In London, a long line of kids snakes down a busy shopping street. Passers-by stare curiously from across the road, wondering what the hell all the excitement is about. There’s a camera crew too, slowly going up and down the street to record what’s going on. Pretty much everyone in the queue is in their teens, they’re dressed exactly the same, and they’ve been slowly lining up for hours, having traveled from all over the country to come here.
It sounds like the scene you see outside Supreme every Thursday, but it’s the year 2003, we’re in Camden, not Soho, and this has got nothing to do with streetwear. Aged 15, I’d persuaded a friend’s dad to give me a lift up to London so I could see Funeral For A Friend, an emo band which, at the time, felt like the most exciting thing to happen in music (in 2017, not so much). I queued up for hours outside the Electric Ballroom just so I could be at the front of the gig, and spent the little money I’d saved on a couple of T-shirts. I left covered in sweat, my ears ringing, and feeling like I actually belonged somewhere. Myspace was in its infancy, but nobody had smartphones — let alone Instagram — so emo was the last subculture to go global before social media turned the world upside down.
Fast forward 14 years and, instead of angsty rock music, it’s rare streetwear that kids are lining up for. Nowadays, you can get music in an instant — there’s no barrier to entry there — so it’s brands, not bands, that young people are thirsting after. You can’t just walk into any shop in the world and get your hands on hype streetwear; you need to queue up for hours, navigate the resell market, or use underhand tactics to cop online. You need dedication.
Just like the punks, mods, terrace casuals and emo kids, the 2017 streetwear scene is a close-knit gathering of like-minded people who are using their clothing — their uniforms — to express themselves. It’s what youth culture is all about; committing yourself to the cause is a right of passage, and it makes you feel both individual and part of something bigger.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, streetwear is massive now. What started as a bunch of guys obsessing over niche brands that no one else had heard of has evolved into a global youth movement, one that’s made even bigger thanks to social media. Everyone’s younger now — most of the kids lining up outside Supreme every Thursday are in their teens — but streetwear has become the go-to look for guys everywhere.
Streetwear is inescapable: you can buy it from Louis Vuitton or H&M, from luxury boutiques or counterfeit tourist markets. The style is so ubiquitous now that pretty much every single collection of men’s clothing made today borrows from streetwear’s uniform of sneakers, hoodies and graphic tees — whether it’s from up-and-coming Instagram brands or million-dollar fashion houses. Streetwear and runway fashion have been blurring together for years, but the grand unveiling of Supreme x Louis Vuitton back in January completely obliterated what was left of the wall separating the two.
It’s not just streetwear’s style that’s everywhere, it’s the philosophy, too. The culture’s obsession with limited edition, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it product has been copied by the rest of the industry. It’s not enough to just make stuff and sell it anymore, people need to be tearing each other to pieces to buy your latest product. Brands seem to think that making something exclusive is a shortcut to making it desirable. Let’s do a collab! is the stock answer for out-of-touch marketing teams everywhere.
Even celebrities are on it. Justin Bieber and Kylie Jenner are selling limited-edition streetwear at pop-up shops, and cash-rich kids are queuing up to buy it. Let’s get things straight: there’s absolutely nothing underground, niche, or counter-cultural about limited-edition sneakers, tees and hoodies anymore. If the Biebs is doing it, it’s mainstream.
Social media has made things even more turbo. Attention spans are shorter, trends come and go so fast they’ll make you dizzy, and stuff sells out before you can even think about buying it. Kids like @gullyguyleo and @ifayfu have gathered huge social followings by spending thousands on the latest hyped pieces, posting mega-staged shots of them on Instagram, then moving on to whatever’s next. Whether something’s rare or not doesn’t actually matter anymore, because either way you’ll be seeing it on Instagram.
For guys who have been in the scene for a while, it’s an uneasy state of affairs. We fell in love with streetwear because it was underground — a complex world of niche brands appropriating and repurposing pop culture to create something new and exciting. Things were slower back then. To get your fix, you had to patiently hunt stuff down online, travel to a store or find a hookup. Nowadays, though, it’s a mad frenzy of instant gratification, and people aren’t as conscious — or just don’t care — about all the subcultural winks and nods that come with the culture.
Where do we go from here? Do we just sell all our shit and start dressing like our dads?
We shouldn’t. The scene has changed, changed a lot, but if you look at the bigger picture, things are better than ever.
