When Jay-Z declared his love for Tom Ford threads on his 2013 album “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” it served as a confirmation of sorts that the hip-hop aesthetic as it had existed for years had undeniably shifted into more refined territory.
Lest we forget, the same man once accessorized an ill-fitting suit with a do-rag at the 1999 MTV Movie Awards and called it “corporate thuggin’.” (Tom Ford, by comparison, has built his men’s business off the back of immaculately tailored suits.)
It wasn’t the first time a rapper had expressed love for a luxury designer: Nicki Minaj waxed lyrical about sitting front row at Oscar de la Renta on her song “Come On a Cone”; Drake’s “Versace” was the aural equivalent of an eye-searing logo; and Kanye West has name dropped everyone from Gucci and Louis Vuitton to Maison Martin Margiela throughout his oeuvre. A$AP Rocky, meanwhile, doesn’t even bother telling his target audience who he’s wearing, referring to the luxe labels he favors as “some s*** you never hear of.” He was right: Jay-Z’s “Tom Ford” sent Yahoo searches for the designer skyrocketing 155 percent, as fans scrambled to acquaint themselves with the Jiggaman’s new clothes.
It seemed that a music genre once defined as much by its artists’ penchant for baggy clothing and gold chains as for their (usually) explicit lyrics was now embracing clean-cut lines and minimalism in a way that spoke volumes above the loud logos favored by the old guard. (The high-roller rhymes are nothing new; hip-hop and braggadocio have always gone hand in hand.)
It was the sartorial opposite of the ‘90s, when legions of hip-hop and rap enthusiasts flocked to stores to follow the leads of Raekwon’s massive Polo pullover, Snoop Dogg’s Tommy Hilfiger rugby shirt and Diddy’s voluminous Karl Kani pants, taking the stars’ taste for oversized everything to the streets. In those days, streetwear, or urban wear, was big, bold and attention-seeking. It expressed the IDGAF attitude of grunge, the rebelliousness of rap and the subculture of the cities that spawned the music its wearers listened to. And while it may have started out as the underground to mainstream fashion, it quickly found itself at the forefront of consumerism, particularly among the suburban youth.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Kanye West ditched his baggy bottoms and pastel polo shirts for monochromatic ensembles with top-shelf prices, streetwear followed suit. Upscale sneakers, slim-cut sweatpants and hoodies from premium lines like A Bathing Ape, Crooks & Castles, Supreme, Stussy, 10 Deep and Billionaire Boys Club became sought-after status symbols, while limited-edition kicks became such hot commodities that release days often turned into street brawls. And then came the tongue-in-cheek tees and beanies from Brian Lichtenberg and Conflict of Interest that riffed on big brands’ iconic logos (Hermes became Homies; Balenciaga, Ballinciaga).
Luxury labels, loath to be left out in the cold, realized they could grab a piece of the streetwear pie and slowly started to show a grittier side on the runway. Ricardo Tisci mixed digitally-printed sweatshirts with tailored trousers in Givenchy’s Fall ’13 menswear collection, while Alexander Wang, arguably one of the forefathers of the athleisure trend, harked back to ‘90s hip-hop with a “parental advisory” logo in his eponymous brand’s Spring ’14 womenswear. Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Celine and DKNY have dabbled, too.
“Streetwear’s influence on fashion has become more diverse than it has ever been in the past. In a way, it has cross-pollinated across menswear categories; from contemporary to young men’s, all the way to urban wear and so on,” said Tommy Fazio, president of men’s for UBM Advanstar, owner of the WWDMagic and Project trade shows in Las Vegas. “Each category influences and inspires the next, further solidifying streetwear’s influence in the fashion community.”
The fusion of high-fashion and streetwear has now gotten to the point where brands that got their start selling sweatshirts and tees are some of the most exciting shows on the fashion week circuit: Hood by Air, helmed by Brooklynite Shayne Oliver, blends bold graphics and gender-neutral silhouettes; London-based Nasir Mazhar is known for logo-heavy joggers and tracksuits; and 7-year-old Public School continues to pool inspiration from downtown New York, time and again showcasing oversized outerwear, relaxed bottoms and lots of layers.
Now that streetwear has saturated the luxury segment, the question is clear: Has it lost its credibility? Can an aesthetic influenced by the creativity and self-expression of street subcultures still subscribe to that ethos when it’s become a mainstream trend? Is luxury streetwear an oxymoron?
