The nexus where Internet culture, streetwear, music, and art muddle in the middle is something we refer to as “street culture.” It’s the sort of thing that starts on the fringe and slowly works its way into the mainstream, sometimes losing a bit of the edge that made it special along the way.
This predominantly male culture would not be where it is today without many of the women who not just participate in it, but have been instrumental in its global proliferation. Today, street culture is more inclusive and intersectional than ever, and that’s a trend we hope to see grow as it continues to evolve.
Technically, today is International Women’s Day, but in the spirit of the cultural pioneers and iconoclasts that helped found the culture we continue to be a part of, we hope to celebrate it every day. Here’s a look at 10 women whose impact on street culture can still be seen now.
Graffiti culture started out as a way for inner city youth to literally leave their mark on the world. But initially, their art was deemed illegitimate, illegal, and a public menace. Most of all, the only people really seeing it were passerbys on the street and commuters on the subway.
That changed when seminal street photographer Martha Cooper began documenting the graffiti scene of the 1970s and 1980s for the New York Post. Through a chance meeting with a teen named Edwin, Cooper eventually got access to Donald Joseph White, better known as the highly influential graffiti artist DONDI. He let her follow him around as he put up different pieces around the city. Cooper’s work culminated in the 1984 tome Subway Art, which she made in collaboration with equally important photographer Henry Chalfant.
Today’s scene is fortunate enough to contain many flourishing female creatives—and there’s plenty of room for more. But one of the most notable successes of the mid-2000s streetwear resurgence is Vashtie Kola. One of the most prominent sneaker influencers during the dawn of social media, her purple Jordan II collaboration from 2010 stands out by being one of the first Jordan collaborations geared specifically towards female sneakerheads.
Kola’s work in the sneaker world continues with several Puma collaborations under her belt. And while plenty of other women are currently making waves in the grey area where sportswear, sneakers, and fashion meet in the middle, Kola is notable for being one of the pioneers that proved there was a sizable demand and a growing community worth engaging with.
Queens native Claudia Gold, better known as Claw Money, came up in the late ’80s and early ’90s graffiti scene. Her three-clawed paw icon became a street art staple, and she’s one of the few women who has established herself as a truly influential graffiti artist, a scene heavily dominated by men.
Claw Money has since taken her talents to the fashion industry, starting off as the fashion director at Shepard Fairey’s now-defunct Swindle magazine, before launching her eponymous Claw Money and Claw & Co. labels. Claw & Co.’s flagship store remains open on the Lower East Side, selling her collaborations with Fila, an in-house line, and plenty of covetable vintage gear.
Leah McSweeney made a name for herself with her streetwear line Married to the Mob. Funded by the $75,000 windfall she received as compensation for NYPD police brutality, she founded the line in 2004 as a reaction to the male-dominated streetwear market. Utilizing graphics and logo flips with a confident, feminist sensibility, she’s collaborated with sportswear giant Nike on a Dunk-Hi, and teamed up with artist KAWS on a couple of bikinis.
Never one to shy away from controversy, McSweeney was taken to court by Supreme four years ago for her “Supreme Bitch” logo flip. The case was eventually settled out of court,
Far from being just a fashion plate (although she does absolutely kill every look she wears), Rihanna has demonstrated an astute understanding of the modern artist as a brand. Her FENTY line with Puma just showed its Fall/Winter 2017 collection, and is credited with helping boot Puma’s bottom line, which is news to parent company Kering’s ears.
Beyond financials, FENTY pushes the boundaries between sportswear and fashion as well as the lines between menswear and womenswear. Rihanna embodies a modern sense of feminine style, pulling from several subcultures but always looking like herself. Her recent PAPER magazine editorial is a testament to the artist’s inexorable gravity.
Camilla Ehlke founded Triple 5 Soul in 1989, when she was just 19. Around the same time Stüssy started popping off, Triple 5 Soul is a seminal streetwear label that flourished before “streetwear” was even a commonly used term. When she left the company in 2001 after disagreements with then-partner Troy Morehouse, it had become a $38 million brand. Currently, Ehlke runs the cozy Breathe Inn in upstate New York with her husband.
There used to be lines between pop culture, Internet culture, and the plethora of subcultures that we currently call “street culture,” but Kim Kardashian has merged them all. Paving the way for her family members like Khloe, Kylie, and Kendall, Kim Kardashian mastered the new business of the personal brand early on, with help from her equally astute momager Kris Jenner.
When she married Kanye West, her brand got a further boost, and she quickly legitimized herself in the fashion world, while pushing West’s cultural predilections and taste level to the mainstream. West’s Yeezy sneakers and his fashion line may be household names at this point, but it’s impossible to dismiss the amount of influence Kim Kardashian had in pushing them to the forefront of the pop culture conversation.
No, Barbara Kruger isn’t just here because of the obvious Supreme connection, although it was pretty legendary when she directly addressed both Supreme and Married to the Mob in a Microsoft Word doc about their seemingly frivolous lawsuit. Rather, Kruger’s postmodern approach to typeface, art, and consumerism greatly define the modern hype market.
Her 1987 work, Untitled (I shop therefore I am), perfectly sums up the rabid behavior of mindless consumers eager to spend their money on the latest drops, and the fuccbois eagerly anticipating to wear the latest labels head-to-toe. Kruger’s continued examination of the relationship between text and imagery reflects the very backbone upon which subversive streetwear brands are built.
COMME DES GARÇONS has influenced so many more brands than you’d probably think. Shawn Stüssy was particularly fond of her work early on, as was Engineered Garments designer Daiki Suzuki. But Rei Kawakubo’s influence also extends to the great designers that are cut from the CDG cloth.
Junya Watanabe learned the ropes working at the label, and UNDERCOVER designer Jun Takahashi still regards Kawakubo as his biggest influence. Now that Rei Kawakubo will be the subject of the Costume Institute’s latest exhibit, the legendary designer’s full archive will finally be on display.
Black culture is often at risk for mainstream appropriation, and sometimes it quickly kills things that were once hilarious—or worse, uses slang or memes to market a product in a way that falls completely tone deaf. Beyoncé excels at leading the conversation instead of following it. Creating the type of memeable fodder that’s both relatable on numerous levels and yet timeless.
Hardly any other artist alive today could make pregnancy photos into gallery worth art, or turn the Super Bowl halftime show into a coded message of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Beyoncé has a keen understanding of her influence not just over the Beyhive, but culture as a whole, and regularly uses her highly-engaged platform to stand with issues that affect all women, like Women’s March on Washington. In fact, plenty of the signs held up during the massive protest referenced her songs, like “Formation.”
For a look at a specific company doing its part to bridge the gaps between feminism, culture, and community, check out Nike’s first Pro Hijab for Female Muslim Athletes.