Streetwear, Luxury Labels and the Thin Line Between Them
Streetwear, Luxury Labels and the Thin Line Between Them
- Words Jake Silbert
- Date September 15, 2017
There isn’t any one clear definition of streetwear; the encompassing “genre” of style has moved beyond mere subcultures and sneakers into fashion houses and beyond. Louis Vuitton, Raf Simons, Balenciaga and many others have displayed an interest in the fusion of “capital-F” Fashion and laid-back casualwear. A stroll around any major city will yield sightings of Gucci sneakers being paired with Supreme tees or Vetements hoodies being worn with a pair of adidas. The idea of fashion houses even producing sneakers is a concept that really only gained traction about a decade ago. Sure, there were fashion-facing court trainers and sporty runners –I’m looking at you, Prada America’s Cup–but those sneakers were designed more to push the brand and the logos into fulfilling on a house’s all-encompassing “lifestyle” proposition. Once the big labels started craving the profits of streetwear labels, they altered track. They’ve begun aping the trends and styling of streetwear brands—meanwhile, some streetwear brands have taken seats in the club that haute couture built.
Not so long ago, streetwear was little more than loose Bape jeans, a graphic tee and some Nike SB’s or Jordans. After loose jeans began to fall out of fashion, the savvy aficionados began to adopt slimmer APC jeans and moved away from bulky basketball sneakers. This shift in streetwear style foretold the progression of streetwear away from being a mere vehicle for sneakers, sneaker culture and a wardrobe built around graphic tees—leading to where it stands presently at the intersection of fashion, sneakers and street-level, day-to-day functionality. Fashion houses avoided associating with streetwear brands for years, fearing that the association would dilute the luxurious allure that allows said fashion houses to charge exorbitant prices, to the point where Louis Vuitton swiftly slapped Supreme’s infamous Louis Vuitton-biting skateboards with a cease-and-desist. Just over a decade later, Supreme and Louis Vuitton unveiled a high-end, luxury-priced collaboration; it just goes to show how quickly the once disparate worlds merged. Prior to this kind of fusion gaining widespread acceptance, figures like Kanye West, Pharrell, and various stylists began combining streetwear and upscale high fashion in outfits. This laid a foundation for a two-way street, placing the groundwork for the streetwear and fashion scenes to intermingle.
Follow Jake on Instagram here.
Brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger had already been co-opted by streetwear offshoots like the Lo Lifes, but some present day high fashion, runway labels were actually built by a background in streetwear. Undercover’s usage of graphics and subversion of wardrobe staples like jeans and tees quickly amassed the brand an ever-growing swath of devotees. The nascent Japanese Urahara scene was founded on brands that fused affordable, approachable T-shirts and music, and Undercover quickly sprang up as one of the forerunners of Japanese cool in the ‘90s. Undercover began showing collections on the runway soon after, separating their fashion-forward women’s line—where Jun Takahashi primarily focuses his more traditional design acumen—from the more casual (but still fashion-friendly) men’s line. This disparity has continued for years, as the men’s line continues to lean towards reliable staples like graphic T-shirts and leather jackets; the women’s line is progressive and experimental, appearing alongside other contemporary and pedigreed fashion labels on the Paris fashion calendar. With its approachable, streetwear-influenced pieces, it’s no wonder why the Undercover men’s line has a wealth of stockists, both fashion-forward and casual. Similarly, provocative young label Rodarte designs exciting, extravagant, couture-level garments for women, but some of the label’s best selling (and oft-street styled) items are its graphic T-shirts produced under their “Radarte” banner. This discrepancy underlines how valuable streetwear is commercially: the market of people willing to drop a hundred bucks or so on a T-shirt far outweighs the number of people ready (and, more importantly, able) to spend thousands on a couture dress.
On the other end of the spectrum, French streetwear label Pigalle has almost entirely foregone their streetwear roots, transitioning seamlessly into a runway brand, complete with overblown spectacles to celebrate its collections. The Spring/Summer 2017 show, set up as a wedding, was as much performance art as it was runway show. Pigalle hasn’t stopped producing sweats and box logo tees—they’ve merely widened their ambitions. Comfort—one of the core tenets of streetwear—is crucial to the brand, and though they’ve embraced tailoring to some degree, Pigalle still incorporates relaxed pieces. Similarly, Proper Gang has blended accessible streetwear silhouettes with mature styling, a technique that Proper Gang designer Max Vanderwoude Gross has put to work through his own experiences while working on Supreme’s clothing line.