“I definitely don’t see it like that,” said Chloe Alyshea Emily, streetwear expert and founder of Thrld Magazine, an online platform for urban-inspired fashion, art and music based in the Netherlands. “Streetwear and high fashion are all part of each other’s existence. High-fashion designers take their influences from the streets and as a reaction to that the streetwear movement gets inspired by the runway as well. The boundaries between high fashion and street culture fade more and more these days and I find this crossover really intriguing.”
Justin Gerber, owner of The Doused Shop, a streetwear boutique based in Salt Lake City, Utah, stocking Stussy, Undefeated and Billionaire Boys Club, to name a few, agreed. “I think this clashing has introduced a happy medium to people who want a nice clean look yet still want to stay in the street genre,” he said. “Sure, some influences will lose their credibility but to me, streetwear is becoming more refined, cleaner, more mature.”
“Streetwear in my eyes used to be the skate brands and those brands you only found on the streets, nowhere else. Today you have brands like Y-3, Fear of God Los Angeles and Off-White taking streetwear to a new level which is amazing. It adds credibility and awareness,” echoed Chimemeka Ugoji, also known as the fashion blogger and stylist Luxe Luce of LandofLuxe.com.
Gerber added, “Everything is reshaped, rethought, reinvented. This is no different. We go from baggy to fitted, gangster to hipster, tattoo phobia to sleeved out. Street will always be here; just our definition and perception of it will change.”
To all the naysayers, Emily pointed out that streetwear by its very definition cannot be put in a box. “It’s constantly evolving and influenced by what is happening on the streets right now,” she said, noting that it’s about a lifestyle, not just clothing. “It’s something you can express your individuality with, and it’s definitely a cultural phenomenon and not a trend, let that be clear.”
Be that as it may, the once aspirational spirit of streetwear has been superseded by hip-hop’s high-fashion reality—with price points to match. And most streetwear enthusiasts can’t afford to shell out nearly $500 for a Hood by Air shirt, or a grand for Givenchy hi-tops.
“Their target customer, how they want to see it, is the affluent male or female probably 20-plus who is going to go and spend thousands at a time when they shop just because they can’t wear the same thing twice,” Ugoji said. “But they now have a huge market made up of males or females 13 to 20, maybe younger, working and saving just to buy these things and spending all their money on luxury streetwear they really can’t afford. It’s crazy really.”
Gerber went so far as to say, “Maybe we should call it ‘we made it’ streetwear.”
“I don’t think you should label it at all. Just take it as it is,” Emily argued, noting that the customer base can’t be defined either. “There are enough sneaker fans out there that are willing to spend their whole month’s salary on a pair of sneakers just to be one-of-a-kind. At the same time people with bigger wallets buy it as well to gain some kind of status or because they just want to go with the trend aspect of it.”
Gerber admitted that while the prices are higher, the quality has improved. “People are really becoming aware of what cut-and-sew products are, what French terry cloth feels like as opposed to your standard Pro Club tee. The trick is reaching those who don’t know, interacting with them in your store and helping them to understand why they should pay $45 for an elongated tee as opposed to a $7 discount tee at Foot Locker,” he said.
And to be sure, there are buyers out there. Trend analysis firm WGSN pulled e-commerce data from its retail clients from the beginning of Q4 through January and found that the fashion sweatshirt anchored 8 percent of tops during the period, while joggers held 6 percent of the trouser category. Likewise, Google’s inaugural trend report, which compiled more than six billion apparel-related queries from January 2012 through February 2015, discovered that joggers are a hot-ticket item for men, women and kids and will continue to sell well for the foreseeable future.
“The popularity of luxury streetwear reflects a whole new shift in the way men and women dress themselves, and this is more than just a trend,” Emily said. “I don’t think this phenomenon is a passing fad—it’s a new scene where streetwear and high fashion will work together more and more collaboratively.”
“Retailers see that kids and adults are paying $220 to $4,000 for some kicks. Sneakers drive the market, period,” Gerber stated.
But with such a proliferation of streetwear brands on the market and with prices ranging from mass market to ultra-luxe, does that mean a streetwear bubble is forming? And how many more labels can ascend from cult status to must-have before it bursts?
Gerber echoed this sentiment, warning, “Prepare for a downside. When it starts to slip, it will slip fast.”