There’s a Reckoning Happening in Streetwear And It's Long Overdue

Streetwear brands are supporting Black Lives Matter and denouncing racism, but the streetwear industry has to question how and why we got to this point.

Supreme Line

supreme lineup

Supreme Line

Over the past two and a half months, as much of our country has lived in quarantine, we've witnessed the violent loss of black lives with disturbing frequency. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have died at the hands of racists and law enforcement. Complex Networks recognizes the power of its platforms and is committed to amplifying their stories and the voices of our communities to work for justice.

The events of the past couple weeks have forced us to question all facets of our lives, from our jobs and our safety to how we are fighting racial injustices and where we are spending our money. 

Streetwear has made its way into the discussion for a few reasons. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, many people demanded that all brands, especially ones that benefit from black culture and black people, speak out against racism and police brutality. Most have since posted statements condemning racism and provided information on the organizations they are supporting.

Then came the looting, which impacted every type of retail store, including the streetwear and sneaker spots we cover on this site. RSVP Gallery’s Chicago and Los Angeles boutiques were looted. Round Two’s locations in Los Angeles and Richmond, Virginia, where the brand was founded, were wiped out. Joe Freshgoods’ Fat Tiger Workshop in Chicago got hit. On the Complex Sneakers Podcast, James Whitner talked about how his stores, which include Social Status and A Ma Maniere, were affected. Dionte' Johnson, the owner of sneaker boutique Sole Classics in Columbus, Ohio, dealt with looting. And the brick-and-mortar locations of bigger companies like Supreme, Nike, and Adidas were broken into. There’s even video of looters swiping KAWS Companion figures from 5Art Gallery in Los Angeles. 

Obviously, store owners were upset. Some responded to it better than others. The Hundreds wasn’t impacted, but its neighboring shops on Fairfax were. When a follower asked Bobby Hundreds about the possibility of his store being looted, he tweeted: “Eh, it'll be fine. it's just a store. Black Lives are precious, however. Protect Black Lives.” On the other end of the spectrum, Virgil Abloh used the looting to double down on his very convoluted “streetwear is dead'' philosophy. For him, the looting proved that there was no longer a community within streetwear because he believes that 10 or 15 years ago, streetwear kids would have protected these stores. He then wagged his finger at the looters, particularly the ones who plundered Round Two, which was co-founded by Sean Wotherspoon: “To the kids that ransacked his store and RSVP DTLA, and all our stores in our scene just know, that product staring at you in your home/apartment right now is tainted and a reminder of a person I hope you aren’t.”

Following that, Virgil posted to his IG story a $50 donation he made to match what a friend donated to Fempower, a Miami art collective contributing to protesters’ legal expenses. The low sum added flame to the fire for people who were already frustrated with his responses to the protest. The following day, he released a statement on his IG that detailed his issues with racism and how much he’s actually donated to different causes, which he says is $20,500. This past weekend he posted to his IG story all the ways he has integrated blackness into Off-White and Louis Vuitton, where he serves as the men’s artistic director.

The criticism has been understandable, but this discussion is far bigger than Virgil Abloh. The ongoing protests have led to a reckoning for every industry in America, and they've highlighted long-standing issues around fashion and streetwear.  It’s made us face what streetwear has become and who has become a part of it. Streetwear started from different subcultures, including graffiti, skate, surf, punk, and rap. It fostered community-building, but it’s always been a business. It was an industry that operated outside of the larger “fashion” system, but by the 2010s luxury and streetwear started to intermingle, and in 2017 Supreme collaborated with Louis Vuitton. Streetwear becoming more mainstream isn’t a bad thing, per se, but the customer base has expanded and changed. Supreme is no longer a downtown skate shop in New York, but a tourist destination with a $500 million investment from the Carlyle Group. Tweens from the suburbs are standing in lineups with a parent. And most of these kids care less about community and are more concerned with commerce. They are buying things to resell on sites like StockX at tremendous markups. And who could blame them? With a very lucrative resale market, streetwear and sneakers have turned many of these kids into entrepreneurs. But this has made it harder for the young person who doesn’t have the capital to buy and flip sneakers and then flex on Instagram. For some, it can be inspiring; for others, who only access this world through those Instagram flexes, it can breed negative emotions. 

