This article was originally published by i-D UK.
For the past half decade or so, streetwear’s biggest brands — Supreme, Stüssy, A Bathing Ape, and Palace, have been drifting precariously close to the mainstream fashion landscape. No longer reserved for the skaters they once attracted: they’re hot property, sought after by Hollywood A-Listers, fashionistas, school kids, and city boys.
Why did this happen? And how? To make sense of this vast and polymathic fashion landscape, we asked some of the most influential figures in the industry — a designer, journalist, and creative consultant — their thoughts on how this year shaped streetwear’s global breakout.
Streetwear’s heritage is a modern one: rooted in the skate, surf, and hip-hop scenes of America’s East and West coasts in the 80s and 90s. It was, for those involved, a badge of honor that symbolized their involvement in a movement that existed outside the fashion industry, as far away from the mass produced garments of the high street as those produced by designer labels. It occupied a grey area in-between.
“For me, it means DIY spirit,” says David Fischer, founder of streetwear site Highsnobiety, on how he defines the fashion subculture. “It means skateboarding, music, graphic t-shirts; youth and a sense of belonging… something global!” Ryan Willms, a photographer and creative consultant for Stüssy, thinks the definition is (and always has been) quite vague. Instead, he says the roots of streetwear lie in the people who were around at its inception: figures like Mark Gonzales, Basquiat, Shawn Stussy, and Malcolm McLaren.
In 2017 though, streetwear fans are by turns sybaritic and street savvy: just as desperate to own a pair of $800 USD Triple-S sneakers from Balenciaga as they are to cop a $20 USD beanie. On the teenage boys’ Christmas list, a spot once reserved by a new phone or games console is now occupied by an item of clothing most parents would have to fight tooth and nail to get. The way the modern man dresses has changed, and Supreme, in a sense, is the brand responsible for it.
“It's not even surprising now to see eight to ten year olds shopping in Soho, carrying Supreme bags, and wearing Off-White hoodies and Gucci sneakers,” says Alex Hackett, the founder and designer of UK streetwear brand ALCH. “It’s wild,” Ryan agrees. “In the early 00s, if I saw another guy wearing a Supreme 5-panel, [I’d] probably say what up — we’d likely have friends in common. Now, people are getting hit with "streetwear" from NBA players, musicians, and a much more visible fashion industry from so many angles. It’s a much bigger business now.”
Big business indeed. Earlier this year, Supreme’s founder James Jebbia sold a 50% stake in his business to the investment firm The Carlyle Group for a cool $500 million USD, in turn revealing the entire streetwear label was worth an estimated $1 billion USD. Rumor has it he was hesitant to make that number public, afraid it might affect the credibility of a brand built on youth culture and independence. But with today’s focus shifting towards aesthetic over brand backgrounds, do the new streetwear audience even care?
“When we started with Highsnobiety, outside of the big sneaker brands, the scene was not very corporate at all. [The Carlyle Group deal] would have been a killer at the time,” David claims. “Today, things are very different. Kids are not so concerned about the fact that big organizations stand behind some of these brands. If something is good, it's good — no matter who is behind it.”
"What was once an underground fashion scene for skaters is now saturated by teenage boys with eye-watering amounts of disposable cash."
Ryan from Stüssy agrees, claiming he “[doesn’t] think that many people consider what’s going on behind the scenes. I don’t think they care where it's made, if it’s made by children, how long it will last, or who’s making money off of it. We’re living in a very unconscious consumer society.”
David and Ryan’s viewpoints don’t separate new Supreme fans from the old — they’re one and the same. A symbol of streetwear’s progression towards the mainstream and the swathes of people it’s swept up along the way. What was once an underground fashion scene for skaters is now saturated by teenage boys with eye-watering amounts of disposable cash, and many of them have little understanding of the heritage of these brands and only what their badges represent on a facetious level.
This flock of new fans has, however, reignited the spirit of young artists and designers hellbent on breaking into the industry. With easier access to design tools like Photoshop and with platforms like Instagram providing free promo, there’s been an exponential growth in "bedroom designer" over the past five years. “Streetwear came from nothing,” David says, praising this new generation’s ability to make their own mark on it. “[It came] from guys doing their own thing without any training or industry experience. [Bedroom labels] help keep the scene fresh and exciting.”
