Hooligans to Hip-Hop: How Drake Helped the Stone Island Brand Conquer America

Aleks Eror@@slandrSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 28, 2017

A re-created moai (ancestral spirit sculpture) sits at the traditional site of Ahu Tahai on Easter Island, Chile. Constructed of lava rock with a head-piece of red scorria, the eyes are the last element put in and are made of white coral and black obsidian. ( Paul Ross/VWPics via AP Images )
Nathen McVittie

The standard hip-hop wardrobe hasn't changed much over the years. While FUBU and Phat Farm may have faded into irrelevance, most elements have largely stayed the same, to the point that even your grandma could probably reel off a list of things that an archetypical rapper wears.

Not among them: obscure Italian yachting labels like Stone Island. No one would namecheck that one, really, because that's simply not what rappers wear.

Or at least it wasn't until recently. But then, in the summer of 2015, pictures of ​Drake ​wearing Stone Island at Wimbledon, not to mention various other places, flashed all over world media.

His repeated endorsements of the brand, which he'd been wearing since 2010, inspired a wave of imitators who have helped proliferate Stone Island throughout the hip-hop scene and contributed to its rapidly growing profile in the U.S., which is just one of the places where this storied yet niche label is experiencing a surge in cultural relevance.

It was even at the centre of a ridiculous Instagram beef between A$AP Nast, one of the lesser-known members of A$AP Rocky's crew, and fellow rapper Travis Scott, another Stone Island aficionado. Nast accused Scott of aping his style and staked a claim to being the first to import it into hip-hop fashion—which isn't true, but the row illustrates the cultish devotion the brand inspires.

Nathen McVittie

Those of us familiar with "Stoney," as it's affectionately called in Britain, have long associated it with football hooligans, who first popularised it in the 1980s, but now even Pep Guardiola counts himself a fan. In the divisive and tribal world of style, Stone Island enjoys a rare universality.

But how did this cult fashion label work its way from the terraces to Drake's social media feed?

The answer sits at the British notions of class and masculinity, shaped by the country's biting weather, plus football, Madchester, rave culture and Facebook—like a lot of things in modern Britain.

Founded in 1982 in the northern Italian town of Ravarino, Stone Island is the brainchild of Massimo Osti, an advertising agency art director turned fashion designer from Bologna. Initially launched as a sister brand to C.P. Company, Osti's first label, it has become renowned around the world for its experimentation with fabrics.

Osti didn't simply design clothes, he engineered them, developing some 40,000 fabrics and creating garments that redefined what clothing could be: thermo-sensitive jackets that change colour with the temperature; a "liquid reflective jacket," which, as it says on the tin, reflects light off of thousands of tiny glass microspheres that are painted onto its surface by hand, then dried out in an oven.

Guardiola wears Stone Island in August 2016
Guardiola wears Stone Island in August 2016Getty

Adored by numerous subcultures over the years, its earliest devotees were a style-conscious '80s Milanese youth tribe known as the "paninaro," who took their name from the panini bars that they rallied around in their home city. These fashionable twenty-somethings were a sort of Italian bootleg of the mod subculture that had thrived in Britain two decades earlier and was then enjoying a revival.

With hooliganism an ever-growing problem on British football terraces in the '70s, police had developed a pretty clear idea of what potential troublemakers looked like (skinheads or striking miners, usually). Anyone spotted in a pair of steel-toed, Doc Martens-style boots could be expected to hand over their laces, or even leave their footwear in a massive pile outside the stadium, lest they try to use it to kick in an opposition supporter's skull.

In response, Britain's shrewder football thugs began to wear upmarket designer labels towards the end of the decade as a means of evading the all-seeing eye of the law—because who would risk ruining their best threads over a trivial sporting rivalry, right?

Wrong.

Legend has it that the trend started with travelling Liverpool fans who had returned from the away leg of their team's 1977 European Cup quarter-final tie against Saint-Etienne with a bounty of shoplifted sportswear.

Instagram/ @champagnepapi

It's said that the travelling Scousers were so impressed by the flash garms worn by the local youth that they decided to use their strength in numbers to plunder the town's boutiques for high-end continental brands like Fila, Ellesse and Lacoste, taking the French look back home with them.

