Young journalists everywhere, let this be a lesson to you!
I wrote this piece while attending Langara College’s J-School and never got around to shopping it.
Anyhow, here’s my take on how fightwear, gang violence and Vancouver’s nightlife scene all collided a few years ago. Thanks to Rob Dykstra for the editing. The horrible metaphors and languid pacing are all my fault!
How Barwatch knocked out Vancouver’s macho brands
By Mike Hager
Grown men cheer as they witness knees connect with cheeks and feet slam into temples from various angles as another UFC pay-per-view fight fills downtown Vancouver’s Shark Club on a Saturday night.
In the middle of the bar at a long table a group of athletic thirty and forty-somethings sit, momentarily spellbound after one fighter successfully “grounds and pounds” his opponent into submission. Interludes of pumping music drown out the boasting of guys explaining why their fighter is superior on the ground. Girlfriends sip drinks and feign interest. Across downtown Vancouver hundreds of weekend warriors — some with ears cauliflowered from their own pugilism — have paid up to $12 to watch the sport’s 128th title match.
The bloody battles are sponsored by the “fightwear” giant Affliction, but only a fistful of patrons are wearing the brand name T-shirts adorned with Olde English script that have come to identify the macho subculture known as mixed martial arts.
Several years ago, during the height of clubland gang shootings, a sartorial scandal erupted in Vancouver’s nightlife scene when businesses from the public safety initiative known as Barwatch banned the bedazzled brands favoured by gangsters and MMA fans.
These nightspots have an unwritten rule labeling any patron wearing brands like Ed Hardy, Affliction, Smet or TapouT as a troublemaker unfit for entry. These brands are known for their sparkly depictions of tribal tattoos, skulls and hearts and often feature medieval-looking fonts.
Several years on, Vancouver police cite this initiative as one of the tactics that have cut down on violent gang activity in the city. The meteoric rise of MMA now means some Barwatch members show the profitable pay-per-view events. But, their
comprehensive ban has helped kill any chance these brands have of regaining their popularity among trendy clubgoers.
Owners of Vancouver’s hotspots knew they had to take action in 2007 after a spate of high-profile shootings targeted gangsters throughout Metro Vancouver that fall. Convicted criminials like Gurmit Singh Dhak — a 29-year-old who served time for shooting a man in the face — were being taken out at restaurants like the swanky Quattro on Fourth in the affluent Kitsilano neighbourhood.
As drug gangs jockeyed for territory and market share, an undercurrent of fear overshadowed the average person’s night out in the city.
“Barwatch was a business and police initiative,” says Mountie Sgt. Shinder Kirk , spokesman for B.C.’s gang task force. “What we had seen was a considerable amount of violence in and around entertainment districts, not just only in Vancouver, but throughout Metro Vancouver.”
After the increased violence Barwatch members stepped up their security tactics and outlawed several brands they claimed attracted a dangerous crowd.
Barwatch had previously drawn the ire of clubgoers for it’s swiping and storing of each patrons driver’s licence information. The database system for monitoring troublemakers also got the attention of provincial privacy commissioner David Loukidelis, who in 2009 ruled the program violated B.C.’s Personal Information Privacy Act.
After making a deal with Loukidelis, the Barwatch bars were allowed to keep swiping and storing a patron’s information as long as they deleted it after 24 hours. But, if bar staff determine a patron caused a problem, then that patron’s information can be kept for up to a year. The authorities didn’t weigh in on the clothing ban, because citizens entering private properties have to abide by the rules of the premises.
Many aficionados of the increasingly popular brands made a stink online saying the ban was autocratic and the cops had no business policing the closets of everyday citizens. Vancouver clothing designer Jason Dussault helped lead the charge.
Dussault, who looks more postmodern biker than savvy entrepreneur, made his money securing financing for Vancouver start-ups and before creating Dussault Apparel Inc. When in stock, his embroidered hoodies run anywhere from $300 to $1,500 at Vancouver’s high-end men’s boutiques.
Dussault, a high-school dropout from Kamloops, like to cover his clothes in macabre imagery. This includes the usual cast of badass creatures like demons, snakes and eagles as well as his own sadistic Peter the Panda and misogynistic Spuzzum the Clown characters.
The businessman was so incensed by the ban that during last year’s Vancouver Fashion Week he debuted a line of “Barwatch Baby” T-shirts.
“It’s a nanny state, we’re being controlled by the government,” Dussault says over the phone from L.A. — where he recently moved his family for the second season of his nationally broadcast Citytv reality show.
He thinks the ban received little attention here in Canada “because it’s a quaint little country. We’ve been taught not to stand up and not to say anything but sorry. Gene [Simmons of the rock supergroup Kiss] reminds me all the time the 5th thing out of our mouths is always sorry.”
