The word “streetwear” conjures vaguely unfortunate images of a bunch of dudes circa-2005 decked out in DayGlo sweatshirts with obnoxious clashing patterns covering every square inch. At its heart though, streetwear still has an origin in the practical gear skaters wore on a regular basis. Enter designer Kara Messina’s Y’OH line, which is somewhere between a clothing company and an all-purpose lifestyle brand with roots in grime music, skating and vivid, but tasteful African patterns that pull collared shirts out of their now to-standard checked rut. “Someone pointed out to me that my brand wasn’t really streetwear and it wasn’t really high fashion and it wasn’t really anything,” she says. “They insisted that I not label it.”
But to call Messina a complete fashion outsider would be wrong. She’s just grounding well-made, utilitarian clothing in a way that hasn’t been done in a long while. She’s looking at what real people she knows are wearing and building from there. “It’s an homage to all the people I hang out with, really,” Messina says. “I bumped into a friend, and he had the same jacket on that he’s been wearing for ages. I prefer it when people have a smaller wardrobe and wear a certain number of items. I think it gives off a clearer identity.”
Before she spent her days getting wild with fabric, Messina stuck to the basics long enough to get sick of them. “Everything before this—I designed stuff that was black, beige, beige-y, grey or white,” she says. After abandoning the safe world of plain shirts with collars in solid colors, Messina stocked up on actual African prints she found in markets around London and decided to just make what she wanted to make, without worrying if anyone was going to like it. “The way I started this brand and the way that works for me is I kind of just wake up in the morning and say, Right, what do I have to do today?” she says. “And it’d be like, Make a pattern for a shirt. That’s what I do.”
While we’re probably not going to be opening our closets to racks full of neon zebra or peacock patterns with any regularity, that’s not what Messina is shooting for with Y’OH. “No one goes all-out and dresses up anymore,” she says. “I used to see people on Sundays going to church wearing head-to-toe African prints, and I really respected that. I want my shirts to have the same integrity.” Her hope is that the clothes will quietly infiltrate in the same way that camouflage did in the ’90s, finding a home on the bodies of Messina’s friends and anyone else daring enough to make something new seem totally normal.