Streetwear, initially defined as fashionable casual clothing, has evolved into a thriving retail phenomenon worth billions of pounds worldwide. Its origins can be traced back to the countercultures of the 1980s and 1990s, encompassing graffiti, hip-hop, skateboarding, and surfing.
A global movement that now revolves around the creation, promotion, sale, and resale of casual fashion including trainers, oversized t-shirts, sweatpants and hoodies, streetwear has surpassed the idea of it being a “phase.” But it has become so much more than just clothing. Streetwear is one of the fastest growing powerhouses in the fashion industry shaped originally by communities built on self-expression.
The early days were simple. Driven by male-dominated communities, streetwear embraced a traditionally masculine aesthetic, and the results are seen today with oversized fittings and designs. Unintentionally rebelling against what mainstream fashion had to offer, streetwear was consumed by people yearning to feel comfortable and less constricted.
Several pioneers played pivotal roles in shaping the streetwear movement. James Jebbia, the founder of skate brand Supreme, and Shawn Stussy, the founder of surf brand Stüssy, are among the trailblazers who propelled streetwear into the mainstream. In the 1980s, designer Dapper Dan elevated streetwear to the realm of richness in Harlem, New York, creating styles for hip-hop artists who were disregarded by traditional luxury brands.
The ongoing debate about where streetwear truly originated is a movement in itself. A lot of fashion leaders claim its humble beginnings lay in California and New York during the 1980s, however some argue that the style first came to the public eye back in the late 70s in major cities like London and New York when young people were experimenting with fashion, mixing styles to create a look that was truly their own.
Streetwear cannot be regarded merely as a fashion trend. It represents a significant shift within popular culture, encompassing fashion, art, and music, primarily driven by black culture. The underlying mindset emerged as early as the 1960s when figures like Andy Warhol challenged the conventional notions of contemporary art. Artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring further expanded this conversation to street art in the 1970s, questioning who could access and appreciate art.
Hip-hop and rap music played a similar role, celebrating raw forms of expression and finding artistry in unconventional ways. Streetwear aligns with the essence of street art or the lyrics of a hip-hop artist, claiming a space and leaving a distinct mark. This level of authenticity sets streetwear apart from the rest of the fashion industry, which traditionally operated through a top-down approach. Instead, streetwear embraces a more democratic model, with tastemakers taking inspiration not only from established fashion sources but also directly from the audience.
The longevity of streetwear lies in its ability to blend the foundational codes of luxury fashion with innovative elements.