In September, Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez released a video titled “Desert Tide,” to celebrate their new store on Madison Ave. But instead of casting a big-name model, as other fashion labels might, they created a futuristic animation with online simulator Second Life. Stringy-haired avatars wandered through a desert oasis dressed in Proenza’s spring collection as dolphins waltzed through the air. It was a trippy reenactment of a '90s video game, like the countless retro designs that have recently become popular online. It came as no surprise, then, that Hernandez and McCullough based their latest collection on images they found on Tumblr.
And Proenza is not alone. This year, everything from Twitter memes to Tumblr photos have inspired fashion designers. Though one Internet trend has stood apart from the rest: Seapunk. An Internet phenomenon born on Twitter, Seapunk is a visual language that blends the look of the mid-90s Internet with neons and oceanic elements—as Anya Kurennaya, a sociologist at Parsons put it, it’s defined by a “very web 1.0, Windows ’95 aesthetic.” And now, like the Proenza animation, the fashion world is drawing inspiration from Seapunk—much to the chagrin of its founders.
The movement (characterized by smirking dolphins, palm fronds, bubbles, tropical fish, and Caribbean-colored waters) began in 2010, when a Brooklyn-based DJ named Lil’ Internet recalled a trippy dream on Twitter: “Seapunk leather jacket with barnacles where the studs used to be.” From then on, #Seapunk has taken a larger hold in music and fashion, with elements of the trend being reflected in designs by Versace and Givenchy. Another staple of Seapunk is turquoise-colored hair, which this year has been worn by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. There’s even a Seapunk record label, Coral Records Internazionale, that distributes albums with titles lsuch as “Frozen Ocean,” “Soaked,” and “The Beach.” Even singers such as Rihanna and Azealia Banks have adapted the movement’s imagery into their own music videos and performances—outraging the Seapunk community who wants to remain underground.
But Seapunk’s adaptation into popular culture doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Historically, fashion and entertainment have always pulled inspiration from emerging fringe movements. Though in the age of information, that adaptation happens with rapid speed—rendering a subculture as ‘mainstream’ in the blink of an eye. “The industry is always looking for something new and it just happens that new fashions are consistently plucked from subcultures,” says Yuniya Kawamura, a professor at FIT and a fashion sociologist specializing in subcultures. “Music, fashion, and subcultures are always interrelated, it doesn’t matter which time period you look at.” Kawamura sites the rise of punk as a contending model for subculture proliferation. “Punk fashion started in London in the mid 70s and came to Asia five or 10 years later. Now if you want to spread something, you can just tweet it,” she explained, “You can use the Internet to recruit new members, but you’re spreading the subculture as well.” As a result, an outpouring of media attention has surrounded Seapunk, with profiles penned by everyone from Vice to The New York Times.
It helps that Seapunk is entwined with a 1990s aesthetic, which has taken hold in the fashion world. This year alone, Dries Van Noten tied plaid around his models’ waists à la Kurt Cobain, and Urban Outfitters began selling a range of archival items by ’90s backpack outfitter Lisa Frank. “It’s funny that we have a nostalgia for something from 10 or 15 years back, but it’s something that has to do with the speeding up of information,” Kurennaya said, of the '90s ‘vintage’ appeal.
But while Seapunk’s proliferation has mainly been visual, the movement also represents a lifestyle of self-discovery and free expression. “As a mentality, the [Seapunk] lifestyle is about looking at your own surroundings,” Seapunk performer Zombelle, who goes by the offstage name Shan Beaste, explained of the movement. “If you are not happy with them, change them and make your own paradise. A lot of that can be done on the Internet which is why it’s mainly Internet-based.”
As a result, Seapunk’s embrace by the public has become a Catch-22 for the movement’s die-hard participants. Tumblr has proven a remarkable tool for sourcing new members everywhere from Brazil to New Zealand, but has also accelerated Seapunk’s adaptation into the mainstream. In early November, Azealia Banks released the music video for her single “Atlantis” in which she swims alongside seahorses, catches a ride on a humpback whale, and lounges amid mermaid iconography. The Seapunk community erupted at Banks’s use of unfriendly sea creatures. “Mermaids are vicious harpies who lure sailors to their death, they aren’t PLUR,” Beaste explained of the outrage, referencing the raver philosophy that stands as an acronym for “Peace Love Unity Respect,” ideology that has also been adapted by Seapunks. Things got worse later that week, when Rihanna used Seapunk graphics as a backdrop during her performance of “Diamonds” on Saturday Night Live.
It triggered an outpouring of complaints against celebrity endorsement. “Wow amazing Rihanna performance, I love seeing my Tumblr on SNL,” Bebe Zeva, a teenage Seapunk posted on Twitter. “Tumblr is so public and serviceable to anyone that its not surprising how Rihanna and someone on her team would have seen this and thought it was a great visual,” Kurennaya explained to The Daily Beast. “I think people came down on her use of the aesthetic because she had never identified with that idea before … for her to use it in a one-off way seemed [to them] like a half-assed attempt to include a Seapunk visual, one that could really be interpreted as inauthentic.”
But Seapunk diehards may not have the right to complain if celebrities endorse their imagery. “They don’t want celebrities to spread it, however if they want to remain marginal and exclusive then they shouldn’t tweet or blog about it,” Kawamura explained, “once people start talking about it then it’s no longer marginal.” Kurennaya agreed, offering, “A classical definition of subculture is ‘something that exists in opposition to the mainstream,’ and if you think about that, that’s no longer the case [with Seapunk]. I think once something hits public consciousness, things have begun to fall apart.”