After my ComplexCon essay, I got it all. I was applauded and approached with business ventures. Others took offense and said I sounded “whiny.” Reminds me of a couple years ago – I wrote an essay for Hypebeast on the state of streetwear. I divulged how my own company had barely survived the transitional year. The haters gobbled it up. Some of our distributors dropped us out of fear. There was internal grumbling – our staff criticizing my self-criticism. “Why would Bobby tell everyone that?!”
They’d discounted how far my candor had gotten us as a brand, how strong that trust bonded us with our community.
You can say what you want about me, but there’s one trait you can’t deny: I’m honest. I praise talented designers I can’t stand as people. I don’t let beef get in the way of acknowledging good work, just like I don’t let friendships confuse my responsibility to keep the facts straight. I’m upfront with you about our struggles as an independent label. I have no reason to lie, even though streetwear begs to differ. Rented jewelry, smoke and mirrors, nah, not for me. My pride doesn’t hinge on anyone else’s idea of success. Plus, I’m not owned by or indebted to a higher corporate puppeteer. I have no one to protect.
I owe nobody anything but the Truth.
And that truth, right now, is that streetwear is continually hitting an all-time high, like the bitcoin of fashion. It’s gone mainstream on both high and low channels and the market seemingly can’t get enough. But, there are some critical flaws, microscopic and unseen, that are breaking down the machine. Streetwear’s (well, as we know it) end will probably close in sooner than we want and expect. I will tell you why, but I’ll also predict what comes next. I’m no fortune-teller, but we’ve lived this life before. The $1.2B Supreme valuation of 2017 is the $1.5B Ecko revenue of 2009. The Off-White is the new Palace is the new Huf weed sock is the new #DiamondLife is the new Been Trill X HBA X Pyrex goth football jersey is the new The Hundreds is…
Take what you want from what follows. Call me bitter, even though The Hundreds is rising off of one of our best performing years. Write off my opinion as alarmist, although it’s seasoned with 15 years of experience in this space. This is the Truth about Streetwear in the year 2017. I hope I’m wrong, but I know I’m right.
I’m just gonna leave this right here.
*People used to wear streetwear because nobody else wore it. Today, they wear it because everyone wears it.
Under Dick Hebdige’s definition of “subculture,” like punk rock pins on a leather jacket, streetwear is a badge of defiance. In its beginning stages, both designer and audience were drawn to streetwear because it lived outside the norms of prevailing fashion and contradicted the dominant order. A discerning customer wanted it because it was irrelevant and couldn’t fit neatly into the mainstream.
In 2017, streetwear couldn’t be more ubiquitous, which is the eventual destination of any viable fashion trend. But, the main stage is problematic for an innately independent act like streetwear. It’s not just off-brand. It’s paradoxical.
*Exclusivity was about limited edition (production) and rarity (distribution). Now, it’s about price.
By its DNA, streetwear’s appeal stems from exclusivity. It’s not a specific look, it’s an attitude of conceit. The customer wants to stand apart by wearing unique clothing. In the past, that specialness came down to rarity. With less availability, the customer traveled and hunted in obscure neighborhoods to find limited-edition treasure (The Internet foiled that). Or, he or she knew someone who knew someone and bought precious goods with social capital (social media distorted this gauge of influence).
Today, streetwear's exclusivity is less about knowledge or access and more about price tag. It’s now about who can afford the clothes over who’s the coolest or most stylish.
(There’s a dirty undertone of classism in all this, which again is contradictory to streetwear’s premise).
*Streetwear has prioritized commerce over community.
There is less sense of culture now, only clothing and capital. Most young people entering the fray are lured by the financial value of things, as opposed to the relationships or story. Streetwear’s magic was in connecting creator with consumer. Now, it connects consumers with cash.
Reselling. Reselling has always been one of streetwear’s cornerstones, but it now eclipses all facets of the ecosystem. The pitfall, however, is that reselling isn’t a sustainable means of holding up a subculture, because it’s about money, not art.
