Streetwear is heading into 2018 with an identity crisis

December 21, 2017

Fashion loves a subculture, and this year it was the streetwear scene that the industry couldn’t get enough of. But the result — a slew of unexpected collaborations, investments and events that tied the two worlds together — has left people wondering if streetwear is anything close to the subculture it once was.

“Streetwear has gone from an ethos of individuality, to the complete opposite,” said Leah McSweeney, the founder of the women’s streetwear label Married to the Mob. “It has become a thriving culture for people with no individuality at all.”

Where fans once lined up for brands that the mainstream culture was unaware of, she said, they’re now waiting for hours to buy the same exact pieces as everyone else.

“It’s sad for me to see, but what can I do?” she said. “I’m just glad I got to experience and be a part of it when it was purely about creativity, playfulness and wit.”

McSweeney isn’t alone in her thinking: The writer Calum Gordon echoed her thoughts in an article for Highsnobiety earlier this week titled “Streetwear Was Big Business in 2017, But is That a Good Thing?”; Lyndsey McGregor asked “Have We Reached Peak Streetwear?” over at Rivet in May; and a short documentary released earlier this year by the UK Website Sole Supplier explored whether or not young “hypebeasts” are ruining streetwear. 

“Streetwear has a dirty name now because people feel it’s been co-opted by a consumer who may not know the history behind it,” Highsnobiety’s managing director Jeff Carvalho also told Glossy earlier this year.

Those new consumers include the men and women driving the $1 billion streetwear resale economy and those of high fashion, a category whose struggling department stores and luxury brands have looked to the successful aesthetics and business models of streetwear to generate buzz and foot traffic.

supreme-louis-vuitton-pre-order-00A bag from Supreme’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton

Thanks to fashion’s sudden interest in streetwear, and the expansion of the reselling market on social media, streetwear’s core consumer has changed. Brands, as a result, once happy in the underground, have adapted to meet them.

Supreme, arguably the most popular streetwear brand around, collaborated with its former nemesis, Louis Vuitton, in January, and went on to receive a minority investment from private equity firm The Carlyle Group in October, valuating the brand at $1 billion.

Highsnobiety itself teamed up with Barneys New York that same month on a two-day shopping event called “thedrop@barneys,” which featured 30 exclusive capsule collections with brands ranging from Gucci to Stampd, further highlighting streetwears’ growing luxury appeal.

Prior to that, Bergdorf Goodman had tapped Ronnie Fieg’s buzzy street brand Kith for a capsule collection in May. It was so successful that a second collection was unveiled between the two companies in October.

Then, in November, ComplexCon took place. Though it was billed officially as “an unprecedented festival and exhibition conceived to bring together pop culture, art, food, style, sports, music, and more,” Gordon described it instead as “a streetwear festival dedicated to ‘the culture’ but driven by unfettered commerce — a hyper-visual realization of a landscape where resellers have laid waste to the genre’s anti-corporate attitude.”

Indeed, the event featured an eBay booth so that fans could immediately resell their new goods for higher prices, a move reflective of the massive streetwear resale market that’s reached a peak with bots, apps and Facebook groups dedicated to snagging the hottest items as quickly as possible. The secondary market has become such a force that brands like Yeezy are trying to thwart resellers by limiting purchases to one per customer.

Later that month, designer Virgil Abloh — whose Off-White label straddles the worlds of luxury and streetwear — collaborated with Nike on a collection of ten sneakers, aptly dubbed “The Ten.” Available only on Nike’s SNKRS app, the shoes sold out in minutes and the overwhelming demand crashed the app.

off-campus-nssmag-3Sneakers designed by Virgil Abloh for Nike

The idea that has always been key to streetwear’s allure — “being part of a clandestine, in the know club” — had seemingly vanished, wrote Gordon.

Many of Abloh’s contemporaries in fashion have taken a page from streetwear, too, including the likes of Demna Gvasalia at Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy, who regularly send out sweatsuits, graphic t-shirts and sneakers at luxury prices.

It’s paying off: high-end streetwear helped boost global sales of luxury personal goods by 5 percent this year, to an estimated $309 billion, according to an October report from Bain & Company. The category is expected to grow at the same rate into 2020.

Not everyone with roots in the streetwear scene sees this phenomenon as its undoing, however.

Brian Trunzo, the senior menswear editor at WGSN, is confident that “the wheat” — those co-opting streetwear only for financial gain — will inevitably separate from “the chaff,” or, the originals.

“The true innovators whose products resonate with youth culture will continue to produce new designs, find new collaborations and market themselves uniquely, always staying one step ahead of the pack,” he said.