“The Pamsters” and other Melbourne tribes

Photo: Amelia King
Photo: Amelia King

Homegrown Melbourne institu­tion or international cult brand? Fashion label PAM (an acronym for “Perks and Mini”) is both. Started in 2000 by Misha Hollenbach (graffiti name: “Perks”) and Shauna Toohey (“Mini”), the graphic streetwear label has created its own niche of exciting, slouchy sportswear that is instantly appealing. It’s a look that has projected them into commercial collaborations with Carhartt and Nike, as well as providing a springboard for more creative collaborations with artist Mike Kelley and a book for the Shanghai Biennale in 2010. This creative flair, however, has had an interesting effect on a certain subsection of their hometown residents, one that borders on ab­solute devotion. These disciples have been labelled “Pamsters”. It’s a term that’s come from outside the group itself, so you won’t find any references to it in Melbourne’s magazines, and the elusive crew don’t congregate on the internet, in sharp contrast to so many of today’s youth tribes. They don’t even have a clear geo­graphical location within the city – Melbourne’s small size means that Pamsters’ turf might be lim­ited to a single corner. So who are the Pamsters? The clan, like the brand itself, prefer to remain mysterious, but no less dedicated to their cho­sen cause. “Semi-­high-­end, with a Japanese influ­ence”, “Harajuku girl throwback”, “kind of over the top, dropped crotch, with full yard­ age prints”: this is how Hugo Atkins, owner of Hugs & Kisses club (a common sighting point of Pamsters), describes the style signatures of a Pamster.

As is so often the case with youth tribes, its fashion is inextrica­bly linked to the music – in this case the club night Bamboo Music, which Misha “Perks” Hollenbach ran for five years with DJ pal Roman Wafers, had a lot to do with the prolifera­tion of the Pamster. “PAM have a huge influence over the younger kids and the party scene. You have a club night and you have clothes: it becomes clubwear,” said Atkins. “These people iden­tify as a tribe that wears PAM – Pamsters!”

PAM, AW 14 "Pro Active Mutation" Menswear Collection
PAM, AW 14 “Pro Active Mutation” Menswear Collection

The sci-fi edge that is evident in Pamsters’ geometric and Japanese style influences has a wider ef­fect than solely for this tribe, however. The fluorescent and hi­-tech-­inspired creations of Nixi Killick, fashion designer and styl­ist, look like they might not even come from this planet, let alone fit into this season’s trends. Killick notes: “Most countries have cultures that are so entrenched, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means there are a lot of things that won’t get to break out.” In contrast, Melbourne’s openness to new things allows its residents to create something entirely their own.

Killick’s crazy “co­lour tribes” are just one aspect of these things that get to break out in Melbourne like no­ where else. Alongside PAM’s internationally­ renowned high-­fashion streetwear, there is also space for brands like Di$count univer$e, whose slime­-slogan sequins have been spotted on Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, and Witu, whose style approach is to make everything out of neo­prene, especially in pastel hues.

Despite the ap­parent contrast of the Pamsters’ effortless cool with the fizzing experimentalism of other Melbourne­-based groups, there is a uni­fying attitude in the fashion tribes of the city: to set new stan­dards for subcultures, instead of deferring to established tropes of Punks, Clubbers or Goths. “There is so much intermingling of different ‘tribes’. The idea of all those different chunks is so much more mashed,” Killick ex­plains. This mixing creates a sup­portive atmosphere in the creative community, no matter what the particular style is. “There’s a lot of Melbourne­-made pride,” Killick adds. “Everyone’s trying to raise the creative bar together.”

But what are the reasons behind the city’s creative hive mentality? For a start, Melbourne is something of an outlier, and, given that Australia itself is at a geographical distance from the traditional western axis of culture, the city is a hub for non­conform­ists. “Anyone who’s interested in art or fashion will come here. This is where you come to make your mark,” explains Atkins. Matthew Linde, founder of the Centre for Style, a retail space that is also a hub for experimen­tal fashion practice, agrees with this assessment: “If you’re born in Australia and have artistic desires, 99% will leave their hometown to move to Melbourne. So, you have this smaller metropolis filled to the brim with galleries, music venues, studios, and so on. We have a horrible, disgusting white colonial genocidal past but in terms of cultural shifts, colonial Australia is quite young.Burdened by this history, we now have to try and change things for the better.”

This past is far from irrelevant to Melbourne’s youth subcultures with, widespread criticism of P.A.M., as well as protests at their exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria, for their T-shirts emblazoned with “The Natives Are Restless” and unmistakeably blackfaced cartoons. The question is: who has this “blank slate” come at the expense of?

Nixi Killick. Photo: Amelia King
Nixi Killick. Photo: Amelia King

And yet it’s undeniable that this “cultural shift” has created opportunities for more creative projects that have no precedent elsewhere to flourish. For example, the Centre for Style provides a space within the city for experimentation that doesn’t rely on steadfast traditions: “I would like to think that CfS is helping to conjure a bourgeoning scene in Melbourne, for people who are experimental in their approach to fashion prac­tice. Strangely enough, even the method of reworking preexisting garments [Susan Cianciolo, Rare Candy], making a collection out of bedsheets [H.B. peace], knit­ting plastics [Eckhaus Latta] or imaging a brand without product [Bernadette Corporation, Dolci & Kabana] is somehow still subver­sive in fashion, but it’s this type of propositional approach I think CfS reflects.”

“We have this opportunity to create our own culture,” Killick says, by way of a conclusion. When you start from scratch, every step is a chance for something new.

Text by Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Taken from Sleek 43, Youth/Truth

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