Is 2020 the year that “streetwear” dies?

2019 was the culmination of a crazy decade for streetwear. It marked a transformation of streetwear from something on the fringes of culture to a monolithic staple in the fashion industry. It had been less than a year since we had our first African-American artistic director, Virgil Abloh, at the helm of a luxury brand — Louis Vuitton. Many of us will always remember the tears that Kanye West and Virgil shed together as they embraced at the end of Virgil’s first Louis Vuitton show in Paris.

The iconic moment that started all of this was at Paris Fashion Week a decade earlier. Before streetwear was on the map for the average youth, let alone the luxury fashion elite, a squad pulled up at PFW ’19 Fall/Winter led by none other than Kanye West, among them was Virgil Abloh. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and wasn’t supposed to be there. We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture,” said Virgil in an interview with W magazine. They turned heads. They wanted their style to speak for themselves. Streetwear was no longer just for certain subcultures, and fashion wasn’t just for the elite to dictate anymore. On the back of an influential generation of young artists and internet celebrities, the style of the 2010s was “for the people”.

In under a decade, streetwear went from T-shirts reserved for skater boys and blinged-out rappers, to a mainstay in every store and bazaar. It was in every boutique, luxury department store, and e-commerce platform. You could buy into the style at any price point from your local Zara to Galeries Lafayette and from Urban Outfitters to Farfetch. Nevertheless, the real hype pieces were still reserved for the ones “in the know” and those who could afford it. Let’s not forget to mention those who’re willing to line-up for drops or shell over multiples of the retail price on the resell market.

Nowadays, the streetwear consumer is universal: you’ll find them of all ages on the streets of any major urban centre around the world (COVID-19 PSA: stay home). In the last few years, it seemed the whole fashion industry was fixated by streetwear, and companies were in a constant frenzy to find the latest trends (or copy them). Everyone wanted a piece of the pie. And prices just kept going up. I doubt any early adopters of streetwear could imagine people paying hundreds of dollars (even thousands in some cases) for a graphic tee. In economics, we call that an asset bubble.

The beginning of the end?

When asked about the future of streetwear in a Dazed interview in mid-December, Virgil Abloh proclaimed that streetwear was dying. The King himself was decrying the empire he built. However, considering his most recent collections consisted of relaxed tailoring and even a pair of loafers, it can’t be too much of a surprise. There was already dissent amongst the fashion community regarding the exhaustion of streetwear in its current form. Just ask any of your fashion inclined friends.

We saw the final gasps of the ugly chunky sneaker as an everyday staple this year with the Triple S surprisingly absent from Balenciaga’s S/S 2020 collection (RIP overpriced dad shoes). Even luxury streetwear staples such as Balenciaga and Vetement have lost their allure. With Demna Gvasalia, Vetement’s pioneer stepping down as Creative Director of his brain-child, another legendary streetwear brand has lost its captain (in fashion, no-one goes down with the ship). As luxury houses band-wagoned on the streetwear trend, some later than others, we see a mixed result. While Balenciaga and Gucci are amongst the biggest winners, Tisci’s BURBERRY hasn’t won me over. On the other hand, Kim Jones’ Dior collection is pushing the direction of what menswear should be (in my opinion).

To understand the current state of streetwear is to understand the hype phenomenon: fashion pieces/products, whether driven by consumers or influencers, deemed to impress others and boast about one’s affluence or cultural relevance if acquired. Hype has become synonymous with streetwear: collabs, limited drops, and exclusive capsule collections — all with a nice fat price tag (You can still grab yourself an IKEA x Off-WHITE rug for two stacks off StockX). How can you call yourself a true streetwear enthusiast if you don’t have a fanny pack (waist bag/belt bag/hip pack, etc…)? However, there seems to be a decline of hype around streetwear over the last year. One metric that is worth noting is the web traffic of major streetwear publications. Analyzing web data from sites such as Highsnobiety and Hypebeast, which in recent years have become brands themselves, paints a slow but steady decrease in website traffic according to WebsiteIQ over the last year (~25%). In March, the number of unique desktop visitors to highsnobiety.com dropped from a May 2019 peak of 2 million to around 1.5million while Hypbebeast.com dropped from about 4 million to 3 million.

Streetwear has always been about saying “f*ck you” to the mainstream, and so once it has ultimately been co-opted into the fold, it loses its intrinsic value. It has become the antithesis of what it stands for. Luxury and fast-fashion have uprooted streetwear from its foundation — its core community. Even those outlets that once purported to have served the community fell victim to their own hype.

As if this wasn’t a sign of the times. /Enter COVID-19.

Check out part 2 of the series:
“Is COVID-19 the final nail in the coffin for “streetwear” (as we know it), and what’s next?

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Economics. Politics. Culture. Society. “Pennies for my thoughts?” @natesnotwoke

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Nathan LIAO

Nathan LIAO

Economics. Politics. Culture. Society. “Pennies for my thoughts?” @natesnotwoke

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