Donald Trump was the flashpoint. When you look at how Denimcratic, led by Gabriella (Gabby) Meyer, has blown up in the last two years, there are far likelier accelerants than Trump. For starters, Lil Wayne owns a pair of Denimcratic checkered pants and a long puffer coat. Florida Georgia Line appeared in People magazine wearing custom pieces that Gabby designed for the country-music duo's 2018 tour, and Borns and many other musicians have worn Gabby's designs on-stage and in photos. Last year at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Milan, the Argentinian actress Calu Rivero wore a denim gown laser-etched with newspaper stories about gender violence, calling attention to Ni Una Menos, a South American analogue to #MeToo. As for #MeToo, Gabby and Marta Goldschmied collaborated on We Wear the Pants, a three-item capsule that included a denim jacket and jeans, both laser-etched with news reports on sexual harassment in the United States. This project garnered a profile in The New York Times and received subsequent internet-wide praise and rebuke. Elsewhere, a Levi's video celebrating the 145th birthday of 501s featured Gabby and her laser-etching. (Since producing that video, Levi's has―coincidentally or not―started offering its own laser-etched products.) Finally, Gabby has gotten a wide variety of press, from the denim-industry journal Rivet to mainstream outlets like Nylon. But before any of those people and events started making Denimcratic part of the current cultural conversation, the brand's big bang happened in January 2017 at the University of Michigan. Gabby, then in her senior year, had been ill at ease since the 2016 election. One day while she experimented with transferring newsprint onto denim, her anxiety underwent a sudden, violent transformation. An idea fired inside her mind, a kind of internal combustion: blue jeans as treatment for the orange lump inside the White House.
The day after Trump swore his oath of office, Gabby joined the 2017 Women’s March in downtown Chicago, near her suburban hometown of Wilmette. The energy of the crowd provided some much-needed relief. During the seemingly interminable 2016 presidential campaign, Gabby created a video animation titled “Who Wants to Climb the Wall and Flee to Mexico.” In it, the screen fills with uncut sheets of 100-dollar bills that feature Trump’s face instead of Franklin’s. The phony Trump money scrolls from right to left as “Hail to the Chief” plays on repeat. In Gabby’s online portfolio, the artist describes the video as “a seamlessly looped animation of my worst nightmare.”
After the Women’s March, with her worst nightmare freshly installed in the Oval Office, Gabby returned to Ann Arbor to finish her art studies. Earlier in her career at Michigan, Gabby spent her free time drawing political cartoons, which she contributed to The Michigan Daily student newspaper. A insatiable newshound, she had always tracked national and world events, and political cartoons had been in her repertoire since a high-school economics class. But as her time in Ann Arbor drew to an end, Gabby didn’t want to read the news at all, much less absorb and synthesize it into art. Like many other Americans, she was exhausted with Trump.
I recently visited Gabby at her workshop in Wilmette. I noticed a Levi's trucker jacket covered in news stories about Trump. “It’s kind of about people my age becoming desensitized to the media," Gabby said about the jacket. "Like, another news alert? What is he saying now? What is he doing now?―and me not feeling like I wanted to read about it.”
A headline wraps around the left sleeve of the trucker jacket: "Charlottesville, Trump and the resurgence of white nationalism." Across the back shoulders, newsprint reminds us of "the president who can't speak about hate." When I first started reading the headlines, I was startled. Oh, that's right, I thought. A mob of angry white men carrying torches marched in Charlottesville, Virginia under the cover of night, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and the next day, one of those men drove an automobile at high speed into a group of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer. Two days later, the president refused to denounce the angry white mob, saying, "I think there is blame on both sides." Trump later stated that some of the racists were "very fine people." In response, as reported by Bob Woodward, John Kelly repeatedly threatened to quit and other staffers pressured Trump until he begrudgingly stated that "racism is evil" and mentioned "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups." According to Woodward, Trump, in conversation with aides, characterized his twist-my-arm denouncement of racism as "the biggest fucking mistake I've made." It seems he thought it might offend "the base."
The jacket reminded me of all that, which means:
I had forgotten.
