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The last ten years have undoubtedly been the decade of men's fashion. It's likely the next one will be, too. Driven by the twin prongs of the increasing male fashion consumption and the rise of streetwear, the men's market has been expanding faster than the women's. Its audience now skews younger and takes style cues from a motley crew of rappers and unconventionally fashionable Hollywood actors (looking at you, Adam Sandler, Shia LaBeouf, and Jonah Hill).
Modern-day menswear consumers want to dress casually and comfortably but also telegraph to the world their status. They desire both the safety of the familiar and the excitement of exclusivity; to fit in while perpetuating the illusion of standing out. It's not a fashionable audience, but it is very fashion-conscious. There is a crucial difference, since the former takes risks, and the latter does not. For the fashion-conscious, everything has been vetted and pre-approved. Whether this is a bug or a feature is almost beside the point — this is the status quo of men's fashion today.
Luxury fashion has been taking copious notes on streetwear. Make no mistake, every single luxury fashion brand looks at the success of Supreme — especially the way it has built customer loyalty — with deep envy. But if luxury brands cannot copy the essence of Supreme's aura, they can copy its model. And while the soul of streetwear may not be easy to emulate, its trappings are. The blueprint of producing archetypal garments (the hoodie, the sweatshirt, the tee), driven by graphic design more than garment design, is easily copied. Luxury has also co-opted this collaborative spirit. The recipe — produce graphic-driven clothing archetypes and invite a prominent streetwear brand or streetwear-adjacent artist to collaborate — is a piece of cake for the likes of Louis Vuitton or Dior, whose marketing budgets and clothes-making know-how far eclipse anything an average streetwear brand is capable of.
No wonder, then, that a slew of these collaborations has been unleashed on us over the past years. Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton sounded the first canon by collaborating with Supreme in 2017. Even though the actual release of those products was botched and extremely exclusive — it was mostly celebs and wealthy LV clients who got the stuff — it was hailed by the pliant fashion media as a watershed moment that somehow was supposed to democratize fashion via the luxury-streetwear marriage.
The next year, in a carefully orchestrated move, Jones was moved to Dior, and Off-White™'s Virgil Abloh (the king of streetwear) was installed at Louis Vuitton. What followed was the obvious — a flood of collaborations with no discernible rhyme or reason: Dior x KAWS, Dior x Daniel Arsham, Dior x Shawn Stussy, Louis Vuitton x Futura, and now Louis Vuitton x NIGO. There hasn't been a collection of Kim Jones at Dior that has not involved a collaboration of some sort.
Not so long ago, those Parisian luxury houses (which traditionally catered and still cater to the haute bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy) held their noses at the mention of streetwear — a movement largely proliferated by marginalized communities and the American working class. Deep in their hearts, they probably still do. And that's what makes the whole thing so questionable.
This unlikely marriage certainly looks like a money-grab, and no amount of narrative realignment — such as Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke's preposterous assertion that LV "always sought to cater to the new wealthy class, not the old aristocrats” — can change that fact. Fine, that's how capitalism works. The more fascinating question here is who wins, the streetwear fiends at the gates of Paris or the luxury conglomerates who use them as hired guns? Is it Virgil Abloh, a black American from a Ghanaian immigrant family who is now helming one of the most prestigious fashion houses, or Louis Vuitton that gets to exploit Abloh's clout for profit? Is Gucci riding on the coattails of Dapper Dan, the product of Harlem's culture, or the other way around?
The answer isn't clear. Perhaps both win. At its nascent stage, streetwear also borrowed from luxury fashion, whether as a joke or in earnest. After all, the brand loyalty and logo display that streetwear is now famous for was invented in Paris; Stüssy's logo was inspired by that of Chanel, and years ago, Louis Vuitton went after Supreme for reinterpreting its monogram. It's no wonder that James Jebbia was positively giddy when the LV collaboration was unveiled — in his mind, he stormed the gates of heaven. Though maybe, in reality, he was just let in for a walk by the gatekeepers.
People still talk about streetwear as a youth culture phenomenon akin to punk. But streetwear never had the punk attitude of pointing its middle finger at the established societal order, particularly its class system. Streetwear always had aspirational quality, perhaps because America falsely teaches its young that we don't have a rigid class hierarchy and that all roads are open to everybody.
For now, luxury continues to eat its way through the streetwear world like the very hungry caterpillar. At the rate things are going, collaborations will run their course sooner or later. Quite a few of them are already now ill-thought-out, marketing-driven efforts — the Dior Jordan 1s, the MCM x BAPE collab. What will happen once the novelty of collaborating with streetwear loses its appeal? Like an aging pop star, the European luxury houses will probably align themselves with whatever upcoming phenomenon will keep them relevant and profitable.
Hopefully, streetwear won't lose too much sleep over it.