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.
Is Los Angeles the world’s next fashion capital? It’s a question that seems to perpetually loom over the industry, the answer entirely dependent on whom you ask and where they come from. While the West Coast still lags behind the East in terms of institutional clout, recent years have seen the emergence of a new creative class whose grassroots approach is steering the conversation for the first time rather than taking cues from elsewhere. This year saw LA cement its place alongside New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Tokyo among fashion’s big hitters — and when it comes to streetwear, it might even be number one.
Why now, though? Affordability is one of the reasons. But for many creatives, the intangible ideal of the West forms an even bigger part of the attraction. In the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, LA’s inherent mysticism and free-spiritedness chafe against the zeitgeist. “California seems the epitome of the resistance,” Adrian Joffe told Vogue as he prepared to open the new Dover Street Market in Downtown’s Arts District. “You can’t not be political anymore.”
Nowhere is Joffe’s thinking better exemplified than this year’s spate of West Coast breakout brands, a number of which recall California’s countercultural past. As streetwear continues its co-optation by luxury labels and the mainstream, psychedelic hippie sleaze has emerged as a counterpoint, its trippy, tongue-in-cheek sensibility antithetical to everything corporate. This is, after all, the year of the scumbro.
Yet while most of the West Coast brands below share a common thread — DIY approach, embrace of imperfection, desire for “authenticity” — their design languages are informed by the landscape without being defined by it. And it’s not just breakthrough brands that have had a strong year. The likes of Union LA, FTP, Noon Goons, GOLF WANG, and Brain Dead continue to evolve, while further up the chain, Stüssy’s “mall brand” days are firmly in the rearview. From top to bottom, there’s a feel-good factor in the Golden State.
From tye-dye basketball shirts and stoner motifs to energy crystals and the Grateful Dead, West Coast brands made a play for streetwear dominance in 2018. Below are a few of the year’s standouts.
The smiley face was a ubiquitous force in 2018, and a lot of that is down to Mike Cherman’s Chinatown Market.
Cherman previously cut his teeth at Nike and also helmed his own cycling brand, ICNY. Whereas ICNY was all technical, Chinatown Market is more about self-expression, taking a guerrilla, tongue-in-cheek approach to streetwear. Armed with a printing gun, the New York native is deconstructing the notion of exclusivity, making his own bootlegs and encouraging kids to follow suit. If Cherman can do it, you can too.
The brand, which can now be copped at Urban Outfitters, frowns upon the idea of exclusivity, instead offering itself up to as many outside collaborators as possible. This mindset has seen it lend its name to brands such as Lacoste and Original Penguin, bringing its name to a whole new consumer base in the process. The product inventory has widened, too, encompassing everything from watering cans to pillows.
Even if Cherman is in the mix with big names these days, he still hasn’t lost his fire when it comes to cheeky, even potentially transgressive releases. This summer, LeBron James was seen lacing up a pair of one-of-one Chinatown Market “Bootleg” Chuck Taylor 70s, complete with Swoosh.
This was followed by a cheeky drop that took its cues from the merch debuted by Kanye West at his ye listening party in Wyoming, including a black hat reading, “KANYE WEST / ALBUM LISTENING / MAY 31 2018 / JACKSON HOLE.” So quick off the mark was Cherman, the hat was never even listed online by West’s official merchandising company Bravado.
“We’re here to give homage to these large corporate monsters that essentially are luxury brands and pull that down to ground level,” Cherman told us in Highsnobiety magazine Issue 17. He’s doing exactly that, but never forgetting to have fun in the process.
Streetwear is nothing if not unpredictable. If someone told you a few years ago that a pair of Grateful Dead obsessives would go on to helm one of the hottest graphic T-shirt brands around, you’d have been forgiven for being a little skeptical.
Before 2018, Online Ceramics, the brainchild of Elijah Funk and Alix Ross, remained something of an insider’s secret, the brand’s druggy, psychedelic tees coveted by its followers with the fervor of a Deadhead bootleg collector. Online Ceramics’ super-limited hand-printed designs resonated with audiences looking for gear with a more personal touch.
An Online Ceramics shirt isn’t simply a shirt. It’s a work of art with its own provenance. As Ben Roazen noted in our Grateful Dead feature in August, “Like Deadheads, Online Ceramics fans often trade silent nods of acknowledgment in public.” John Mayer took it a step further, telling The New Yorker, “I think of Online Ceramics like a band, and the T-shirts are the albums, and I want to collect all of them.”
