Fashioning Colonialism with Scotch & Soda

Door: László Munteán

Last month, the Amsterdam-based youth
fashion company Scotch
& Soda
released a one-minute ad as the vanguard of their campaign “From
Amsterdam, From Everywhere.”

Opening with a wide-angle panning shot of a
godforsaken Nordic landscape peppered with mudflats, rocks, and snowy peaks at
a distance, the short film immediately envelops us into a world of exploration
and the intoxicating pull of the wilderness. As the geographical coordinates in
the top left corner indicate, it is Amsterdam Island, located in the Arctic
Ocean. The young male and female explorers leisurely fighting their way through
the rugged terrain are fashion models wearing Scotch & Soda’s new line of
apparel, which harks back to cinematic representations of life on the frontier
and at once underscores the brand’s urban appeal, especially its rootedness in
the city of Amsterdam.

The voiceover gives a poignant edge to this
amalgamation of the frontier with the city. A male voice with an American accent
addresses Amsterdam as “the beating heart of the flatlands, where boats glide
down the brown canals, surrounded by the tall facades of the Keizersgracht and
the wide-open Dam Square.” As one of the explorer/fashion models saunters in an
ankle-deep puddle, the voice ponders, “Whoever imagined a whole city in a mud hole
when we couldn’t even stand there? Whoever imagined something out of nothing and
built it with their own bare hands?” These last seven words are uttered as
though taken from the lyrics of a rap song, in much the same way that the ad
appears to be a trailer for an adventure film.

Indeed, the adventure-narrative that the ad
mobilizes pays homage to Amsterdam that is not simply a place but, as the
brand’s slogan claims, “a state of mind.” To substantiate this claim, the filmmakers
had set out to seek out places in the world named after Amsterdam, garnishing
the final seconds of the video with takes of Amsterdam in Indonesia, in the
Indian Ocean, and in South Africa. Through this kaleidoscopic conundrum of
image and sound the city of Amsterdam with its Keizersgracht is mapped onto its
namesakes across the world, revealing imprints of a bygone colonial empire. In
a self-congratulatory act of fashioning Amsterdam as a metonym of exploration, the
film nostalgically celebrates the colonial state of mind employed as an
affective (and effective) marketing tool. As the final words of the voice
attest, “North and South, East and West and all the rest. Because Amsterdam is
wherever you want it to be.”

For, what lurks behind the scenic views of Amsterdam
Island in the Arctic Ocean is the story of Willem Barents and the failed
whaling station of Nova Zembla, occupied in 1614 (romanticized by Reinout
Oerlemans’ 2011 film bearing the same title). Amsterdam in the Indian Ocean,
Indonesia, and South Africa are similar (and more lucrative) imprints of Dutch
colonialism filtered through a de-historicized spirit of adventure: “you are a
multiplicity across the distant seas.” Wearing a bomber jacket with “Blue
Heroes” written on its back, the black male fashion model at a gas station in
Amsterdam, South Africa is perhaps the most disturbing effort to occlude
continuing racial tensions with the equalizing force of an imagined global youth
culture. At a time when facing up to the colonial past, slavery, and racism emerges
as a shared imperative on both sides of the Atlantic, Scotch & Soda activates
geography without history, adventurism without colonialism, and nostalgia
without the burden to remember.

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