In England, their new style began to catch on with the supporters of other clubs, who also turned their continental away trips into smash-and-grab shopping sprees. Before long, the phenomenon had grown into a full-blown subculture. Different regions had their own name for it—scallies, dressers—but "casuals" is the one that stuck.

Realistically, it didn't take long for the police to suss out what was going on, rendering the casuals look completely useless as a disguise. But it wasn't simply about stealth—that part gets much more emphasis than it deserves.

It was about looking good, and there was an aspirational quality to it as well: Britain is a class-obsessed society, and just as blinged-out rappers do, the largely white, working-class casuals wore expensive clothes as a way of subverting the rigid British class hierarchy.

"The casuals follow a tradition that's always been there in British working-class fashion, which is wearing clothes that take you above your allotted station in life," Anthony Teasdale, editor of the men's lifestyle mag Umbrella, tells me over Skype.

"You look at the teddy boys of the 1950s, and they started wearing Savile Row suits with long jackets. They were called Edwardian-style jackets because they were based on suits of the early 1900s—hence teddy boys. It said, 'I'm better than where I'm from, I'm wearing what they wear.'"

Stone Island served this purpose perfectly and still does. On the brand's online store, jackets from its autumn/winter '16 collection start at £310 and rise to a wince-inducing £1,995. As a result, the brand is widely coveted as a status symbol—like a Rolex watch, only more accessible.

"I think most guys that I know when they come into a bit of money always invest in Stone Island," says Vice journalist Clive Martin. "There's something about the cut and the machoness: You always look quite tough and quite cool in it. There's also the ritual of going up to the shop and handing over £600 for a jacket—it's almost like buying condoms when you're a teenager. It's like: Are you man enough for this?"

That "machoness" is a key selling point, Teasdale says.

"The clothes fit very much with a particularly British way of dressing," Teasdale tells me. "The British male, no matter how cool he is, his biggest thing is that he doesn't want to get laughed at by his mates. So there is an element of peacocking, but it's peacocking within certain boundaries."

British men, after all, are basically conservative. "They don't want to stand out too much down the pub," Teasdale says. "We're not Italians. We're not into standing out."

But Phil Thornton, a former Manchester United hooligan and author of Casuals: Football, Fighting and Fashion, tells me that this element is regularly overemphasised, and that Stone Island's prime selling point was, initially at least, the products themselves.

"What most people misunderstand about the 'casual' or 'dresser' scene was that it was primarily about aesthetics: the look, the texture, the feel of an item of clothing, not its cost or exclusivity," Thornton says over email. "These were considerations too, but, first and foremost, labels and looks became popular through their appearance."

On top of that, the unmistakeable compass badge is an incredibly iconic piece of branding, one that is both subtle yet instantly recognisable.

Nathen McVittie

There's a phenomenological aspect to it as well: Through repeated exposure, essentially meaningless symbols develop a feeling of significance.

"My dad had a Stone Island jumper and it had that famous compass badge on the sleeve, and I remember thinking, Why has it got that on there? It looked quite cool," recalls Vice's Martin.

"Then going to Chelsea matches more and more, I started to notice it on a lot of the guys, and you get a little bit older and start going to pubs, you notice that it's a brand with certain connotations... It almost looks like everyone that wears it works for the same company or something like that. It's a signifier."

Beyond the look are the hi-tech design elements of the products. Jackets crafted from paper- and steel-infused textiles or infused with Kevlar might seem gimmicky to the casual observer, but such innovations are a major part of Stone Island's allure, tickling the same part of the male psyche that so often obsesses over gadgets and cars.

For Ollie Evans, owner of the vintage clothing boutique Too Hot Limited and one of Britain's most prominent Stoney collectors, the brand's products are "like pieces of art."

"There's ones like the pure metal shell, which is made from an ultra-thin stainless steel material used in the lining of cockpits of aeroplanes," he says, "and I think it's that element of design which really draws me to it as a brand. Then there's obviously the cultural significance of it, which I like a lot, but the thing that keeps me buying is the design element."