Somewhere between the Muslim bans, child separation and imprisonment; Manafort, Gates, Pruitt, and the other sleazeball grifters; the characterization of Mexican immigrants as "rapists;" the mocking of a Gold Star family who happened to be brown-skinned Muslims; the speaking ill of John McCain, a deceased military veteran and POW who was tortured in a war that Trump dodged; the denial and denigration of scientific fact; the encouragement of violence at political rallies; the fealty to Putin and gushing admiration of autocrats; the characterization of developing countries as "shitholes;" the constant undermining of democratic instit . . . Wait, what was I saying? Ah, see, that's exactly it. Our president piles shit-talk on shit-talk to build his own Trump Tower of Babel. Had he only bragged to a Russian diplomat about how firing the "nut job" Jim Comey had "relieved great pressure," or had he only bragged about grabbing women "by their pussies," it would be a scandal. But every time he speaks or tweets, Trump propagates disgrace as means of distraction. To follow his presidency―much less investigate it―is to haplessly track a three-card monte of immorality.
I'm with late-2016 Gabby and her peers.
What is he saying now? What is he doing now? I don't feel like I want to read about it.
But 2019 Gabby has done a 180. During my visit, she said, "I think it's important to never forget, especially because history always seems to repeat itself. (This jacket) is something to make sure it's documented and it stays relevant."
In August 2017, Gabby met Marta Goldschmied. One month earlier, Gabby had launched Denimcratic as a going concern. Marta co-founded the denim label Made Gold in 2012. Gabby credits Marta with (among other things) starting the trend of lace-up jeans. By the time she met Gabby, however, Marta had left Made Gold after the majority owner, she claims, propositioned her and hit her backside. As Marta explained to The New York Times, she had been struggling with those experiences when she happened upon Gabby's booth at the Denim Days street festival in New York. "I saw what Gabby was doing," Marta explained to the Times' fashion director, Vanessa Friedman, "and it was like the answer for how to address the things I had been dealing with.” The two designers collaborated on a three-item capsule called We Wear the Pants. In addition to a long-sleeve t-shirt that proclaimed, "WANTED! Women Who Wear the Pants," the collection included a denim jacket and jeans, both laser-etched with news articles about workplace sexual harassment. In the wake of the Times article, praise and criticism for the collection ripped across blogs and Twitter. In her response to a critical Racked post, Gabby wrote a response, saying, "When Marta and I developed the idea of We Wear the Pants, we did it with the sole intention of starting a thought-provoking conversation about sexual harassment for women in the workplace."
If nothing else, Marta and Gabby started a conversation about how to start a conversation, specifically about the prevalence, and permissability, of sexual assault in America. As Marie Claire conceded, "Meyer and Goldschmieds (sic) are only a part of a larger puzzle when it comes to how fashion approaches the discussion of social issues of our time."
I'm doing Gabby a disservice by focusing so much on the Charlottesville jacket and We Wear the Pants. Currently, the Statement Jacket is the only remnant of Denimcratic's on-the-nose political origins. Her collections now include bikinis; men's kilts; a men's long shirt / skirt that feels distinctly medieval when I try it on; evening gloves and corsets; a duffle bag; and a beret, among many other items. Gabby still uses laser-etching to create blue camo, cheetah spots, and other prints and textures, and she remains politically active, but the presence of politics in her work is, at least for now, more implicit than explicit, more the soil than the plant.
By using denim to make garments traditionally manufactured with silk, wool, or other fabrics, Gabby creates social commentary on class and, increasingly, gender. Each of these objects has a conceptual tension between fabric and form, which creates the kind of "presence" that I have been chasing after since Pierre Lupesco talked to me about the "soul" of Neapolitan suiting. Maybe Gabby will do more with laser-etched newsprint. If she doesn't, the existing Trump and We Wear the Pants pieces will still serve as a reminder, not only of a craven president and institutionalized abuse, but the moment when a true artist caught fire.
"The 'meanings' of clothes are 'constructions,' either imagined or real, but both carrying equal weight, that are organized into narratives."
―Eugenia Paulicelli, "Writing Fashion in Early Modern Italy"
The Charlottesville jacket crackles with energy from tension points, e.g. transient news printed on rugged, long-lasting denim. There's also the matter of how the temporality of that news strikes the "three rhythms" of time discussed by Barthes in "Fashion and the Social Sciences." (Barthes would have been fascinated by Gabby's laser-etched political pieces.) But for me, there's an additional detail of the jacket that not only impresses me, but haunts me. I haven't asked Gabby if she deliberately included this detail. In a way, I don't want to know.
