What Subcultures and Fashion Teach Businesses

Fashion and style are things that we often dismiss as frivolous, but in truth they are foundational to the structure of a society and tell us volumes about the underlying culture, or subculture, of a population.  We often forget that appearances are outward expressions of deeper internal truths.  This is particularly true of subcultures.  Interestingly, subcultures and their expressions of identity through fashion are often dismissed by marketers and management precisely because they represent something counter to the mainstream.  Our own cultural baggage gets in the way of identifying important elements of physical identity.  Even so, businesses often seek to capitalize on the subversive allure of subcultures in search of what is cool or trendy, which remains valuable in the selling of any product.   This process of cultural appropriation may result in the death or evolution of the subculture, as its members adopt new styles that appear alien to mainstream society. This process provides a constant stream of styles which may be commercially adopted.  It also means that there is a constant struggle between the creative-minded and those disinclined to see potential value in the inventiveness of subcultural fashion patterns.

But recent history is proof that past youth subcultures have influenced mainstream fashion, and youth subcultures are on the forefront of fashion change and experimentation.  Middle-class moms wearing Doc Marten’s boots, CMOs with elaborate tattoos.  High-end designer clothing and the outfits of celebrities will most certainly be remembered and preserved for the future (hence the “red carpet” moments at the Oscars), but these are not fully accurate representations of current society and youth culture, nor are they a full representation of the sources of fashion invention.  The collection and preservation of the actual garments and accessories belonging to youth subcultures, as opposed to the later knock-offs of these styles provide a substantial and meaningful documentation of society and its effect on mass fashion. They signal what is to be in the greater cultural dialog, not what is.

A subculture is a group of people with a culture (whether distinct or hidden) which differentiates them from the larger culture to which they belong.  A subculture is a subversion to normalcy. Subculture has been described as a word which means liberty of appearance, liberty of creativeness, liberty and ease of the chosen model for getting pleasure. The subculture is a sacred action, in which the only arbiter of values and belief, taste and preferences is the person or the tight, often small, group. The person with the autonomy of his own choice.  Between subculture and fashion there is a connection and it is very important. The subculture, the clothes that the young wear in the street, the ideas of the rock bands, the clothes in the clubs, etc., influence and transform fashion design. In turn, those influences reshape culture at large.  Store layouts are reinvented and behavior at home and elsewhere subtly shifts the definition of what is acceptable, meaningful and of value. And that kind of steeping in certain spirit from a given youth circle is important for the creative searches and findings of fashion designers. This spirit is especially precious with its freshness and roughness. The fashion invention is born and the progress of style is completed.

There is value in getting to know subcultures intimately.  They represent an  unlimited reservoir for ideas and motives in the art of designers of all stripes, be it in art, advertising or fashion.  The subculture attracts and charms with its spontaneity and incredible imagination. It may also repel, but in the process it leaves an impression. Censorship and standard do not exist for it, because the marks and symbols that it uses are born from the energy of the rebellion and disagreement with the already existing rules and restrictions. For fashion and indeed the retail spaces in which fashion is displayed, subcultures represent the need to experiment and to find personal meaning in a postmodern world that elevates the concept of the individual to an almost religious duty.

So where does this lead us?  Simply, it is a reminder that when we watch trends or fixate on the statistics that convey existing mainstream patterns of behavior, we miss the next opportunity.  That’s fine if your goal is to find a better way to push more of the existing products you have, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what COULD be.  It turns insights into simple regurgitations rather than identifying anything that will lead to breakthrough design, be it in fashion, retail or anything else. Similar to other misunderstood things, subcultural patterns are held anathema.  And yet they are the source of inspiration. It is not right to aggrandize unreserved the youth subcultures and to accredit to them with virtues, but it is equally not right to deny, repress or ignore them.  A company that does so is self-limiting and will be taken by surprise when the market changes.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Excellent piece, Gavin. I think avoidance or dismissal of subculture also represents the depth of risk avoidance or the degree approval seeking in an organization. You suggest an interesting way to measure a company’s ability to innovate – the degree of reliance on “traditional” means of understanding.

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