Streetwear has become a global language, and that’s a pretty powerful thing when you think about what’s going on in the world right now. I’ve talked streetwear with guys from as far away as Iceland and Brazil. Highsnobiety has had interns from South Africa, Russia and Kazakhstan. Our Under the Radar series is packed with lookbooks from all over the globe: Indonesia, Bulgaria, Nigeria, wherever. Throw a dart anywhere on a map and someone’s making streetwear there.
Not so long ago, New York was the only place that mattered, but things are so wide open now that the next big thing could come from anywhere — just look at Gosha Rubchinskiy. Russia is public enemy number one in the Western media, but Gosha’s ascent to fame has shone a light on a new, young and beautiful side to the country. Young Russians are street style muses, and Gosha’s Cyrillic lettering can be found on the backs of rappers, Jenners and clued-up kids all over the globe.
In a world that’s spiraling deeper and deeper into isolationism and us versus them narratives, streetwear’s ability to speak across borders, languages and timezones is more important than ever.
What’s more, streetwear is constantly evolving — and that’s its biggest strength. Social media has torn down the walls between cultures, and that gives designers more scope than ever to do whatever the hell they want. There are no rules now: just take it and make it yours.
Trends might come and go quicker than ever these days, but streetwear’s progression means things are never boring. On the surface, it’s all box logos and Yeezys, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a thriving world of upstart designers pushing the style into new directions — the market is so big now that underdog names have a real shot at making a viable business out of their creations.
C.E blends British lad culture with weirdo dystopian sci-fi, Midnight Studios looks back to rock ’n’ roll’s heyday, 424 is a West Coast homage to rap and Raf, Ader Error is an explosion of color and gender-vague cuts, MISBHV is a Slavic riff on ’00s glitz, and NOAH is a mature reflection on American counterculture.
Streetwear is so diverse now that there are enough dope brands out there to keep you stylish and inspired for the rest of your life without having to go anywhere near Kanye or Supreme.
Just like streetwear, emo came from humble roots. It was started by a bunch of bored kids in suburban American basements, before evolving into a fully-blown subculture and sweeping across the globe years later. But by the time emo faded from the zeitgeist in the 2010s, it looked like a gross caricature of itself. The genre’s raw, introspective emotion had been capitalized on by major labels that signed up any band they thought they could market to young people, while the genre’s figureheads settled into making dreary radio rock.
The streetwear scene right now is at a similar crossroads. With absolutely everyone doing it, there’s a risk that things become played out, greedy, and worst of all — predictable. To make sure that doesn’t happen, we need to look forward.
The hype might be overwhelming these days, but the kids lining up on drop day, posting #fitpics and flipping their shit on the resell market are the future of streetwear. Before we know it, they’ll be older and with projects and creations of their own. Sure, they might not all know the difference between Hiroki Nakamura and Shinsuke Takizawa, and some of them will inevitably grow out of the scene, but if streetwear is to survive at this size — and not go to the subculture graveyard like emo did — then we need to embrace the youth and support their creativity.
Forward-thinking brands are now working with more young creative people and more often. For its Fifth Sense content platform, i-D hooked up with Chanel to tell the stories of five young creative women across five cities in five different countries. More recently, Highsnobiety partnered with Nike for its Air Max Day campaign, and we worked with the brand to tell stories of genuinely creative young people doing new and interesting things – empowering the next generation of talent.
On an individual level, it’s the responsibility of the older guys in the scene to get over their cynicism and engage with anyone who’s interested in our world — no matter their age, gender, or knowledge level — and treat them like adults. We need to support young creatives, and people need to know that there’s a lot more going on than a red logo and some weird knitted sneakers. The scene needs to welcome cultures from all over the globe. It needs to embrace women, and portray them in a meaningful way beyond eye candy and clickbait (by the way, quick tip for any brands considering the “naked girls in streetwear” lookbook cliché: just don’t. It’s embarrassing).
The streetwear scene is much more than a place to buy clothes. Like nightclubs, football stadiums, skate parks and concert venues, it’s a place for people to feel simultaneously individual and part of something bigger. Whether it’s kids blowing their pocket money on the latest hype, or an office worker treating themselves to a new pair of sneakers on payday, everyone’s engaging with it — and that’s great.
Streetwear is mainstream now. And that can be a good thing. So get over it.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.