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Streetwear's Big Opportunity: Women

As streetwear continues to expand in fast-fashion and luxury markets alike, how can it increase its appeal to female consumers?
Aleali May during London Fashion Week Men's June 2019 | Source: Getty Images
By
  • M.C. Nanda
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States — X-Girl, a streetwear brand created by and for women, debuted its first collection in 1994 around the corner from Marc Jacobs' highly anticipated show. Founders Kim Gordon and Daisy von Furth hoped their guerilla-style runway show would catch the attention of fashion editors as they left Jacobs' venue in Soho.

That same year, skate brand Supreme opened its first store on Lafayette Street in New York. While Supreme went on to define two decades of streetwear trends and rewrite elements of the fashion industry’s business model, X-Girl has remained close to its roots as a niche brand beloved by a tight-knit community of fans.

Streetwear has exploded into the mainstream over the last 25 years: advertisements have shifted from bedsheets to billboards, and brands operate flagships in global fashion capitals. Dapper Dan, who made his name selling "knock-ups" of luxury brands, is now a Gucci ambassador and collaborator, and streetwear retailer Kith has collaborated with Versace. In 2017, Supreme sold a 50 percent stake to the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, valuing the company at $1 billion.

However, as streetwear continues to expand in luxury and fast fashion markets alike, its most successful proponents are men, as are most customers (a quick survey of the line outside any Supreme store will show). According to retail analytics firm Edited, items for men make up 61 percent of the streetwear market. By contrast, in the fashion market at large, women on average spend three times as much as men on clothing for themselves and others, according to market research firm NPD Group.

Though many streetwear brands sell clothes for both men and women, female customers frequently complain in online forums and on social media about a lack of sizing, limited colour waves and feeling intimidated by what remains a predominantly male culture where misogyny is common. While brands like Nike and Stussy are making a significant push towards the women’s market — Stussy has brought on designer and influencer Jayne Min and Nike’s “The Force is Female” campaign has proved successful — the industry as a whole has a ways to go.

There are signs the market is changing. In the past year women’s streetwear products grew by 38 percent compared to a year earlier, faster than the growth rate for men’s, according to Edited.

It's one of those rare instances where you see a greater fashion trend at large kind of start at the men's side

“Women are the greatest consumers,” said Chris Black, founder of creative agency Done to Death Projects, who’s worked with brands like Stussy, Woolrich and Converse. “That’s the goal for any brand or any company is to attract that young woman and bring her in and I think streetwear has failed on that front.”

Female-driven exceptions like X-Girl aside, the popularity of streetwear arose in part as a way for men to express a communal interest in clothing while maintaining a sense of masculinity. Starting in the 1980s, brands like Stussy, Fuct and Supreme all catered to surfers and skateboarders — sponsoring competitions and professionals, and consequently shaping what would become a streetwear uniform of logo T-shirts, Vans and baggy pants.

Streetwear’s origins in extreme sports identified, reinvented and elevated the status of simple garments like T-shirts, hoodies and sneakers. Their clothes stood out in a men’s market dominated by aspirational high-fashion labels and mass brands that largely stuck to polo shirts and casual dress clothes.

“It’s one of those rare instances where you see a greater fashion trend at large kind of start at the men’s side,” said Lawrence Schlossman, brand director at Grailed, a marketplace for streetwear and archival clothing.

The culture moved online: streetwear forums like Kanyetothe and sites like Four Pins, mostly male users discussed, debated and lusted over drops and archival menswear pieces. A Hypebeast survey found nearly 96 percent of respondents today use Instagram to find out about streetwear. Companies like Grailed have capitalised on that market, bringing verification services while maintaining the online community that first drew streetwear and archival clothing fanatics.

In their early stages, streetwear communities often adopted language filled with homophobic insults and misogynistic comments. Clothes that fell outside gender norms or were perceived as skewing female were subject to frequent attack while other users lusted over Pyrex hoodies and Helmut Lang harnesses.

That strain hasn’t entirely gone away. Last year, commenters on blogs and Reddit forums responded with transphobic comments to Supreme’s collaboration with artist Nan Goldin, which included T-shirts, hoodies and skateboard decks featuring images of drag queens and members of New York’s queer club scene. Ultimately, the collection took weeks to sell out instead of seconds (a typical sell-out time), according to i-D.

