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Streetwear: Fashion x Culture with insight from London, Paris, and Milan

Streetwear is a common term often thrown around without much thought to what it really means, what its values are, or where it comes from. Many genres of fashion can be defined with a general understanding and consensus that most of us subscribe to. It isn’t too difficult to separate luxury from high-street, bespoke from fast-fashion, formal-wear from leisure-wear. But fashion genres that are not made for the consumer rather curated and developed by the consumer, can sometimes be hard to define.

Understanding what streetwear is, where it comes from, and what it means to community insiders is essential to create and promote top-selling collections that are not only current, but timelessly rule-breaking. Because of its community-based nature, streetwear influencers, editors, and stylists are a voice of respected authority and therefore make very valuable brand partners. Streetwear is a dynamic genre of fashion, open to creative brands sharing meaningful messages to the world through their designs.

Unintentional Fashion Pioneers 

What is Streetwear?

Hypebeast defines streetwear as “fashionable, casual clothes”, but explains that this definition undermines the “multi-billion dollar” industry that streetwear has become. Streetwear as we know it today originated in the ’90s, in the hip-hop scenes of New York, the surf-skate and graffiti culture of Los Angeles, and within the nightlife of Japan. James Jebbia has said that his influence as a designer “was definitely the young skaters in New York. Also traveling to Japan and seeing their great style. Traveling to London. It was a combination of that.” Designers like Jebbia and Shawn Stussy pioneered streetwear in the US with their brands Supreme and Stüssy, and designers such as Nigo and Hiroshi Fujiwara aka “the godfather of Harajuku”, led the movement across the Pacific.

It is important to view streetwear as a movement, not as a trend because it is a cultural phenomenon. 90’s graphic tees, loose-fitting jeans, and statement sneakers were created purposefully as an expression by their consumer: the rapper, the skater, and the rebel. In the ’80s and ’90s, many traditional brands would not dress some musicians or sports stars, so the community had no choice but to make their own clothing and define what fashion meant to them. Virgil Abloh expressed this community shift in an interview last year: “I grew up in the 80s and 90s and in that generation we had our own idea of what a fashion designer is, and we had our own idea of what a musician was”. Still today, streetwear is lead by a close-knit group of musicians, skaters, artists and now social media influencers, who create clothing and curate looks for themselves as an act of self-expression, culture, and community knowledge.

An Ever Growing Movement

Why is everyone talking about streetwear?

Streetwear has risen in mainstream fashion over the past few decades. Unlike most other fashion genres, this growth was not pushed by brands, rather brands were sought out by consumers wanting to be “in” on the exclusivity of streetwear clothing. Exclusivity in the form of capsule collections, limited editions, and artistic collaborations are defining signatures of streetwear. Many luxury brands now use limited editions as a sales tactic, aiming to promote the feeling of exclusivity for the consumer.

Traditionally, luxury brands promoted the feeling of exclusivity with their high price ranges through authoritarian top-bottom communication. Streetwear has taught the industry that limited editions do promote a sense of exclusivity, not through prices, but community spirit. Brands like Off-WhiteNikeBalenciaga, and Palace, have been acting as an inspiration for traditional brands to design “fashionable, casual clothes” and established luxury fashion brands are releasing streetwear-inspired collections more and more often.

What is a streetwear collaboration?

The Louis Vitton x Supreme collaboration in 2017 was unmatched, GQ called Kim Jones’ collection “one of the collaborations of the century”. It’s no surprise that Jones blessed sneaker-heads again this year with Dior x Jordan, British Vogue wrote that Air Dior’s were “the most-wanted trainers of all time”. Inevitably, as the consumer base for streetwear clothing grows, the definition of streetwear is changing. For example, as more women began wearing streetwear, the male looks begun to be worn with a bold feminine twist. This created a space in the market for female-run streetwear brands that catered to the women who had been wearing clothes designed for men, by men. This is one of the reasons that today, streetwear has a very unisex feel.

For more insight on what streetwear means to its community, VOCAST’s British and Italian researchers spoke to three leading industry insiders. These women are authorities in their fields and work in three of fashion’s most influential cities. 

Insight from the Fashion Capitals: London, Paris, and Milan

LONDON: 

Simone Beyene is a 25-year-old stylist and visual artist working with photography and film. She currently works as Mabel’s stylist and will be graduating from Central Saint Martins next summer.

Being around the music scene has been exciting as it does have a big influence on streetwear, especially in London because it’s a very lively and fun city. I think streetwear, in general, has a very heavy base in skate culture, it’s a big part of what we would call streetwear today. In London, there are brands like Palace and Places+Faces that started as young guys printing t-shirts. The core of streetwear for me is a printed t-shirt that’s been washed a million times. Rock culture and band t-shirts are a big part of streetwear, but bold colors and prints that are a bit crazy or quite funny show there is a humor to it as well.

