Movements—sartorial or otherwise—tend to ebb and flow, flirting with maximums at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum. Take the ascent of streetwear over the past decade. The trend has thus far swung primarily in the direction of scale, with companies like Supreme growing as though they were Silicon Valley titans, and a number of once mighty underground labels going the way of big-box department stores. It is natural that as the category goes mainstream, a counterculture will emerge, a reactionary force in direct opposition with conventional retail. The explosion of small independent brands—and their growing influence over emerging commerce markets like instagram—is part of a shift towards a more democratic extreme. One where individual designers can directly communicate with their audience untethered to fashion cycles or, increasingly, trends in general.

Social media platforms function by optimizing what people want to see. This contrived formula inevitably leads to homogeneity, with popular brands and upstarts looking increasingly similar. With assistance from algorithms and hype, “street style” is now the de-facto look on social media. It explains the deluge of “insta-brands” pushing targeted ads with carbon copies of runway looks—and, occasionally, vice-versa. Taste-level, once not quantifiable, is now broken down mathematically.

Take for instance, Lil Miquela. The digital avatar, a fictional character created by artists Trevor McFedries & Sara Decou, currently boasts over a million followers on Instagram and appears as an amalgam of popular tropes derived from social media. She’s also an apt representation of contemporary fashion, which has come to be increasingly influenced and synonymous with streetwear: a perfectly programmable mood board.

But sameness is ultimately suffocating. In the 1970s, as commercialized culture reached a similar point of saturation thanks to the growth of television, handmade fashion took hold of the youth-driven counterculture movement. As part of a broader rejection of 1950s consumerism, young people embraced notions of self-reliance and expression. The period saw a sweeping trend of tie-dying, stitching and embroidering personal garments, all part of a very vocal—and visually apparent—resistance. The trend was so endemic that in 1973 Levi Strauss & Co. held a contest where customers submitted pictures of their customized denim. The hippy generation’s wearable art—flower crowns, patchwork bell bottoms and limited Grateful Dead tee’s—held more meaning than anything mass produced ever could.

Today designers like Emily Adams—whose line Bode individually sourced fabrics and intentionally limits production—attempt to offer the same kind of emotional connection. Some Ware, the label by Brendon Fowler and Cali Thornhill-Dewitt, uses primarily recycled materials, and for their recent Spring 2018 collection, produced unique patchwork tote bags to accompany each look. Online Ceramics, the trippy Los Angeles-based T-shirt brand from designers Elijah Funk & Alix Ross, uses circa-1970 tie-dye techniques for their Grateful Dead inspired shirts. Made-to-order by hand, each shirt is slightly different, something customers covet. In the same vein, Connecticut-based label Dertbag is experimenting with one-off custom painted pants and repurposed vintage bootegs. Boot Boyz, the secretive project from the anonymous Chicago collective Boot Boyz Biz, flout notions of copyright and ownership with their custom, intellectually forceful, T-shirt designs. The brand even releases a zine with each drop, explaining the each shirt’s references. D.C. based Carpet Company hand print skateboards and T-shirts that have quietly gained prominence in the skate world. Founded by brothers Ayman and Osama Abdeldayem, Carpet focuses on the intricacies of screen printing—the same homegrown spirit and do it yourself attitude the was pervasive throughout the ‘70s.

On a fundamental level, these bootstrap efforts are a prudent way of doing business in a fashion landscape defined by uncertainty. Rather than produce at the whim of arbitrary seasons, producing and selling clothes directly to consumers allows small upstarts to gain their footing while developing a unique voice. For consumers then, the push towards the independent labels is two-fold: exclusivity and sustainability. Apart from the limited nature of such labels, many produce purposefully limited runs, concerned with oversaturation and mass-production’s toll on the environment. Everybody World, the fabric wholesalers used by Online Ceramics and others, produces T’s using recycled fabric, a significant shift in an otherwise wasteful sector of garment manufacturing. The steady boom of vintage goods, too, speaks to a sustainably-conscious consumer. Why buy clothes new when there are entire generations of fashion waiting to be exhumed? If the dominant trend was once concerned with amassing items from coveted brands, the new vanguard is defined by the desire for a tightly curated set of meaningful items. The distribution strategies for mysterious projects like Sci-Fi Fantasy from professional skateboarder Jerry Hsu, or Online Ceramics’ custom made goods, works to maintain a real relationship with shoppers, offering them items that are guaranteed to be not only unique, but sustainable to boot.

Naturally, more established brands are also experimenting with more direct ways of communicating with customers. The artist Tom Sachs’ most recent collaboration with Nike, the Mars Yard 2.0 released last year, was an example of a company creating a finite and tangible experience around a garment. In order to purchase the shoe, each raffle winner had to complete an hour course at “Space Camp,” examining Sachs’ design ethos and the production of the shoe. The shoe itself was sustainably minded, with specific adjustments meant to increase longevity. The end result is a product that isn’t simply a physical object, but conveys a relationship with the artist and aludes to a bigger philosophical idea. Beyond collaborations, major fashion retailers like Dover Street Market and Opening Ceremony have started carrying small batch items from designers like Bode, speaking to the growing appeal of handmade fashion.

The next evolution of commerce will have to contend with how social media can act as both a force of connection and isolation. If the past decade of maximalism and scale spoke to the growth curve of hashtags and hyperconnectivity, the push towards 'organic' streetwear and fashion speaks to the hunger for smaller scale interaction. It’s even present in the rhetoric coming out of tech giants, faced with the ramifications of fake news and online harassment. A central concern as we increasingly rely on technology is how much power humans will ultimately concede to artificial intelligence. If there’s hope anywhere, it’s in how we dress. What is shaping up as a response to the sameness brought by automation is an embrace of the endless potential of individuals.

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Tags: streetwear, nike, boot-boyz-biz, some-ware, tom-sachs, online-ceramics