Getty

By the mid '80s, when Stone Island first began to proliferate on the terraces, the casuals' wardrobe had changed considerably. The Sergio Tacchini tracksuits and Fred Perry polos that had been so popular in the early days of the scene made way for heavy duty outerwear by the likes of Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Paul & Shark, Henri Lloyd and Aquascutum.

This largely came down to practical considerations: The embryonic casuals' style mostly consisted of tennis apparel, but tennis is a warm-weather game made for the glitzy courts of Riviera members clubs, not the pissing rain of an away trip to Newcastle in mid-December.

After presumably shivering on the terraces for years, the casuals tailored their sartorial choices to suit Britain's miserable weather. Carlo Rivetti, Stone Island's owner and CEO, believes that this is one of the reasons why it has become such a hit in this part of the continent.

"I think the weather helps us in the U.K.—the weather is terrible compared to Italy!" Rivetti says with a chuckle. "We sell very well in the north of Europe, but we're not able to sell in the Middle East. There, the weather doesn't help a brand like Stone Island."

Hooliganism hit its crescendo in 1985 with the Kenilworth Road riot and the Heysel Stadium disaster, heinous displays of senseless violence that would finally push Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government into taking decisive action against football louts, dishing out harsher prison sentences and banning orders that would ultimately break the hooligans' resolve and send the scene into decline.

Instagram/ @champagnepapi

By the end of the decade, only the most hardcore of violence enthusiasts were prepared to risk their liberty over club loyalties and macho posturing, with many former hooligans deciding that they'd rather join the emerging rave scene and spend their weekends swallowing ecstasy and dancing to acid house in muddy fields across the English countryside instead—which is understandable, really.

Although these casuals' priorities had changed, their style remained consistent, and Stone Island soon gained popularity among ravers, some of whom had never thrown a punch in their lives.

It might not have been clear at the time, but rave would come to be regarded as a definitive moment in British counterculture. After the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 put an end to the illegal open-air parties that had defined the era, the scene splintered and gave birth to just about every other form of electronic music that sprouted in Britain over the course of the decade, from hardcore to Madchester to jungle and on and on.

As one scene withered and another emerged in its place, some loyalists carried on raving, while others retired to a life of kids, careers, early nights and dull domesticity. Some of those who kept at it continued wearing Stone Island, passing the brand on to a new generation of devotees.

As the '90s wore on, Stone Island would become increasingly mainstream, thanks largely to that same double pivot of football and music. A number of Mancunian bands that had grown up on the terraces, namely the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays and Oasis, rose to national prominence, introducing elements of terrace fashion to the wider public.

But according to Rivetti, Stone Island's breakthrough moment would come in the mid-'90s, when a now-legendary Manchester United striker started wearing it.

"A key point was when this fantastic French gentleman—I don't know if you remember—Eric Cantona," he says, "he was buying Stone Island in a shop in England, and he gave a couple of interviews on television wearing the Stone Island badge. It became a phenomenon in the U.K., and I think that Cantona was a very special trigger for us."

Rivetti really hits the nail on the head here. Although the brand was born in Italy, which remains its biggest market, Britain became its spiritual home. Aside from its Anglophone name, Stone Island's aesthetic is a thoroughly British one.

When we think of Italian fashion, we think of Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Gucci; brands with a gaudy extravagance and a degree of campness. There's an effeminate elegance to them that Stone Island doesn't share at all.

Visually it sits far closer to British rainwear, outdoor and hunting apparel, labels like Berghaus, Hackett and Barbour. It simply feels British, and those who aren't intimately familiar with it are usually surprised to hear that it's Italian.

British male style is a visual manifestation of an internal conflict: a yearning for expression that's asphyxiated by stiff societal norms. Or, as Teasdale put it, peacocking within boundaries. This is probably why Stone Island's popularity in the U.K. has been so enduring.

Although its prominence has waxed and waned over the years, Stoney has never gone away. And now over the past couple of years, shifts in the zeitgeist have swept the brand back to the forefront of style.

