The Highsnobiety Crowns are an annual awards series celebrating the very best in streetwear and street culture over the past 12 months. See the full list of this year's winners here.
Irony might have been big in 2017, but over the course of this year, it started to look a little stale. In March, we wrote about how Demna Gvasalia’s purposefully anti-fashion label Vetements appeared to be sitting on racks, even hitting sales at up to 70 percent off. Likewise, Balenciaga's Triple S sneaker, another Gvasalia creation, appears either to have reached market saturation or lost some of its sheen, the once instant sellout currently sitting in Balenciaga’s webstore in all-size runs.
Could it be that ironic fashion has run its course?
Everywhere you looked in 2018, things felt heavier. From geopolitical tensions and a resurgent far right to ongoing economic anxiety, not to mention the impending climate disaster, a lot of us spent the year wondering if there might be bigger questions to answer than "How badly dressed do you have to be before it stops being ironic and simply looks bad?"
Just as some have started moving away from streetwear back toward more traditional fashion, the labels that took a stance on this year's global issues felt distinctly ahead of the curve. That’s why we’re giving this year's Highsnobiety Crown for Most Relevant Brand to those labels that actually gave a shit.
Even some corporate behemoths made principled gestures. Take the biggest sportswear brand in the world, for example. Nike has long been under pressure to play a bigger role in discussions about climate change, labor practices, mass consumption, and so on. Changing things at a company as big as Nike is like U-turning an oil tanker, but the brand made numerous gestures in 2018 that showed the Swoosh acknowledging its role beyond pure commerce.
Following in the footsteps of adidas’ work with Parley for the Oceans on shoes and clothes made using plastic fished from the sea, Nike revealed its own sustainable innovation, Flyleather, in late 2017. Made from discarded leather scraps, synthetic fibers, and a fabric base, Flyleather turns waste destined for landfill into a usable material, which the Swoosh claims requires 90 percent less water to produce than traditional leather and has an 80 percent lower carbon footprint.
Then there was the brand’s "Just Do It" ad campaign with NFL quarterback-turned-political activist Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick's football career was de facto ended after the 2016 season, in which he led kneeling protests during the national anthem before NFL matches to protest police violence against black Americans.
The protests were politically divisive and Nike came close to cutting ties with Kaepernick in 2017. The turnaround a year later, putting such a controversial now-non-athlete front and center of a new ad campaign, was a bold and risky move. There were protests, but the decision saw Nike's stock market value spike in the weeks that followed.
There were positive stories further down the fashion food chain, too. Brendon Babenzien’s Noah, which places ethical consumption, political engagement, and sustainable practices at the center of its business model, continued to be a shining light. Its use of environmentally conscious materials such as Cashball insulation, made using recycled cashmere fibers, and efforts to produce products in places that prize tradition and treat workers fairly showed how younger labels are taking cues from seasoned ethical brands such as Patagonia.
Noah’s championing of progressive causes made clear that even if your raison d'être is hyped hoodies and sneakers, you can be engaged with the world around you. In January, the label released a hoodie bearing the logo of the Anti-Nazi League, later followed by a T-shirt in support of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Most recently, it released a tee in support of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.
Supreme also got in on the action, collaborating with artist Richard Prince on the "18 & Stormy" T-shirt, which featured a composite image of the 18 women who’ve accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct plus former adult film star Stormy Daniels, with all proceeds going to political organization Downtown for Democracy. To paraphrase Maison Margiela’s famous AIDS awareness tee, there’s more action to be done to effect change than buy a T-shirt, but it’s a start.
Elsewhere in the world, Danish label Soulland made big moves toward becoming more sustainable. Its recent “Logic” collection was produced in accordance with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) specifications, and the label has started to use recycled polyester in many of its garments. Most significantly, Soulland didn’t pass the increased costs of these practices on to the consumer — which is easier said than done for a small business.
Matthew Williams’ 1017 ALYX 9SM has been exploring similar issues. As one of the fashion world’s current darlings, Williams has the ear of a lot of influential people in the industry. And as a young brand, ALYX is in a position to establish sustainable manufacturing processes from the outset, potentially setting a standard for the designers and labels that follow.
Williams has acknowledged that solving sustainability issues isn't straightforward. Every textile, fabric, piece of hardware, and process requires its own approach. If brands move away from natural leathers, for example, they’ll have to use synthetics, which are orders-of-magnitude less biodegradable than their organic counterparts.
Many of these emerging sustainable production techniques still aren’t viable at scale. But as production and sustainability expert Dio Kurazawa made clear in our interview with him for Highsnobiety magazine Issue 17, if we're to have any chance of avoiding climate disaster, that needs to happen and fast.
Unfortunately, the same thing that makes the fashion world so fascinating is also one of its greatest burdens. An industry dominated by decades-old houses turning over billions of dollars every year might give us fascinating mythologies and storied designs, but it has also created lumbering, ancient businesses that are less willing or able to change than their younger, smaller, more nimble counterparts.
The positive side is that the sustainability debate has created a space for new and emerging brands such as Noah and 1017 ALYX 9SM to seize the conversation and force an industry of leviathans to finally change course.
You can see that in the simultaneous debates playing out in fashion right now. On the one side, you’ve got a lot of small and independent labels taking the pressing issues of the day seriously and attempting to push things in a healthier direction. On the other, you’ve got fashion houses that have been around for decades, many owned by the same multinational conglomerates, releasing increasingly irreverent, tongue-in-cheek, post-post-post-ironic collections that seem to convey a feeling that, deep down, nothing really matters — it’s all a joke anyway.
Of course, things aren't quite so black and white. As stated, Nike and adidas are two giant corporations that have started to get serious about their impact on the world. And several major fashion houses have stopped using real fur in their products (although fake fur as a replacement is a sustainability nightmare). Even Balenciaga, the byword for fashion irony, showed its globally minded conscience this year when it partnered with the World Food Programme, donating $250,000 to the organization, with further proceeds from sales of a special collection going to people in need.
The world might feel heavy, but there is still hope. And in 2018, a small band of labels led the way.