The significance of streetwear is now being dictated by the financial interests of high-end fashion brands.
Although the perception of every single person in relation to streetwear’s message, along with how they identify with it, will never fall under a single, homogeneous narrative, one intrinsic thread is its historic expressions of sociocultural and political meaning. In the past, groups that did not identify with the mainstream or elitist lifestyles that ruled the fashion scene, used personal style to pursue their own needs, shaping a style for themselves and their communities as a whole. Whether it were skaters or hip-hop influencers facing issues like marginalization, racism, or classism, streetwear projected the sentiments of such new social groups and subcultures. Looking back, it visually addressed political inequalities and defied conventional ideology. But today, streetwear’s course seems to have deviated from what it originally portrayed, as its high-end consumers do not share the same experiences or have the need to use streetwear as a cultural life line; modern luxury fashion houses have commercialized the concept of streetwear, and by placing it in high-end collections, they have even reconstructed its core meaning. Time and time again, brands have benefited from the creativity of marginalized or 'fringe' cultures for their own profit, stripping the trend that they riff on of its original purpose and failing to properly pay homage to its origins.
As mentioned, there is not a single definition for streetwear. In an article by Complex, Bobby Hundreds, fashion writer and co-founder of Californian streetwear brand Hundreds, explained that even after interviewing a handful of the most notable streetwear designers in the world, not a single one of them agreed on streetwear’s origins, its representation, and who is responsible for it. Accordingly, the implications of this trend change depending on each geographic location, and the expressions of the subcultures that emerge within each place. As far as we can tell, its origins go back to surfing and skateboarding tribes in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, and shortly thereafter evolved to have a relationship with music (hip-hop) in New York suburbs like Queens, Brooklyn, and Harlem.
Regardless of who is responsible for the genesis of streetwear, to me, there are several characteristics that have always cropped up: it emerged from groups who were disillusioned with or flat out excluded by the mainstream, and as such it is an inherent reflection of social issues like racism and discrimination, and as such, is also capable of indicating political disagreement. 90’s label PNB Nation, which joined together hip-hop, skating, and urbanism, called out racism and celebrated blackness, an evident example of how designers used streetwear to manifest their sentiments about an injust society. Likewise, LA-brand Fuct’s parody of Ford, which consisted of the Ford logo being replaced by the word “Fuct,” also challenged the idea of capitalism in the USA. Another powerful example is the emergence of the du-rag amid young black men during the 90’s. The du-rag has its origins as a headdress of sub-Saharan Africa, and later on was used by American slaves for tying their hair back in the field or for religious events on Sundays. Black men during the 90’s adopted it as a fashion accessory, and ostensibly, used it as a statement to embrace their race in a country dominated by white supremacy. Evidently, there is a lack of congruence between the realities that rich customers of today live, compared to what these previous groups have had to endure.
A few buzzy collaborations or creations of the moment that demonstrate the use of streetwear to energize luxury brands are the recent Louis Vuitton x Supreme capsule and next year's Burberry x Gosha Rubchinskiy. These collections have successfully created major buzz, increasing sales, generating press, and causing an all around raucous; according to Business of Fashion, “7,500 people in Tokyo, 2,000 people in London and 1,500 people in Sydney lined up for a chance to buy pieces from the collection” from LV x Supreme this summer. Undoubtedly, luxury streetwear is a very marketable product.
As I have previously written about for Couturesque, there will be more than 80 million members of Generation-Z (20 and under) in the U.S. by 2018, responsible for over $200 billion in spending. What makes our generation unique is that research shows we prefer authenticity and originality, and spend less money on clothing due to our upbringing during times of economic recession. This determines a lot of the choices of younger generations, who prefer streetwear clothing over the expensive, rather traditional fashion trends. But millennials and Gen-Z-er's are also more conscious generations, with a stronger interest in fighting social injustice, thus making an interest in streetwear feel like a natural fit. However, by and large, there is not enough awareness of precisely what the countercultural impetus of streetwear expresses; it seems like many young people today are opting for these new trends due to the overall “cool” factor, borrowing from the outfits they see celebrities like the Kardashians wear.
Now that multi-million dollar companies are referencing streetwear in collection after collection, they have a responsibility to empower what these sartorial symbols really stand for, without just viewing it as potentially profitable. The fact that high-end brands now sell garments directly influenced by streetwear subcultures and style them within their collections next to $3000 handbags, is not congruent at all to what streetwear is all about; luxury customers will never lead a marginalized lifestyle, and may probably never experience real social inequality and hence, cannot fully identify with it. The owners of luxury labels, who are almost exclusively white and rich, are now profiting off of the symbols that were once created to openly denounce them.
Perhaps rich consumers will never be able to identify with the causes, and may inherently clash with the statement behind a certain trend, but brands can at least bring awareness about towards the politics of streetwear, or at the very least their origins. For their Cruise 2018 collection, Gucci was accused of directly copying a design conceived of by famed Harlem designer Dapper Dan in the 1980s, and failed to so much as give credit to this reference in their initial show notes (the brand later called it an 'homage' in a statement following the controversy). Emphasizing a trend's historical legacy, or even attaching an advocacy project, may be appropriate steps to begin with. But then again, would the advocacy come across as self-serving or shortsighted? If fashion brands effectively communicate a message that makes consumers more empathetic, more inclusive, and more appreciative of the deep roots of their favourite 'new' trends, then the future narrative of streetwear can possibly be saved, and high-end customers can become more responsive and sensitive to the artistry of other communities.