Written by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)
Let’s take a quick look at the streetwear world in the past month: OriginalFake’s final collection hit stores, signifying an end to the brand’s seven-year run; Supreme is embroiled in a legal battle with Leah McSweeney of Married to the Mob, and artist Barbara Kruger called the situation “A Ridiculous Clusterfuck of Totally Uncool Jokers”; and Nigo’s contract with I.T. Limited, the Hong Kong-based owners of A Bathing Ape since 2011, has officially ended, as has his tenure as the brand’s creative director.
These events are indicative of a looming question: With the progenitors of streetwear culture becoming increasingly older, are they still qualified or required to make clothes that appeal to a bunch of teenagers and twentysomethings? Can middle-aged dudes still be tastemakers for the youth of tomorrow?
It’s no secret that “streetwear” isn’t what it used to be. Thanks to the Internet and retailers like Karmaloop, it’s never been easier to discover new brands and have them shipped to your door. The democratization of fashion means that any kid with a computer and Photoshop can "design" a T-shirt and sell it via bigcartel. Plenty of brands like London’s Trapstar run their businesses off that platform. Or, if a young “designer” can't afford to finance a line, he can certainly get on Kickstarter and start a crowdfunded campaign.
In a culture fueled by pseudo-plagiarism, is it still possible to make anything original?
Of course, it wasn't always this way. Streetwear, for all intents and purposes, is rooted in punk culture. Picture this: It’s 1977, Shawn Stussy is a surfboard-shaper living in California doing what he loves. He listens to The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and it influences his creative output—right down to how he writes his name.
In an interview with Aussie mag Acclaim, the unintentional godfather of the industry—and how appropriate that the birth of streetwear was a total accident—says his iconic signature “was very much a ‘Yeah, fuck you old guys!’ It was like, ‘Yeah, I am not that!’”
This decidedly “anti-“ stance has informed subcultures like punk, hip-hop, and graffiti. Stussy took those same values and made clothes that spoke to a burgeoning culture. These were kids who were rebels in their own right, but instead of a strong, politically motivated sort of rebellion, they were just in search of something real, something that spoke their language, and represented their forming ideals.
Bobby Hundreds attempted to define streetwear when we asked him to rank the culture’s 50 greatest brands. As he put it: “Stussy took a multi-faceted, subculturally diverse, Southern California lifestyle-based T-shirt brand and mimicked the limited feel of a high-end luxury brand. And those are the two most integral components of what makes a brand streetwear: T-shirts and exclusivity.” I’d also add there’s a hefty dose of self-awareness that adds to the appeal.
From Stussy’s linked SS logo aping Chanel to the Supreme box logo stickers occupying unwelcome space on Calvin Klein ads, clothing brands with a "fuck you" attitude were far from the norm in the '80s and '90s. Fashion labels just didn't do that. These guys were making clothes that were one part inside joke, and one part living in the moment.
Of the longevity of his designs, Stussy says: "When you’re doing them... you don’t do them to stand the test of time. For me it was momentary, it was like do it this week and next week something else. So the spirit was disposable imagery."
Streetwear was never meant to establish a heritage, but instead comment on contemporary culture, which is why so much of it thrives on parody. Now you can’t find a poster in New York that isn't covered in stickers. Everyone and their mother is doing a logo flip. In a culture fueled by pseudo-plagiarism disguised as re-contextualization, is it still possible to make anything original?
The gap between high fashion and street culture has also diminished significantly. In the ’80s, Chanel and skateboarding couldn't be further apart. Now, Supreme commissions blue-chip artists to design custom skate decks, and designers like Katie Eary are selling their own versions for roughly $400 (sans trucks and wheels, even!)—much to the chagrin of real, actual skaters. Rappers used to go to Dapper Dan for custom designer knockoff gear. Today, MCs like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky rub shoulders with the likes of Riccardo Tisci and Raf Simons. Streetwear's aspirational spirit has been replaced by hip-hop's high-fashion reality. The whole "Fake It 'Til You Make It" thing actually worked!
Welcome to the future of streetwear culture, where the staying power is determined by the number of reblogs.
So where do we go from here? Brands like Hood By Air and #BEEN #TRILL are leading the charge on the next wave of youth fashion. Judging from the cult-like following both brands have developed on social media, HBA and #BEEN #TRILL exhibit something Millennials have mastered when it comes to personal style: cultural sampling. What started with Stussy's riff on Chanel has wrought, as Jon Caramanica of The New York Times puts it, "consuming the existing in order to make something new." There could be no better description of streetwear in a post-Tumblr culture.
In many ways, they're the modern embodiment of streetwear's old guard. They're young kids, making shit informed by what they're into (Canal St. bootlegs, Internet memes, and ’90s club culture), and using whatever platforms are available to them to tell people "this is what we're about, and if you fuck with it then you can buy it... or at the very least reblog it." #BEEN #TRILL started off as an Internet joke/art collective turned actual brand when they started putting their logo on clothes for Stussy to custom T-shirts made for New York Fashion Week hotspot Milk Studios.
Virgil Abloh, a member of #BEEN #TRILL, achieved notoriety when he debuted his PYREX Vision line. A combination of the high retail prices and the revelation that a $550 flannel shirt was printed on deadstock Ralph Lauren Rugby shirts was viewed as both egregious and brilliant, even garnering a shot from designer Mark McNairy, who made a "TUPPERWARE" shirt for his fashion show in response. In an online world rife with regurgitation and stolen images, this stuff ironically manages to come off as original, slightly rebellious, and partly like a joke everyone else is in on—especially young guys to watch like self-proclaimed "King of the Youth" Ian Connor and A$AP Bari.
Welcome to the future of streetwear culture, where the references come from all over the place, and staying power is determined by the number of reblogs. Perhaps streetwear's next great designer is simply a meme waiting to happen: whether it's jersey-inspired T-shirts emblazoned with the birth year of a famous fashion designer, or a Yankees logo sandwiched by hashtags. The revolution it seems, is being Instagrammed.
While streetwear's old guard has its hands tied with frivolous lawsuits and retiring on millions of dollars from the sale of their brands, the new crop of kids are too busy being young to give a fuck. They're making their own clothing and wearing it to secret parties. They're rolling up blunts, buddying up with the biggest rap stars in the world, and setting the groundwork to take over. They're taking selfies with the #BEEN #TRILL app and hashtags like #veryrare. In short: They are defining style for themselves.