When we talk about U.S. style cities, New York casts an incredibly long shadow. It’s the only American city with a fashion week that matters, for instance, and a hub for both industry and media. From a global perspective, it’s often seen as the single stateside generator of fashion.
But that oversimplification cuts out a lot of regional scenes, some with rich histories and long-lasting impacts. And with that in mind, one American city that deserves its flowers right now is Seattle.
Though rarely mentioned in the same breath as “style” or “fashion,” that rainy mountain town in the top left corner of the map laid the groundwork for the current menswear zeitgeist of grunge and gorp, going back to the ‘90s. And in some current, high-profile cases, fashion is literally pulling art off of Seattle streets.
“It’s not really hated on, or misunderstood,” says Andrew Callaghan, Seattle native and host of the American culture show, Channel 5. “I would say it’s just not acknowledged.”
Before we continue, let’s get our lexicon in order. Grunge style basically means dressing like Kurt Cobain (501s, cardigans, flannels, granny glasses). And gorp (terrible word, but we’re using it) means “good old raisins and peanuts,” aka trail mix. It’s since evolved into a slang term for the aesthetic of technical outdoor gear that was originally worn for functionality, but which has become fashionable in the past five or so years.
Granted, part of the non-recognition of Seattle style is likely because the Pacific Northwest is exotic and far away to most of the country, almost like a place that doesn’t really exist. And if you do take the time to learn about the history, it’s so steeped in anti-fashion it’s almost self-negating: anti-materialist, anti-glamor, anti-glitz.
And yet, non-commericality is trending right now. Conspicuous consumption in men’s and women’s wear today has a lot to do with “stealth wealth,” with logos receding a bit. More broadly in pop culture, the mainstream is anti-mainstream. Authenticity is popular. And the Seattle angle is appealing.
And so we see grunge today on rich NBA players and trendy TikTok kids alike, with their worn-in jeans and plaid flannels. And we see gorp in cool-person circles all around the States, including on style icons like Frank Ocean and Drake, who choose to wear performance shells and puffers when they could literally have any jacket in the world. (And fun fact: Drake’s Scorpion merch was designed by Seattle artist Andrew Durgin-Barnes).
It’s the kind of stuff your high school science teacher wore if you grew up in Seattle, which you never in a million years would have thought would become “in.”
“There’s definitely been a changing of the guard,” says Seattle rapper Macklemore. His 2012 breakthrough song “Thrift Shop” testified to the original source of the grunge movement’s fashion: local secondhand clothing stores. And he contributes to present-day Seattle fashion with his golf-inspired sportswear line, Bogey Boys, which he designs.
“You watched it years ago with the dad shoes, when the Pete Carrolls became a go-to sneaker,” he says referring to the Seahawks coach’s Nike Monarchs, which had a moment with the gorp antecedent “normcore.”
“Following that, all of a sudden Salomon or Marmot starts becoming cool, these brands that were synonymous with my dad, or the outdoor person in Seattle,” he continues. “People are flipping what’s been popular around here for decades now.”
Macklemore thinks the rise of gorp is about feeling good and living with what you’re wearing. Not dressing for Instagram, but for real life.
“I think there’s a juxtaposition between the high fashion world, and the lack of functionality that comes from a pair of $1,200 Balenciagas that look like they’re size 16 when they’re size 10, and the functionality of wanting to have a rain jacket, or hiking shoe,” he says. “And it’s more comfortable.”
The changing of the guard that Macklemore is talking about is evident in the retail landscape. Consumers can get comfort and performance at old-school gorp purveyors like Seattle’s REI, or high fashion boutiques like Dover Street Market, where hiking shoes go toe-to-toe—literally—with designer footwear.