Alex has a different view; one that sees the saturation of bedroom labels as a potentially damaging sign of streetwear’s future. “It's great that you don't necessarily need a degree or an extensive fashion-based background to succeed in this field, but, for most of these "brands," there's no real emphasis on longevity, quality, or originality,” she tells us. “[Instead], commercial viability is always at the forefront, and often creativity takes the backseat.”
Alex makes a valid point: streetwear has never been more of a lucrative industry to tap into than now, and the lotus-eating teens that have entered today’s scene are at least partly driven by that. While ateliers can’t make garments without an understanding of the craft, streetwear’s a much more democratized platform, one that allows anybody to try their hand at making graphics and sticking them on Gildan T-shirts.
The idea of designer's foraying into streetwear on a luxury level isn’t new, what we were yet to experience was a serious crossover in the other direction; of youth-led streetwear into storied atelier. 19 days into 2017, though, we got it, with Louis Vuitton’s fall/winter 17 menswear show in Paris. Among Kim Jones’s beautifully slouched silhouettes, defined by tailored trousers, dress shirts, and bulky knitwear, the iconic Supreme logo appeared. First, a cross-body bag in that ubiquitous Supreme red with the brand’s logo emblazoned on it. Then a rock-star luggage set. Then a denim baseball shirt that mixed LV’s monogram with James Jebbia’s "Futura Heavy Oblique" logo. The fashion world sat back, stunned. A scrappy skating brand that was once issued a cease and desist by LV for jacking its monogram print was now collaborating with same said brand for pieces on the Paris runway. The fans, unsurprisingly, went crazy for it, queuing outside pop ups around the world to get their hands on whatever they could afford. The coveted box logo tee had an RRP of $450 USD — ten times that of a regular Supreme tee — but is managing to fetch upwards of $4,500 USD on the resell market.
“Streetwear is the natural way of dressing for Millennial and Gen Z customers, so luxury brands need the association much more than streetwear brands do,” David says, when we ask who benefits more from these left-field collaborations. That attitude, he thinks, has permeated fashion houses like Gucci and Balenciaga, who are shaping their collections to be more wearable by the masses, featuring hoodies and sneakers, saying that “the [ones] that are successful right now are doing well because they're part of the streetwear conversation.”
Gosha Rubchinskiy, king of Soviet skate and rave, is perhaps the most prolific young streetwear designer of our age. Known for bringing brands like Kappa and Fila back from the pits of 90s fashion, his collaboration with the legendary British brand Burberry was perhaps a little more expected than Kim Jones and James Jebbia’s link-up. After all, the classic Burberry check, banished from the brand’s collections thanks to the connotations of anti-social behavior it once evoked, is exactly the kind of youth cultural appropriation that Gosha revels in. Still, his collection is priced in Burberry’s realm rather than Gosha’s; it’s unlikely any of the kids who obsessed over it on the runway could afford it.
But, perhaps, Gosha’s just the man to bring us into the new age. His designs bridge both basic graphic tees and the more formal codes of luxury. He can can hang a $20 USD football scarf on the same rail as a $700 USD tailored blazer in Dover Street Market, and cause equal amounts of consumer salivation. If he can do it, why can’t Supreme and Palace?
So has this year of designer crossovers, outsider audiences, and the arrival of billionaire investors acted as the final nail in streetwear’s subculture coffin? A goodbye to the original fans who were in it for more than the hype? “I’m not sure it will ever disappear,” Alex summarizes. “The beauty of streetwear is that it's constantly adapting and updating to fit into the current social climate.”
“If Supreme, Off-White, and Palace all closed down tomorrow, that wouldn't change the fact that people want to wear comfortable, relaxed clothing and tees with cool graphics,” David adds. “There would be other brands taking their place!”
With Supreme already rumored to be lining up a collaboration with Rolex, maybe 2018 will be the year we start to make sense of streetwear’s lucrative luxury chapter. Or, maybe the hype will die down, the subculture will begin to bloom underground again. Ryan thinks the latter, even today, is still the case. “In the end, [streetwear] belongs to the community of people who birthed it and live it daily. They’re the people that are leading and pushing things forward… inspiring and influencing the masses,” he says. “They just go unknown.”