During the fashion-week show, helmet-clad models with megaphones marched down the runway in nothing but the shirts and high heels to Darth Vader theme music. On the front were depictions of an infantile Stalin or Napoleon (Dussault says he nixed Mao and Hitler) wearing Barwatch logos and standing in front of the velvet rope. An awareness ribbon with the words “Fuck Censorship” adorned the backs of the T-shirts.
“We’re being told what to wear, what to eat, if we can smoke cigarettes or not. The world has become too controlled and people can’t make their own decisions,” Dussault says.
Dussault voiced his discontent with the ban online, through his clothing and by approaching the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to file a legal complaint. Initially the BCCLA was interested in the possible violation of Charter rights. But, its interest soon cooled after more shootings from gangs associated with the macho labels.
“It was a tough thing to back. To be honest with you, there’s a large group of douchebags that wear that [Ed Hardy] brand,” Dussault recalls.
“I tried to lead the charge and no one backed it up.”
It’s late Saturday and downtown nightlife is abuzz with swarms of drunk suburbanites who crowd into cheap pizza joints and chat away as they wait the often arbitrary period of time to get into the clubs. Collared shirts, hoodies, jeans and high-end T-shirts abound, yet Ed Hardy and the fightwear brands are conspicuously absent. The clothing ban has taken its toll on the fist-pumping couture-clad masses.
A veteran of the industry, the Shark Club’s hulking general manager Tim Murphy says his patrons now accept those brands are banned.
“What I see is tonight, for instance, we have this [UFC] event here and I don’t see anybody wearing any of it. No couture, nothing…” Murphy says he reluctantly enforces the ban. “We support Barwatch because we’re one of them, and I think that you hate to influence people and what they’re wearing, but at the same time we want to conform to what everybody else is doing so we just go along with it.
“It doesn’t mean they’re bad people for wearing it.”
Just up the street at Library Square one bouncer disagrees, “People who wear that brand are the brand,” meaning they’re the ones starting fights.
Adam Brennan Smith, 26, is a personal trainer and a fanatic of MMA. He was also one of dozens of people angry enough to join online anti-Barwatch groups who say the ban amounts to “borderline harassment” when they can’t go out and have fun with their friends.
“I just think some jerkoff is going to start a fight with someone whether he’s wearing a button-up shirt or a TapouT shirt. It’s still the same person wearing a different shirt,” Smith says.
He does concede that the brawler sporting TapouT — one of MMA’s most successful clothing brands — is much more likely to finish the fight. Smith says the ban stigmatizes MMA as dangerous after it has already undergone the complete transformation from anarchic bloodsport to legitimate athletic pursuit. He proudly wears fightwear outside the gym to support the fact he trains in ju-jitsu.
“It doesn’t mean I’m going out there trying to be a tough guy and start fights with somebody at all. It just means that I’m there to support the sport that I love.”
Smith sees no difference between wearing a gothic Anderson Silva T-shirt and a Sidney Crosby hockey jersey. Both support a sport, one is just a little edgier. Smith says he consciously alters his clothing before hitting the town.
“When I’m going out to the bar now, I’m obviously going to have to think ahead and plan on what I’m wearing. Because if I’m going to go there and stand in line for half an hour to get to the front, they’re just going to tell me to go home.”
Smith can see the irony between a bouncer’s main purpose of disrupting violence and letting in people wearing something called fightwear. But he contends, “Fighting and barfighting are two different things, totally different situations… a lotta the time it does get roped together because the general public does see it that way.”
Shawn Mostafa and his mohawked friend look like anything but members of the general public as they walk the Robson shopping district on a busy Sunday afternoon in their bright Ed Hardy gear. With his mesh-backed hat and their bedazzled casualwear, Mostafa and his friend are the types of guys getting tossed from bars for their clothing choices. Yet, Mostafa, somewhat sleepy after a long night, works the door at Fabric nightclub and admits he’s had to turn away people in Ed Hardy gear while working at other bars.
“I used to work at other clubs where they used to do that… I think it was stupid. I didn’t like it. We got ordered to by the club policy. Usually police don’t like that stuff. They think those brands bring violence. I really oppose that ban, no brand brings violence.”
The drowsy Mostafa thinks he knows the real culprit.
“Alchohol brings violence. Why don’t they ban alcohol?”
Mostafa, like Smith, sees any sport promoting a healthy lifestyle as good for society.
“Ban the people by the people, not for what they’re wearing. That’s pretty oldschool, lotta these guys [gangsters] are wearing suits these days, but if you’re wearing Ed Hardy, ‘Oh, he’s a gangster.’”
