Brett Johnson's fall/winter 2016 presentation sticks out in my mind for a lot of reasons. Handmade in Italy and inspired by the American West, the collection featured gorgeous burnt orange cashmere turtlenecks, luxurious embossed nubuck leather coats, and smart nylon outerwear. The men modeling the clothes stood on elevated platforms, posing in front of a rustic set of tree branches that helped evoke the presentation's rugged spirit. And everyone from former America's Next Top Model judge Jay Manuel to stylist June Ambrose was in attendance. Needless to say, the scene and the clothes were about as far as you could get from the hypebeasts who line up outside of Supreme in their Bape hoodies and Foamposites sneakers, waiting to cop the latest box-logo drop. And yet, to my surprise, I overheard a white woman say to a friend as she gazed at the immaculately tailored clothes, "Brett Johnson really does this high-end streetwear well!"
In the months since that presentation, I've thought a lot about that woman's comment and what it signified. When I told Johnson about it last week, he laughed.
"If you're purely looking at the clothes, they don't tell a streetwear story at all," the 27-year-old designer told me. "But obviously, I'm a black designer and a lot of people try to say you're related to streetwear just because you're an African American designer. But that's really not the aesthetic, nor the brand."
Johnson's not the only black designer who resents his work getting lumped in with streetwear. In 2014, Hood By Air's Shayne Oliver called the term "lazy" when it's used to describe his gender-bending, deconstructionist wares. And just last month A Cold Wall's Samuel Ross referred to the term as "naive and miseducated" when it was applied to his handcrafted garments.
Other successful emerging brands helmed by black designers have been called streetwear at one time or another. Virgil Abloh's Off-White was dubbed "elevated streetwear" by Vogue. WWD claimed that Maxwell Osbourne and Dao-Yi Chow's Public School were "bringing streetwear back." And The New Yorker said that Hood By Air gave a 'radically aggressive' take on streetwear. Sure, they may be inspired by streetwear. But none of these brands actually fit the strict definition of streetwear. Off-White produces its collection in Italy, offering items like mohair sweaters and flouncy dresses. While HBA pushes the boundaries of traditional silhouettes and proportions. And Public School serves up modern, avant-garde tailoring.
In contrast to the way these brands approach design, the hallmark of streetwear is graphics. "It's a lot of pre-made merchandise," explained Kerby Jean Raymond, the creative director and founder of Pyer Moss, a brand that is also often mistakenly associated with streetwear. "You buy an American Apparel T-shirt and you put a graphic on it."
Like many of his peers, Raymond has been influenced by streetwear and has even worked in the realm of streetwear in the past, but streetwear is not the totality of what he brings to fore in his art. Raymond's been studying design since he was 14, having attended the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. In his teens, he was an apprentice for Kay Unger, a veteran New York designer who's retailed at stores like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. He designed for the womenswear brand Marchesa before breaking out on his own. His collections for Pyer Moss features pricey tailored leathers, futuristic anti-bacterial fabrics, and luxurious details like horse-hair lapels. When it comes to his work, his designs have much more in common with Alexander Wang than a brand like 10.Deep.
Although it's incorrect, it isn't hard too hard to figure out why he and other young black designers like him are put into the streetwear box.
"I always felt like there was an underlying notion of people wanting to call me street as opposed to the brand," Raymond said.
Johnson agreed. "I think it's funny because people will see me at the show or the presentation, and they will label it as such. But when [my clothes are] sitting next to the Cucinelli's of the world and people come in to shop, it's a totally different response," he explained to me. "I think the perception from when I'm in the room and when I'm not, it's just a completely different mix."
Designer Raun LaRose, who has been creating avant-garde fashion for six seasons, has experienced this phenomenon first hand. "One season, when I was doing market, a buyer came up to me and said 'You do the streetwear, you do the streetwear,'" LaRose said to me. "But that season, the majority of what I was presenting was suiting."
The effect of this categorization is an evolving one. In years passed, it hurt the business of black owned brands. Some believe that labels like Cross Colours from the 90s had their success stunted by not being able to get the accounts they needed because of their "urban" or "streetwear" categorization.
Raymond explained to me that for his brand, it was also more difficult at the outset to get into specific stores or gain the high gloss, press mentions from publications like Vogue specifically because Pyer Moss was seen as a streetwear brand. Of course, that has begun to change. Right now, the "streetwear" market is more popular than ever and the price point of it runs the gamut. What bugs many of the black designers is the second-rate nature of the term.
"When you call something streetwear, people become very dismissive because there's the assumption that it can be done very easily," LaRose said to me. "Like there's no processes to your design. Like you're just screenprinting a T-shirt."
Raymond concurred. "It puts an expiration date on your work. You are expected to have this wave: You have your stuff on Kanye West, you get your stuff on Rihanna, you get yourself on a few celebrities, you have this high point, and then you're done. That's why it's unfair."
"But there's a high level of education that goes into this. There's a high level of storytelling that goes into this. You're talking about shows that cost upwards of $100,000 and global recognition and a full team of experts in their field that are behind this thing. To get labeled as streetwear is to say 'You don't deserve to exist in this space.'"
So what exactly is there to do about it? At the British Fashion Council's 2016 Fashion Awards, they created a new category. European labels like Gosha Rubchinskiy and Vetements were placed in the new "International Urban Luxury Brand" bracket. However, this term is not likely to catch on in America, considering the term urban has its own racialized history here.
But even if we could come up with a neutral way to describe the brands who chafe at the category of streetwear in the US, that doesn't solve the real problem, which is a subtly dismissive perception of brands run by black people. To fix that, we need to take a note from Martin (Luther King Jr., not Margiela) and judge each emerging brand by the content of their collections and not the skin color of their creators.
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