While outdoor gear as fashion may be relatively recent, gorp has been part of Seattle’s culture and history going back 125 years. The drizzly climate and mountainous geography require waterproof jackets and sturdy shoes. And the city claims an extraordinary amount of gorp-y brands that outfit everyday explorers, like Filson (est. 1897), Eddie Bauer (1920), REI (1937), Jansport, Brooks, Crescent Downworks (supplier of the down jackets in the Stranger Things season 4 finale), Cascade Designs, K2, Outdoor Research, Kavu, and Feathered Friends, to name just a few.
Anti-fashion is grunge and gorp’s common thread, according to men’s style expert Jian DeLeon, men’s fashion and editorial director at Nordstrom, which is headquartered in—you guessed it—Seattle. Grunge and gorp are both about “not caring about your clothes, in a certain sense,” DeLeon explains. (He also dutifully mentions that Nordstrom carries Filson and Outdoor Research).
“With outdoor gear it’s not about, ‘I’m wearing the best jacket so it looks the best,’” he says. “It’s about, ‘It performs the best under the conditions I need it to.’ It’s about wearing Gore-Tex because you’re going to hike, and it could be raining. It’s about the functionality of the clothes. With grunge too, it was about not looking so materialistic. That thrift store aesthetic was very anti-fashion. In that sense, so is gorp.”
DeLeon says Seattle is still feeling the impact of grunge and Nirvana on a local level, and notes that grunge style, beyond being hype in the present moment, was also immortalized in fashion history by Marc Jacobs in 1993, when the designer was working for Perry Ellis. Seattle as a gorp town is maybe less documented. But he says what people really don’t get—or seem to forget— about Seattle is the city’s hip-hop history and culture, which also informs its style.
Which leads us to the secret sauce of Seattle style. The third “G.” Graffiti.
You might not know Seattle graffiti is world-renowned. But A-list designers and brands are well aware, like Matthew Williams, Virgil Abloh (RIP), and the design team at Supreme, all of whom have connected Seattle graffiti to fashion at the uppermost level.
Seattle graffiti was all over the 2022 Resort show by Givenchy, for instance, designed by Williams in collaboration with graffiti writer Chito, whose characters adorned the collection. After writing on Seattle walls, Chito made his name in fashion by “unofficially” painting on Seattle gorp brands like Filson, branching into Arc’teryx and Stone Island, and eventually going legit and working with Supreme on its fall/winter 2018 drop.
Chito is one of a handful of Seattle graffiti writers who have been asked to make their mark on high-fashion designer collections and runway shows in recent years. The list also includes Lewy BTM, whose tags were featured in Abloh’s Louis Vuitton FW 19 show, and Katsu, whose “OFFKAT” collection with Off-White hit stores last spring.
Chito says that when he thinks of Seattle style, he thinks of “Filson, thrift shit, fools rocking Arcy.” He also points out other Seattle graffiti/fashion ties he feels are significant––Jazz Wilton designing at Supreme for instance, and Antonio “Tone” Delarosa Gauellogos designing at Frank Ocean’s Homer.
In Chito’s experience, the intersection of local graffiti and current fashion traces back to one man: J.R. Ewing. A former graffiti writer himself, Ewing came up in Seattle with his own streetwear brand-slash-shop called Winners Circle in the late 2000s, before eventually working in creative roles with FUCT and Stray Rats. He is now an operating partner for Stray Rats, the brand Central Bookings International, and the merchandising partner for the chef and actor Matty Matheson, as owner of the agency ATLAS OPERA.
“He’s a pioneer, teacher, and leader for our group of creatives,” says Chito of Ewing. Chito’s first studio was at Ewing’s Inner City Empire print shop by Seattle’s Safeco Field.
“That’s where I learned how the fashion business works from the inside out. Watching him work with FUCT and getting to be part of that taught me a lot. Learning from Tone, Tone learning from J.R., J.R. from [FUCT’s] Erik Brunetti is the history.”
Ewing’s definition of Seattle style is particularly wide-ranging. He says it has aspects of “Native style, accents of pioneerism, and of course Seattle street culture, which is a ransom note of punk, post-punk, grunge, b-boy, and outdoor fabrics new and old: GORE-TEX, polar fleece, cotton, wool, and denim.”
