How Street Style is Making a Mark on High Fashion
To the casual observer, 9am on Friday 24 February was business as usual in London’s Soho. Commuters hurried on their way to work, shutters were raised on shops, rubbish trucks steamed along. But at 26 Brewer Street, a queue of teenagers was snaking around the block. What for? To get their hands on the latest designs by Palace, the streetwear label known for its triangle logo, skate videos and lol-worthy prints.
This is the “hypebeast” scene, the nickname given to the consumers hungry for whatever hyped streetwear is released in a given week. Palace (founded in London in 2009) and its Soho neighbour Supreme (founded in New York in 1994), are the two kings of streetwear, and the pavements outside both stores are frequently the site of queues, when a “drop” of new clothes comes in store.
Omer, who is 17, queued for six hours today and will spend about £300 even though he doesn’t “really like it that much”; Taran, 16, will spend £200, and has travelled for two hours to get to the store. Everyone is dressed up. Taran is in an immaculate white parka and P for Palace cap. Will, another queue member, wears Supreme army fatigues.
Stylist Lotta Volkova, fashion’s current favourite mouthpiece, caused a stir last year when she declared “there are no subcultures any more”. But the hypebeast scene has all the characteristics of one, both in the gathering of young people on street corners and the obsession over the “right” item to be part of the tribe. In his 1979 book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige argues that “humble objects can be magically appropriated; ‘stolen’ by subcultural groups and made to carry ‘secret’ meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance.” Hebdige pointed to punk’s safety pin but the same could be said of streetwear items such as the Supreme Obama hoody or the Palace Elton John T-shirt. Supreme’s New York City store, on Lafayette Street, is hypebeast’s centre. In 2014, when the brand launched a collaboration with Nike, the NYPD shut the launch down due to concerns for public safety. In February this year, the queues moved to the Broadway/Lafayette subway station where Supreme MetroCards were for sale. Once again, the police were called.
The hypebeast world has its own websites (the appropriately named Hypebeast as well as Highsnobiety) Facebook groups (the Basement with 65,000 members, Sup Talk with 97,000) and its “faces”. Gully Guy, AKA Leo Mandella, is a 14-year-old from Warwickshire who has 197,000 followers on Instagram, and posts pictures of himself in Supreme, Palace and Bape. He claims to have spent more than £9,000 on streetwear, and an average selfie garners more than 20,000 likes. He was spotted in Soho recently followed by a film crew, and models in a video about Supreme’s collaborations with North Face on the Basement this month.
Until now streetwear has remained a niche interest. But it is being appropriated by high fashion. Streetwear shapes and staples – sneakers, hoodies, printed T-shirts, tracksuit pants – have been seen at the likes of Givenchy, Vetements and Raf Simons for the past 10 years, but the look truly went mainstream this January when Louis Vuitton collaborated with Supreme. The first model on the catwalk wore a bright red crossbody bag with the Supreme logo writ large. Others followed wearing a pattern that combined the Louis Vuitton monogram canvas with Supreme’s logo. A 23-year-old streetwear brand created by a skate scenester was on the runway for the most valuable Parisian brand in the world, one that was founded as a luggage label in 1854 and was valued at £22.5bn in 2016. Highsnobiety ran an article capturing what many within the streetwear community were thinking: “It’s official,” the title ran, “streetwear and luxury fashion are the same thing.”
The collaboration will no doubt sell out before it even gets to stores in July - not just because they are nice designs but also because of the backstory. Louis Vuitton issued a cease-and-desist order to Supreme in 2000 when the brand put a version of the LV double monogram on its skateboards. The order reportedly asked that all products with the design be burned. Seventeen years on, the brands are collaborators.
While the prices are much lower than Louis Vuitton (though still £60 for a T-shirt, £120 for a sweater), the commercial acumen of a youth brand such as Supreme wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the powers that be. Streetwear is big business. On a “drop day”, the traffic on the Supreme site can increase by as much as 16,800%. The Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration led to unfounded rumours that LVMH, the conglomerate that own Louis Vuitton, had bought Supreme for £411m. Such a move doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility.
The collaboration provoked wildly differing reactions from the fashion and streetwear communities. Virgil Abloh is the designer behind streetwear-on-the-catwalk brand Off-White and a Kanye West collaborator. He describes the collaboration as “the most modern moment in fashion that existed in our current time”. By contrast, Guy Trebay, the New York Times fashion critic, called it “the fashion version of a murder-suicide”. Highsnobiety, meanwhile, reported that Supreme’s fanbase felt betrayed. “I think it’s stupid as shit. It solidifies Supreme’s place in fashion, which is so stupid,” said one fan. “They started the brand as a fuck-you to fashion, and now they’ve become it.” The backlash prompted Supreme to make a rare statement to the press. “Throughout the history of the brand, we’ve seen our customers have apprehensions whenever we do something unexpected,” it read. “However, we have always stayed true to the culture from which we came.” Supreme knows it needs to ward off accusations of that most mortal subculture sin: selling out.