Streetwear in London is also based off of early hip-hop in New York, and how rappers used to dress in the ’80s and ’90s. Many musicians that loved skating, like Pharrell, were known to brands as friends so these brands could just give out clothes. We all want to look like our celebrity idols or people who we love and I think that’s how streetwear became big and exploded. Especially because music travels all over the world.

I think what’s very interesting as well is that, for me, streetwear is more of a unisex look. It’s quite fun to take oversized things and make it more girly by playing with the proportions, cropping baggy clothes, and creating feminine shapes. “Matchy-matchy” tracksuits and crop tops with gold body jewelry is a big part of female streetwear too, and we saw it a lot in the late ’90s with celebrity hip-hop brands.

Now, luxury brands are taking on streetwear and are making clothes that they specifically did not use to make. You can see that luxury brands, like Louis Vitton, Dior, and Gucci, are using a lot of monogram and it sells well because streetwear is very popular and people want to be a part of the culture: streetwear is a youth culture, it’s the way that the youth dress and these kids never wanted to look like anything except their version of what was cool. Now for the first time in a long time, brands are employing more people from the culture and giving references to where their collections come from. It’s important to remember the kids that created this style that brands are now profiting off of.

PARIS:

Selma Kaci Sebbagh is a Creative Director, Press Contributor, and influencer. Her impressive sneaker collection, which she features daily on her Instagram, has caught the eye of several high profile publications. 

Streetwear is hard to define right now in 2020, I would say that 10 years ago it was easier to actually define. Streetwear is something that can be mixed, it can be worn by women and by men as well, which means it’s something that can be shared. I used to think that the term streetwear could be negative somehow because maybe it was an easy way for people to say something’s stylish. Streetwear is wearing the brands behind the clothes, not just a huge logo with no meaning behind it. Often, I have asked brands about where their clothes come from and how they are made because it’s important to think about the impact on the planet.

In the French market, especially for the young generation, there is an awareness about sustainability and people want to make a change. I do honestly believe that the new trends in streetwear will be focused on being more sustainable. When it comes to Parisian streetwear there is not an exact style; social media gives us a sense of not having any borders which enables us to look around beyond one style.

Something that is changing the definition of streetwear is that there are more and more women’s brands growing, especially through social media. Seeing girls and women being allowed to actually change the way that they want to dress every day allows us to have a different vision of style and streetwear. It stops brands from being closed-minded so that they do more for us, which I think is great.

MILAN: 

Amanda Margiaria is an editor at i-D Italy, one of Italy’s most prominent publications focusing on streetwear fashion and culture. She writes about everything from fashion weeks and industry news, to culture, politics, and music.

There is no single definition for Milanese streetwear because this style encompasses many different social layers and subcultures. The Milanese skaters wear streetwear, the Milanese hype-kids wear streetwear, the Milanese influencers wear streetwear, but their clothes have little to do with each other. The fil rouge, though, can be found in the attitude of all these people. They wear what they wear because they’re making a clear statement. Their clothes say:

We don’t want to homologate to the Italian style, something you’d associate to tailor-made suits, eccentric hats, and the Pitti Peacocks. We are unique, we are outcasts and we wear streetwear because we want to be underdressed in every social situation.

Streetwear is all about the message you want to convey. If you wear streetwear, you refuse to meet the expectations of society. Streetwear was born out of rejection for social norms, and this rebellion will always be the key element of streetwear. From a style point of view, though, I think streetwear is going towards more unique and sustainable clothes and accessories, because what’s better than an Off-White sweater? A custom-made sweater, made of recycled Off-White textiles. Streetwear can survive only if the customers’ expectations are met; so it will still be something exclusive and at the same time very democratic because, as we stated in a recent article, if this style wants to stay relevant, a political and social commitment is of foremost importance.

Listen to the People 

As streetwear establishes itself in the mainstream fashion market, driven by the force of consumers, it is clear that the genre can no longer be reduced to an “urban style” or something not-applicable to established fashion Maisons. Streetwear is the true voice of the fashion consumer, which makes for an indispensable expression that should be reflected in contemporary fashion brands and their product portfolios. Streetwear will always seek to embark upon new grounds and break outdated practices as consumers are increasingly conscious about issues related to equality and sustainability. Therefore, openness to cultural phenomena and a transparent approach to the related issues, is the key to the streetwear consumers heart, worldwide.

Georgina is the Lifestyle Researcher for the US and UK Market at VOCAST, responsible for both American and British fashion and lifestyle research. Along with her work at VOCAST and studies at Copenhagen Business School, she is passionate about conscious fashion reform in the industry.

Olivia is the Italian Market Coordinator at VOCAST. She studied Fashion Marketing & Communication at IED in Milan, where she also began working with fashion marketing and PR. When not at VOCAST, she can be found in her kitchen developing recipes, dealing with the transition from pizza to rye bread.

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