HG Hommage: Label NYC

HG Hommage: Label NYC

Today, collabs and mashups may be a dime a dozen, but back in the ’90s designer Laura Whitcomb was among the first to put another brand’s label on her own.

Volume 11
Volume 11

Interview Maya Kotomori

Björk wearing t the Label NYC Turquoise Hood Dress in Vanidades Magazine, 1995. Photograph by the Snorri Brothers. Polaroids from the Label Show, 2005.

Designer Laura Whitcomb is of a small minority who can tell a s story about a cravat without sounding contrived. “I met these two young men from Senegal at an underground warehouse party, and they were wearing Adidas tracksuits with cravats tucked into them, and, like, berets. I don’t remember their names,” she told me recently over the phone. Whitcomb is the founder of Label NYC, one of the most prolific streetwear brands of the ’90s. Whitcomb tells me about the early cravat-ed ravers from Paris who inspired her brand from the jump. “I immediately envisioned their visual language through a woman that might be with them that night.” The product of a uniquely Los Angeles punk mindset, Label broke ground, not as a series of T-shirts as the “streetwear” category would suggest, but instead, as a carousel of logos imagined as womenswear. Label earned its city-specific adage and became Label NYC once Whitcomb — then, a stylist working on music videos for The Pharcyde and the like — moved from Los Angeles to New York, her clothing landing magazine features in Spin and eventual collaborations with the brands whose logos she repurposed, including Puma, Champion, UPS and Everlast. Whitcomb had been sowing the street style seeds of civil disobedience since her teen years spent between Los Angeles and London, long before Madonna wore her iconic Adidas three-stripe dress. From generic food packages to sportswear logos, Label NYC is a project in appropriation; in using that which already symbolizes, to signify something completely different. That’s what’s made her collaborations with Tommy Boy, Playboy, and more recently, Gucci in 2018 so deliciously subversive. While her Lafayette storefront is but a style memory — Label was one of the first cool kids on the block — Whitcomb is effectively the mother of today’s “collab” paving the road for designer mashups with sportswear brands. Her work, though no longer in production, is on view in art galleries and installations across L.A. A member of downtown New York’s streetwear and club attire legacy (she recently had dinner with long-time pal Supreme founder James Jebbia) Whitcomb is a revolutionary in every sense of the word. From her early streetwear days to the archive she’s building, Label NYC isn’t bygone, it’s an ongoing history.

Laura Whitcomb at Trade Show ASR, 1994.

Maya Kotomori: How do you feel Label NYC responded to the contemporary moment of the ’90s?

Laura Whitcomb: There was a lot happening in the ’90s… we’d seen the end of the Cold War. The house music scene was really happening in tandem with the fall of the Berlin Wall, then [America] has Clinton, and we’re out of this Bush cycle. The ’90s were a really important time in Los Angeles, where I was at the time. We had just experienced what are now known as the Rodney King riots, and a really huge earthquake. It was a really charged moment, and everybody was wearing streetwear as a platform to voice ideologies, first and foremost. There was a lot of crossover between races and culture — that was a really important historical moment, but there had to be an identifying cultural factor to represent it; a uniform. The clothing became a way for people to assert slogans and ideas because nobody took pictures, everybody just went to clubs, bars and parties. The messages that you could have in clothing could be revolutionary. We took it very, very seriously. And it was very contentious. We were trying to collectively set a message and not look to history, it was all about creating something that spoke for exactly what was happening in the ’90s; everybody was trying to come up with something that really spoke for the moment. What I was doing was trying to battle this grand masculine ethos that I felt had taken over. I wanted to assert women into that narrative to have balance.

MK: It’s not the same, but there’s a similar feeling of unrest in American politics today. Do you think streetwear can still be a platform for ideology as it was in the ’90s?

LW: I see moments [where people] can physically encounter something not through the computer as offering a transmutation — I feel art has that capacity. But fashion and art: marketing strategies have become so calculated and surface. I feel that only in the meditation of a gallery or physical space, can those messages be physically transferred. If fashion could be a way of addressing ideologies, it would have to be through the platform of art. I would like to see fashion and art collide a bit more.

