Culture, Trends, and Authenticity with W. David Marx

In 2014 I had my first encounter with Japanese fashion, and it was in the form of a navy blue cotton pair of Engineered Garments pants. Upon closer inspection, you start to slowly notice the small, subtle, intricate touches. An extra wide leg opening and two deliberate strings hanging off the bottom cuff of each pant leg, making cuffing easier. They had all the familiarity of a ready-to-wear work pant, but with an additional layer of functionality underneath with undeniable quality. The Japanese interpretation and obsession of Ivy Style was birthed through the urge to stand for something different. To ourselves, Daiki Suzuki, and many others, that pair of pants stands as many generations later, a product of Ivy Style.

It wasn’t until a year or two later that we realized the connection to this subculture was slowly becoming a huge part of our lives. It’s a blessing to be able to get a front row seat and see how this subculture is changing not only the direction of trends internationally, but also how it’s affecting trends here on the homefront. We found familiar elements of Japanese fashion that appeared in things we were already interested in whether it was vintage Americana or raw denim processes of yesteryear. We were like Toshiyuki Kurosu, Kazuo Hozumi, and the rest of the Traditional Ivy Leaguers with Ivy Style, but in the context of Japanese style. We were obsessed, and we had a hunger for more. Ivy Style enthusiasts believe that there are rules on how clothing should be worn, so everything requires a pillar of truth – a constant that doesn’t waver even through the messiest or most complicated of experiments. We started as consumers and eventually became part of a greater subculture that we weren’t even aware of. We figured it’d be a good idea to sit down with someone who’s been able to sift through the myriad of blogs and resources online and break down the inner workings of what makes a subculture like this tick. During our journey for these answers, we came across the book “Ametora – How Japan Saved American Style” by W. David Marx and discovered that his book and ideas encapsulate a lot of what we’ve been trying to distill and explain for the past few years in one succinct, tidy, package. We got a chance to sit down with him and chat about why making the distinction between culture, trends, and authenticity is so important to not only this subculture, but to every subculture.

Culture

Recently you’ve covered topics about trends and culture but I think it’d be a good idea to get your take on what the words culture and trend mean to you…
I’m working on a new project about these exact topics. In order to write about how culture works, I had to first start with the question, “What is culture”? Culture is often described as one of the most complicated words in the English language, and we see that in how it describes three, totally separate things. The first is communal culture, which we mostly see in customs. This is like an invisible ether that regulates our lives, parts of which have continued on for hundreds of years. The second is high culture. Things like Beethoven and William Faulkner, which are conspicuous and intentionally created. Lastly, there’s popular culture, which is still different from the previous concepts. In popular culture, companies actively churn out products for people to buy. Some of that can reach the artistic heights of high culture, and some of that can lodge into our lives as customs and traditions. But a lot of it is just consumed and forgotten.

Trends

What about trends? How would you define a trend and, do you have any examples?
At a basic level, a “trend” is a change in behavior. The problem is that trends are all reported as “trends,” whether the person writing about them has seen 3,000 examples or three. We don’t hear about trends that survey every single human being on earth every week and observe minute changes in their behaviors. So most of the things we hear about as “trends” are tracking two kinds of behaviors. The things that you and I consider as trends, are taken from specific reasons. I would call one a consumption trend. This is a change in how people are behaving when given relatively free choice. Let’s say at coffee shops around the city, everyone is starting to choose hot chocolate more than anything else on the menu. You talk to various coffee shops and they tell you that the number of people ordering hot chocolate over coffee has increased in the last year. And maybe because of that change, a few shops have now become a hot chocolate shop. That would be a clear consumption trend: People’s behavior has changed. When we say “trend,” this is what people think the trend is trying to explain.

I definitely agree. Not being able to report information the same way that you would report information on something more static makes it infinitely more difficult to actually track and have metrics on.
Then there’s a different type of trend I would call a production trend, which is when companies all decide to make the same things before knowing whether people will buy the goods or not. Let’s take an example of denim brands. The brands all decide to make bootcut jeans, even though there isn’t any demand for bootcut jeans yet. And what happens is that the media writes these up as “trends” as well. In most cases, individuals buy what is in front of them, so the production trend becomes a consumption trend. But often the “trend” is reported just from the goods made, not from the public’s response. In Japan most “trends” are production trends, but because there is a higher expectation in Japan to follow these trends, they quickly become consumption trends as well.

