The Evolution of Streetwear: How the Flyest Fashion Came to Be
Streetwear, early on:
Believe it not, Streetwear didn’t start with Nike Air Forces or Travis Scott collaborations. What appears to most as “casual” or “effortless” dressing is deep-rooted in culture and history. Its significance is rich, vibrant and connected to music and pop culture in general.
Streetwear today has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, but it had humble beginnings in the ’70s. With the rise of punk, it emerged taking deep inspiration from heavy metal and bands like Joy Division, which once dominated the niche.
Fast forward two decades, it found itself amongst the hip hop scenes in ’90s New York, intertwined also with graffiti and surf-skate culture from LA. The mix was so rich it was influenced by Japanese nightlife too.
Still, this was a time when streetwear wasn’t a global phenomenon- it was merely a cultural fetus and not the cultural feat it is today. During this era, streetwear became a mix of whatever people wanted it to be- individualistic, amalgamated, inspired and more of a lifestyle adoption than a fashion one.
Then came the industry pioneers who saw monetisable potential. In the US, Designers Shawn Stussy and Jebbia took off with their brands Stüssy and Supreme respectively. The same Supreme which dominates high-end street/casual styles today.
Stussy was a surfboard designer who began with printed T-shirts, featuring the same trademark signature from his custom surfboards. As sales peaked, he began to introduce exclusive sales (way before Nike made “Drop Culture” a mainstream practice), causing scarcity and intrigue. Streetwear suddenly became a forbidden fruit.
Even today, rational consumers wonder: what is so different about oversized, plain t-shirts? Why do sales peak? Why do people flaunt seemingly plain, low effort apparel?
According to Bobby Kim, co-founder of The Hundreds, streetwear became rooted in culture. This was the USP- it wasn’t just about clothes or looking a certain way, it was about owning oneself and being part of something bigger- a cultural movement.
Every plain streetwear item was a statement piece. It spoke volumes about the person wearing it. Graphic tees, statement sneakers, ripped, loose-fitting jeans (etc.) were a form of expression of personality — “I’m the rapper”, “I’m the surfer” or even, “I’m a hipster”.
Despite this, most ’80s and ‘90s’ traditional luxury brands did not engage much. They did not style musicians or hip-hop artists or rappers like they do today, which inspired the community to further define their own identity- clothes became the medium for doing so.
Streetwear, one could say, looked out for the individualists, the artists or simply the folks who felt unrecognised.
Streetwear grew deep relationships with music artists. For example, the streetwear brand Bathing Ape, founded by Nigo in the ’90s, shook up the US market only after Soulja Boy released a song ‘I Got Me Some Bapes’ in 2007. Such was the symbiosis between music, art, expression and streetwear.
Sown for Inclusivity, Grown for Exclusivity:
Everybody was welcome to adopt streetwear, even reimagine it. Ironically, the perception around it was one of exclusivity, and this continues to be so today.
As discussed, the growth in streetwear didn’t come from endorsements or marketing pushes from brands. Rather, brands were sought out by consumers wanting to be ‘in’ on the exclusivity. Streetwear had a pull effect- something very hard to achieve in the saturated fashion world.
In the present day, exclusivity continues to be an integral sales practice for streetwear– with rampant capsule collections, limited editions and ‘drop culture’ (Drop culture is when a brand releases limited-edition products in small quantities, creating perceived scarcity).
Nike started releasing Air Jordans in such fashion in the ’80s, and this has been the trick of the trade since then.
Once gone, you can only get these drops from resellers with hyperinflated prices. Nonetheless, securing a pair of Travis Scott Nikes makes one a part of a hyper-exclusive pool of consumers, allowing fans to feel connected to the artist himself.
The Luxury Laggers:
After witnessing its phenomenal popularity, traditional luxury fashion labels have hopped on the streetwear bandwagon and reached out to other brands known for streetstyle. The Louis Vuitton x Supreme collab from 2017 was iconic. Dior x Air Jordan shook the world in 2020. Supreme x Tiffany & Co was unprecedented. Nobody saw these coming.
This even goes beyond shoes and t-shirts. Iconic watchmaker Omega just dropped a collaboration with Swatch- reinventing the iconic Speedmaster Moonwatch.
Out of Reach?
Presently, luxury brands like Balenciaga and Off-White are torchbearers for high-end streetwear, and we might just be witnessing yet another cultural shift in streetwear. If trends and consumer preferences continue, not everybody will be able to afford the exclusivity of the industry all that often.
But, do you even need to?
Street fashion is simply about expressing yourself. You do not need to own the latest Jordans to be able to pull this off.
- Rip some old, oversized denims from your closet, pair it with a £10 graphic oversized tee (the more faded, the better), or play with proportions by cropping clothes and giving it a more feminine touch.
- Pair with baseball hats, pair with sneakers, add some jewellery and accessories.
- Matching tracksuits are in right now, and they work with unconventional matching too. Formal blazers work well with those!
- Take inspiration from streetwear influencers like Hailey Bieber, Travis Scott, Kanye West- the items they wear may be branded, but similar designs are easy to source and can even be sustainably created yourself. Raid vintage and thrift stores, or even your parents’ closets to bag easy-to-execute streetstyle looks for yourself.
It’s that easy.
Remember: streetwear started with people making it their own, so if you wish to stay true to the culture, don’t hesitate with making it your own.
[Written by: Shipra Jain (Content Contributor)]