Stone Island’s public image is characterized by a curious mix of name recognition and misconception. It’s not unusual for the original, intended purpose of a brand and its products to be overwhelmed by the cultural perception of it, but Stone Island have definitely suffered from this phenomenon more than most. It’s probably fair to say that most people, even those who are familiar with the Stone Island name, are not aware of just how influential Stone Island have been.
The Stone Island story must invariably detour through the murky world of football hooliganism, specifically, its English variant. Obviously, hooliganism has always been closely intertwined with youth culture. Just as obviously, fashion was an integral part of this youth culture. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the embryonic stage of modern hooliganism, the participants would be easily recognizable to each other, outsiders, and the forces of law and order out to thwart their activities. The dominant style was closely tied to the skinhead scene: heavy boots, bomber/flight jackets, and heads shorn down to a number one crop. Club colors, usually in the form of scarves were openly sported.
Naturally, the spectacle of very public violence in England’s stadiums became an issue of governmental concern. The easily identifiable uniform of the hooligan was set for a stylistic shift. The casual was born.
The ‘casual’ movement was named for the designer sportswear and leisurewear favored by this new breed of hooligan. The emphasis on style took on an even greater role, and bordered on the obsessive. The early stages of casual fashion were focused on designer sportswear and leisurewear labels. Adidas, Puma, Fila, Ellesse, Sergio Tacchini, and Lacoste were favorites. Just as importantly, there were few, if any, identifying club colors in sight. The practical effect of this was to make the participants in violent disorder more difficult to identify. Anyone could pick out an angry looking skinhead as a source of potential trouble, someone dressed like an instructor at an elite tennis academy, less so.
While specific styles changed, and certain looks and brands fell out of favor, the overall concept of ‘anonymous’ sportswear and leisurewear never went out of fashion. Fred Perry, Nike, Hackett, Burberry, and, most importantly for our purposes, Stone Island became popular during this evolutionary period.
At the same time, the English game was undergoing a fundamental shift in culture, as the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report paved the way for massive, structural modernization. An influx of big money from the Premier League rebranding raised ticket prices across the board. The terraces were on their way out for good, and the hooligans with them. Obviously, cutting off access to the stadiums didn’t eradicate hooliganism; it just made it less visible. Violence and its participants became more organized, and the casual ‘uniform’ became more important along with it, as a way to identify willing combatants.
This became a bigger issue for Stone Island than most, if not all, of the other brands and labels favored by the new breed hooligans. The trademarked rose compass logo is frequently bootlegged on enamel badges proclaiming the identity of one hooligan group or another. It is probably a close race at any given time between Stone Island and British Rail over whose logo has been ripped off more times.
Stone Island, as a newer high end fashion label, carried less name recognition than established brands like Burberry and Aquascutum and a higher barrier to entry than massive sportswear labels like Adidas, Puma, Fila, and Lacoste. For many, football violence was the only context in which they had ever seen or heard of Stone Island.
As Nick Hornby deftly pointed out in ‘Fever Pitch,’ while discussing Milwall’s decades long image problem, once a reputation for violence becomes attached to something, that thing becomes sought out by those actively looking to commit more violence, creating a self perpetuating cycle. This can be a difficult situation to extract a brand from. Burberry, for instance, was forced to more or less abandon their iconic plaid because it came to be associated with urban violence rather than country houses. To this day, there are pubs, bars, and nightclubs in the UK that will not allow anyone wearing Stone Island gear inside.
This would be unfortunate for anyone, but for Stone Island, this state of affairs borders on a downright injustice. Stone Island is the brainchild of Massimo Osti, a legitimate fashion pioneer and genius. These are not words to be thrown around lightly. They are used to describe a man who started off his career without a formal background in fashion (originally, Osti worked as a graphic designer) and ended it as the recognized inventor of a number of production techniques that would be familiar to anyone interested in fashion. The list of Osti’s innovations reads like an unending, high-end catalogue description: garment dying, brushed wool, waterproof linen and wool, reflective fabric, and coolmax, just to name a few.
More than any one, specific breakthrough, what set Massimo Osti apart during his life and what continues to set Stone Island apart today, is the experimental approach to constructing garments. Somewhat paradoxically, this drive for never ending innovation is rooted in a very traditional Italian ethic. The high prices of legacy Italian luxury brands were reflected in the craftsmanship of the garment, the quality of the materials, and a timeless sense of style. Buying something from labels like Gucci or Prada was an investment in something that, properly cared for, would have a lifespan of decades. The same could be said of Stone Island. A traditional piece of leather luggage and modern outerwear with a phone and mp3 player wired into the garment do not share a lot of outward similarities, but the quality and care put into the design and construction are the same.
This ethic is something largely lost in the contemporary marketplace. Traditional labels went from family ownership to part of a larger conglomerate, which, in turn, led to wider proliferation of merchandise, much of which was not produced according to past standards. The introduction of so-called “fast fashion” further diluted the retail landscape. The end result is that name recognition is often the only thing that survives in the consciousness of the average customer.
When the sense of what exactly went into the production of a garment is not at the forefront of a potential customer’s mind, there is bound to be sticker shock when confronted with the retail price of a truly top quality piece. If a proper explanation never comes, the concept of “a five-hundred dollar sweatshirt” becomes a punch line.
Stone Island have never stopped their commitment to experimentation and innovation. Knowing the specifics of every garment is beside the point, and would, in all likelihood be a project; Stone Island’s internal product write ups are like a technical manual. The thing to know about Stone Island isn’t that their clothes look good, it is that their clothes look good, explicitly, because they are doing things that no one else is doing, even with something as deceptively simple as a crew neck sweatshirt.
For more information and archival images like the ones above check out the first book about Massimo Osti, "Ideas From Massimo Osti" Available Now.
Scroll on to see select pieces from Stone Island's A/W '15 Collection.
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Words: Dan Alvarez
Photography: Tommy Boudreau