I’ve been answering more interviews lately regarding the “death of streetwear.”
There’s a war on streetwear!
High fashion and its surrounding media are unilaterally declaring streetwear exhaustion in the marketplace. They say sales are stagnant. That the designers have graduated to suiting and refined menswear. We’re oversaturated, they say. Over-streetweared. Over streetwear!
So, I scrolled back in my blogs to 2009 – a decade ago, before fashion and streetwear were fucking. When lux meant cross-grain and selvedge. When the streetwear runway in Paris was the long and narrow walk from colette to Starcow. At the close of the 2000s, the Great Recession had pierced streetwear, abbreviating a colorful run. With e-comm yet to catch, store buyers dictated the bulk of buying power, and they passed over loud and garish designs for the guaranteed sell, the safe and minimal aesthetic. Logos shrank and vanished as did many labels that rested on them. Retail was slaughtered, the wheat was divided from the chaff. By 2010, streetwear had devolved to boring basics. Less brands, lesser branding. It felt naked and with that, came the embarrassment.
In hindsight, I now understand that world as an off-white and coarse canvas – a cleansed palate. Standing atop the peak as the floods receded, designers painted a new landscape in broad strokes of Americana, street-goth, and tailored menswear. The consumer was older and sharper in the 2010s, hardened by the financial crash, but also savvier because of social media. They grew out of their pre-pubescent screen-printed style and “elevated” their tastes to mark that departure. Was it more about design or dollars, I don’t know, but better streetwear was interpreted as more expensive streetwear. The blogs and retailers conflated pricetag with prestige and it became harder to draw the line. Streetwear distinction has always been exclusivity, but e-commerce cinched the world tighter, so access to product was less a hurdle. As a result, backstage passes were reserved for a certain privilege, clout and class and this, my friends, is when we all made it more about money (and made more money!).
This last decade of streetwear was persuaded by luxury, but it was more like the other way around? The New York skaters and the Calabasas Kardashians shook things loose, dropped the shoulders and the inseams. The woke climate paired well with streetwear’s boxier, genderless silhouette. The garments were designed, owned and advertised by black and brown people, but overwhelmingly financed by a new customer: mainland Chinese millionaires. To appreciate streetwear in the late 2010s is to acknowledge the billions of brand-conscious Chinese youth, a deep and formidable demographic that swarmed the marketplace, drove up the resale, and established an economy.
Zoom out on an even bigger picture of streetwear prosperity. Consider the psychological shift from sneaker as technical footwear to lifestyle badge. From Michael Jordan to Kanye West, Foot Locker to Round Two, we marched from function to fashion. In the 2010s, the shoe companies doled out retro releases at a dizzying rate, capitalizing on our pent-up nostalgia for the basketball sneakers our parents refused to buy us as children. At first, it was fun because we were starved. Then, we were well fed and content. By decade’s end, many avid collectors were anesthetized to smart design and significant collaboration, finding themselves short a “must have” shoe-of-the-year. Even when we strike out on drops, the pangs are less sharp and frequent as the calendar cycles faster. We’re rounding our fourth helping at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
“There are too many collabs,” was a sentiment I heard a lot. In 2009. Over the last ten years, collaborations scaled as the market boomed, as the economy globalized and as streetwear became synonymous with fashion. So, yes, there is an unprecedented tally of brands, special projects, and drops, but we’ve also never had this many buyers. The money flows where the people go and so studio licensors and music merch companies seized the opportunity. Premium brands and highbrow designers were late to the party, but even they couldn’t resist the formula that had supercharged streetwear for the 2010s: siphoning off the familiar energy of an iconic cartoon, a legacy band, or a beloved movie.
Other industries sniffed out what streetwear knew all along: collaborations cross-pollinate audiences, make news headlines, and promote innovation. I mean, we threw a streetwear food festival this year. But, do I think the collaboration is dead or hyper-extended? No, that’d be myopic. Like streetwear, it’s just the new normal.
