New Brand: Ben Davis

The Journey of the Gorilla

The road through the history and the cultural heritage of this through and through traditional American brand can hardly be walked without coming across influential people and cultural movements that have shaped not only the streetwear world, but all of us. By us, we mean not only those who are born between 1975 and 1985 and who remember the iconization of the West Coast Gangsta movement – to be fair, we‘re talking about the romanticized MTV version here – the attitude, the style. Quite a few of us have digged this, perhaps even emulated it, even if only on a small scale, because let’s be honest: We weren’t gangsta. But in times in which excessive police violence and crime were the focus topics of music, film and pop culture in the USA – the hub of our teenage world – this epitome of self-confidence, rebellion against the system and its authorities and of course that swag hit the right nerve with us.

We all felt what NWA and Eazy E were talking about. Even if we weren’t sitting in Compton, but maybe at Boxi or Schlesi. And even though our worlds seemed very different, if you were self-conscious, dissident or for instance of foreign origin life wasn‘t all rosy in Germany’s urban areas (actually still isn’t). And chances are high each one of us fit into at least one of these categories, some even into several or all of them. So what could be more obvious than to look for supposedly strong role models, having the desire to be just as rough & tough, to be invincible.

This feature is about the clothing brand Ben Davis, and yes we are rambling again, but there is a reason for that. Ben Davis is not just a clothing brand. It is not just clothing for a specific purpose. It is a statement, a reminiscence of the past, but at the same time also forward-looking. Visionairy even, but we will come to that. You can’t walk the road without looking back. Nor can you do so without respect for tradition and quality work and, finally, the desires of an entire generation. We have taken on the task to accompany you on this memory lane.

On our way we will meet Adam Yauch a.k.a. MCA from the Beastie Boys, Eazy E, NWA, King Tee, Bone Thugs n Harmony (or almost all West Coast rappers of these years), the Vatos Locos from the movie Bound by Honour as well as all the gangsta stereotypes in movies and music videos that influenced us. Baggy chinos with the stiffest crease, white tees and the mandatory flannel or workwear shirt with only the top button closed, paired with bandanas and symbolic necklaces, bracelets and rings as well as a pair of Nike Cortez, Air Force 1, Converse Chucks, Vans or K-Swiss – you know what we’re talking about. Workwear was quite the thing in those years and – not a surprise – it is again today (check our feature about Stan Ray and the general workwear mania oft he moment). The thing is, it was something we could afford, we could dress like our idols from Yo! MTV Raps. These were rugged, durable pieces to hang on the streets, spray graffitis, skate. What was built for hard, honest physical labor was just the right equipment for the urban hustle. This was not Paris Couture or London Chic, we’re talking honest, authentic, unpretentious clothing.

The origin of Ben Davis dates back to the middle 19th century, when the family was already able to establish their status as an important asset of the US clothing industry. In 1935 Ben Davis and his father Simon Davis founded the brand Ben Davis in San Francisco. In order to get an idea of the Davis’ influence on what workwear is today, Ben’s grandfather John Davis was instrumental in designing the original Levi’s jeans, partnering with the namesake fabric merchant to mass produce them.

Ben Davis started as a classic workwear label and was the first choice of American industry workers thanks to its sturdiness and uncompromising functionality. The trend-setting fashion aspect of workwear came many years later. It was not until various subcultures in the 1980s and 1990s chose the solid styles as their own type of uniform that workwear found its way into everyday fashion. Dr. Martens Boots and denim jackets became the basic equipment of the British punk scene, while skaters in California chose crash resistant clothing by the likes of Ben Davis, Dickies or Carhartt for their breakneck stunts. Ben Davis was particularly popular with the Chicano and Filipino communities in the USA, who created the previously mentioned distinctive style. There are debates about how West Coast rappers came to adopt this style, displaying it in their music videos in the mid-nineties, and whether it was legitimate or cultural appropriation, but we’re not going down that rabbit hole now.

In recent years, Ben Davis has also made a name for itself within the streetwear scene by doing collabs with cult brands such as Supreme, Opening Ceremony and with the Ben Davis Project Line, a special line of the brand that resulted from the workwear hype in Japan. But when talking about the pioneering role of workwear, it‘s about more than just hype. The core values of ruggedness, durability and high quality, which are more likely to be achieved through slow fashion techniques, will presumably become even more important when it comes to our clothing choices in the future. Conscious consumerism – if you want to talk about consumerism here – is key. And without boring you with a sustainability manifesto – right, we were just talking about MTV, gangsta style and West Coast Rap nostalgia – we have to point out that you make the better choice by buying one durable »Made in USA« item than five items of inferior quality that are »Made in Far East«. Baby Steps with a big impact. In our humble opinion, workwear (along with tech wear) is the clothing of the future that will outlast everything.

You can’t do education without a reference to the one and only late Gary Warnett, whose love for Ben Davis led him to the adaptation of the Gorilla logo for the logo design for his blog GWARIZM and who wrote a very interesting piece about Ben Davis a few years back:

»Let’s be clear here, who’s selling the aforementioned Pendleton, Chucks, Carhartt, Dickies, Ben Davis, khakis and white tees to you — some lookbook clown with a side parting who you could put in a chokehold, or some real OGs? That pride in the quality basics is a striking aesthetic that’s had more impact on the current wave of simple, quality looks than is credited.«

Enough said, have a look at Ben Davis at HHV:

Archive images: Ben Davis