There was a meme floating around during Paris Fashion Week, which ended this past Sunday. It was that nondescript guy wearing sunglasses and holding a piece of cardboard that said, "Y'all Turned Paris Fashion Week Into Agenda."
The meme is accurate. Brands that would have launched at trade shows like Agenda, Magic, or Capsule 10 years ago have infiltrated Paris. Brands like Rhude, 424, Who Decides War, Heron Preston, Off-White, John Elliott, and Alyx, which are rooted in streetwear and its culture but not entirely dedicated to making hoodies and T-shirts, all had a presence at Paris Fashion Week, whether it was on the official calendar or selling their collection in a showroom.
When I first saw the meme, a part of me laughed because it was funny. But then I thought to myself, "Well, what do you want Paris Fashion Week to look like?" I don't know the creator of the meme or what they were trying to convey, but it didn't come across as celebratory. And, granted, most memes are jokes, not motivational messages, but in my last few years covering streetwear, I've seen and heard a lot of people ignore it, mock it, and look down on it even though they have, in some way or another, benefited from it. And let me just put it plainly: If you work in fashion, especially menswear, you've benefited from the hype around streetwear. According to Bain & Company, the streetwear market will reach $429 billion in sales globally by 2025.
But despite these numbers, we entered the Fall/Winter 2020 men's season off the back of Virgil Abloh telling Dazed that streetwear is going to die in 2020. "In my mind, how many more T-shirts can we own, how many more hoodies, how many sneakers?" he asked. As expected, there was a backlash. Even I looked at the comments sideways. I was less surprised by his statement that streetwear was going to die, because that could be interpreted in various ways, but more perplexed by his alternative, which was wearing vintage and shopping your own archive. I love vintage, but let's be honest: Abloh is in the business of designing new product for big companies that depend on people buying it.
He responded to critiques via Twitter, saying, "What we do is called design. It's not limited to being called 'streetwear.' Design-is-design. The moral of the story is beware of whatever box your labeled as. Challenge it. Defy it. Do not be defined by it."
Was he backtracking? I don't think so. I think Abloh doesn't want to be labeled a "streetwear designer." And he's not the first person to feel that way. I imagine the term "streetwear designer" is coded language for a lot of other things, whether that has to deal with race, pedigree, or lack of formal design training. And just because you grew up on streetwear and sneakers doesn't mean you don't appreciate a well-made coat or that you can't design one.
We're starting to see that on the runways in Paris. Designers like Rhuigi Villaseñor of Rhude, who made his Paris Fashion Week debut, moved away from the graphics he's known for and focused on elevated wardrobe staples like a quarter-zip shearling, a leather blazer, and tailored coats. Abloh's work for Off-White and Louis Vuitton is getting more mature, with a focus on suits, trench coats, and trousers. And the same went for Matthew Williams of Alyx, who dedicated less attention to his elevated, technical sportswear and more to, you guessed it, suits.
This shift isn't surprising. Fashion moves in cycles, and designers are growing up, getting more resources, working with better factories, and not wanting their brands to be defined by a trendy aesthetic, which is how the industry generally views streetwear. But I hope that, in their effort to grow, they don't lose sight of what made them popular in the first place.
I’m sure suits and tailored separates make sense for most menswear merch plans, but it almost felt like there was an unwritten rule this season that, in order to be taken seriously, you have to make a suit. Or maybe designers are targeting an older, more monied audience? Or maybe they are showing suits on the runway but selling other things to stores. Or they could just want to make suits? I'm not sure. But good design can show up in any garment, even a T-shirt. I'd prefer less focus on suits and more focus on making clothes that aren't derivative of things we've seen before, and producing cohesive collections that tell a clear story. Maybe I'm naive, but I believe a sharp vision is what's needed to move out of the "hype" designer category. But at the same time, there's nothing wrong with a little hype.
But the response to streetwear no longer dominating the runways has gotten a lot of people excited. I've seen more than one headline saying "Goodbye to Streetwear." I've read commentary from buyers claiming they are happy to see streetwear go when it's helped keep the lights on for the past few seasons. It's a narrative the media has hung onto for a while. When will streetwear die? Will Virgil always be this hot? Will sneakers always sell? Are Yeezys as popular as Adidas claims they are? It's human to wonder when the frenzy around something will go away, but sometimes the eagerness to shut the door on streetwear feels a little too gleeful, especially given what's actually happening in the market.
No, streetwear didn't have a heavy presence on the runways, but that doesn't mean it's dead. And most of the people claiming it's "done" don't understand it or know what streetwear really is. And, news flash: Streetwear isn't relegated to T-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers. It's a community and a culture with influence the fashion industry needs. That influence is the reason why the New Guards Group took a majority stake in Ambush. It's the reason why Kim Jones partnered Dior with Shawn Stüssy and Jordan Brand. It's the reason why Louis Vuitton is aligning with the NBA. It's the reason why a supersized portrait of Telfar Clemens was on the side of a Gap store in Paris—and Clemens has said he's not streetwear, but he's built a community around his brand in the same way streetwear brands have. It's the reason why CDG Shirt worked with Futura. It's the reason why Mike Amiri might not have shown jeans on the runway this past season, but has produced sneakers for the customers who covet his jeans. It's the reason why Virgil is collaborating with Nigo at Louis Vuitton and keeps reproducing the Millionaire sunglasses in different colors. It's the reason why front rows during the week were filled with people like Nike's Fraser Cooke, Don C, Nigo, Nicky Diamond, Quavo and Takeoff of the Migos, Westside Gunn, and Pop Smoke.
Streetwear is not dead. In fact, the culture that birthed it is massive. So massive that, at this point, luxury may need streetwear more than streetwear needs it. Streetwear has helped change the tone of the industry, given opportunities to people who wouldn't have gotten them a few years ago, and put more power into the consumers' hands. And if all of this means Paris Fashion Week turned into Agenda, I'm more than cool with that.