In terms of finding a brand that manages to meet in the middle between streetwear and the thoughtful, conceptual aspects of high fashion, there’s very few that stack up to Supreme. The brand has unintentionally incubated some of the most relevant designers and creative directors producing clothes today—often spawning labels that fit in the grey area between “high fashion” and “streetwear.” Regardless of who’s designing for the brand at any given time, Supreme’s collections have long blended streetwear staples with quietly open-minded designs. For example, consider the small design nods in things like the inimitable windowpane trench, the collaborations with Schott and the collared shirts with zippered plackets instead of buttons. There’s a lot going on within each season, and although the box logos clearly get the most attention when available, the clever takes on traditional streetwear items relate to the recent trend of upscale, “post-street” brands. Naturally, Max Vanderwoude Gross’ Proper Gang embodies many of these concepts quite neatly, updating streetwear staples with modern tweaks. For instance, pleated trousers have elastic waistbands, coach jackets are cut a little loosely, but refrain from being boxy. The graphic tees, the bread and butter of any streetwear label, feature bold graphics offset by a lack of flashy typefaces and edgy graphics.
Proper Gang is one of the many post-Supreme streetwear labels offering updated casual clothes for an audience that reaches beyond the typically youthful streetwear consumer. Another example, former Supreme creative director Brenden Babenzien’s Noah, takes on streetwear staples like tees and five-panels, crafting them in America and England. Noah refreshes the streetwear uniform of hoodie, shirt and jeans with trend-defying cuts and luxurious materials. By focusing on production that’s as transparent as it is ethical, Babenzian helps push the boundaries of not just streetwear, but clothing design as an industry. Fellow mature streetwear label OAMC pushes the envelope a step further with made in Italy production and immaculate construction. Much like the vaunted craftsmanship of labels like Hermès, Boglioli and Dior, OAMC creates its garments in Italy out of premium materials. Unlike those aforementioned labels, however, OAMC designs streetwear friendly clothes, unpretentious suiting with myriad technical details and luxurious knits. It’s a fusion of streetwear and fashion that could never have existed two decades ago. Oh, and lest we forget—OAMC creative director Luke Meier is a former Supreme designer. It’s more than a coincidence that OAMC seems to blend both streetwear sensibilities and luxury house aspirations.
Streetwear trends have affected even those brands that purport to be above fleeting styles. The Elder Statesman, a brand lauded for its gorgeous textiles and exquisite knits, designs collections of sweatpants and sweatshirts—creating upscale reimaginings of two crucial elements of streetwear. To further underline their streetwear references, The Elder Statesman recently released a collection of knits branded with the logos of various basketball teams. This move allowed the label to straddle both the streetwear and luxury camps simultaneously. Other high-end labels reference streetwear staples in their own lines: Haider Ackermann (who has been photographed wearing streetwear icon Bape) reimagines hoodies in velour and produces silk track jackets made in Italy, while Greg Lauren’s pricey patchwork collections always include elastic-hem flight pants, colorful sweaters and sutured T-shirts, all items that pair better with a well-loved pair of sneakers than with stuffy leather shoes.
Meanwhile, streetwear-facing stores like Kith and Union LA (to name only a couple) also offer a selection of goods that appeal to both camps of streetwear and runway fashion. This mixture of runway labels with recognizable casual labels represents the high-low blend often seen on (and off) the runway. Stores like Barneys, once a bastion exclusive to the large fashion houses, now stocks brands like A-COLD-WALL*, Fear of God and Gosha Rubchinskiy alongside the high-end fashion labels. Other stores similarly eschew barriers, selling accessibly-priced T-shirt lines alongside pricey artisanal clothing. Idol Brooklyn sells Undercover and Nigo’s HUMAN MADE lines right alongside Yohji Yamamoto, Taichi Murakami and m.a+. Other stores act as a conglomerate of this new blend of streetwear and fashion – Slam Jam Socialism carries runway-ready lines like J.W. Anderson, Sacai and Yang Li; emerging lines like Bianca Chandon and Brain Dead; and established streetwear icons like WTAPS and Patta. Not only is this a reflection of streetwear’s growing popularity, but it indicates the open-mindedness of the fashion set; people are willing to purchase labels that aren’t necessarily ‘fashionable’, but are instead wholly wearable—accessible as opposed to exclusive.
The current trend of high/low clothes blended together is both a confirmation of streetwear’s commercial viability and streetwear’s widespread appeal. This appeal is leaving a mark on the world of high fashion, with brands like Balenciaga and Saint Laurent creating sneakers as covetable as the ones from Nike and adidas and designers from John Elliott to Philip Lim (to note just a small selection) showing sweatpants on the runway. Indeed, this hard-to-define blend leaves the current definition of ‘streetwear’ quite vague. For a lot of people, it still means T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. For others, it’s a revitalized take on an old uniform. Kanye West’s line of distressed, desaturated sweatpants and shirts is basically a revised version of streetwear comfort food. The line, like so many others, elevates the core principles of streetwear (comfortable, wearable, recognizable) to a level that none of the Bapesta-collectors from the early-‘00s could have anticipated. Nowadays, Supreme tees and Nike sneakers are as desirable (and often resell for about as much) as luxury goods. As streetwear moves up and down in a fashion world that’s equally accommodating a myriad of fashion influences, the only clear conclusion is that the true definition “streetwear” is entirely up to the consumer. Considering current tastes, it’s a definition that’s best left vague.