MK: Post 9/11, the fashion industry changed a lot. So much of capitalism operates on fear, and after this event, that became much clearer because so many Americans were scared. Considering industry in this way: do you see fashion as art or fashion as industry as more prominent in streetwear?

LW: Absolutely, the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, marked a significant shift in various cultural landscapes, including fashion. It was a time when the industry seemed to veer sharply towards commercialization and conformity. Personally, I found myself disillusioned with the direction streetwear was taking, feeling the need to seek alternative avenues for self-expression. But what became increasingly evident was the fashion industry’s insidious reliance on instilling fear: fear of not fitting in, fear of inadequacy. This fear narrative is not incidental; it’s meticulously woven into the fabric of specific brands, amplified by the relentless machinery of social media. It’s a calculated exploitation of the collective psyche, where the once sacred notion of personal individuation has been supplanted by a homogenized mass consumption of curated content. In this landscape, the individual’s ability to think independently becomes a casualty, and the marketing industry thrives on this collective surrender of autonomy.

MK: Your designs became global in a matter of fashion minutes. I feel like streetwear success is often this perfect blend of art and commerce; today, this is done by the marketing machine you mention, and it occurs solely on the internet. How did Label NYC take off in this context?

LW: There’s a lot of underpinnings to this. Everything I did came from the idea of commerce, and how it is constructed: its religiosity and its branding through logos and symbols. Going back to the inceptive purpose of Label, it was kind of a conceptual art project. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I was a part of a post-punk milieu. In Southern California, we had generic food packaging, so in the material age of the ’80s, it was a sort of stain if you bought the generic brand. But the punk ethos was trying to not just democratize, but minimize hierarchies. We enlisted the generic brand to make our point. John Lydon put it on the cover of PiL, Repo Man (1984) has a lot of generic food packaging in so many of its scenes. I wanted to extend that exploration. I originally started with the concept of using generic food packing and to make a label that just said ‘Label.’ That was the philosophical launching point because I was trying to make a statement about American pop culture and what branding meant within the mechanisms of our society. I really wanted to create a platform that could eventually work within the structure of commerce, but [being commercially viable] was never really that important to me, to be honest. I tried to stay small and I was copied by major, major brands. People think Label NYC was this huge thing, when it really was the imitators that made it look like we were a lot bigger than we were financially, I mean. We were a small business; we never wanted to lose sight of the importance of community.

UPS Dress contact sheet, 1993. Photographs by Cheryl Dunn.

Label NYC Store, Spring 1996.

The “Playboy” show, 1994. Bootsy Collins walking the finale for the “Playboy” show, 1994.

MK: What was the first piece you ever designed for Label, and what was the first piece you sold?

LW: I was always making costumes and clothes for myself to wear to clubs as a stylist, however the first items conceived for Label dealt with the codes of fashion and addressing patriarchal narratives. I was commissioned by Blitz magazine to do a feature on gangs in East Los Angeles as I grew up near, and was familiar with the culture. I wanted to address the tradition of an old English font for nicknames [printed] on what was called a ‘wife beater’ tank tops. I turned these into dresses commenting on a transition of the normalized oppression of women, using the tank top to hijack the idea through uniform. These dresses also sent a message that women now had agency over this narrative. These were only worn by friends who were sensitive to that culture and were focused on making a statement about objectification. Of course, the first dresses I officially sold were the Adidas dresses at Union, a store helmed by James Jebbiaand Mary Ann Fusco, X-Large, Funkessentials and Pat Field.

MK: What did your early days as a brand look like in the city?

LW: I had a live-work studio on 29th Street near the garment district on 8th Avenue. The store opened in 1995. It was originally in a large building on lower Lafayette. Eli Gesner from Zoo York wanted to have a skate ramp in the basement. I moved a few months later to 265 Lafayette which was the headquarters for the next 14 years. What unified everyone in the early streetwear scene was to disempower the hold that big brands had. As I said earlier, I grew up in Los Angeles and lived in Lausanne because I wanted to study international relations when I was 14, and then I came to London by the time I was 15, 16. A really important person there that helped start the concept of appropriation was Barnzley Armitage, who was a friend of Vivienne Westwood’s son, Joe Corré. He did this Chanel T-shirt — with an artist called Wigan and my god, it was like ’85, ’86 — and it was unheard of to see a Chanel logo on a T-shirt. I think I grew from those defifiant denominators; this British sartorial approach really carved a lot of my sensibilities.