Not to muddle those categories of trends any more, but would you describe any one of those categories of trends as organic, synthetic, or manufactured? Is there a main driving factor here?
The words organic and synthetic are very judgmental. What I would say is that some trends start because companies say, we’re going to make these products, and we hope that you buy them. And then people buy them, and the trend is even truer than before. The distribution system can make a trend seem like an inevitability, especially when you start removing previous choices out of the system. If you can’t buy wide leg anymore — only bootcut — then it’s not a surprise that bootcut becomes more popular.

Almost like this was exactly what the companies had planned all along.
These cases definitely feel more “synthetic” or “artificial” because it is driven by companies. But the issue with trying to find anything “organic” in pop culture is that we don’t really make what we consume. Someone has to make items at the level of mass production in order for it to become a mass culture trend.

Then it definitely feels like people are really just reacting only to choices that have been predetermined for them since the beginning.
The other factor in this is that, beyond survival, humans don’t really know what they want. This is the idea of Jean Baudrillard. And what we think we want is extremely socially determined. There is so much social information in your brain that provides the context for any choice that you make. Perhaps you can think that some pair of pants is better for you in your particular style, but that style itself uses elements from wider society. Culture is ultimately communal — the meanings are public — so pushing yourself to be a 100% distinct individual is a somewhat doomed proposition. It’s impossible, and we shouldn’t hold ourselves to that standard. We can still be relatively distinct making lots of choices that no one else ever would in the same combination.

Authenticity

I was going to follow up with what you thought about the word authenticity and how it plays into this whole conversation, but after hearing your thoughts, it seems pretty difficult to define what authentic really means.
Yeah I’m always back and forth in my thoughts about authenticity. Is authenticity a concept that we use as a cudgel to beat up people who encroach on our turf? Or is there a true concept of authenticity? It’s very easy to see when things aren’t authentic. For example, the Navajos have a custom around sand painting. You would say that a Navajo sandpainting is “authentic” — the practice is anchored in a lifestyle that’s continued for a long time. Now, if I start sand painting tomorrow, you’d probably say that is less authentic. When we live in a society in which you can generally buy every part for our own identities in the consumer marketplace, then authenticity becomes very important way to judge people. In the 20th century, authenticity takes on a huge role, as a way to catch cheating. Otherwise, everyone would just take on whatever identity gets them the most status, and the originators would get buried behind imitators.

Is there a good metric for determining what is (authenticity), is it a time thing, or what variable to you is the heaviest influence for that?
One variable is time. The longer you do something, the more it’s a part of you. And that should manifest in your “demeanor”: which is a combination of the way you act, the way you talk, your styling, your grooming, your possessions, everything about your public self. The information in that demeanor should be “behavioral residue” — an authentic reflection of how you actually live. So one way to determine authenticity is to say, how much does my demeanor reflect my long-standing values and lifestyle?

Lastly, 202NEKKO is a platform we created to originally archive our shared collective experiences, and one of our mantras is being rooted and what those roots mean to you.  What does being rooted mean to you as David Marx?
This is interesting because I’m an American who grew up in three places — Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Florida — none of which I felt great attachment. My parents grew up in the South and they don’t even talk of themselves as “Southerners.” So I don’t have any clear roots, and now I live in Tokyo, another place I’m not “from.” In terms of my daily life and habits, I’m rooted to my Tokyo life, but I’m certainly not “Japanese” in many meanings of that word. Honestly, I’m totally rootless, but I’ve embraced that rootlessness, and it’s become a skill that helps me see through each culture’s conventions and help analyze them. I immediately ask of whatever I see, why do people do these things and not these other things? If you’re interested in cultural analysis, being somewhat rootless is crucial, and from that perspective I’ve always 100% embraced not being from a specific place. I do think, going back to the question of authenticity, I have roots in a few micro-cultures. I grew up wearing very preppy clothing and I feel more comfortable in those particular garments, and I feel like it is more authentic to my persona to wear those things rather than wear, say, very avant-garde clothing. The Alden loafers I’m wearing — I bought these, without realizing that my dad had worn the same loafers for 20 years when I was growing up. I never noticed them. But the very idea that I should own cordovan shoes definitely comes from him teaching me at age 18 that cordovan is the best material for shoes. My experience living in Tokyo has also really shaped me, especially the ability to go really deep into certain hobbies and interests. Overall, being an individual means not being too rooted, and I think you and anyone who reads your site, I would recommend being a bit uprooted. It’s about finding a balance between knowing where you came from and being honest to yourself about who you want to be. “Man is nothing but that which he makes of himself,” said Sartre, and so every day, whatever your roots, you can always keep moving towards your idealized self.

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Special Thanks to W. David Marx
Interview: Joseph Wang
Creative Direction: Charlie Duong