Transatlantic treats

A British aesthetic may be all the rage right now, but certain things are still better the American way. Jim Davies looks back to the time when US goods had an offbeat charm to them

Not too long ago a trip to the US involved taking an empty suitcase to stock up on Levi’s 501s, Converse All Stars and Hanes Beefy Ts.

Deliciously understated, built to last and cheap, these were the staples of designers and creative types up and down the land.

Part of their allure was how difficult they were to get hold of here, but they also tapped into a thirst for Americana, as New York-style diners, company softball leagues, retro skateboards, trucker caps and Aviator shades enjoyed their moment in the pallid UK sun. You may hail from Cleethorpes, but if you were handy with a frisbee and a bottle of French’s hot-dog mustard, you’d never be short of a date on prom night.

Fuelled by Hollywood and slick TV cop shows, everything in America seemed bigger, better and shinier. Bigger cars, bigger breasts, bigger dreams. Even their imported comic books came perfect bound and in glorious Technicolor. Our home-grown efforts had a certain parochial charm, but by comparison they looked as shabby as an out-of-season seaside town. We were drab, they were fab. Our warm pints of bitter were half empty, their ice-cool Buds were half full.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. Maybe the ’special relationship’ wasn’t so special anymore. Cult became mainstream – you could pick up generic baseball boots and Bermuda shorts from the nearest supermarket – and our tastes became more refined and international.

We went all niche and authentic. Our sunglasses had to be Italian, our denim Japanese and our baguettes artisan baked on the banks of the Seine. Czech lager. Brazilian flip-flops. No matter how obscure, if you knew where to look and wanted them bad enough, you could lay your hands on these things. The markets had opened, and the world – quite literally – was our oyster. Hamburger and fries? No thanks, I’ll have the Cantonese shrimp noodles and some Norwegian glacier water.

Then the economy went sour and we got real. Stranded by a weak sterling, we had little choice but to appreciate what was around us, taking our holidays in the Cornish Riviera, scouring the farmers’ markets for locally sourced produce, rediscovering our heritage and roots. Fred Perrys are back; Barbours, brogues and black puddings are cool again. And this summer, you’ll see the culmination of this home-grown movement at the Vintage at Goodwood festival in West Sussex. This has nothing to do with cars – it’s a three-day celebration of British popular culture, put together by design evangelist Wayne Hemingway.

Although the eclectic music line-up is strong enough, what’s more interesting about Vintage is its scope and ambition. Tagged a ’modern-day Festival of Britain’, there will be screenings of classic British films, catwalk shows, art exhibitions, hundreds of vintage fashion stalls, a photographic studio, makeovers and burlesque acts. Hand-picked curators have been charged with bringing together the best of the best from their specialist areas, with Morag Myerscough taking charge of the design side of things. Vintage’s premise – an entirely valid one – is that our music, art, design and lifestyle are inextricably linked, constantly feeding into and bouncing off each other, to create a uniquely British aesthetic.

I’ll be dropping by with the whole family. After I’ve visited Barry the Barber for a wet shave and a short back and sides, I suspect I’ll be spending most of my time in the Soul Casino. After all, there are some things we’ll never do as well as our Transatlantic cousins.

Vintage at Goodwood is on 13-15 August

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content

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