A new report highlights the way that a fashion subculture has been overtaken by big business.
A new survey of a large number of streetwear enthusiasts suggests that the influence of influencers has been wildly overstated. Only a third of those surveyed said social media influencers were the most credible figures in streetwear. They were more likely to be impressed by musicians and "industry insiders."
Still, in a second survey of people who work in the streetwear industry, a majority of the respondents said that they spent between a quarter and three-quarters of their marketing budget "on influencers."
All this information comes from the first Streetwear Impact Report, which was released Tuesday. Published by Hypebeast, the prominent streetwear and culture publication, the report comes from survey responses submitted by 40,960 people and is intended to provide insight and analysis about how and why people buy streetwear. It also highlights the way that a collection of fashion subcultures were lassoed together and pulled toward the mainstream.
Angelo Baque, the former brand director of Supreme, probably the biggest streetwear brand of the moment, said that the term "streetwear" had barely existed before 2010, when brands long favoured by rappers, surfers, graffiti artists and skateboarders became interesting to the fashion industry.
"Prior to that it was urbanwear, which was just a nice way of saying these were clothes that blacks and Puerto Ricans wear," Baque said.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a certain kind of independent clothing brand began to proliferate. On the West Coast, there were surf and skate brands like Stüssy and Freshjive, and hip-hop brands like X-Large and Cross Colours. On the East Coast there were Triple Five Soul, Ecko Unlimited and Supreme, among others.
The timing of the Hypebeast report made sense to Baque. Streetwear, he said, had reached the 10th inning. As social media created more awareness, and as internet-incubated rap groups like Odd Future came around, streetwear started to become a mainstream pursuit, evolving into the familiar cycle of lines, drops and resales.
"There's money to be made, and it's not a secret anymore," he said. "That's why, for me, I think about that moment when Odd Future started blowing up and it all started blowing up."
"In the early '90s, we were all rooted in some sort of subculture," said Erik Brunetti, the designer behind the label FUCT. "For example, skateboarding or graffiti or punk rock. Versus brands today, they're not really rooted in any sort of subculture. They just sort of appeared out of nowhere."
Like comic books or underground music, a 1990s streetwear habit required devotion. DJ Ross One, a leading collector of rap T-shirts, said that traveling to New York had been like making a pilgrimage, in which the holy sites were Triple Five Soul, Canal Street Jeans and Phat Farm.
"The thought of reselling, it would have been devastating to me to lose even one of those shirts because it was so hard to get and I wanted it so badly," he said. "Also, nobody would have bought it."
The internet, Ross One said, is "the beginning and end of any conversation about things that used to be sacred that are now not. There's no more underground culture. It's really hard today for a kid to have something that's all their own."
A survey of hype
The report was a joint effort by Hypebeast and the waviest auditing firm around, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Dr. Axel Nitschke, an expert on fashion, sports and luxury at Strategy&, PwC's in-house consulting agency, said that he was interested in the lessons streetwear had to teach.
"Streetwear managed to create desirability for the product, something that the bulk of the fashion industry has increasing challenges in doing," said Nitschke, who co-authored the report with Enrique Menendez, Hypebeast's senior features editor. "Those brands, sneaker brands, have tremendous credibility within the peer group, and that comes out of the community."
Has that community of creators and customers, many of them people of color, been left behind by the larger industry's interest? The report defines streetwear as "fashionable casual clothes" — the suggestion being that you know when you see it — and makes room for "luxury streetwear brands," including Off-White, AMBUSH and Vetements.
"There is definitely a whole appropriation conversation, and there's a thousand more conversations as well to be had on that point," Menendez said. "As a brand and as a company the answer is not to inauthentically try to tap into this movement. In my perspective, the best thing that brands can do is put people in positions of power who came from those communities."
Forty per cent of North American and European respondents said that "community" had been key to their interest in streetwear; only 12% of Asian respondents said the same.
(But 41 per cent of Chinese and Japanese respondents said that wearing streetwear was a political act, something that only 11 per cent of North Americans and Europeans reported.)
"The safeness of it today goes against what it originally stood for," Brunetti said. "It was very similar to punk or early hip-hop. It was a rebellion and now it's become the opposite of rebellion. It's become corporate, sanitised and pasteurised."
Menendez insisted that corporate buy-in did not in itself hurt a brand's authenticity. As an example, he pointed toward Supreme. In 2017, Supreme accepted the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, as an investor.
"Supreme is doing well," Menendez said. "They haven't lost any hype."
Baque and Ross One agreed that Supreme continued to make great clothing. But each said that the brand's clientele had changed.
Ross One was blunt about the shift.
"You can't be mad at Supreme. I still look at their clothes and think, 'Wow, this is really cool,'" he said. "The thing that's not cool is the kids that are wearing it."
About the Survey
Respondents in the survey self-selected. About 80% were men and about 18 per cent women. 59 per cent of respondents were from Asia, 20% were from Europe and 14 per cent were from North America. The survey was live for four weeks. More than 60 per cent of respondents were between the ages of 16 and 25, which helps explain why more than 70 per cent of respondents said they made $40,000 or less a year. Still, 54% said that they spent between $100 and $500 on streetwear each month. 18% said they spent more than $500 monthly.
Written by: Jonah Engel Bromwich
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES