At some point in the past few years, I’m not sure exactly when, I stopped writing about streetwear. After years of exploring the subject from just about every conceivable angle – the links between situationism and the Supreme brick; deep dives into Virgil Abloh’s mid-aughts culture blog, The Brilliance; screeds dedicated to early streetwear pioneers like Shawn Stüssy and Nigo – it felt like there was nothing interesting left to say.
Few trends have burned more brightly, or asserted more influence on the wider fashion industry, to the point that it felt like streetwear wasn’t even a trend, rather a mode of design that would continue to reshape fashion, from high-street retail to luxury brands, for decades to come.
In an attempt to almost retrace my steps, to figure out when exactly my interest began to wane, I recently began rereading pretty much every article I had published from 2016 onwards. There was my last contribution to this title, back in 2019, where I attended Bread & Butter Festival and considered whether an emerging strain of streetwear-focused festivals represented not only the future of fashion, but also youth culture. (They didn’t, as it turns out.) There was a valiant but perhaps naive attempt to frame pro-Jeremy Corbyn bootleg T-shirts circa 2017 as proof of streetwear’s burgeoning political influence. And then there was one of my earliest articles, an interview with the late Virgil Abloh. Still relatively unknown at the time, he was in Paris to show his first Off-White runway collection. “I look at my job, or mission, or passion, as defining streetwear,” he said. “It’s a term that I always say could end up like disco if not handled well.”
What he was describing was the way in which an era-defining genre can become a hollow pastiche of itself, devoid of any real innovation or meaning. By 2019, in an interview with Dazed – with Abloh now helming Louis Vuitton’s menswear offering – he asserted this point once again, looking to a future beyond streetwear. “I would definitely say it’s gonna die, you know? Like, its time will be up. In my mind, how many more T-shirts can we own, how many more hoodies, how many sneakers?”
But streetwear in 2023 is not dead, it is simply dull. It still shifts units, but its cultural relevance has diminished. The strange and urgent life force it once exhibited, seemingly capable of bending luxury fashion houses to its will, through its logic of manufactured scarcity, seasonal drops and headline-grabbing collaborations, now feels a little tired. Supreme no longer sells out instantly. Tyler, the Creator, a poster boy for early 2010s streetwear, whose video for the track ‘Yonkers’ sparked a clamour for Supreme’s box logo caps, now dresses like a dandy from a Wes Anderson film. Abloh has since passed. Raf Simons, whose archive styles acted as the gateway for many from streetwear into high fashion, has shuttered his eponymous label.
But streetwear has not disappeared. Rather, it has been absorbed into mass culture, stripping it of any of the subversive, DIY elements that made it alluring in the first place. When Lionel Messi, arguably the biggest name in world sport, stepped onto the pitch for PSG last season, he did so wearing a shirt emblazoned with the trainer reselling app Goat on the sleeve. Similarly, in the NBA, tunnel walks have become a way for players to flaunt the latest must-cop (or, sometimes, yet to be released) trainers and streetwear collabs. Kylie Jenner wears Palace. Hailey Bieber wears FUCT. In the US, the 42-year-old shoe-collecting politician Jared Moskowitz recently launched a new official meeting for “a bipartisan group of lawmakers and congressional staffers who share their love for sneakers and their impact on American culture and fitness”. None of this is inherently bad, but to those who once gravitated to streetwear as a way of expressing some semblance of an outsider sensibility, it probably isn’t very cool. Today, streetwear as an aesthetic is still hyper-visible, but it is not tethered to anything. It has become a floating signifier, a shorthand expression for youth culture that has since been rendered meaningless.
Despite this, I have never been more interested in clothes or style. Streetwear has not given way to another singular trend, but instead a sort of stylistic fragmentation that feels hard to define. Curated vintage boutiques now abound, selling everything from old Carhartt work pants to vintage Stone Island pieces that fetch up to £1,000. We are more conscious of how we consume now, and the impact it has on the planet, and this undoubtedly contributes to the success of these kinds of stores, but they also offer something unique. No one will have the same patina on their battered Carhartt Double Knees and it’s unlikely you’ll spot another person wearing the same Stone Island duffle coat. The recent rise in popularity of the humble Adidas Samba also suggests a growing fatigue in consumers who are tired of chasing rare trainers and the exorbitant costs that come with them. People are searching for something a little more understated, something that doesn’t make them look like hype victims.
These stylistic niches often have no defined name, but they do engender the same sort of nerdy enthusiasm that once made streetwear feel alive. This sort of obsessive approach to dressing is perhaps most apparent in the emergence of the gorpcore trend in recent years, which offered a stylistic segue away from streetwear and into the world of performance outdoor gear and functional Gore-Tex jackets. It’s a little funny to see the hushed tones once reserved for Supreme collaborations now applied to Italian hiking brands like Roa or the Japanese label Montbell, which makes camping gear.
While this issue is defined by the theme of “elegance”, it’s hard to know if that is the right word to link these various stylistic niches, but there is undeniably a more mature, refined approach to dressing going on. Take Stüssy for example, one of the OG streetwear brands, founded in the early 1980s, whose output in recent seasons has seen it become relevant to a whole new generation of consumers. It releases trainers with the likes of Nike, sure. But it also works on seasonal collaborations with outré Scandi minimalists Our Legacy, repurposing sumptuous deadstock fabrics in muted hues to create voluminous button-down shirts and suit trousers. Now in its sixth edition, it continues to sell out online almost instantly. The urge to cop remains, it seems, but it is secreted within a more considered aesthetic.
What does unite these various niches that have filled the streetwear vacuum is that we seem to be searching for something that will not quickly fill us with regret. Whether that’s items that allow you to tackle nature or work pants with frays and tears – the physical manifestation of hard labour, a story told through canvas – we seem to be seeking products that allow us to connect with something of substance. For so long, it was simply about purchasing items and posting them on Instagram. The goal was to be first, or to have what no one else had, until, inevitably, it began to feel gross and unfulfilling. In Alec Leach’s recent book The World is on Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes, he writes: “Hype has been so important to the consumerist machine – it gives brands new ways of occupying our thoughts, crashing out of our smartphones and into our lives… The answer to hype isn’t minimalism or stealth wealth, or whatever the next fashion buzzword is. It’s looking at fashion with your own needs in mind. Nobody actually needs collab this, limited edition that. They need clothes that feel great now, that’ll feel great next year.”
The Abloh line about streetwear’s potential demise being akin to disco was not a one-off. He used a variation of it in several interviews after I spoke to him. Abloh was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, less than 100 miles from Chicago, where the 1979 “disco demolition night” took place at a White Sox baseball match. Steve Dahl, an embittered local radio DJ, who railed against the omnipresence of the genre, which of course was primarily made up of music created by Black and/or gay artists, drew a crowd of almost 50,000 people, who came to watch him blow up a giant box filled with records, as they chanted “disco sucks”. The symbolic fire was heralded by many at the time as the death of disco. But Abloh – a DJ and record obsessive just as much as he was a designer – surely also knew that disco never really died. It simply disappeared from the mainstream consciousness.
Only a few years later, again in Chicago, house music began to sweep throughout the city, filling warehouses and underground parties. It sounded compelling and fresh, but it contained traces of something familiar, nostalgic even, in the way it repurposed elements from old soul, R&B and disco records. Dormant but not entirely dead, one wonders if, a few years from now, we will rediscover streetwear’s sedimented potential in a new, exciting form. One that is, once again, capable of reshaping the landscape of fashion.
Photography by Christina Fragkou. Taken from Issue 58 of 10 Men – ELEGANCE, GRACE, BEAUTY – out NOW. Purchase here.