He also highlights Seattle streetwear, which he says is another untold style story, as far as brands being designed, manufactured, or distributed locally. He mentions “Mecca, Enyce, Frost Bros., International News, Bio Generra [Hypercolor], Unionbay…brands sold at Squire Shop and Mr. Rags, brands distro’d through Shah Safari…a whole other article.”
“And I think you would be tripping to leave out skateboarding,” he says, “because there are so many talented skateboarders from Seattle: Marshall Stack Reid, Yoshi Obiyashi, Danny Minnick, Jamie Bernard (RIP), Ryan Grant, Chad Vogt, and the Eager Beaver. And I think that as a sport it was hard to keep up, so naturally people found other talents they could flaunt while still participating.”
Ewing says it’s only in the last decade that Seattle creatives from graffiti or skateboarding have been aligned with fashion in the wider world. As for his role in this overlap, he is humble and apprehensive about putting himself out there, but acknowledges he was an incubator for Chito, and an early dot-connector between local graffiti and fashion.
“I like to think bringing IRAK [including Kunle Martins, Ben Solomon, and Fanta] to Seattle in ‘06 for the opening of Winners Circle fortified the relationship between graff, and in particular, streetwear, for the city itself. Of course the Seattle all-stars that popped up in other cities pre-that had already captivated people forcibly through graff. I’m talking about Adek, Lewy, Malvo, Tron, Kerse, Take, etc….”
Callaghan says in addition to reaching lofty fashion heights, Seattle graffiti writers constitute their own style tribe.
“In my eyes, there are two main styles that you can mark as Seattle’s,” he says. “One is the grunge style, which is like Carhartt, oversize workwear, earth tone shit. That classic Cobain look. I call it dusty urban farmer swag. And the second one is kind of more like hotboy tagger swag, which would be North Face, Dickies or baggy Levi’s, and Air Maxes. I guess Arc’teryx is more popular now, but I like North Faces the best…different jackets have different cycles. I believe in the eventual resurgence of the North Face.”
Graffiti writers might have helped make gorp a thing, by being appropriators of mountain gear (and prolific shoplifters, or boosters). They wore it not just for protection from the elements, but also as expensive status symbols. But regardless, Callaghan sees “Seattle graffiti writer” as a style archetype unto itself, which he thinks is traceable further down the West Coast.
“When you think about that kind of Seattle style, you gotta give a lot of credit to the Bay. San Francisco and Seattle are sister cities. It’s another rainy city full of petty criminals actively being ravaged by big tech. I think that culturally we share a lot more with SF than even closer cities, like Portland or Vancouver. For example, the one-stroke SF tagging style known as the ‘busflow’ looks a lot like the Seattle handstyle, especially compared to other West Coast cities like L.A. or San Diego, where they dress and tag totally different. Not to mention, the music I grew up listening to—Mac Dre, Andre Nickatina, Livewire—came from the Bay, and a lot of the words we use, like hella, cutty, active, or function, are straight from the Bay.”
Indeed, there was also a pronounced Bay area influence on certain tidepools of Seattle rap in the ‘90s, and both areas use a lot of the same slang. San Francisco and Seattle even both refer to themselves as “The Town.”
Funny enough, “The Town” is also the name of an early Macklemore song. And the cultural history of graffiti is definitely not lost on the rapper, who goes deep with some of Seattle’s most legendary writers, and says he even has an unreleased music video starring Chito for the song “Buckshot.”
“Seattle has some of the biggest graffiti writers in the world,” he says, “people like Lewy, Malvo, and Adek, people who have crushed major metropolitan cities across the globe. I grew up not with Adek but with Lewy and Malvo, and that is how I got introduced to boosting gorpcore culture, through those guys. I still have friends who have been career criminals for over 20 years that fund their entire lives by stealing gorpcore.”