If the kids fail to appreciate the design(er) and reduce the T-shirt to currency – to a transaction – then they will graduate to easier, cooler, and more profitable ways to turn dollars. In my opinion, and I don’t fail to see the irony in this – young resellers will next flood the Art market. Look, they are halfway there as art collectors with their KAWS Jordans and Virgil 10. The art world is even more arbitrary with how it assigns value, there’s greater money to be made, and it’s “grown up” compared to sleeping on the sidewalk for a Gildan hoodie.
“Condos in my condo” – Jay Z went from rapping about Evisu and Hublot to Rothko and Koons.
*It’s easier for the media to paint a handful of brands as streetwear’s flagbearers. But if streetwear’s past can’t be attributed to one designer, how can its future?
There’s the streetwear you read about on the blogs. And then, there’s the majority of streetwear that lies outside the scope of the spotlight. Currently, the media and gatekeepers are fixated on high fashion crossover designers like Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo, and Ronnie Fieg. They get the Vogue editorial and the Nike collabs – the fashion equivalent of pop stars. But, there are also a slew of noisemakers that swim against the mainstream and are just as big (if not bigger) in following and revenue. Business of Fashion just reported on the Top 10 M&A Targets in Streetwear and honed in on the usual suspects. Anyone who has a cursory understanding of modern streetwear noted the glaring absence, however, of Neek’s Anti Social Social Club. It could be argued that his is the hottest streetwear brand in the market (but I guess that’s why they’re called Business of Fashion and not Business of Streetwear).
What about a brand like Los Angeles-based subversive label FTP? I’ll say it: Fuck The Population has the most diehard, loyal following in all streetwear, with the lineups and spreadsheets to prove it. I’d say they were one of the top 5 most visible brands at ComplexCon and didn’t even participate. Yet, you won’t find Zac and his brand headlining hype blogs.
As streetwear grows bigger, the media get lazier. It’s fashion’s concentration of wealth – the 1% get the love and attention, while the 99% keep the world turning. STREETWEAR IS BIGGER THAN SUPREME and once your eyes adjust to what’s beyond the spotlight, you’ll see it. A larger universe that was there long before you got here and will exist long after you’re gone.
*Streetwear testifies to the power of diversity. It’s a glimpse into the future of all fashion, not just street.
Every generation has its streetwear. In the ‘80s, it was called surf. The look was so favored, that even thousands of miles from the coastline, Midwesterners chased the sun-bleached California dream in Quiksilver, OP, and Gotcha. In the ‘90s, it was skateboarding – DC to DVS. Today, streetwear may share the same influences and aesthetic (T-shirts and caps), but there are contextual differences. Most notably, racial diversity in audience and ownership. For the first time, POC are not only the faces of fashion, but also the designers and the founders (even the late 1990s urban labels – while fronted by black rappers – were overwhelmingly backed by white owners and garmentos).
There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I think this makes a difference with today’s young customer. For the last century, minority culture has inspired youth music and fashion trends, even if people of color weren’t behind the curtain. But, social media demands authenticity, rewarding brands that reflect the spectrum of customers, from its internal staff to product offerings.
Streetwear also owes much of its popularity to rap’s reign in pop music. As Black music sits atop the Billboard charts, its fashion component follows. Rap is pop, therefore streetwear is fashion. I wonder how much longer rap will wear the crown and what that means for streetwear’s tenure. Pop music evolves with every high school graduating class: Beatles to Britney to Uzi. If K-pop is next, perhaps fashion will drop the hoodies and pull from lenticular spacesuits? This antiquated notion, however, of white-male-owned brands selling white (and Black) male culture to white men is over. I don’t hear too many groans about that from a market that is only getting increasingly diverse.
*Streetwear is running out of runway.
