Thu, Dec 28, 2006 - Page 13 News List

High style born low

An exhibit of photos from a seedy part of Tokyo, 'Gangs of Kabukicho,' leads to an exploration of the role urban tenderloins play in inspiring street style, which in turn inspires fashion designers and, eventually, mainstream trends


A street near Times Square in 1971.


Where are the harlots of yesteryear? Where are the creatures of glorious plumage that for so long inhabited a fixed place in urban consciousness — and also a lot of real estate in the landscape of New York music, fashion, literature and art? Who now remembers the soiled doves of the Five Points, besides historians of story or song?

For that matter, what ever became of the male hustlers plying their trade in tight Levis at the corner of 53rd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, the guys about whom Dee Dee Ramone once composed a famous, and possibly even autobiographical, tune and whom Andy Warhol lured to the Factory to transform into incandescent although disposable underground stars.

The trigger for this onrush of association is a show, Gangs of Kabukicho, at the Andrew Roth gallery in Manhattan through tomorrow of works by Watanabe Katsumi, a semi-obscure itinerant street photographer who took pictures of Tokyo's prostitutes and drag queens and rockabilly types and supertanned ganguro girls and tough-guy yakuza in the 1960s and 1970s.

As unexpected as Watanabe's photographs are, their more urgent appeal is as social documents laden with information about style and sex roles, and the mutating masks of identity in postwar Japan. They also have a lot to say, by implication, about what happens when the loamy subsoil of low life is paved over by luxury housing and the grittier dimensions of cities are sanitized.

The function street life plays in pop culture is old news at this stage in history; it was probably old news at the court of Louis XVI. Cultural mandarins have siphoned information and inspiration from the streets for a long time. Fashion, in particular, has reaped the benefits. This was true in the days of Marie Antoinette and true again in the 1980s, when Karl Lagerfeld slummed in the East Village and used what he found to enliven that most fusty of costumes, the Chanel suit, with his version of the cartwheel earrings favored by hip-hop girls and the piled-on chains that, in those days, provided a clanking soundtrack to any walk across St. Mark's Place.

There are plenty who maintain that the streets of New York continue to serve as a rich source of design inspiration. "Every designer of the entire world comes to New York to get inspired," Diane Von Furstenberg, the designer and new president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America said last week. "What is inspiring is the streets, the kids and how they put themselves together," she added. "New York is quite vibrant right now."

Perhaps that is so. Yet a person could be forgiven for questioning whether Lou Reed would be moved to write Walk on the Wild Side by the Bugaboo platoons massed in Washington Square or whether the designer Stephen Sprouse's fabled graffiti collection would ever have happened had Dondi and his fellow Wild Style writers not gotten there first. "The economy has changed, and the downtown values, with rent control and cheaper housing, gone," Deborah Harry, the lead singer of Blondie, lamented not long ago. "What's happened with the growth of New York University into the East Village is the whole student look has taken over," added the singer, whose disheveled punk Marilyn look evolved from a yeasty downtown scene where Dumpster and thrift shop pickings were still rich, and where old clothes had not yet been rebranded as vintage and sold at Bloomingdale's. "Downtown is starting to look bland, like a penal colony," Harry said. "To me that's one of the worst things that have happened in New York."

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