Streetwear is a broad term defining a distinctive style of fashionable, comfortable clothing, often influenced by notable style icons. The rich history of Streetwear contains a list of cultural icons who play a pivotal role in streetwear’s rise to the masses. In the 1980’s West Coast, Shawn Stussy, founder of Stüssy, was developing a brand centred on surf culture, affixing his signature graffiti-style emblems on a series of graphic t-shirts. Around a decade later, James Jebia built his empire inspired by skate culture which later became arguably the biggest brand in streetwear, Supreme. Over in the east, Nigo, founder of cult brand Bathing Ape, was establishing a name for himself from Harajuku, Tokyo. To this day, many still accredit Shawn Stussy for creating the first streetwear brand, James Jebia is herald a streetwear legend, and Nigo is esteemed for coining streetwear’s signature bold, logo-heavy, apparel. These early adopters established a global streetwear movement which would influence generations of streetwear culture to come.
There are a multitude of factors which contribute to a streetwear brand’s success, such as heritage story, community, and exclusivity, but no factor is perceived to be as important as authenticity. The youth who gravitate towards streetwear often follow individuals who they believe are authentic, aligning themselves with personalities behind a brand, leading many fashion houses to recruit young, creative pioneers to get their legacy across to young consumers who were increasingly infatuated with the streetwear craze. When Virgil Abloh was announced as the new creative director at Louis Vuitton in 2018, it was widely celebrated by devoted fans. A prominent figure in the fashion industry, Abloh’s roots were etched in the streetwear market with Pyrex, the predecessor to the phenomenon of Off-White, a brand which took the streets by storm and conquered the fashion world.
In 2017, Abloh collaborated with Nike to create ‘The Ten’, arguably the most anticipated sneaker release of all time. The collection featured ten iconic sneaker silhouettes which Virgil deconstructed and altered; upon release, all models immediately sold out and many declared it the collaboration of the decade. In 2018, Off-White was ranked the most popular brand in the world, surpassing long established fashion houses and consolidating its position as a global name. Abloh uses his architectural background as inspiration for his designs, most featuring his signature black and white diagonal stripes with the trademark framed air quotations. His talent and individuality were recognized by the global conglomerate, and he went on to transform the fashion house into a modern luxury brand whilst still maintaining its heritage.
Another factor which contributes to the success of a brand is often the faces behind it. Streetwear fans aspire to replicate the styles of celebrities who they deem as authentic and expressive, many of those include celebrities who run amongst the hip-hop and rap circle. Streetwear’s relationship with music dates back to the early ’90s, some of Supreme’s most iconic t-shirts feature the faces of hip-hop royalty, Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon, Biggie Smalls, and Tupac Shakur to name a few. In the 2000s, Pharrell Williams became an ambassador for Bape, even collaborating with Nigo to establish Billionaire Boys Club. You could say that Pharrell was one of the first influencers to emerge on the scene, a visionary tastemaker, herald for spotting trends, Pharrell helped bring Bape to the forefront of the streetwear movement in the States, which then led to a series of high-profile endorsements from rap artists such as Snoop Dog, A$AP Ferg, and perhaps most notably, Kanye West.
Aside from the aforementioned Pharrell, it’s impossible not to touch on the importance of Kanye’s involvement when discussing streetwear. In 2007, West collaborated on his first released sneaker with Bape, creating the highly lusted after College Dropout Bapesta. In the years to follow, he went on to collaborate with big-name brands such as Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Adidas to create some of the most coveted sneakers of the decade. Kanye single handedly built an empire with a devoted cult following with his brand, Yeezy. The self-proclaimed Yeezus had already established a big persona within the music industry. But Kanye’s collaboration with Adidas in 2015 marked a memorable moment in streetwear history, highlighting its prominence to the masses. Everyone wanted a pair of Yeezys, the first collection to this day is fondly referred to as the ‘OGs’, a deadstock pair resells for over $2,000. Following his Yeezy x Adidas debut, Kanye famously said on air with Ryan Seacrest “Eventually, everybody who wants to get Yeezys will get Yeezys'' alluding to his intention to make his shoes widely accessible. Kanye secured his position in the (then) niche luxury streetwear market the same year with the creation of his eponymous label Yeezy, forging his signature minimalist visual language which featured essential silhouettes in a simplistic colour palette, reminiscent of the 90s’ comfort athleisure.
As of today, the streetwear market has branched out into multiple avenues, some brands such as Stussy, Palace, and Supreme, remain true to the origin of streetwear, centring on lower-end affordable skatewear. But the introduction of streetwear into the luxury market has diverged into much more complex streams. Many luxury heritage brands have recognised the big market for Gen Z and its affinity for streetwear and have adjusted their models to cater for them by enlisting high-profile figures with a background in streetwear. A memorable moment in fashion history was the appointment of Demna Gvasalia of Vetements at Balenciaga in 2015. Traditionally, Balenciaga is a brand about femininity and the creation of a perfect gown for the ladies, Demna, infamous for his satirical approach to fashion, brought a modern spin to the brand’s identity, pivoting the fashion house into one of the most iconic luxury streetwear brands. Louis Vuitton and Dior followed shortly, with the recruitment of Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones respectively—who instilled elements of streetwear into traditional haute-couture. Other luxury houses introduced components of streetwear into their collections, the addition of Ricardo Tisci to British heritage brand Burberry for example, led to the B series line, featuring a collection of luxury streetwear catering towards the youth. Tisci’s first point of duty also entailed introducing a release strategy which played into drop culture.
The rising hunger for luxury streetwear has also carved out a new aesthetic, which was followed by the emergence of newer brands which rapidly infiltrated the market. Ambush, the brainchild of husband and wife duo Verbal and Yoon rose to prominence following their collaboration with Nike, their signature style borrows streetwear ideology and adds their unique flair. The label has a string of influential partnerships under their belt, from BAPE to Sacai and Undercover. And if that’s not enough, the brand was a finalist for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers in 2017 and has received nods of approval from notable fashion icons in the likes of Pharrell and Kanye, both who were early supporters of the label. Emerging on a scene already dominated by established brands, 1017 ALYX 9SM has cemented its position in a saturated market in five short years. The visionary behind the brand, Matthew Williamson infuses streetwear with industrial aesthetics, his collections feature minimalistic chest rigs, harnesses and of course, the ubiquitous ALYX buckle which has been attached to Nike sports bras to Moncler coats. Alyx has etched a distinct identity for itself and claimed the hearts of streetwear fanatics globally with his signature utility and tactical designs.
Ultimately, streetwear is more than just a definitive term for a style of clothing, it is a culture that has bridged together many different styles whilst still maintaining its own distinctive subdivisions. The once viewed as a passing trend. streetwear has since encompassed a culture influenced by fashion, art and music, birthing collaborative collections with artists from a spectrum of creative disciplines. It has created a passionate community today which has been integral to establishing streetwear’s dominance in fashion, the modern-day iteration of streetwear presents consumers with variety, making streetwear for everyone.