In 1999 the Marxist academic collective Krisis Group published an essay entitled “Against Labor, Against Capital”. In it the authors argued that due to increasing automation a society based on labor was quickly becoming obsolete. Instead of looking to free workers from their oppression, as traditional Marxism espoused, the goal should be to end the labor society entirely. The only reason the world had not yet realized this was because of the economic and political elite, who have pacified the masses with “Silly fancy goods, designed to create the illusion of a full life”.
Eighteen years later, this phrase has appeared as a recurring motif in T-shirts, jackets, and hats in the Spring/Summer 2017 season of the streetwear brand Cav Empt. At first glance, it seems to be nothing more than another example of capitalism’s ruthless drive to commodify even the thoughts and actions of its opponents- just a more advanced version of a Sex Pistols shirt at H&M, in other words. Yet a closer look at Cav Empt’s history reveals that while garnering praise for their alluring graphics and uniquely cut and sewn garments, designers Sk8thing and Toby Feltwell have embedded a radical critique of consumer society into their clothing from the beginning. Cav Empt’s Spring/Summer 2017 season is the apex of a project that has been inherent in their clothing since its inception; an attempt to challenge the wearer into thinking seriously about the act of fashion fandom, desire and consumption under late capitalism.
Cav Empt’s early seasons made extensive use of quotes from postmodern philosophers, particularly Jean Baudrillard, the quotations acting as a statement on the nature of the garment itself and the cultural baggage attached to it. “Based on image, imitation”, read one shirt, “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning,” read a hoodie. These quotes were placed alongside graphics that referenced early internet and 90s rave culture. The garments created a nostalgia-inducing simulacrum, selling the feeling of these imagined eras while reminding the consumer that this feeling was ultimately illusory. This ideology was lurking in the background- often quite literally on the back of t-shirts and hoodies- but it remained abstract enough that the wearer was not forced to confront it.
However, since its founding in 2011 Cav Empt has gone from the province of a few hardcore devotees to being an essential part of the contemporary streetwear landscape, mentioned in the same breath as major players like Palace and Supreme. Success has proved contradictory for the brand, in some ways entailing a loss of identity. Their clothes come to be seen as not only the garments themselves but what section of society they represent. In C.E’s case it’s a certain archetype of the internet-addled fashion head. Prices for clothes shoot up and down based on not only their designs but their association with figures on social media and celebrities. The most infamously expensive piece, the aptly named “Icon Pullover”, shot up to well over $1000 secondhand based on its wear by a few prominent Instagram fashion figures. The brand could not have crafted a better critique of the merging of image and reality, the difference between the false world of the internet and fashion discourse and the world of, as one of their sweatshirts memorably read, “human reality in the street”.
Instead of diving headfirst into this encroaching success as most brands would, Sk8thing and Feltwell have instead chosen to communicate through their product. The brand publicly ponders what it means to consume fashion. Fall/Winter 2016 bore the unofficial collection title “Intransigent Materialism” across several of its garments. This quote from the philosopher Georges Bataille is repurposed into a suggestion that the notes on signs and signifiers of earlier seasons had been insufficient in causing Cav Empt’s fans to question their drive to find pleasure through material goods. Color palettes shifted as well, from deep blues and greens in their first few seasons to harsher, drabber, washed out beige and brown tones, suggesting discord, incongruence, and discomfort.
This has climaxed in Cav Empt’s latest season: the most confrontational yet, shifting from a knowing acknowledgement of clothing as a cultural text to a declaration of active hostility and confusion toward its consumer base. Where once the company gently chided that its offerings were merely “based on imitation”, now they directly declare their status as “Silly fancy goods”. Throughout the collection, Sk8thing and Feltwell repurpose quotes from Krisis Group’s manifesto to comment on the inherent psychic violence and disillusionment that comes from using material goods such as fashion as a mark of taste and social superiority.
SS17’s “Destructive Big Tee” carries the quote:
“The imposition to waste the most of one’s lifetime under abstract systemic orders was not always as internalised as today. Rather, it took several centuries of brute force and violence on a large scale to literally torture people into the unconditional service of the cavempt idol.”
Questions of reality and representation have been replaced with the direct assertion that to devote oneself to the “cavempt idol” is to be willingly brainwashed by a system of domination and exploitation, and that fashion culture is an offshoot of the self-destructive mindset produced by global capitalism. The production of desire, for clothes or anything else, is a mechanism by which the system keeps itself in perpetual motion, and while we may feel we are expressing our true selves through our clothing purchases, we have merely been conditioned by the world we live in to believe that such self-expression is even possible.
The “Manifesto Shirt” reads:
“The more it becomes obvious that the cavempt society is nearing its end, the more forcefully this realisation is being repressed in public awareness. The methods of repression may be different, but can be reduced to a common denominator. The globally evident fact that cavempt proves to be a self-destructive end-in-itself is stubbornly redefined into the individual or collective failure of individuals, companies, or even entire regions as if the world is under the control of a universal idée fixe.”
Quotes from the Krisis Group’s manifesto are twisted into declarations against the way the fashion world operates, on cycles of intense exposure and demand driven by an endless need to continue an engine of consumption, as brands are declared “over” in a period of just a few years. This failing is relegated to the brands, rather than the buyers’ hunger for novelty and distinction (one suspects that Sk8thing’s former job as graphic designer for A Bathing Ape, another brand with an infamously meteoric rise and quick fall from grace, might inform this resentment).
Despite this hostile turn in Cav Empt’s clothing design, it continues to grow with every season. It seems that repeatedly warning your fanbase about the limitations and dangers of consumer desire does nothing to curb that desire. Furthermore, if the brand were to end now, its metatexual project completed, its rarity and underground credibility could still make it into a status symbol- one can easily imagine “archival” pieces fetching absurd amounts of money, as has been the fate of other influential designers. The only winning move in the battle against consumer society is not to play, and Sk8thing and Feltwell are determined to play, perhaps to the detriment of their artistic vision. However, when faced with capitalism’s all-consuming commodification, do they truly have a choice?
The fact remains that Cav Empt has pursued questions of consumption and desire and directly questioned the foundations of their existence, in a way few other companies have dared to. They push the consumer into diving into their relationship with the world around them and with clothing itself, all while the very name – caveat emptor: Latin for “buyer beware” – warns them that ultimately, they not like what they find.
Written by Henry Begler, you can follow him on twitter.