It’s no longer news that men's fashion has undergone a seismic shift in which luxury, designer, and streetwear bleed into each other. The result is sometimes sublime, and sometimes an absurd amalgam that can be a bit hard to grasp.
Underneath the self-congratulating narrative of the streetwear camp lies something a bit more prosaic. What we are witnessing is a two-fold change: First, that today there are vastly more men who are interested in fashion than even a decade ago. Second, we are undergoing a generational shift, one where the Millennials and Gen-Z are quickly displacing Boomers and Gen-Xers as fashion’s core customer. By and large, what these young men seem to want is an elevated version of the familiar stuff they grew up with. Thus, streetwear and fashion meet.
Few business people understood this shift better than Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH, fashion’s biggest conglomerate. This may have something to do with the business training he received in the years he spent building a real estate fortune in the United States before moving into the luxury industry in Paris; though he may be all Parisian polish on the outside, his business instincts are American.
And unlike most Parisians, who keep holding onto a peculiarly anachronistic and out-of-touch Francocentric outlook on fashion, Arnault has never had qualms about tapping global talent - from Marc Jacobs and John Galliano to Carol Lim and Humberto Leon - for his luxury empire. Thus we saw Virgil Abloh installed at Louis Vuitton, then Matthew M. Williams at Givenchy, and now Nigo at Kenzo. And you see this playbook being emulated across the market with Rhude founder Rhuigi Villaseñor’s recent appointment at Bally. What fuccbois want, fuccbois shall have.
But the marriage of streetwear and luxury has never been comfortable. The cultural aspect that is (or was) at the core of streetwear, with its grassroots underpinnings that often came from youth subcultures, is as foreign to Parisian ateliers as the latest Young Thug mixtape is to your grandmother. The Louis Vuitton / Supreme collaboration ushered in by Kim Jones - another hypebeast favorite - made many streetwear diehards cringe, but there was no stopping the gilded money printer. Jones made room for Abloh, whose bankable Off-White label, history-making sneaker sales with Nike, and his connection to Kanye West, the patron saint of streetwear, made him a prime candidate.
Abloh’s record at Louis Vuitton wasn’t as exciting as we treat it in retrospect. Notwithstanding his cultural relevance, his output for the brand was inconsistent. In his work I saw the natural uncertainty of someone who knew he was doing too many things at once. Though eager, Abloh never quite settled into the level of confidence that was required for such a daunting task. His shows could have used some editing down, a narrower focus that would have shown strength of conviction. Instead, his good ideas were often diminished by weaker ones, like in the show we just saw where strong tailoring was incoherently mixed with streetwear that was a jumble of logos. I can see a similar shakiness in Matthew M. Williams, who shines at Alyx, where he is comfortable in the product-driven environment he keenly understands, but is less certain at a couture house like Givenchy.
In a way then, Nigo’s task was simpler. Though in its original 1970s iteration under Kenzo Takada it was a luxury fashion house, thanks to a redesign by Opening Ceremony’s Lim and Leon it has become a youthful, quirky label that, like Acne Studios, sits somewhere between designer and contemporary. Hence, it would have been relatively easy for Nigo to make Kenzo into another streetwear-ified, logo-oriented, sneaker-hoodie-T-shirt line. (And by the way, no one knows how to do it better.)
Instead, he took the radical step of presenting a full-fledged fashion collection that looked fresh, energetic, and most importantly, unpretentious. The first look, a women's hooded tartan poncho over tartan pants, and – gasp, were those boots and not sneakers? - was a shot across the bow of preconceived notions and hardened expectations. And on it went, with all-over flower prints as well as Takada’s original drawings and experiments in denim. Logos were kept to a minimum and there was not a single collab in sight.
“The goal for me at Kenzo — but I think in principle it should be the goal for everyone in fashion — is for the main collection that I’m putting most of my creative energy into to be the thing that is, even in commercial terms, the core driver of the business and the thing that people are most interested in,” Nigo told Vogue. “We are entering a period when the main collection is some kind of background,” he continued, “and it's only the collaborations that generate any interest or sell, which, to me, feels like very much the wrong approach.”
The importance of this statement from one of the forefathers of streetwear can hardly be underestimated. He is not the first to express the notion that streetwear has become too easy and too formulaic — slap two logos onto a hoodie, put it on the right talent, and watch the cash rake in. Undercover’s Jun Takahashi - with whom Nigo started when the pair opened their legendary NOWHERE store while attending the Bunka fashion college in Tokyo - said the same thing with his SS20 collection, which was all suiting and jacquard. Even Abloh expressed the same frustration by declaring that the streetwear is dead.
Certainly streetwear is alive and well and will not be dying any time soon. Its strength lies in its ease; its messaging is direct and its garments comfortable. It does not ask much of its audience. But Kenzo under Nigo already proves two things. First, that the fatigue with the luxury takeover of streetwear is palpable. And second, that there is a way out.