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Cultural Exchange

Surfer dudes are styling with a hip-hop twist, while B-boys are dressing for the country club. Today's streetwear leaves room for everybody to pick up a new identity at the mall.


Welcome to the post-modern world.

Now get a life.

Don't like your neighborhood? Join a virtual community on the Internet. Don't like your gender? Get an operation. Don't like your class, culture or current clique? Go . . . shopping.

Clothes make the post-modern man. Or do they? Casual fashion in the new world, especially for young men, has gone full circle--from reliable class signpost to a shell game of mobility with endless choices. Guess who I am today! A snowboarder? A prep? A gangster?

A railroad worker's boxy jeans and jacket have become a mainstay of adolescent snowboarders shredding down the slopes. The country club attire of the grandpa set now adorns the backs of B-boys who sometimes belong to a different kind of "set." The chinos, Pendletons and Dickies jeans adopted by street gangs have, of course, gone west to surf shops and uptown to boutiques.

Fashion can be liberating. "One of the things about American culture that is so amazing is that we all have opportunities to pick and choose," says Todd Boyd, a popular culture expert based at USC. "And it's always interesting who picks what."

Or it can be exploitative, with manufacturers cashing in on new American phenomena: the credit card gangster and drive-by shopping. As with post-war beatniks, '50s rock rebels and '60s soul fans, today's urban culture has become a removable badge of hipness. And thus, say critics, the language of fashion is devalued.

But today this communication is two-way.

Many suburban white kids seem to want to dress like Snoop Doggy Dogg with a surfer-skater twist. But a lot of African American kids in the big cities seem to want to dress like skipper Dennis Conner, with a baggy, B-boy twist, too. (Young women's fashion is even more trendy, has more identities to mix and match but is less obsessed with street-tough style; a different beast, to say the least.)

"Fashion is so subversive," explains Ann Hollander, author of several scholarly books on fashion. "It tries to do a slightly forbidden thing. So it doesn't surprise me that these two different kinds of kids would try to ape each other."

Is it appreciation, or appropriation?

"The people who should be directly benefiting from this are not," says Boyd, who is African American. "That's exploitation at the highest level."

Indeed, the beneficiaries of this culture exchange often are white-owned apparel companies, from the New York offices of Tommy Hilfiger (annual sales, $400 million) to the suburban Southern California digs of dozens of "streetwear" companies that sell largely to suburban kids. Streetwear sales, in fact, are one of the hottest elements of the $10 billion youth apparel market.

The pioneers of commercial streetwear have a deep appreciation for inner-city culture, say those involved. "In a way, the cultures meld with each other," says San Diego's Richard Kenvin, a local surfing legend and owner of Stoopid clothing. "A lot of white kids are incredibly knowledgeable about hip-hop culture and in a way, it's recognition and appreciation."

In Tokyo, the infatuation with American street culture sometimes reaches extremes, with some youths donning Afro perms and freakish tans. American kids can take the culture just as lightly too. Body FX, for example, is a line of hair products that allows for temporary weaves, braids, dreads and streaks. Many of the looks are Rasta- and rap-inspired. "We're giving kids a way to say, 'Hey, we can be cool but we don't have to get grounded for it,' " says spokeswoman Pia Larson.

"It's just an image that they're trying to portray," counters Tony Green, a 35-year-old child psychologist, as he hangs out with a younger group of African Americans at Jesse Owens Park in South-Central L.A. "They don't come from where we come from."

"Out here, it's about character," he says. "You could look like a bum and still be a killer."

The character of American popular culture has for decades been shaped by inner-city want--doing the most with the least. In music it meant small, money-saving quartets that created the heyday of jazz in the '50s--or a penny-wise turntable-and-microphone set-up that spawned rap in the '70s. In the late '70s, it meant wearing long-lasting denim Dickies, cheap canvas Nikes and prison garb as a badge of honor.

Then there was '80s status chic: Fila, Sergio Tacchini, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. In the early '90s, a Brooklyn gang called the 'Lo Lifes went one step further, from appropriation to expropriation, by stealing and then wearing preppy Polo gear almost as a political statement.

Today this "prep urban" style involves wearing oversize Polo, Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger. This was not a cut-and-dry case of reverse appropriation: "It's all about appropriating and then perverting the style of the ruling class and doing in knowingly," argues Steven Daly, co-author of "alt.culture," (HarperPerennial, 1996).

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