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2020.04.24 Fashion

The origins of streetwear

Often considered as a passing trend throughout the years, streetwear has proven itself to be its own style, whose identity is based on specific and well-established codes. And it goes without saying that nowadays we can see this style all over the runways, even though it’s been four decades since its inception, and for good reason! The streetwear style is like a spoken symbol of society. It soaks up everything around it, digests it, and comes up with desirable garments that are generally loose, unique, and cut in such a way that they become a source of inspiration for other players in the fashion world. While the oversized t-shirt, for example, is now an iconic piece, it’s interesting to trace how the streetwear style was able to impose itself on the world of fashion. Here’s a short history of this popular movement that has become famous the world over.

A creation of popular culture

If you want to date the birth of streetwear, it would probably be around the end of the 1970s. At the time, creativity was percolating through every art form and each one had its own aesthetic. Streetwear was a porous style whose only ambition was to stand out thanks to whoever was sporting it, without ever questioning the relationship. It organically drew most of its inspiration from the emergence of hip-hop, but also the worlds of punk and jazz. Globally, the streetwear style was driven by a convergence of identities which, once all lined up, formed a brand new DNA that we still access today.

In American society, the 1980s marked the rise of the alternative culture, which allowed streetwear to take on a starring role. It was the era when certain musical genres inspired by the New York streets were born, smashing the codes of a society that was too anchored in its values. For example, the hip-hop group Run DMC contributed to establishing certain lasting codes, like the heat transfer logo t-shirt with its name, which became an anchor of streetwear.

Within this perspective, and a far cry from a certain puritanism, symbols like breakdance carved out their own space. Streetwear cuts quickly conveyed garments that were practical and adapted to those practices. The act of protesting progressively morphed into a sign of cultural belonging rather than a sign of contestation. And it’s thanks to this change of paradigm that certain logo t-shirts are today worth a fortune! Between baggy t-shirts and caps, a new style was born, far from the creative inspirations that were brewing in the world of fashion at the time, which were too rooted and not appropriate enough.

Surfers and skaters soon got inspired by streetwear codes (which were often called “urbanwear”), thereby forming a homogenous group that rallied around a simple style and a mindset that brought everyone together.

The1990s and 2000s, when streetwear became popular

A few years later, streetwear was democratised thanks to certain key figures like NWA, Tupac, Biggie, Lil Wayne, and Wu-Tang Clan, symbols who denounced daily injustices and propelled a certain mindset onstage. More than a trend, streetwear imposed itself as almost a lifestyle, which was adopted and popularised by brands like Supreme, Stüssy, or Bape.

Popular, scalable, dissenting; these are some of the terms used to describe what streetwear stood for at the time, little by little opening itself up to anyone and everyone. Certain rappers even started creating their own brands, bringing the messages of this particular mindset to a far larger audience. Streetwear therefore became a lasting fashion institution, one which is not showing signs of going away!

In France, this mindset was transmitted through certain strong cultural touchstones like the movie “La Haine” by Mathieu Kassovitz, or rap groups like NTM and IAM. However, one of the first arrivals on the streetwear scene was the independent group Assassin, whose founding members Rockin’ Squat and Solo were the first ones to bring the premises of hip-hop to France from New York. Pillars of our popular culture who were responsible for spreading the baggy pants and XXL t-shirt style throughout the country.

Some say that the streetwear style was democratised soon after, in reaction to the fluorescent trend of the 1980s, as a way to contest it. Today, that whole dynamic has disappeared, while certain brands have dedicated themselves to anchoring streetwear in their DNA. It even shows up in some haute couture houses, which are progressively adopting streetwear codes!

And in today’s fashion?

Indeed, the perspectives adopted by streetwear today are very different. It is no longer about a sub-culture, nor a simple baggy pant. Brands have taken on urbanwear codes head-on in order to attract a new consumer who is often younger and less rigid. That explains why so many luxury brands are becoming major players in the streetwear universe (to the consternation of purists!)

Indeed, personalities who are symbols of streetwear codes are regularly hired to represent some of fashion’s biggest luxury brands: Rihanna for Dior, Pharell Williams for Chanel, Nekfeu for agnès b., and even Kanye West for A.P.C. We can even cite a Givenchy runway show whose decor recreated an American basketball court, or the 2017 collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Supreme, two events that did not go unnoticed.

Hence, today streetwear references allow fashion to give itself an image that is much less silo’d and less self-referential. This is also what has built its strength during these past few decades, like a symbol of a global society that is in perpetual evolution. With this marked identity and the way it absorbs the world around it as its central pillars, it has become its own specific style and at the end of the day, that may be its greatest asset!


Photography : Louis Vuitton / Supreme