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Streetlab Takes Its Anti-Elitist Agenda to The Bijlmer

This year Steetlab experimented with a move to the suburbs in a bid to smash the snobbery that many street designers think dominates fashion shows.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 17-09-2008

News coming out of the Bijlmer, home to Hollands’s most diverse and multicultural community, is rarely good. Media stories that beat up tales of ghettoization and crime have tainted the Amsterdam suburb’s reputation and broadened the mental and cultural divide that separates its locals from the city.  

Rarely mentioned and little understood is the vibrant street culture that has evolved out of life lived in the dense, social-housing estates that were built throughout the region in the 70’s.

To help communicate the intricacies and intrigue of that street culture to a wider audience, Streetlab, the festival for street-based fashion and design, marked its third birthday by staging a four-day event at the recently completed Bijlmer ArenA station.

“We used to stick closer to the city center,” explains Maud Gottgens, creative manager of Streetlab. “But the problem with that is you end up only attracting the same, elite sort of people.”

A good selection of street culture was on offer: photographers and fashion designers from the Bijlmer, graffiti artists from the city and muralist from provincial towns.  

The event was set up with a centered main stage where hiphop musicians performed live.  Surrounding the stage were two floors of steel storage tanks with their lids flipped open and in each tank, designers exhibited their wares.

The tanks and the layout created a very urban and edgy atmosphere.  “Normally fashion events are so snotty,” says designer Jolanda Marti of Brokeart.  “But what you see here is where kids like us hang out and what we wear.  It’s so cool to be able to show what's cooking underground.”

Deciding to present in the Bijlmer and include as many locals as possible was not as simple as just turning up and sourcing designers.  The Bijlmer is a complicated neighbourhood and Gottgens says learning how to generate the most from the collaboration was her greatest challenge.

“It’s a different mentality out here,” she says.  “You have to spend time with these people and really understand them before they will trust you creatively.  And Streetlab is not an organization that wants to work from above; our idea is to get into the scene and work along side of people.”

One of the stand-out exhibitions at this year’s event was by photographer Elza Jovan Reenan.  Her images of a teenage girl experimenting with life were bursting with poignancy and compassion.  Love, Struggle Pain was tattooed across Reenan’s muse’s pelvis as she laughed, cried and danced her way through a suburban existence.

Capping off the exhibitions was a catwalk fashion show by a series of new and more familiar street-wear designers. The highlight was by Made in Zuidoost, a specially selected group of ten young designers who with tutoring and advise from professionals,  put together a collection in just five days.  Amsterdam Zuidoost (which means south-east in Dutch) is the official name of the Bijlmer.

That the event was packed with a good mix of suburban and city visitors means the experiment to move the event to outside Amsterdam was a success.   Some of the work exhibited by the suburban designers was more derivative than the bolder city-based offerings, which organizers think expresses their differing priorities.

“Here in the Bijlmer the focus is more on looking good than starting a new trend,” Gottgens says.  “People from the city are much more eager to create their own things and the point is always to be original.  Here the people are vain and proud.  It is really important to look good rather than different, a mentality that probably came through in a lot of the designs.”

Still, it’s street culture’s commonality that Streetlab’s next chapter is about.  Their last events were in Istanbul and New York and the next step is to invite all the past participants back to Amsterdam for an international event.  The point is to further explore and celebrate the common roots and inspirations behind street culture design across the globe.  “Street culture is a way of living,” says Gottgens.  “It doesn't matter which culture or social class you are from because the lifestyle crosses all boundaries.”

For footage from the Streetlab ground click here.

Images from Made in Zuidoost

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