The customer only has so much room in their closet for hoodies and sneakers. It was only a few years ago that the men’s sock trend boomed. Overnight, there were specialty men’s sock brands hanging on waterfall displays at the end of every aisle. For guys, going from white socks to kooky patterns was like seeing in color. Companies like Stance capitalized on the phenomenon.
But, not less than two years later, the trend stuttered. Why? Sure, there were more competitors in the space. The real issue, however, was exactly that: Space. There’s only so much room in the sock drawer. How many socks do you really need? How many pairs can you replace before the novelty wears off?
The same happened with denim not more than a decade ago. There were entire tradeshows dedicated to premium denim brands: Citizens, Hudson, Paper, True Religion. Bread & Butter was the ComplexCon of blue jeans. In street fashion, it was about selvedge: Bape with the screen-printed crotch, Red Monkey, Nudie, and PRPS. But, at $200-500, consumers couldn’t afford to care about denim culture beyond a shelf or two of indigo washes. Once everybody realized pants were pants, the phase fizzled, and consumers went back to affordable Levi’s and Dickies. In our category, bottoms have never quite recovered.
If it’s just about product and trends to you, at some point in the near future, the magic will fade. You’ll realize you don’t need another hoodie to throw on your pile of pullovers. That every designer is printing on the same T-shirts with identical placements. You only need a few pairs of sneakers. There are so many releases, there’s less urgency to satiate the addiction anyway.
High fashion will soon tire – and retire – of streetwear. Fashion’s purpose is progression, to respond to the status quo. If streetwear and luxury have achieved symbiosis, fashion’s next logical step is to remove itself so far in concept and design, as to enter a new genre entirely. The elite will ditch the baggy fleece and long for trim, sexy fits again. They’ll abandon the obnoxious logos and seek minimalism. On the flipside, the disenfranchised youth will rebel against the runway and take style back to the streets. Classic, utilitarian clothing meant to skate, smoke, and survive in.
That’s my dream, anyway.
*Streetwear will return to what it knows best: the underground. And prosper.
After skateboarding’s mad dash in the ‘80s, there was a depressed season in the early ‘90s when it was uncool to skate. There was even a stigma attached to the indie brands, baggy pants and small wheels. Only a few straggler skate shops left. Although the money was sparse, in a way, this was one of the most creative, exciting, and formative times in skateboarding. It needed this winter in the underground to set up the summer Olympic sport it stands as today.
This was where I entered as a teenager and it stuck with me throughout my life, leading to my idealization of streetwear as the uniform of the underground. The question, however, haunts me: “Does the underground still exist?”
Until recently, I concluded No. The Internet has abolished subcultural movements. All is exposed and out in the open. Everything is clicked, not earned. Bought and not learned.
Returning to Dick Hebdige’s “Subculture: The Meaning of Style,” however, I’m encouraged. The underground will forever be home to the unpopular. While streetwear is currently commandeered by pop culture, there are many shades of street fashion welling up in the background. The radio used to afford rap one sound at a time: East v West, Dirty South, trap. But now, hip-hop music has spread so wide that it’s kaleidoscopic, from pop to Soundcloud, each subgenre brimming with its own fanbase. Streetwear is the same – there is Vetements, there’s Pleasures. Rap merch and garage brands. There’s something for everyone now, and it’s all just called “streetwear.”
I hope streetwear never loses mainstream fashion’s focus. Fine by me if Virgil and Hermes bio-collaborate on a new breed of horse to replace Supreme X Tesla self-driving cars. But regardless of what happens, I anticipate a renaissance of streetwear’s underground and hope the blogs and customers are keen enough to recognize it.
If the lights turn on, will you follow the crowd to the next party?* Or will you stay behind and help clean up? We’ll pick up the pieces and make something new with them, something beautiful together. It might not be popular or make the most money, but I can promise you it will be a lotta fun.
I’ll see you there.
*Pro tip: watch the shoes. Men’s fashion trends always start from the feet up. Once sneaker collecting subsides – as it does every five years – is it back to boots and Americana? Or Chucks and vintage?