“I think streetwear specifically is an inherently male trend,” said Black. “There’s this weird macho thing that goes on.”

At the same time, the Goldin collaboration showed that even streetwear’s biggest brands are waking up to the possibility of new markets — women chief among them.

“We’re just on the starting point of everything changing [for women],” said streetwear influencer Aleali May, who in 2017 collaborated with Nike’s Jordan brand on a unisex line of sneakers.

Cracking Open the Door

Some women who might naturally gravitate toward streetwear never find their entry point into the scene.

“I think a lot of girls who first got into streetwear were introduced to it by a male figure in their life,” said Emily Oberg, former creative lead of Kith women’s and founder of brand Sporty & Rich.

Brands have recently started to approach female consumers directly, including Grailed, which launched its sister site Heroine over a year and a half ago, citing demand from female customers.

Kristin Dempsey, former brand director for Heroine, said part of the site’s appeal is that women buying streetwear pieces are able to buy from female sellers that “understand the way it would fit on a female body a little bit more or understand why that item is special to another woman.” Photos on the site often include buyers wearing them for size or photos of the product on influencers or models that have also worn the product.

The Right Product Mix

Over two decades ago, X-Girl, a sibling set to the men's brand X-Large, sold clothes designed to fit women's bodies: pants that were baggy at the bottom but fit snugly around the waist, T-shirts that offered a looser fit without needing to be cut or tucked into pants and a-line dresses that were wide but flattering for all sizes.

Today, brands like Fenty and Stussy successfully follow this model. Others reach women simply by offering smaller sizes. Many women say they prefer this, especially when the alternative can mean taking the “shrink it and pink it” approach, a pejorative attached to sneaker brands that sell popular men’s designs in traditionally feminine colours.

I think streetwear specifically is an inherently male trend

Many brands fail to offer women’s sizes at all. The much-anticipated Tom Sachs sneaker collaboration with Nike in May failed to offer women’s sizes. Steph Curry’s highly anticipated sneaker release in November gained unexpected press after a 9-year-old girl wrote a letter to Curry asking why the launch didn’t offer female sizing. The problem was swiftly corrected: Curry responded immediately and the brand added women’s sizes as well as clearly marked co-gendered sizing on the site.

Natalie Sereda, a 23-year-old associate at a New York art gallery, frequently waits in line outside of streetwear stores and participates in raffles for hyped-up sneakers. Often the smallest size offered is a men’s seven, while she wears a women’s six. Sereda said she used to wait in line anyway in the hopes of trading or re-selling the too-large shoes, but has recently grown into a men's seven.

“It automatically excludes women, from who’s gonna wear Yeezys first and be the first one wearing them on the street,” she said.

Hire Women

Brands that employ mainly male designers and marketers are at the highest risk of coming off as pandering when they attempt to sell to women.

Streetwear labels have been slow to hire female designers, however. May’s unisex Jordan sneakers marked the second time a woman had collaborated on a shoe in the brand’s 30-year history (the first was music video director Vashtie in 2010). The shoes were popular, and now sell for $600 or more on resale sites like StockX and Grailed.

“It’s going to take a lot of ... catching up because men have already built this whole thing,” May said. “I think it’s also just showing these companies, like, ‘look, as soon as we give ourselves a project, look what happens.’”

Streetwear and luxury are so intertwined now it's difficult to tell one from the other

Visibility is also essential for reaching female streetwear consumers, who often have to imagine or predict how clothing and sneakers will fit without seeing female models or influencers wearing the product.

Nike has stepped up its marketing toward women, though they still make up less than 25 percent of overall sales at the brand. More women are appearing in streetwear marketing, and female influencers are becoming a bigger part of brands’ social media strategies.

That’s in part because while streetwear originated as a movement counter to fashion trends, it’s now become a dominant cultural force, particularly in the luxury space where women are the biggest customers.

Streetwear influencers like May and Oberg have widened the women’s market for streetwear with collaborations and partnerships, and brands like Fenty exemplify an authentic approach to the women’s streetwear market with accessible basics via drops.

“Streetwear and luxury are so intertwined now it’s difficult to tell one from the other,” said Dominik Halas, men’s merchandise manager and archival expert at The RealReal.

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