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Kurt Cobain, style icon

The oversized cardigans, those bug-eye shades, the ripped jeans and flannel shirts -- 30 years on from his death, Kurt Cobain’s style lives on as much as his music. It may have disturbed the anti-corporate icon to see how his thrift-store outfits have been repurposed into ultra-expensive garms. But from the moment Nirvana’s breakout single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” took over MTV—with Cobain wearing two second-hand T-shirts one over the other, his unkempt hair hanging down his face—a style was born that has never really died.

“He grew up in poverty and doubled up his clothes to mask how thin he was, which he was always self-conscious about, despite being a good-looking guy,” said Charlotte Blum, author of a book on grunge culture. The band recruited extras for the “Teen Spirit” video with a flyer that read: “No clothing with name brands or logos please!” But the brands found him anyway.

In 1992, designer Marc Jacobs paid homage to the Seattle grunge scene with a catwalk show in which cheap flannel shirts and lumberjack coats were reimagined in silk and cashmere. He sent samples to Cobain as a tribute. “Do you know what we did with it?” his wife Courtney Love later told fashion site WWD. “We burned it. We were punkers—we didn’t like that kind of thing.”

‘Anti-look’

The style was partly accidental—the clothes were the natural cheap workwear of poor youngsters in the chilly Pacific Northwest. But Cobain also understood the importance of image and authenticity. “It was an anti-look, ramshackle, but the guy was a paradox—he paid a lot of attention to it,” said Marc Dufaud, author of a recent book on the singer. Mirroring the rejection of societal norms in Nirvana’s music, the ripped-and-patched look of Cobain’s clothes became the uniform of a generation.

Jacobs told The Telegraph in 2011 that the grunge show was his favorite, even though it got him fired from the label Perry Ellis. “It was about... a dismissal of everything that one was told was beautiful, correct, glamorous, sexy,” he said. “I think that moment hasn’t passed. It’s morphed into different things but it really hasn’t passed.”

Cobain might be horried to see the money now involved. Paris label Vetements recently issued a $1,150 version of the cardigan he wore at Nirvana’s famous MTV Unplugged performance in 1993. The real thing sold at auction in 2019 for $334,000. Saint Laurent and Dries Van Noten have run versions of his favorite bug-eyed shades that have shown up on popstars including Jay-Z, Harry Styles, Migos.

Fashion statements

But Cobain would no doubt welcome the way some of his fashion statements still reverberate. An early critic of mysogyny and homophobia, he wore women’s clothes on stage—recently replicated by rappers (and avowed Nirvana fans) Kid Cudi and Post Malone. For the cover of Rolling Stone, Cobain’s T-shirt read “Corporate magazines still suck”. He popularized the wearing of band tees, promoting outsider artists like Daniel Johnson (today, of course, the most popular is Nirvana’s).

Then, when grunge took over the world, he couldn’t resist subverting his own image, sporting a sparkly top by French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier in the video for 1993’s “Heart-Shaped Box” and opting for suits, white shirts and ties in later performances and photo shoots. It could have all devolved into parody. But by then, the pressure of being the icon of a generation was taking its toll. “Cobain wanted to become a star but he was overtaken by the speed of it—he intended it to be gradual, but that album (Nevermind) wasn’t just successful, it defined a genre,” said Dufaud. Cobain died by suicide on April 5, 1994, aged 27. — AFP

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