MK: What’s so crazy is that the Chanel logo was revolutionary on a T-shirt back then because the powers that be would thumb their noses at it, but by the end of the ’90s they had re-tooled to manufacture their own logo tees. What did it feel like to go from your DIY appropriation of these logos to essentially getting carte blanche from brands like Playboy to create licensed merchandise?

LW: I was working with Cheryl Dunn on the “Breaking the Girl” music video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and told her about what I was doing [with Label] and she organized a photoshoot with Spin magazine. At this time, I wasn’t just doing the Adidas dress, I did Puma dresses; I turned the Champion hoodie into a dress; I took the Everlast short and turned it into a boxing ball gown. Bob Guccione, the editor of Spin approved it, then I wrote to every sportswear brand to get permission, and they all said yes because Spin was a really important youth culture magazine at the time. I was friends with someone working with Madonna, and she ended up wearing an Adidas dress to a Knicks game. I thought, Oh boy, am I in trouble. I was in New York, and I remember very nervously calling Adidas on a payphone — I was immediately passed up to the CEO, and they just said ‘Whatever you want to do, you can do it.’ I did have legal representation from Skadden Arps, a very prestigious firm who represented me pro bono because they were interested in helping young women’s businesses. We were also represented by In The Mix, a PR company that had Alexander McQueen at the time. Wanting to continue this sartorial feminist approach: I thought of Playboy, [In The Mix] went to Playboy, and we got a Bryant Park show and licensing to use the logo. It was all very surreal, but at the same time, I was trying to deconstruct it all, to disempower the holds that these big brands had by allowing avenues to question their motives in a positive way. The world wasn’t ready for that moment, I think.

MK: I have to ask…X-Girl has come back with a capsule collection: is there anything in the works for a Label NYC revival?

LW: Currently there’s a gallery here in Los Angeles doing a retrospective with all the Label NYC pieces. Some of the dresses are even for sale because we’re trying to position them in collections that will offer conservation. But yeah, I feel I will always express myself through the language of the uniform costume of clothing. It’s something I’ve done since I was a child, it’s so wired into my identity, as well as the way I communicate with the world. It’s my own means of therapy to return to that language and there’s been a lot of enthusiasm to see some pieces reimagined; so I would say: likely soon. I would also like to work towards more equity in the industry and more protection for creatives. We are all part of an ecosystem and predatory capitalism has the capacity to destroy art’s inceptive voice. I would like to see the bigger brands work towards a more sustainable system which rewards creativity and acknowledges the visionaries that put these new ideas into being.

Clockwise from left: Amber Valletta wearing Label NYC cardigan in : W Magazine, June 1994. Photograph by Craig McDean; Fahmina wearing Label NYC Flap Sleeve Top, Winter 1996. Photograph by Jamil GS; Seventeen Magazine, styled by Patti Wilson. Clockwise from top left: Mary Forsberg wearing the UPS separates in Harper’s Bazaar, backstage at the Label NYC Tommy Boy show, 1993; Navia Nguyen and friend in Label pieces at the Supper Club show, 1993; Robin Harrington (left) and Kendahl Thompson King (right) in Urb Magazine, March 1993. Photograph by Raymond Roker; Liv Tyler wearing Label NYC Adidas dress in Young Miss Magazine, May 1994; Kyrie Boden in camouflflage gown. Photograph by Cheryl Dunn; Beverly Peele wearing the Michelin Man Dress from the “Playboy” Collection for Allure Magazine, 1994.

Label NYC show presented by Tommy Boy at Supper Club, 1993.

Dawnya wearing hand-knit Angora top and mini skirt in Project X, 1993. Photograph by Roberto Logresti. Right: Cover of Project X, featuring Label NYC from the “Playboy” Collection, 1993.

May 2024