Between the text on the left sleeve ("the resurgence of white nationalism") and the text across the back shoulders ("the president who can't speak about hate"), there is an image of Trump's face. Gabby has added graffiti, giving Trump cartoon devil horns and a goatee with a long, curling mustache. Trump-as-devil sits squarely on the left shoulder. In fiction, especially TV cartoons, there's a trope of a devil appearing on a protagonist's shoulder (usually the left shoulder), while an angel appears on the other shoulder. The two afterlife ambassadors try to convince the protagonist to do evil and good, respectively.
In his book "Subliminal," Leonard Mlodinow talks about the Implicit Association Test, and how it demonstrates that racism exists not only in calcified institutions and social structures, but also on a personal level. What's more, it affects people who honestly believe in racial equality and social justice, without them knowing it. Racism is not necessarily a set of beliefs that a person deliberately adopts. It transcends the frothing-at-the-mouth hatred of an Atomwaffen Division or the obnoxious wink-wink casual racism of mouthbreathing meme warriors. Among well-intentioned white liberals, racism manifests as social malware. The malicious code inside my own mind accumulated gradually from childhood, with every mugshot that nightly-news producers handpicked for me to see, every specious complaint I heard about the deleterious impact of affirmative action on college admissions while lacrosse scholarships went unmentioned. This malware is particularly dangerous because it is designed to run in the background. Occasionally it surfaces as automatic, unwanted thinking (when I turn the corner on the street; when I'm on the subway and the door opens between train cars). This unwanted thinking produces a jolt (What the fuck am I thinking?). This jolt produces shame, and this shame produces a reflexive pushing-down of the unwanted and shameful thoughts.
But again, those explicit instances are rare. The malware's main objectives are (1) to remain undetected, and (2) keep me from detecting that the culture that allowed Trump to become president has benefited me my entire life―and I say that as the son of a factory worker and mail carrier. Just one example: I've had plenty of #crimingwhilewhite misadventures, including an instance in which a cop watched me accidentally rear-end a Latino man's car at a stop sign (while I was shopping for heroin, incidentally). I hopped out of my vehicle while readying myself for a worst-case scenario by affixing brass knuckles to my hand. The policeman whooped his siren and hit his lights. When I wheeled around and saw the cop, I instinctively looked him in the eye and said, "Everything is fine here, officer." The cop shook his head like a disappointed father and killed his lights. Then he drove away. But again, that's just the explicit part. The implicit part: I jumped back into my car and sped off without a word to the man whose car I hit, as he stood frozen in shock with his arms out and mouth open―and I didn't think of this as anything other than dumb luck. I have many similar anecdotes about close brushes with the law. I bet they would have surprised Laquan McDonald.
A fish has a better chance of understanding water than a white guy in America has of understanding racism. I am not trying to portray myself as woke. I am a half-asleep white guy reaching out to sound an alarm instead of hitting snooze again for a few more minutes in dreamland.
The documentary "Beyond the Curve" focuses on people who believe the earth is flat. At one point, a scientist discusses the importance of not alienating flat-earthers. We should seek out conversation with them instead, the scientist says, and also ask ourselves, "How am I a flat-earther?" That is to say, In what ways do I, a self-satisfied believer of science, act irrationally? This kind of introspection has wide applications. For instance, instead of getting angry with people who talk in the hot room at my yoga studio prior to class―which, honestly, drives me insane―I can ask myself, "In what ways am I noisy?" I might not be outwardly making noise, but isn't my head a buzzsaw of demons and angels arguing over each other? Maybe I should consider how to quiet my internal noise before worrying about external chitchat.
The Charlottesville jacket offers a second memento malum. In addition to remembering the explicit evil of Trump protecting hate groups, the jacket reminds me to ask myself: How am I racist? How am I a white nationalist or alt-right? More subtly than that, how do I benefit from "the president who can't speak about hate"? How do I benefit from the culture, the society, and the system that allowed President Donald Trump to happen, and that allows him to violate every norm of decency without consequence? Soon after the 2016 election, I asked a white, liberal friend what he thought Trump's election meant; when my friend said, "For us? Probably not much," why did I feel a tremendous sense of relief instead of anger?
How am I listening to the devil on my shoulder?
Perhaps more than any other art form, clothing depends on interaction. Perhaps more than any other designer I've met so far, Gabriella Meyer creates situations for those interactions to occur, be they textural, conceptual, or deeply personal.