Cool is a concept both bizarre and in demand on numerous levels, sometimes even simultaneously. It has the ability to exclude – to include – to alienate and to champion, and as a word is a recurring feature of contemporary dialogue. In a new book, incidentally which claims the label for its moniker, illustrator Greg Foley and trend forecaster Andrew Luecke have explored how subcultures from the 20th century to today have translated the notion on their own terms, using their own sartorial language.
Decorated throughout with Foley’s drawings, Cool: Style, Sound and Subversion is unique in its rejection of photography, a factor which both elevates and charms, while the tribes it covers – from 60s Mods to 00s Normcore and beyond – are as varied as they are aesthetically on point (Drake no doubt will be happy with the nod to Roadmen). Elsewhere an Apple Music series sees the pair play curator, with corresponding playlists dropping weekly. Below they fill us in on defining cool.
(LEFT) Afropunks (RIGHT) Greasers
What initially inspired the book?
Andrew Leuke: I’ve always been obsessed with subcultures and kept a list of ones I was interested in and wanted to explore more. One night, Greg asked me what kind of book I would do if I could do any book. I said it would be on these subcultures I’d been collecting. He was like, “Same.”
Greg Foley: When we first started thinking about it, Andrew and I both wondered whether new subcultures were still happening anymore. I mean, a couple of years ago when we started, it didn’t seem like there was all that much for youth to rebel against – now look where we are! It’s like a new age of resistance culture worldwide.
Totally. And putting the obvious aside, what drew you to using illustrations for the project, as opposed to photography for example?
GF: I sort of knew that securing the rights to publish all the images we’d need would be problematic. And since I’m also an illustrator, I thought we could create a more unique and personal look for the whole project. We did a ton of image research for each group and whittled it down. In the end I’m glad everything hangs together so consistently, down to the hundreds of little album cover icons I made for the playlists.
AL: Greg’s artwork did so much for the book. First of all, it allowed us to nail all the most important details. We were taking from historical sources, but no photo exists that encapsulates any subculture in full, so it was really a triumph of information. Plus, let’s face it, the illustrations are amazing, detailed but energetic. They turned what might have only been reference material into an art work. People with different interests can experience the book on different levels, and I think that art work level is in some ways the most special and exciting. The illustrations are just really fun too; you can look at them for days.
Talk us through “style, sound and subversion”?
AL: Those are the three ingredients of cool.
GF: Culturally speaking. The operative part is subversion. Mixing things up.
In terms of contributors, what were people’s initial reactions when you reached out?
GF: Well it’s not like everyone we approached just hopped on board. But for the ones who got it, they were really supportive in helping us shape our understanding of the material. Andrew and I were really honored to have some of our heroes participate with us, from Peter Saville to Ice-T.
AL: For sure. And then Sasha Frere-Jones read all my early drafts before submitting his excellent essay, which, coming from a writer of his stature and talent, was really amazing. When he sent in his piece, you could tell he really read what I wrote and was into it. I was pretty touched by that.
GF: And Shepard Fairey went above and beyond by writing a short history for each of the songs he picked. But most surprising was that Glenn O’Brien, who really challenged us in regard to categorising all these uncompromising cultures, ended up giving us a great selection of No Wave tracks and a short piece on it, that really helps define “resistance” in the book.
AL: Then Ice-T gave this amazing quote with his list of his favorite gangster rap songs. Like, “Gangster rap is apolitical, told from the viewpoint of a criminal.” It was so cool and exciting. Hero status. Like Greg said, we felt really honored.
What was the most surprising thing you learned through producing the book?
GF: That there will always be another culture to discover. One you had no idea existed.
AL: I was a little bit surprised at how often certain cultural markers came up throughout the research. Like, the zoot suit or drape suit, and how it went from Harlem jazz guys to California pachucos to French zazous and German swing kids, and even influenced English Teddy boys. At times, it felt like a book about zoot suits.
GF: The Wild One starring Marlon Brando also came up over and over, and it was cool to see these common influences blossom in different ways for different subcultures.
And in terms of gender, what were the most significant differences you noticed in the context of subcultures?
AL: Well, one of the things we noticed right away was just how influential women and female-oriented subcultures were right from the start. Like the flappers in the 1920s, they’re the first subculture in the book, and they made huge cultural waves, getting jobs, dancing, smoking, making out with boys they weren’t married to, listening to jazz, and breaking all these rules about how women were supposed to behave at the time. They were really influential and were shaping media and movies and driving record sales from the start. With Bobby Soxers in the 1940s we saw a similar thing. These young women were a cultural and economic force. They were teeny boppers and they turned Frank Sinatra into a superstar, a phenomenon that would continue into the 50s with Elvis and the 60s with The Beatles and even the 70s with Led Zeppelin.
GF: That makes sense though, since these subcultures are all about resisting power structures and breaking out.
AL: Clearly, women have had so much to rebel against. It’s cool to see that influence start with flappers and then end up with Riot Grrrls in the 90s. Most of the subcultures we covered featured men and women, and though it’s hard to say they were always equal, the same thing applies. Like female Mods were the ones who really influenced pop culture and fashion, with Twiggy and Mary Quant and their shift dresses. They were more of a global, cultural force than male Mods. On the other hand, some subcultures are just so quintessentially male and even excluded women for various reasons. Outlaw bikers don’t allow women to join their clubs, while the gay leatherman scene started out as exclusively male for sexual reasons, though it later opened up and embraced lesbian women.
Which subcultures have you been a part of, or ever been attracted to?
AL: Man, I’ve always been into this kind of stuff, and I’ve tried out so many. When I was five years old I was into breakdancing and my grandmother in LA would mail me cool stuff you couldn’t get in Colorado, like satin track suits or Ellesse high-tops. Later, I was heavily into punk and skateboarding, and then also went through a collegiate preppy phase. When you’re young, you feel like you have to choose sides, choose a subculture, but luckily, as you get older most people feel like they can let those different parts of their personalities and interests coexist. So yeah, punk, prep, and skateboarding are the ones that have really stuck with me.
GF: Yeah, like many people I’ve dabbled. My dark side always relates to goth, but once upon a time I was fully fledged preppy back in grade school.
Why do you think ‘cool’ is such a constant area of interest?
GF: Because in a way, it defines a balance of “effortless” and “uncontrollable” that most of us would love to embody.
AL: The word literally comes out of African American culture, meaning stay calm in the face of all this oppression, violence, and bullshit. Cops pull a gun on you for no reason? Be cool. Stay cool. It’s a survival tactic that allows anyone who’s oppressed to communicate with each other to remain above and out of reach of oppressors. That hasn’t changed, and for many people cool is still a matter of life and death.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever witnessed?
AL: When I was eight years old, I went to a Chuck Berry concert. It was my first concert and he was old, but he was duck-walking and ripping and had that big, old Gibson guitar and his hair all done. He’s rock and roll’s greatest song writer, greatest guitarist, and greatest mythologizer. It was so cool, I still can’t believe I saw it in person.
GF: For me so far? The first sonogram of my unborn daughter. So cool, it brought tears to my eyes.
Finally, when do you think you were at your coolest?
AL: I’m still waiting to peak. Hopefully someday.
(LEFT) Club Kids (RIGHT) Roadmen
Cool: Style, Sound, and Subversion is out now, published by Rizzoli; discover more here.