Classical streetwear, the sort that I romanticize and write books about, is long gone. The secret was too sweet, the Internet too ravenous – streetwear could only survive so long as a coolguy codeword before it broke aboveground in the 2010s. Meanwhile, hip-hop music’s ascent to – and assumption of – popular culture directly impelled the demand for hip-hop fashion. And with that mainstream stature came mainstream behavior. Streetwear validation was now predicated on influencer co-signs and celebrity endorsements. By decade’s end, streetwear founders were positioned as personalities themselves if they weren’t already celebrities to begin with. In 2009, Justin Bieber was a 15-year-old singing sensation. Today, he is a streetwear designer. Rap merch, meanwhile, is the biggest and most boisterous streetwear, whether it’s Pablo long-sleeves or Yeezy. Streetwear expos like ComplexCon figured it out first, giving the kids everything they wanted in one unbroken experience: live music, rare collabs, and the coolest streetwear players – kinda like how the X-games erected an amphitheater around early-‘90s action sports culture. Before sport, skateboarding was an attitude, then a lifestyle and industry. Now, skateboarding just is.
When I answer their questions, I have to agree. Streetwear, on their terms, is dead. They construe streetwear as a style: clunky sneakers, a cartoony tee, a logo-driven hoodie. The category stretches from Gildan sweats to Lululemon athleisure, and in their purview of the fashion space, those articles are less desirable. But, like I said: This Is Not a T-shirt. Streetwear transcends dress and music and art, just like rock n’ roll set the philosophical tone for an era. Streetwear defined a generational attitude toward art and commerce, brand-building, and financial autonomy. It was like punk, but about selling. It was like business, but not about selling out.
“Streetwear.” Over the next ten years, perhaps we’ll call hoodies and hats something else, because “streetwear” will be applied to tech, food, political campaigns, and mental health. Streetwear is how you play sports and how you talk back to your teacher. It’s conscious of community, it’s protective of brand integrity. As this class of fuckboys and hypebeasts gains seats at the table, industries, cultures, and nations will be affected and reshaped by the streetwear school of thought.
I’ll say it again, streetwear is dead. It died in the ‘90s on the doorstep of the department stores. It died in the 2000s when all-over was all over. It died when Dickies replaced denim, when sneakers went vulc, when dad hats became dad’s hat. Streetwear died when China calmed the fuck down over Commes des Fuckdown. Streetwear died so many times that I’ve written at least 47 thinkpieces about it. And yet, here we are. Bigger and brassier.
Because streetwear doesn’t die, it multiplies. In 2009, streetwear was thin and dogged and scared. Ten years later, Dior is collaborating with Shawn Stussy, multiple streetwear television shows are in development, and there are more streetwear brands than ever. Upstarts have the ease and ability to build the infrastructure thanks to streamlined production, apps, and the shopper’s comfort with buying direct. But beyond that, brands have become intertwined with identity. The social user evolved from promoting brands to the social influencer promoting themselves. Today, they are fully formed as social founders, promoting their own brands themselves. There are as many labels as there are people, each with their own built-in marketing mechanisms, unique voice, and perspective on merchandise. I have fundamental issues with the entrepreneurial movement (namely the value of self over community), but it has granted many a voice, made them money, and above all, given them a sense of belonging. The streetwear spirit is at this intersection of capitalism and culture. This attitude is the last vestige of the independence, defiance, and combativeness that once upon a time designated limited edition T-shirts as “streetwear.”
For every streetwear door that closes, 50 Shopify windows pop up. For every brand that stumbles, five more step forward, stronger and faster, having learned from the old school’s mistakes. Streetwear dies every night, but it is subsequently reborn and renewed by the morning. Ten years ago and ten years from now, we mark endings with new beginnings. Because the streetwear generation is about regeneration.
Rest in peace, streetwear. Can’t wait to see what you do next.