Young, impressionable kids—whether privileged or not—are looking for validation, sometimes by any means necessary. And we are feeding them product constantly. I have no issue with people getting excited about product, standing in lines, and even reselling. I love product. But everyone should be assessing how much product they put out into the world, how they are pricing it, and what they are exalting on Instagram. When we focus so heavily on product and consumption, we’re teaching young followers that’s what they should prioritize as well. We’ve even had to think about this at Complex, with our ComplexCon event, which has been criticized for its frenzy around product and lack of substance or culture. We’ve tried to address this by giving a platform to young designers with complimentary booth space in Chicago and Long Beach, alleviating the lines with apps, prohibiting reselling from the show floor as much as we can, and spearheading more charitable initiatives like Community Week. It’s time every business owner starts to consider how they are giving back to the communities they sell to and what they’re teaching their consumers. This isn’t to say that’s not happening. James Whitner uses his spaces like Besocial to offer courses on financial literacy and entrepreneurship. And during the pandemic, he’s held Free Game Zoom calls with his peers for young people wanting advice. Joe Freshgoods has held courses on entrepreneurship at his Fat Tiger Workshop space and stayed in Chicago to inspire young black kids in the city. Daniel DeSure built Total Luxury Spa on giving back to black communities through its products and by creating a space for young people in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District. Union’s staff spent their Friday out of the office to help clean up South Central L.A. Brands like Noah and Alife routinely give back—Alife Sessions is a gift to its customers. And Bobby Hundreds makes himself available to his customers via Community, a texting app, and a branded livestream. I’m sure there are more examples, and things that happen behind the scenes, but it’s time to bring that to the fore. We want receipts.

Essentially, streetwear is full of people and brands selling our culture back to us at a premium. - Aria Hughes

The recent chain of events has also brought up race in the streetwear conversation, something I, a black woman, think about often when covering the industry. Streetwear pulls from many cultures, but black culture is its heartbeat. And let’s just say it plainly: Many brands have been built off the backs of black culture and hip-hop. How many T-shirts have you seen from non-black designers/brands covered with Biggie or Tupac? How many streetwear ad campaigns have you seen in which black entertainers or celebrities have been enlisted to help make a brand cool? What do you think Juicy Couture, which went on to be a multimillion-dollar business, was inspired by? Kimora Lee Simmons’ Baby Phat. Duh. But despite this influence, there isn’t a lot of independent black ownership within streetwear. There are a few notable people, like Whitner, Joe Freshgoods, Beth and Chris Gibbs of Union, Anwar Carrots of Carrots, Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, Zac Clark of FTP, and Kacey Lynch of Bricks & Wood—but they are underrepresented in an industry that feeds off people who look like them.

Essentially, streetwear is full of people and brands selling our culture back to us at a premium. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by black culture and creating a brand from those influences, but companies need to acknowledge how foundational black culture is to fashion/streetwear and then show proper reverence for it. Tell stories about black culture that haven’t been told. If you put Tupac on a T-shirt, educate your customer about who he is, what he stood for. Donate to a charity he would have championed. These stories don't only have to only be about Tupac or other rappers. How about acknowledging Karl Kani, for whom Tupac appeared in ads free of charge in support of a black owner? Or work with April Walker, who regularly dressed Biggie. And Biggie’s daughter, T'yanna Wallace, has a clothing line called Notoriouss that’s inspired by her father. I’ve yet to see any of the streetwear or fashion brands that put her father’s face on a T-shirt acknowledge her, his actual legacy. And I must mention that Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss has acknowledged the designers who came before him by collaborating with Fubu, Cross Colours, and Sean John. 

Black owners are underrepresented in an industry that feeds off people who look like them.-Aria Hughes

From a media perspective, Complex covered streetwear before it was a mainstream interest, and black and brown designers and owners have been a part of that coverage. But it’s very easy to focus on the L.A.- and New York-based brands making the most noise, opening the shiny stores, seeding to the most celebrities, and collaborating with the bigger players. And many times these brands are run by non-black people who have a financial leg up. There are many reasons why we don’t see a ton of thriving black-owned brands, but the main one is finances. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, black business owners are denied loans by banks more frequently than any other racial group. We all can do a better job of looking outside of the usual talent pools when it comes to coverage. And corporations can do the same when deciding what talent to collaborate with. Question whether you actually want to support black talent for the long term or if you are using it as a marketing tool to appear more diverse.

Another thing that’s come up across all industries is how companies have treated black and brown staff members, who are taking to Twitter to discuss their experiences. The most prominent example in the streetwear and sneaker space is probably Adidas, whose employees planned a protest in response to the brand’s recent statement on racism. “The systems in place that are killing black people are the same systems of oppression that are present at Adidas,” Julia Bond wrote to Footwear News. Adidas’ CEO, Kasper Rorsted, has since responded by increasing the brand’s investment in organizations that support black communities and dedicating itself to filling 30 percent of its new positions with black and Latinx employees. This is a good start, but it’s not just about hiring black employees. It’s about treating them fairly once they are on staff and giving them the opportunities to grow and be heard without fearing for their jobs. And it’s about putting them in positions of power. It’s easy to hire cool-looking black and brown store associates to sell your product, but what about black and brown execs who are key stakeholders and decision-makers? And get ready to be honest about how many people of color you currently have on staff and how you plan on changing that for the better.

We’ve operated business as usual for a while now, despite the writings on the wall. We’ve bought things from brands that haven’t put anything back into our communities or supported the black people they hire. We’ve pumped out product without thinking about the ramifications of it. And we’ve given a lot of attention to the loudest brands with the most money. It’s time for everyone to consider how they profit from black culture and how you plan on giving back to it.

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