Its resurgence started in 2013 with the rise of Wavey Garms, an online vintage clothing marketplace that first sprouted on Facebook. But rather than dealing in unwearable junk like your typical thrift store, Wavey Garms specialises in designer labels like Moschino and Ralph Lauren, and within several months of its founding, the group's membership had swelled to some 30,000 members, making it a major player on the London fashion scene that influences how the capital (and the rest of the country, by extension) dresses.

Nathen McVittie

Although flash-in-the-pan fads are born and buried with routine regularity on Wavey Garms, Stoney is an ever-present bestseller, and the availability of cut-price, second-hand garments has both boosted its visibility and made it more accessible to Britain's most fashion-conscious youth, thereby recharging the brand's cultural relevance in the process. It's interesting to note that, although other terrace staples like Lacoste and C.P. Company are popular, Wavey Garms' founder, Andres Branco, tells me that their sales amount to only a fraction of Stone Island's, just like in the real world.

"The thing is, with a brand like Aquascutum, it's quite plain," Branco says. "They have their chequered pattern, but that's all they really do, whereas Stone Island have like 30,000 jackets."

Despite the breadth of its appeal, Stoney is not without its detractors. Plenty of mainstream consumers are put off by its perceived loutishness, while proper hooligans, conversely, shun it for being too mainstream.

Like the Burberry chequered cap, whose reputation was tarnished by its popularity with anti-social working-class "chavs," Stone Island's ties to the casuals have led to it being banned from certain pubs, and both the brand and its PR agency try their hardest to denounce and distance themselves from the unsavoury minority in their clientele.

Although these sort of connotations may put some consumers off, I believe that it's actually a major factor in the brand's appeal.

The Stoney badge has come to represent all the aggressive machismo that we associate with much of the brand's clientele. It's no accident that Stone Island is popular among "scally lads" in the U.K. gay underground, who eroticise the gear worn by "scallies," a regional variation on the classist slur "chav."

Whereas once you had to go to football matches and throw punches to feel like a hard man, a Stone Island jacket allows you to buy an imagined simulation of that feeling without enduring any bruises or broken teeth.

GQ fashion director Elgar Johnson, who has worked both as a stylist and a model for the brand in the past, reinforces this view: "I like the sense of masculinity it gave. That was really important," Elgar says.

Beyond Wavey Garms, broader changes in the fashion landscape have also contributed to the brand's recent revival. After dominating the sartorial zeitgeist for at least a decade, the hipster has grown stale, and the twirly, 19th century-style moustaches, lumberjack apparel and other over-the-top theatrics that defined hipsterdom are, in London at least, slowly being replaced by a cleaner, sportier look that's distinctly British in spirit.

Nathen McVittie

Dubbed the "nu lad" or the "nu lad Casual," it takes its cues from the way that fashion-conscious (but not fashionable—there's a big difference) working- and lower-middle-class men in the U.K. dressed around the turn of the millennium, combining Reebok Classics with contemporary additions like Palace skatewear. Tracksuits tucked into sports socks are widely popular, as are terrace staples like Lacoste, Ralph Lauren and, of course, Stone Island.

Some fashion designers have even started looking to the nu lad for inspiration and incorporating its elements into their own creations, with the likes of Cottweiler, Astrid Andersen and Nasir Mazhar putting a haute couture spin on the look, one that often borders on homoerotic.

Simultaneously, on the other side of the Atlantic, America has been getting acquainted with Stone Island on a mass scale for the first time. Despite being the world's largest economy, the U.S. represents a mere 5 per cent of the brand's global sales, illustrating just how unchartered this territory is.

For me, this is understandable: Europeans have football and music as common touch points with the brand, while Americans are only likely to encounter it by chance. But that began to change in 2014, when Stone Island unveiled a series of collaborative collections with the likes of NikeLab and New York skate brand Supreme, labels more familiar to U.S. consumers.

The latter was immediately picked up by Drake, who posted a photo of himself on Instagram wearing a Stone Island x Supreme sweatshirt, thus giving the brand's visibility a major boost in America.

There's a lot of speculation as to how Drake discovered Stone Island. Most people assume he was introduced to the brand through his blossoming bromance with grime star Skepta and his Boy Better Know crew, but Carlo Rivetti tells me a very different story.