Streetwear is, of course, indisputably associated with hip-hop, another area where keeping it real is held in high regard. Streetwear staples such as tracksuits and logo T-shirts have been, broadly speaking, the uniform for rappers from Grandmaster Flash to Kendrick Lamar. In the Netflix series, Hip-Hop Evolution, Nelson George connects Run DMC’s success under Def Jam’s Russell Simmons specifically with their Adidas tracksuits, a pillar of the streetwear look, and one worn on the streets of New York at the time. “One of the most important things he did in his whole career was get them out of those checkered jackets and put them in the Adidas and make them more street,” says George. “That was a gamechanger.” The group went on to sign a sponsorship deal with Adidas in 1986, the first non-athletes to do so.
Sacha Jenkins, who directed the hip-hop fashion documentary Fresh Dressed, says streetwear developed over the next decade within the black community. “People were buying their pants too big but no one was monetising it,” he says. “People were like: ‘Wait a minute, there’s a business model here.’” Fubu, short for For Us By Us, was set up by Daymond John in 1992, selling streetwear’s oversized tracksuits and T-shirts with bold prints. By 1999, global sales totalled £228m.
These associations mean that “streetwear”, as a term and a style, still comes with what Hypebeast’s UK editor Jason Dike calls “racial coding. If you’re black and wearing a cap or a bomber jacket or whatever, it’s more likely to be called streetwear than if someone white was wearing it.” But these roots in hip-hop perhaps partially explain why the hypebeast scene is notably diverse. I walk past Sneakersnstuff (another dot on the hypebeast map) in Shoreditch one Thursday and almost the entire queue is non-white. Neither Palace or Supreme have a black designer at the helm – James Jebbia at Supreme is a white Brit in New York, while Palace’s Lev Tanju is the son of a Turkish footballer and British restaurateur mother. But their association with the outsider element of skate culture and notably diverse imagery – everyone from Lee “Scratch” Perry to Kate Moss, Tyler the Creator and Kermit the Frog have starred in Supreme campaigns – means they feel inclusive.
That is in contrast to the notoriously white world of high fashion. So could it be argued that catwalk brands bringing streetwear into high fashion is a form of cultural appropriation? Rachel Lifter, a fashion studies lecturer at Parsons art and design school in New York, says it provokes questions. “As a design practice, streetwear – in inverted commas – takes its cues from hip-hop style,” she says. That style, she says, “emerged from the lived experience of young black and Latino people, who were experiencing various forms of racial and class subordination: these [high fashion] designs operate on a representational level. It has the makings of black style, but not necessarily in a nuanced way.”
Shayne Oliver, the designer behind Hood By Air, is one of high fashion’s few black designers. His collections have a mixture of streetwear staples – hoodies, trackpants, trainers – with dramatic catwalk staging, such as models in masks. He has been vocal about high-profile designers – typically white – using the streetwear that he grew up with and sanitising it somehow. He explained to the New Yorker: “It’s, like: ‘I think that guy is really hot, but I don’t know how to approach him, so I’m going to put elements of myself in him.’ There’s a power play where you’re inspired by something but you don’t want to give it credit.”
Virgil Abloh, who now sells on Net-a-Porter and shows on the Paris catwalk each season, is more sanguine about the racial politics. As a black designer, he says: “I think it can be easier to start with streetwear – not necessarily because I don’t come from the typical fashion design background, but because I am unrefined,” referring to his novice status in high fashion. He is not resistant to the term streetwear. “Call it what you want to call it – why reject the notion?” he says. “Streetwear is what is worn on the street and it’s how real people wear clothes, sneakers with a dress, a hoody, it’s mixing genres.”
The designer, who is 35, grew up in a golden age of streetwear labels in New York with labels such as Alife and Nom de Guerre. He is, however, aware that a new one is on the way. If some criticise the prices of Off-White (typically from £200 to £1,500) because it alienates the hypebeast demographic, Abloh says we should think of his label as an ideas factory. He’s throwing down the gauntlet to see what – and who – comes next. “In streetwear, brands are there to entice other brands to challenge them,” he says. “This is meant to be an opensource idea of how you do a fashion show; it’s meant to inspire.”
Hypebeasts like those swarming the London Palace stores have a certain business acumen: the resale market is big. “It’s got its own economy,” says Dike. “A lot of these kids have little businesses.” Will, the boy in the army fatigues, is first in the queue at Palace, and describes his occupation as: “I buy and sell clothes and I am starting to invest in the stock market.” He queued for 16 hours and says he will spend anything from £600 to £1,200. He has the world-weary demeanour of a regular. “The system at Supreme is awful but if I’m making money …” he sighs.
Both Sup Talk and the Basement are primarily resale sites, and Grailed is a sort of posh eBay for the streetwear scene. A documentary on Highsnobiety referred to Supreme as the “most resaleable brand in the world”. A Terry Richardson Kermit the Frog T-shirt, first released in 2008, is currently being sold on eBay for £640. The Supreme logo MetroCards sold for $5.50 and were swiftly spotted at Unique Hype Collection, a Supreme resale store with 75,000 followers on Instagram, for $25.
Hebdidge argued that as soon as a subculture’s signifiers “are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become ‘frozen’”. They are no longer mutable markers of resistance when they’re also worn by the establishment, and part of the wider economy. Perhaps, nearly 40 years after he wrote those words, in a world where more than one truth is a given, a subculture such as this is legitimate even when it lives simultaneously in the boardroom, on the street, on the catwalk, in the chatroom and on the resale site. One thing is for certain: with another Thursday just around the corner, those queues are not going away.
(This article originally appeared on theguardian.com and was written by Lauren Cochrane)