Macklemore traces his own interest in fashion back to digging through Value Village and Goodwill for bargain fits, and says he channels some of his own style from those days in Bogey Boys (highwater pants, for example). Thrift shopping happens to be unusually good in Seattle, for everyday clothing and rare pieces alike.
Aficionados in and outside Seattle know about Heller’s Cafe, regarded as a holy grail of vintage. Whether it’s made-in-the-USA 501s or Navy deck jackets, they’ve got it. Run by Larry McKaughan since 1986, it’s a collection of vintage clothing that became legendary during the menswear heritage boom of the 2010s, when J.Crew started stocking pieces from McKaughan’s collection along with select shops in Japan. It’s one of those “if you know, you know” spots, held in high regard by heritage heads.
DeLeon says outside grunge, gorp, and graffiti, Heller’s Cafe is an example of how Seattle has brands and boutiques that rank with the best in the world, though they might be unheralded or relatively unknown.
“I mean, I’ve been going back and forth to Seattle since [the shop] Blackbird was there. I have a Stüssy shirt from the store there that’s a flip of the Mariners logo. And we haven’t even talked about Maiden Noir, whose designer Nin Truong is currently design director at Highsnobiety, and who designed Stüssy. When they ‘came back’ in the mid-2000s, a lot of those were his designs. There’s a pant they still use called the Bryan pant, which is an elasticated, straight leg pant that’s named after Bryan Carandang who used to work at [Seattle boutique] Totokaelo…”
Totokaelo was a legendary designer boutique in the 2010s which eventually had a NYC outpost. The OG location was in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, an area which today is still a hotspot for boutiques like Likelihood and Glasswing. These shops cater to a certain Seattleite looking for cult, niche designer brands with global appeal.
From the vantage of his big-picture view and corporate job, DeLeon says it’s apparent to him that Seattle has a unique consumer culture. As far as who buys high-end fashion there, he thinks it’s people with a global mindset—resulting from Seattle being a port city, with a huge tech industry—and he also cites the significant Asian-American population and culture.
“I mean, there’s a shop in Seattle called Drip Tea that combines streetwear and boba tea, and names drinks after Nigo and Virgil Abloh,” he says. “In some ways I’m a reflection of that community.”
While we’re handing out flowers, DeLeon points out Macklemore’s success wouldn’t have been possible without support from local Asian-American hip-hop.
“Macklemore came up in the Seattle hip-hop scene, which you can’t talk about without talking about Blue Scholars—Asian-American hip-hop with connections to Seattle’s Chinatown. The rapper from that group, Geo, owns Hood Famous bakery in Chinatown. Macklemore came up in that scene as a participant and then blew up. He’s an authentic product of Seattle subculture, and the one that made it to that certain level.”
Subculture may be the key word in Seattle style. The grunge people, the gorp people, the graffiti people, even the designer-wearing world-traveler mindset people—they all see themselves as somehow opposed to the mainstream. They’re all representative of tidepools, pockets of activity that do and don’t overlap, but everyone’s pretty much of the shared idea that they’re doing something different.
This independent-minded consciousness may in some way represent the overriding Pacific Northwest do-it-yourself ethos. Sometimes there is an outlaw aspect involved, such as in graffiti. In other cases, DIY may also represent the kind of cultures that result from discrimination, such as in the case of hip-hop, which was always robust but forced into the underground, ignored by the city in the ‘80s and ‘90s (except for Sir Mix-A-Lot). Seattle rap arguably didn’t have a profile until Macklemore, a white man, made it on a national level. The non-mainstream attitude may also represent the stereotypical liberal elite, which Seattle is rife with: We are special up here, smarter and better than the rest of the country.
In any case, it’s a mixture. But a potent one that has resulted in a city with a history of ignoring what’s “supposed to be cool” and instead deciding for itself what is and isn’t—and living accordingly. That attitude extends to style. And it’s responsible for the core conflict at the heart of Seattle’s style legacy: It’s obscure, and that’s exactly what has made it a trendsetter.
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