Unsupervised time on the Internet is wading into a murky pool, indeed. African princes need money to liberate their stolen fortunes, pills for enhanced male “performance” (she’ll like it too!) are but a click away, and then there’s the most nefarious of digital offerings: targeted marketing content (shriek!)…videos that sneak up pretending to be something other than, as Ralphie in A Christmas Story lamented, “a crummy commercial?” Welcome to the real world, kid. Before you know it, you’ll wish you had shot your eye out. Maybe both.
Such was the case when I was on Instagram, minding my own business looking at pottery videos (stop judging me), when I saw a video featuring the Oilers car club and J. Crew’s Wallace & Barnes jeans. Instead of it being a case of never the twain shall meet, it was an unholy marriage…a desperate grab at market share making for the strangest of bedfellows.
Watch the video HERE, and then read on.
The Oilers are the car club behind The Race of Gentleman, a couple times a year beach race and (alleged–more on this to come) celebration of classic hand-built hot rod culture. There are strict rules about what cars and motorcycles can participate, as authenticity (supposedly) rules the day. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw this club hawking for J. Crew’s Wallace & Barnes, jeans and shirts worn by dentists in their off-hours.
Now I’m no J. Crew snob–I’ve shopped there plenty, and at this very moment the rod in my closet hangs heavy under the weight of many Ludlow blazers. Hell, I got hitched in one of their velvet numbers. And while I’ll never be accused of being a car guy or steeped in that culture (Brian Wilson–should you care to write a song about my bitchin’ 2017 Prius…the “hybrid motor in my Toyotor,” I’m all yours), I have for years appreciated and admired those who keep that noble American tradition alive, and I know posing when I see it. (At 50, I have been full of shit for at least 36 of those years.)
There’s nothing wrong with Wallace & Barnes jeans except when you try to tell me they’re the brand favored by grizzled hot rodders. And there’s nothing wrong with touting yourself as keeper of the flame of flathead Fords and knucklehead Harleys except when you tell me that after you’ve outfitted yourself at the mall. Did you grab an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel and mango lemonade mixer on your way back to the mini van? I mean Deuce Coupe.
But as I do two or three hundred times a day, I wondered, “Maybe I’m crazy?” So I decided to check myself by reaching out to an old friend—an East Coast car guy with plenty of greasy bonafides deep beneath his fingernails and more street cred than Wallace & Barnes has ripstop cargo pants. He goes by the handle Troy Burkheimer, and when I asked him to jot down a few of his thoughts on the matter, I apparently hit a nerve. Gird your loins…
The mastery of the humble brag in Bearded Hipsterdom is finally getting paid. Which means that, just when I thought we’d long ago seen the last grinder-spark video come out of a painfully curated custom vintage oriental-rugged motorcycle shop-slash-coffee beanery-slash-weathered American flaggery in Williamsburg, it looks like we’re stuck with them til the money runs out.
Whose money? I guess we can blame Wallace & Barnes for rewarding this behavior. Seems as though a J. Crew art director went down the Jersey Shore with a film crew and a Sprinter full of W&B merch, found a few Civil War cosplayers running around on early Harley flatheads and beating their appropriated mid-century California car club plaques into patina-ed submission, dressed them up in fresh ankle boots, matching leather bowie knife scabbards and knit whaling caps and asked them to tell us about how original they are on video and shucks…they’re all just a band of brothers we happened to catch tossing well-art directed firewood into a stove in this thousand year-old shed they’d been combing their beards in.
Hey, how’d you fellas get in here, anyway? Oh, go ahead…if you have to film us, we guess we understand. But shoot, we’re just doing what we do every day: being authentic and stuff. It ain’t easy looking this pensive, but, like we said, you caught us. Cool? Oh, guilty as charged, we guess. Oh, stop. Go on, now. Instagram? Never heard of it. Wait—you should probably shoot this in vertical, right?
15 years ago, this type of content was cutting edge and refreshing. The few videographers aware enough to capture the aging pro skaters and Japanese ex-pats in California who’d found vintage motorcycles as their salvation were rewarded handsomely for it. They were recording a real revolt against the cornball fat-tire reality show theme-chopper that had taken over the geared consciousness. They were making motorcycles cool again. And accessible.
The work they did, the art they all created at the time was important and it was a brainpan-rattling earthquake. Hell, the lumberjack beard can be traced to one particular pro skater who was building killer choppers in a warehouse in the center of the murder capital of the West Coast. Lots of Olde English 40oz. empties under the ShotSpotter on the pole out front, but not a cord of firewood to be found. And nobody else was wearing a beard. Yet. But god, there was some amazing imagery of him and his pirates made back then. And, by the way, he shaved his beard off 10 years ago.
Another thing: if I’m doling out the props to those who deserve it, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mens’ brand that actually got right this kind of mashup that Wallace & Barnes got so wrong: in roughly that same window of recent history, Tommy Hilfiger’s location scout found Old Crow Speed Shop’s period-perfect bellytanker Land Speed Racecar out on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats during a race week. They talked to its owner, Bobby Green, and developed an ad campaign featuring a few of his bellytankers out there on The Salt.
But here’s what they understood back then and J. Crew doesn’t, now: Hilfiger didn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It kept its (and Bobby’s) authenticity intact by leaning very thin, seemingly disaffected young men and women in sharp suits and separates against those cars, creating a clear juxtaposition between the lunar surface, the vintage machines and the models in the great Spring Season wardrobe. All came away unscathed, we could claim our own had made it big and Bobby’s own humble brag game got stronger. We all won. But this thing from Wallace & Barnes that showed up long after the party was over? Fail. On the other hand, if their Oilers video is actually an interpretive dance of the coming demise of J. Crew, maybe it was worth it.
Damn Troy, I’m supposed to be the jaded cynic (and I’m keeping my beard)! My friend and I talked it out over the phone, and neither of us begrudges anyone for making a living. Plus, Troy spent some time in the ad world, so he knows a thing or two about “brand positioning” and the power of an (ideally) viral’d video. But he’s also spent too many hours turning too many wrenches to let a tradition he feels passionately about be commodified on the cheap.
And as I hope has become evident on this site over the five years I’ve been writing, I take a Big Tent approach to this denim world of ours, but damn if I don’t bristle at someone trying to sell me fashion denim of unknown provenance as Americana. And Troy is right that there is a hint of LARPing in the T.R.O.G. scene, so if you’re going to suit-up you better be ready to take the hits.
But as John Voigt’s Nate reminds us in the greatest heist movie ever made, Heat, “It’s a free country, brother,” so wear and ride whatever the hell you want. And as Robert De Niro’s Neil reminds us in the greatest heist movie ever made, Heat, “There’s a flip side to that coin.” And it’s this: If you smile for the camera, doing donuts on your old Harley, wallet chain hanging from your mall jeans…preaching tradition, post-war values and trading secrets of the brotherhood in the name of J. Crew…I get to say you look like a real putz.