This summer, Online Ceramics toured the West Coast with Mayer and Bob Weir’s Dead & Company revival act, slinging T-shirts from Shakedown Street, the fan-led bazaar that has followed the Dead on tour for decades. And if that feels like an affectation, Funk and Ross actually started out selling their own Dead merch on tour in 2016.
It’s a perfect example of the dichotomy the brand now finds itself straddling: one foot in the parking lot peddling hippie revivalism, the other collaborating with hip film studio A24 and retailing in world-revered stores Dover Street Market and Union LA. In the age of Instagram, all you need is a printer and an idea to reach the top.
Advisory Board Crystals has been bubbling under the radar for a while now, even appearing on 2017’s Highsnobiety Best Breakthrough Brand list. The label, founded by couple Remington Guest and Heather Haber after they first met while sharing an Uber Pool ride in 2015, has carried that momentum into 2018, putting its name to a clutch of gold-tier collaborations while remaining ethically steadfast.
With mysticism going mainstream, Abc.’s arcane design process — involving gems, astrology, and numerology — seems perfectly suited to the times. Like Online Ceramics, Abc. values the “human” aspect of the manufacturing process, which is part of the reason it releases such limited runs. But whereas Funk and Ross operate a loose, almost freestyle tie-dye method, Abc.’s “proprietary crystal-infused dye process” is altogether more alchemic.
The end result, as evidenced on the “Radiant Cities” hoodie, is unique. That the product arrives with imperfections is part of the appeal. The Japanese call this idea wabi-sabi — it shows the creator’s hand in the work and offers the buyer something they cannot find elsewhere.
In addition to collaborations with KITH, Nike, Migos, and Lil Wayne, Abc. lent its name to raise awareness for charitable causes, including the California wildfires, Wikimedia Foundation, and Little Sun Foundation. Elsewhere, wellness was the focal point of the “Eternal Youth” collection, which included a health tonic and jam.
“We want to offer information to live a better life, but not in a preaching or teaching way — just by sharing the knowledge,” Haber told WWD recently. Even if you don’t believe in the power of healing crystals, it’s difficult not to admire how she and Guest live their values.
As weed’s worldwide decriminalization continues (albeit slowly), the cultural conversation around cannabis is evolving. Once upon a time, the word “stoner” might have conjured up images of James Franco’s Saul Silver in Pineapple Express, but these days the perception is shifting, with the couch-locked toker cliché becoming a thing of the past.
Since 2015, lifestyle brand Mister Green has been at the vanguard of the “Green Rush,” offering a tasteful selection of apparel, homewares, literature, accessories, and scents. Rather than deploying hash leaves and corny puns, founder Ariel Stark-Benz’s approach is all about minimalism, executing his vision with the slickness of a Scandinavian designer. Nowhere better is this exemplified than the company’s Japan-indebted flagship store in East Hollywood.
In 2018, with weed’s legality in Los Angeles somewhat complicated, Mister Green has made the transgressional seem normal and is a perfect embodiment of the free-spirited attitude currently coursing through the city’s streetwear scene.
Initially dismissed by some as a crew of shock artists, PLEASURES’ rise to streetwear big-hitter has been meteoric. Alex James and Vlad Elkin’s brand was already flying high coming into 2018, but it has entered a new sphere entirely over the past 12 months.
When PLEASURES first broke out, the controversy surrounding the label spoke louder than the clothes. Infamously, James and Elkin drew heat for releasing a T-shirt with a print of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note and hats that read “In Loving Memory: Morrissey 1959-2015.”
James claimed the hat was to commemorate Morrissey’s final year of touring, but it seemed irresponsible given the former Smiths singer had recently gone public with a cancer diagnosis. Morrissey’s fan base was outraged and Noisey asked whether those behind the label were “wastrel shitbags.” Of course, the items still sold out.
PLEASURES’ canon has matured since then, treading the line between provocative and tasteful with expert poise. James’ love of all things youth subculture, specifically East Coast punk and hardcore, continues to inform the label’s aesthetic. Collaborative projects this year with adidas and — once unthinkably — Crocs are further indicative of PLEASURES’ ascent.
For any aspiring designer, the above brands prove that to succeed in 2018, all you need is a bit of ingenuity, daring, and perhaps most importantly, resilience. Each has broken through in a big way — and LA’s fashion scene is looking all the stronger for it, with 2019 promising to be even bigger.