Drake, who uses the same Stateside gym as Rivetti's son, Matteo, and regards him as a friend, says he's been a fan for at least a decade. Stone Island's press officer corroborated Drake's claims by sending me a picture of his appearance on a 2010 episode of MTV's Total Request Live, where a clean-shaven, fresh-faced Drizzy can be seen wearing a peppery-grey hooded pullover with the compass patch in clear view.

This fact will probably come as a major annoyance to A$AP Nast, who claims to be the first rapper to have rocked Stone Island, but nobody had even heard of him until 2011. As for his spat with Travis Scott, whom he accused of aping his style, Rivetti tells me that it was actually Dustin Lewis, who works at M5 Showroom (one of Stone Island's 40 or so distributors in the U.S.), who acquainted Scott with the brand.

The story goes that Scott bumped into Lewis at one of his shows and complimented him on his Stoney jacket. Lewis, in a move that can either be considered gracious or shrewd, gave it to him, winning over a high-profile new customer and earning the label free publicity every time Scott is seen wearing it.

As you'd expect, these celebrity endorsements have been a boon for Stone Island's profile in the U.S., with trend forecasting agency WGSN reporting that it's quickly catching on with American consumers, particularly in New York. In 2015, the brand's North American revenue grew to $97 million, a 10 per cent increase on the previous year; visits to its web store were up 51 per cent, according to the Business of Fashion; and these growth figures coincide with what appears to be a concerted push into the U.S. market.

In July 2015, Stone Island opened a flagship store in Manhattan, which was followed by one in Los Angeles seven months later. Both occupy sprawling 3,000-plus-square-foot properties that double up as gallery spaces where the brand can show off some of the many thousands of custom textiles it has conjured up over the years.

The L.A. store, for example, opened with a retrospective exhibition documenting Stone Island's experimentations with reflective materials and a few of the iconic reflective jackets that that research has produced.

"We are not a marketing product. If you follow trends you are late—we look to the future," Rivetti says with a tone that's both stern and jovial at the same time. "To investigate new fields is really challenging. This is why we invest a huge amount of money into research and development of new treatments and textiles. But the people who work in the company need this type of challenge because if we don't innovate, they will grow bored."

If, like myself, you're a European of a certain age, it's impossible to separate Stone Island's products from its cultural legacy. You can't look at them with a fresh set of eyes or appreciate them in isolation as individual pieces of clothing—our perception of the brand is shaped by the schema that we associate with it, and I've often found myself questioning whether I buy its products for their aesthetic value or for what they represent.

Americans don't have these distractions. As such, it can be difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, is fuelling Stoney's growing popularity on the other side of the pond.

"Football culture doesn't really exist here, but what there is is a strong intersection between hip-hop style and an appreciation of quality outerwear—I mean in the '90s kids were getting stabbed over Marmot Biggie jackets," says Jian DeLeon, a New York fashion writer and editor.

"The New York climate isn't the most comfortable in winter, so high-performing garments like Patagonia, Canada Goose, the North Face are all popular here because they keep you warm and they look good, which is pretty much the only criteria for a winter jacket," he says.

"Americans really love high-quality outdoor gear. Maybe it's the whole frontier heritage of the country, but we simply appreciate a good jacket that you can wear forever."

Fundamentally, this is precisely how the brand took root in England way back in the '80s: Fashion-conscious football fans were drawn to Stone Island because it offered the perfect blend of form and function, protecting them from the elements on weather-battered terraces without compromising on style.

The interbreeding of scenes and subcultures sent the brand pollinating outwards across the pop cultural landscape, and each youth tribe that integrated Stone Island into its uniform added a weight to it that makes it feel like more than just a clothing label.

Drake with Stone Island's Carlo Rivetti
Drake with Stone Island's Carlo RivettiInstagram/ @champagnepapi

And it really is more than just a clothing label in the same way that the Champions League trophy is more than just an ornate metal vase. Plenty of brands make great clothes, but only a few can offer the sensation that you're part of something bigger than yourself as an individual—an entire modern folklore.

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