It’s often the case that culture moves faster than the vocabulary we have to describe it. Grunge, punk, rave, and so on – these are all terms that were eventually coined to give a name to an as-yet indescribable phenomenon emerging in city streets.
Such was the case with streetwear. Though we now throw it around on a daily basis without ever wondering what such a word means, there was a time when streetwear was still coming to terms with what, if anything, it actually was. Depending which decade you came of age in over the past 30 years, streetwear could referred to surfboards and tie-dye tees, baggy jeans and chunky skate shoes, hoodies and beanies with wild-style graffiti tag logos, or tailored tracksuits by the world’s biggest fashion houses. Take things back far enough, and you even get climbing pants and outdoors gear.
The Story of Gramicci
Enter Gramicci. It’s probably not a name that immediately comes to mind when we talk about the origins of streetwear – that spot is reserved for a certain Cali surf brand and another New York skate-cum-couture institution – the 1980s climbing brand played a huge role in changing the way people thought about outdoor gear, which until that point was largely functional, utilitarian, and dull.
The story goes that in the early ‘80s, a climber from California named Mike Graham embarked with a group of friends to be the first all-Italian team to climb Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Only there was just one problem: they weren’t Italian. The solution was to switch their names up, turning Graham into Gramicci.
In the years that followed, Graham would use this name for his outdoor clothing brand, which experienced a surge in popularity following the release of their technical climbing shorts in 1982. Designed with young explorers in mind, the shorts had a number of design features that gave them an edge over their competitors, a number of which have since found their way into fashion writ large, as well as the collections of several contemporary streetwear brands.
Most notably, Gramicci’s shorts and pants featured a unique crotch gusset which allowed for greater movement of the legs, which is pretty important when you’re trying to climb a vertical rock face. They also featured an integrated nylon belt, a simple feature that became somewhat of a design signature for Gramicci over the years.
As is the case with most brands that stumbled into streetwear associations at the time, Gramicci’s product proved popular beyond the outdoors world for the same reason many of the other now-iconic labels did. The product was affordable, well-made, practically-designed, and looked good. Their heyday was in the early ‘90s during the original streetwear and skateboarding boom, and Gramicci was a mainstay of skate and surf store brand rosters throughout the decade.
What Goes Up Must Come Down / Don’t Call It a Comeback
Sadly, it didn’t last. During the early 2000s, following ownership changes, restructurings and a general loss of direction, the brand fell out of favor and into financial trouble, allegedly owing to quality control issues, missed deliveries and a general output of poor, uninspiring designs.
Toward the end of the decade, Gramicci showed signs of rebuilding its lost reputation, but they never quite returned to their golden years. In recent years, however, the brand has seen a return to popularity thanks to the launch of a new Japanese offshoot. Japanese fashion consumers have always been known for their love of quality brands with a good story, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been effective in bringing Gramicci back in fine form, and we’re now starting to see their core product reappear in streetwear stockists across the world.
As for the streetwear connections, it’s worth taking a closer look at that. Right off the bat, the brand’s logo, a red stick drawing of a rock climber and a logotype written in a casual, freeform style, bears some resemblance to the aesthetic of Shawn Stüssy’s own brand, as well as the dreadlocked “Tribeman” silhouette which has appeared on the brand’s merchandise countless times over the decades. This isn’t to say that one copied the other so much as to acknowledge Gramicci’s place within the aesthetic of a late-’80s streetwear scene that was still finding its voice.
But it’s the distinctive design of Gramicci’s shorts and pants that’s most worth keeping an eye out for the next time you’re browsing your favorite streetwear brand’s latest collections. As recently as last season, Supreme has been dropping simple short designs featuring an integrated nylon belt, almost certainly as a nod to the Gramicci originals. If you think that’s a reach, consider that they also went to the effort of including the crotch gusset design as well. Stüssy this season dropped the latest version of their utility cargo pant. Needless to say, the built-in nylon belt is alive and kicking. Imitation is the best form of flattery, etc.
So maybe it’s no surprise that Gramicci has experienced a return to prominence in recent years. It’s not the first time that a major fashion label’s use of obscure references has inspired consumers to dig into the archives and discover the originals, or for brand owners to take a shot at seizing on a moment of silent recognition. In 2017, mastermind JAPAN, a brand known for making the most mundane of products prohibitively expensive by manufacturing to the highest standards, did their thing with Gramicci. have a good time followed up not long after with their own take on the durable trousers.
If You Know, You Know
Overall, the Gramicci story is one about the early days of streetwear, when stylish clothing was made strictly for style, functional clothing strictly for function, the two rarely ever crossing paths. When we think of streetwear and much of fashion today, we instinctively look for those technical features that make the garment more than “just a garment,” from unique fabric blends and weatherproof treatments to the simple addition of a chest pocket to a humble T-shirt.
But it was brands like Gramicci that first brought form and function together in the first place, in however simple a way. The fact that some of the world’s biggest brands today are still giving their shorts a nod just goes to show that, even nearly four decades on, those that know, know.