The fact is gangsters often wear the banned brands to show off their ability to drop huge money on a T-shirt or hoodie. Gang Task Force spokesman Sgt. Shinder Kirk says it’s not just a question of the clothing when identifying gangsters.
“We know the gang members that we deal with tend to try and show their wealth by buying higher types of brands,” Sgt. Kirk says. “But, other people are very successful in business and buy those types of brands.”
Incredibly, Kirk says Barwatch’s blanket ban on macho brands was news to him, but in any case the gang squad doesn’t look at a person’s clothing. Instead Kirk says “It’s not the brand, it’s the individual that we’re concerned with.”
Indeed, if Kirk and company are identifying gangsters in Vancouver’s restaurants and nightclubs by these brands they are in trouble, because nowadays Affliction, Ed Hardy and the like are extremely hard to find.
“Those kids just took off their shirts. They’re the same people going down to Granville Street and causing fights every week,” says club promoter and DJ Jason Sulyma. “They could be wearing spacesuits next week and they’re still going to kick in a bathroom door, say something offensive to a girl or pick a fight.”
Sulyma —who deejays around the city as MY! GAY! HUSBAND! — says people didn’t understand when he started banning these brands from his parties at the Biltmore Cabaret in 2007. Sulyma and his indie kid friends delighted in barring macho guys wearing these labels from their parties.
“They didn’t understand it ’cuz they were always used to getting their way and kids that looked like us were always getting bounced.”
On the phone recuperating in his bed after a debaucherous Vancouver music showcase at Austin’s SXSW festival, Sulyma says the ban isn’t about fashion.
“I dress like a bum, I have three black shirts and three black jeans. That’s what I wear.”
It’s about quality control. The people in those brands exert a mentality not welcome in a fun party atmosphere Sulyma argues. “The hypermasculinity — every guy has it — the guy in the best jean jacket with the best punk patches, he’s hypermasculine. I believe that I’m a masculine man, but I don’t let that pour out when I go to the club. You know that there’s girls trying to have fun, there’s people trying to have fun. And that’s not the place for a male ego in the full sense of the word.”
He says it’s within everybody’s right to feel cool, but the people in these macho brands often cross the line.
“You know the one loud guy you grew up with in high school that always said stupid dumb fucking stuff just to get attention, but everyone still liked him ’cuz he’s a prettyboy or whatever… It’s just being a jerk. That’s what it is — ruining people’s fun.”
Sulyma, founder and organizer of the independent Olio music festival, finds it hilarious today’s tough guys are wearing styles first made popular by Vancouver’s gay community.
“Gay cats used to wear that Ed Hardy and Affliction style. They were huge, you’d go to gay clubs and there’d be guys with old English fonts and the raven underneath and sparkles on his shoulder.”
Once they became more mainstream, Sulyma says pioneers of the brands “were like, ‘We don’t wear this when the sun’s up and we don’t beat each other up. We’re gay, we have sex with each other.’ That’s all these guys want to do is make out with each other, but they’re too scared. It’s just really funny that we saw this style going from underground gay parties to gay cats making clothes for celebrities. And then you see Justin Timberlake with some sparkly Ed Hardy hat for some weird reason.”
“Like you’re ever going to tell them, ‘Oh I used to see those types of shirts in really rad gay stores in the early 2000s.’ They’d just punch you out,” says Sulyma.
When asked if he knew his about his favourite brands’ early popularity in Vancouver’s gay culture the bouncer Mostafa coolly brushes it off, “no idea, I didn’t know.”
Gay or not, clothing styles are part of a variety of cues in one’s environment that can influence people’s actions. Brand expert and SFU business professor Stephen Kates doesn’t know whether banning clothes is the answer, but says people are sensitive to these cues.
“If you get rid of some of those visual cues you could affect the level of violence.”
As athletic shoppers look for the coolest new $60 T-shirt at BoysCo’s flagship store on Robson Street , they are engulfed by heavy bass and pop rap. About a year ago, the store stopped selling Ed Hardy because their prices had become to low to make any profit says store manager Lindsay Walstra.
The ephemeral nature of fashion means brands come and go, but Vancouverites’ hunger for the Hardy was especially voracious at one point.
“There’s never been anything to replace a brand like that,” Walstra laments. “There hasn’t been a brand where people go crazy. “You pull it out of the box and people coming in say, ‘Oh what’s that? I want that, I’ll take one in each colour.’ It doesn’t happen anymore.”
Across the street, Below the Belt saw these macho brands taking up almost a third of the store at their peak. Affliction and Ed Hardy are now relegated to a small discount table choked out by other brands now considered to have more cache.
Dussault knows better than anyone the effect Barwatch’s clothing ban had on the partying public. “People, when it comes down to it don’t give a shit, they’ll just buy another shirt.”