Rise of Modern Streetwear: Helping or Hurting Fashion? | English Columnist Kevin Lee
Streetwear is mainstream now. Whether it’s seen every day on the streets or on social media, it’s hard to go through a day without noticing it. With brands like Supreme, Stussy and Palace leading the trend, what once used to be a niche in the fashion world has now grown into a movement that has entered into the higher end fashion brands. Although this casual and comfortable style has been seen in the high-end fashion before, it has undoubtedly become more widespread and popular over the past few years. What started as affordable comfort wear has become the main focus with brands like Balenciaga, Gucci and Louis Vuitton in 2017. Although this rise in popularity has been almost exponential recently, the wave of streetwear isn’t new; it actually has been around for some time.
Although it is hard to pinpoint when and how the movement exactly started, it is generally thought to have begun in Los Angeles as a byproduct of the skater and surfer culture in the 1970s. From the beginning, streetwear focused on casual and comfortable apparel such as sneakers, jeans, caps and shirts. Although local brands like Off Shore and Ocean Pacific were important factors in the movement, the greatest contribution in the early stages was by Shawn Stussy and his brand Stussy, which was able to initiate and “invent” streetwear by making T-shirts through two factors: t-shirts and exclusivity. Its popularity saw a dramatic increase in the early stages, especially because it was embraced by the street and punk culture. By 1980s, the rise in athletic wear and new wave music allowed brands such as Adidas to break into the streetwear industry. With athletic wear coming into the streetwear scene, the signing of Michael Jordan by Nike as its brand athlete became a crucial turning point for the culture. As Jordan later proved to become a global basketball icon and phenomenon, Nike was also able to dominate the sneaker market with the Jordan Brand sneakers, which even till today, is one of the most iconic sneaker lines in history. By 1990s, the rise of hip-hop, especially acts like Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr, became another influence and source of drive in streetwear. Rappers and artists promoted the streetwear brands in music video sand public appearances. At the turn of the century, the spread of the Internet allowed anyone to create graphics and designs they could sell. Thus, the first decade of the twenty first century saw heavy graphics with brands like Undefeated, Diamond Supply Co., The Hundreds and Stussy. With the rise in Internet, the 2000s saw streetwear items being sold through celebrity endorsements. Artists like Nelly “promoted the Air Force One with his song ‘Air Force Ones’ song while other stars identified with particular brands” (SOWHT). By the second half of the decade, streetwear began to enter the high-end fashion markets.
(Source: Louis Vuitton / Ludwig Bonnet)
And that brings us to today, mid-way through the second decade of the twenty first century. What used to be a byproduct of sub-culture, is now becoming the main focus in the fashion industry, mainly due to the influence of hip-hop/pop culture and celebrities. Like before, the rise of modern streetwear has been greatly influenced by the rise in hip hop culture and endorsements by influential figures. The rise in social media and ubiquity of technology allows celebrities from a corner of the world can now influence anyone, anywhere. Artists like Kanye West and Justin Bieber not only perform concerts in streetwear but are also often spotted in them in public appearances. In 2017, it is no question streetwear was the main theme in fashion. It could be seen everywhere from H&M to Louis Vuitton. Oversized hoodies, oversized shirts, track suits and track pants. From celebrities, to social influencers and everyday people, streetwear took over 2017. Not only did high-end brands work their way into creating streetwear, but also collaborated with leading streetwear companies. Voted by Vogue as the Best Fashion Collaboration of 2017, Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Supreme, one of today’s leading streetwear households, was “a collaboration which had smashed through fashion’s fourth wall, irrevocably changing the relationship between streetwear and high fashion as we know it” (Calum Gordon, Highsnobiety). The collaboration began in January of 2017 and it was only a preview of what was to come. The trend continued as Alexander Wang teamed up with Adidas, Vetements collaborated with Champion, and Virgil Abloh (Off-White) partnered with Nike. Although it may seem unusual for high-end designers and brands to collaborate with their lower-tier counterparts, it shows that streetwear has been recognized, even by household brands, as a fashion movement that can’t be ignored.
However, with the increase in popularity of streetwear, it has led to increase in concerns. Streetwear has become a big business. In October of 2017, according to GQ, Supreme became a billion-dollar brand compared to BAPE, another established brand, which was “sold to Hong Kong’s I.T. Group back in 2011 for a paltry $2.8m”. However, because these limited and exclusive items come with high demand, it has given a huge rise to resell markets. Reselling items isn’t illegal or anything new. However, because streetwear has been met with high demands and limited supply, the price on the resell market can go up to 10 times the retail price. For example, Supreme’s iconic Box Logo Hoodie retails at $168 but on the resell market, it has been sold for $1500 (StockX). Websites like Stock X and eBay has made the reselling and purchasing of limited streetwear easier at a higher price, which is great for those who weren’t able to buy them at retail. However, it was also led to many people to few these items as a commercial commodity, and financial opportunity, rather than a fashion apparel.
With the rise in popularity in streetwear, there seems to be giving rise to a small subculture: commercialization. Simply put, people wear their apparel by not how it looks but rather how much they cost, as a way of showcasing their wealth. The picture above, drawn by Laro Lagosta, illustrates how the commercialization of streetwear can be harmful to fashion. Whether it’s through what they wear or reselling, the ability to make profits out of this increasing trend in fashion has caused a cultural shift where, as Rembert Browne said for SSENSE, “the desire to do and create things that become cool has been overtaken by the desire to simply be cool”. Furthermore, as Calum Gordon states in his article for Highsnobiety, it was evident at ComplexCon, where hundreds of streetwear brands and enthusiasts gather, that the meaning behind the culture is gone. He claims that “being part of a clandestine, in-the-know club” has vanished and that “there was no need to learn of cultural codes, and no notion of discovery”. Now it’s all about being part of the culture without knowing what the culture is about. This was proven by Supreme when they proved that they could sell out anything by selling a brick. Despite having absolute no use, Supreme was able to sell out its clay brick at a retail price of $30.
(Source: Supreme Website)
It’s impossible to say what’s good and what’s bad fashion. Everyone has individual preferences and different styles when it comes to their wardrobe. Recently with the increase in popularity of modern streetwear, what used to be small but culturally defined trend, has become mainstream across the industry. The past few years in fashion has seen streetwear as the main channel to connect with consumers. Although this has allowed many streetwear businesses to bloom, the increase in popularity has led to commercial opportunities while the mainstream culture has caused many “enthusiasts” to overlook the cultural roots. It could be that the culture of streetwear is changing. As Alec Leach claims in his article for Highnobiety, the younger generation “might not all know the difference between Hiroki Nakamura and Shinsuke Takizawa, some of them will inevitably grow out of the scene, but if streetwear is to survive at this size…we need to embrace the youth and support their creativity”. Streetwear now is all about being able to make it yours. Leach also states that if you “dig a little deeper and you’ll find a thriving world of upstart designers pushing the style into new directions”. So far, the trend in streetwear doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. With the upcoming generation of designers and trends, streetwear may be continually rewriting its culture. However, at the same time, while it continues to grow and become diverse, it is always important to remember the roots of it and appreciate it for its design and not its commercial potential.