I was in 7th grade when I had my first tracksuit epiphany. A group of us were staging a fashion show as part of a talent presentation, and my then crush John McKay was going to walk down the runway (a.k.a. the cafetorium stage) in my Adidas tearaways. As a self-described tastemaker-in-training, I naturally owned a pair of the sought-after pants and insisted they be included. I watched from behind the curtain as John McKay (he was a first name, last name kind of crush) reached the end of the parquet-floored stage and, just as we’d planned, tore them off, revealing his white boxers. The screams reached Boyz II Men–concert level (it was the ’90s, guys) and launched him into permanent heartbreaker status. This, I thought, is fashion: pure and transformative.
I started getting back into urban athleisure in my late teens. I was a fashion student at Ryerson University, and this time it was Jennifer Lopez in a baby-pink booty-shorts sweatsuit and gold hoop earrings in her “I’m Real (Remix)” video that had me running to the closest mall. It was the height of Juicy Couture mania, and that image became the entire basis of my early university look. I copped a similar brown TNA sweatsuit from Aritzia that I wore tirelessly with a floppy suede hat, hoop earrings and cheap iridescent sunglasses to the local pub–cum–hot spot. As I sipped my $3 bottle of Keith’s and swayed seductively to strains of Ja Rule and Ashanti, I thought I was at peak hotness, despite the zero dates the look procured. “It…must…be the aaaaaaaass,” Ja Rule mused about J. Lo in their collab “Ain’t It Funny”—but as far as I was concerned, it was the plush velour coating her perky posterior that had him “like, damn!”
Fast-track to spring 2016, when a surfeit of suits of the extreme leisure variety populated the runways. At Chloé, Clare Waight Keller reimagined classic ’70s-striped zip-ups as a foil to her frilly, romantic, bohemian things. Jonathan Anderson rendered his own version of the Juicy classic, upcycled in luxurious strips of suede (RIP, velour, relic of the 2000s—you are missed) for Loewe. Meanwhile, at Gucci’s latest men’s presentation, Alessandro Michele introduced embroidered, gender-bending versions that married Dapper Dan flash and Walter Benjamin intellectualism. Need more proof that the sport suit has returned as low-meets-high-brow icon? Juicy Couture’s signature sweats are currently on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for an exhibit entitled “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.” (Oops, apparently the soft, woke-up-like-this wear was never intended to leave the house?)
But if the humble leisure suit has found a real sweet spot in the zeitgeist, it’s among the young, progressive labels elevating the notion of comfort and, at the same time, flipping it right over. Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy is making a name for himself with sweatsuits emblazoned with a bootlegged Tommy Hilfiger logo featuring his own name (in Russian characters) in place of the original. The overall effect is Balkan thug at the Buvljak (translation: a low-end flea market in my native Serbia).
A similarly brilliant knock-off is Vetements’ $1,700-plus take on the lowly Champion sweatsuit (the modified logo screams copyright infringement). For creative director Demna Gvasalia, the idea of luxury is anarchistic. When a hoodie can be a corset and sweatpants are tailored, it becomes less about what a piece is and more about what it could be. Which is, incidentally, where the tracksuit proves most significant. What started out as something exclusively worn for (and après) sports in the ’70s has had a multitude of appropriations since. In the ’80s, it was taken up by hip-hop culture, most notably by Run-D.M.C. and most effectively by the aforementioned Dapper Dan—the early rap world’s favourite tailor. Not unlike Vetements, Dapper Dan subverted, fashioning his suits out of leather and printing counterfeit Vuitton and Gucci monograms all over them (eat your heart out, Alessandro).
As time went on, sporty came with a side of sex, thanks to Juicy and J. Lo’s booty-hugging versions in the late ’90s and early 2000s. But chillwear also served to define a long list of characters in the pop culture landscape: think Ben Stiller’s Chas Tenenbaum in his red Adidas, Uma Thurman’s yellow homage to Bruce Lee in Kill Bill or any one of The Sopranos’ loungewear-clad Italian thugs. I can’t name another item of clothing that is so definitive of certain eras, genres and subjects yet is not identifiable with any particular one. If a business suit makes the man, one of the purely leisure variety will let his freak flag fly.
I felt a certain freedom (along with some serious nostalgia) when I put on the Vetements suit for this shoot. I thought about who I could become, ultimately deciding to revisit my hip-hop past by way of East L.A. I wore more makeup than I’d ever worn in my life, trippy velvet boots I could barely walk in and a leather choker I swiped from a recent shoot in the studio where I work. Walking (wobbling) through downtown L.A.’s jewellery district recalled my dancing days at that university pub: I’d never felt so good or looked so tight. In this suit, I had the confidence to try something new, to take myself out of my comfort zone of girly Isabel Marant wrap dresses while still being totes cozy. There was no tearing away of pants or screaming schoolgirls this time, but there it was, another epiphany. Pure and transformative.