The streetwear scene is going through some changes
Words: Tshego ‘Red’ Mosiane | Illustrations: Eva Faerch
The past two years have seen streetwear’s meteoric rise to becoming the dominant voice in fashion.
In the blink of an eye, we have seen the subculture go from being on the fashion industry’s periphery to infiltrating Parisian high fashion's exclusive boardrooms and dominating the racks of leading retailers like Topshop and Zara.
With its nearly-ubiquitous influence, this is not the first time streetwear has surfaced on runways, but it is arguably the first time it has had such a significant impact on high fashion. According to every major fashion publication over the past year, it's all thanks to Virgil Abloh’s influence.
Credited as being one of the key players in driving streetwear into the global mainstream today – by cracking the code to the high fashion vault in record time – Abloh was part of Kanye West’s creative team. With his brand, Off-White, he later burst onto the high fashion radar when he became a contender for the coveted Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE (LVMH) Young Designer's Prize, in 2015. In retrospect, his timing was impeccable: the debate of whether streetwear should be taken seriously by high fashion was reaching boiling point. The LVMH Prize finalists were announced in March of that year and 6 months later Abloh's influential associates, Kanye West and Demna Gvasalia – who was also once part of Ye’s creative team and a fellow 2015 LVMH Prize finalist – pushed the streetwear agenda even further. YEEZY season 1 debuted at New York Fashion Week that September and an announcement of Gvasalia taking over from Alexander Wang as the Creative Director of Balenciaga quickly followed, which was coincidentally made public the same week as Off-White’s first solo presentation during Paris Fashion Week. Abloh was perfectly positioned as the next fashion pioneer.
Throughout this shift, the question at the back of the minds of industry insiders and fashion fans alike has been whether this is simply a trend that will eventually fall victim to the fashion cycle or does the rise Virgil Abloh and other designers symbolise a permanent change in the industry? Recent events are pointing towards the former.
What is fascinating to observe is that Off-White’s latest Spring/Summer 2018 collection sees Abloh continue to drift away from the familiar streetwear aesthetic he rode in on in favour of a kitschier approach towards ready-to-wear garments. In his new collection, he replaces the utilitarian styles we’ve come to expect from Off-White with pretty frocks and tailored power suits in homage to the former fashions of Princess Diana. As a designer who has shown the industry that a successful brand is not only about the clothes but rather selling a story strongly rooted in nostalgia, his Princess Dianna collection makes complete sense as a route to take in moving forward. The fact that he did it so early in his time as fashion’s golden boy highlights a fact previously swept under the rug in his coverage: Virgil Abloh has never really prioritized “the culture” in his creative process.
He has stated on multiple occasions that his clothes are not for the people who they are inspired by (if that wasn’t clear from the price range) but rather about contributing something new to high fashion. Instead, his real market is the rich and/or privileged fashionistas who are able to spend money on the latest trends from their favourite brands... but they get bored quickly. A trending style has one turn in the short-term fashion trend cycle – usually about two years – before early-adopting consumers take their money to whatever is next. The streetwear trend has passed its peak so now begins its gradual phasing out. Along with other designers who had adopted streetwear early in the trend curve and have made a few million, hooked a higher earning demographic of fans and connected with prominent level industry executives, Virgil is moving on too.
Abloh has long stated his intention to become the Creative Director of a major French fashion house “at Saint Laurent level”. Having used streetwear as means to demand their attention, it is time to prove himself to the higher-ups who can get him that position. That means he should work harder than his colleagues with more experience working directly with high fashion brands to prove his versatility and diverse marketability. He needs to show that he's more than cargo pants and windbreakers and recently announced collaborations with two LVMH-owned brands, Rimowa and Jimmy Choo, could go a long way to achieving that.
What does the change in direction of mainstream fashion media’s appointed leader of streetwear mean for streetwear though? Streetwear in high fashion was a successful sales gimmick for millions of millennials – whose attention fashion brands have been begging for since 2014. If we are keeping it real, Virgil does not matter in streetwear nearly as much as he does in high fashion but the impending decline of streetwear in high fashion presents an opportunity for its real connoisseurs to reclaim their narrative again.
Streetwear being a global phenomenon at the high fashion level completely goes against its DNA. Streetwear is a rebellious approach to fashion intended to fight against conventional, conservative and mainstream fashion. It is rooted in skate culture and has grown to adapt inspiration from Japanese street fashion as well as, of course, being undeniably associated with hip-hop and black and poor people. Dick Hebdige’s 1979 book, titled Subculture: The Meaning of Style talks about British fashion subcultures in the 70s and 80s and offers insight nearly three decades later. In it, Hebdige argued that as soon as the defining aspects of a subculture ‘are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become ‘frozen’’. Meaning they lose their purpose and are no longer a defiant fashion when the very system they’re supposedly so against is dressed exactly like them.
The advantage genuine streetwear designers have gained from this moment in the spotlight is exposure to markets that are entirely new for them. For example, the likes of Russian designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy, have also benefitted from this phenomenon and can use the millions of new fans he’s garnered from being mentioned in every streetwear think piece of the past year to further his brand. When we talk of streetwear industry trajectory, we will often speak of Supreme or BAPE, or those of a similar ilk, who have a rich and authentic history in the space without needing to mention high fashion to legitimize their impact.
What will most likely happen is the same thing that happens to all subcultures after high fashion gets bored of them: streetwear will return to being alternative. Just like the goth or retro fashion crazes of previous seasons, streetwear will go back to its position on the outskirts of mainstream fashion but remain profitable because its core strength remains: the cult following. And the cult following will not be chasing after whatever the next trend is because they are streetwear.