-wing government of the time. Once imprisoned, they got together with traditional criminals, and on release used guerilla tactics to take over areas of the city, just as cocaine use exploded and with it the chance to make previously unimaginable amounts of money.

Its enemies are the “Terceiro Comando Puro” and the “Amigos dos Amigos”, which vie for control of the drugs trade with the CV, though all three gangs have been hit by the city’s “pacification” programme which has helped to reduce the city’s murder rate.

Instead of fighting it out with the criminals on the streets, the Special Police Operations Battalion (or “Bope”) now swamp an area, drive out the gangsters and set up community projects. But with only 19 out of 130 favelas pacified, it’s a long journey – especially when a teenage boy can earn around $1,000 a week working for a gang.

The murder rate may be down since its 1990s peak but the ruthlessness of the gangs shows no sign of abating – only last month, traffickers threatened to kill one of Bope’s most successful cops – a sniffer dog called Boss.

With an enviable position in Brazil’s tropics and miles of sandy beaches, the capital of the Alagoa province should be a paradise on earth. But as the holder of Brazil’s highest murder rate, many of the locals claim a place in heaven by the most horrific means.

With 104 out of every 100,000 people dying violently here, the city has been transformed by the huge numbers of crack addicts in the population. Whereas Rio and Sao Paulo are controlled by mafia-like organisations, Macieo is murderously chaotic with addicts and dealers shooting each other over debts of just a few dollars. One man recently told the AFP agency he’d lost five of his sons this way. Their highest unpaid debt? Twenty-five dollars.

Local police, for years underfunded and disorganised, have been powerless to stop the 185 per cent increase in killings over the last ten years, while rumours of corruption at local government level refuse to go away. Funding is on its way, but it’s too little, too late.