The Streetwear Story
By the time you’ve finished reading this article, will it have changed? Possibly. That’s the thing about a culture that erupts out of specific moments in history – is it forever tied to its beginnings? Or, is it no longer the same thing it was because those beginnings don’t exist in the same way anymore? Maybe tracing streetwear’s roots is a good place to start.
Streetwear exploded onto the fashion scene in the 1990s thanks to the likes of Supreme, Alphanumeric, and Spitfire. But like any turning point in history, there were hints of it in cultural landscape a while before then, and the movement’s roots are tied to the Los Angeles surf counterculture of the late 1970s to the early 1980s.
Shawn Stüssy – a Californian surfboard manufacturer – is often thought of as the trailblazer of the streetwear movement in the early 1980s. And it makes sense: streetwear’s origin story is that of humble authenticity – the same authenticity embedded in Shawn’s story: the defining Stüssy logo was born out of Shawn scrawling his signature on finished surfboards with a black felt-tip marker.
But it’s also true that Stüssy is one of many companies that benefited from the surfwear trend already making waves at the time in California. Trace Marshall – co-founder of the surfwear brand Brothers Marshall – credits surfboard-shaper and artist, Peter Schroff, as a heavy influencer of streetwear. Marshall also traces streetwear’s creation back further, too: “Going back, it kind of stems to [skateboarder] Jay Adams . . . skateboarding in the ‘70s was this mainstream thing, and here comes Jay Adams.” Perhaps trying to pinpoint streetwear’s precise first moments might be in vain.
After California, streetwear hit the east coast, specifically New York’s hip-hop youth culture. And in April of 1994, Supreme was born. Born out of the city’s downtown culture of artists and skaters, it would become the catalyst to propel streetwear into the zeitgeist. The label, established by James Jebbia, rapidly gained a huge cult following that has continued to expand and spill into the new generation’s apparel culture over twenty years later.
So, what apparel is discernably understood as streetwear? Design-wise, it can be pretty summed up as baseball caps, hoodies, sneakers, and above all, t-shirts. Fear of God’s founder, Jerry Lorenzo, when pushed to define streetwear, responded with, “I guess anything would be considered street that comes outside of the traditional fashion system . . . and I still don’t really know what exactly ‘that system’ is.” So a streetwear brand, at least more functionally speaking, might be understood as particular, independently created apparel pieces. During a 1992 interview, Stüssy honed in on the inherently ambiguous nature of streetwear, saying “Everybody calls it surf wear, or urban streetwear, or surf street . . . I don’t name it, and I don’t name it on purpose.” What’s interesting here is that some of the major pioneers of the streetwear scene are hesitant to definitively label it.
That being said, streetwear is, undoubtedly, more than apparel. Its founding philosophies of early hip-hop culture were inherently anti-establishment; consequently, politics has been injected into its threads from the very beginning. Supreme’s 2018 collaboration with the hip-hop group Public Enemy, and their album Fear of a Black Planet, is a testament to this. Fear was released in 1990 and was inspired with psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing’s Theory of Colour Confrontation. Speaking to SPIN Magazine, Public Enemy’s Chuck D talked about Welsing’s work in connection to the album’s message: “She shows that what prevents black and white coming together is a racist belief set up hundreds of years ago that the white race is somehow pure, and that that purity will diminish as it mixes with other races.” Supreme’s collaboration, which includes pieces emblazoned with Fear of a Black Planet artwork, reinstills the idea of a politicised streetwear that resists a white, conventional agenda.
Because streetwear arose outside of established fashion houses, and was born out of counter-cultures’ drive to push back on political, social, and racial injustices, it might be easy to define it as unquestionably mainstream-defying. But, given its transition into mainstream celebrity and social media culture, that’s likely a romanticised notion. It’s a strange debate: when hip-hop heavyweights such as A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, and Pharrell Williams bring streetwear to the new generation, does it restore streetwear’s founding ethos, or is this simply a consequence of hip-hop culture’s journey into the mainstream?
Added to that, Streetwear hasn’t shied away from internationally esteemed fashion houses in recent years. On the contrary, Supreme has collaborated with a number of big brands outside of the streetwear realm, including The North Face and Nike. Most significant of all these, though, was the streetwear label’s collaboration with luxury French fashion house, Louis Vuitton, in 2017. Louis Vuitton, interestingly enough, represents everything early streetwear opposed: elitism, consumerism, and lavishness. But when you take a step back, the two brands are more similar to one another than one would think: masters of marketing, both Supreme and Louis Vuitton know how to generate a frenzy around new lines. That being said, a streetwear label like Supreme brings people together through hype in a markedly different way than a high-end fashion house; when people gather to for the new drop, it’s about more than the clothes. It’s a space of community. Alec Leach, the digital fashion editor for High Snobiety, talked about Supreme’s unique ability to inspire togetherness in this way: “The way they distribute their clothing is key. Supremes’ drop, it's a lot like belonging to a football club. It's a way for young people to get together."
Trying to trace Streetwear’s identity, then, seems near impossible. And that’s okay. What started out as a niche style, born out of political and social scenes on the fringes, has become a global phenomenon. Does this point to a world in which individual self-expression of those traditionally on the outskirts is now accepted? Or has streetwear transcended its initial status in a more loner-makes-friends-with-the-cool crowd sort of way? Honestly, the answer likely lies in-between both possibilities – and myriad more. Either way, streetwear still represents a way of thinking and doing things innovatively. It is forever changing, and a transient, ever-changing shape is impossible to define. And maybe that’s exactly the point: perhaps streetwear’s inherently shifting nature is its only constant. Streetwear, in its refusal to conform to any specific box or category, might be defined only by its multifaceted and ever-evolving identity.