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The Decade When Streetwear Rewrote the Rules of Luxury

As we head into 2020, streetwear's influence on the way fashion is bought and sold — not to mention the culture at large — remains strong, argues David Fischer, founder and CEO of Highsnobiety.
A guest at Paris Men's Fashion Week 2018 wearing a Supreme for Louis Vuitton camouflage jumpsuit | Source: Getty Images
  • David Fischer

As the 2010s come to a close, BoF reflects on how the past decade transformed the fashion industry — and the culture at large. Explore our insights here.

NEW YORK, United States — In the 2010s, we witnessed a game-changing identity crisis. Streetwear didn't want to be streetwear anymore, and fashion didn't want to be fashion, either. So long story short: They decided to try on each other's clothes.

In 2009, Virgil Abloh and Don "Don C" Crawley opened up their RSVP Gallery boutique in Wicker Park, juxtaposing art from Takashi Murakami and Kaws with Comme des Garçons, vintage Chanel, A Bathing Ape, and jewellery from Ambush. Jazmin "Venus X" Soto began throwing her GHE20G0TH1K parties in Brooklyn alongside Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air, a social scene turned independent clothing label that was steadily gaining steam. And Marc Jacobs, then-creative director of Louis Vuitton, tapped Kanye West to design a capsule collection of luxury sneakers with the esteemed maison.

West's high-top Jaspers, mid-top Dons, and low-top Mr Hudsons for Louis Vuitton were a sign that street culture had made it. He crossed that line from being a consumer of luxury goods to a creator of them. Sure, there had already been Yohji Yamamoto's Y-3 line with Adidas (established 2003) and Alexander McQueen's McQ label with Puma (started in 2005). Those partnerships showed that fashion designers were more than willing to lend their talents to accessible sneakers and sportswear, but West and Vuitton? This was something entirely different. Instead of high fashion trickling down, it was street culture trickling up.

Indeed, "old luxury," which was synonymous with exclusivity, aspiration, and allure, was being superseded by a movement built on inclusivity, access, and knowledge. The brands, artists, and designers cut from this new cloth knew the old luxury rules well enough to flip the tables in their favour. They understood how brands could cultivate desire and followings, because they were fans themselves. What's more, they legitimised street culture by turning luxury into more than an industry, but a platform for culture.

'Old luxury' was being superseded by a movement built on inclusivity, access, and knowledge.

By the 2010s, Kanye West had become a celebrity style icon in a way that no other era of stardom had seen before. The album art and tour apparel for ​Watch the Throne​, his seminal "luxury rap" album with Jay-Z, was art directed by Riccardo Tisci. Meanwhile, West's support of Tisci's Givenchy collections emboldened their street cred and turned rottweiler- and shark-adorned hoodies and sweatshirts into covetable grails. The same audience that paid attention to streetwear looked more and more to the runway. Shayne Oliver's Hood By Air and Virgil Abloh's Off-White defined themselves not as streetwear brands that belonged on the "contemporary" floor of department stores, but as designer labels in the same league as those named after dead Europeans.

Thanks to the proliferation of social media, an increasingly interconnected world changed the language of global consumption. It collapsed seeing things and buying things into one plane and made fashion a spectator sport. The rise of platforms like Instagram further removed the establishment's power to dictate trends and tastes, allowing independent creators and labels to captivate audiences without the need to court traditional retailers and magazines.

The barrier between what was “street” and what was “luxury” wasn’t broken, it was flattened.

Brands like Rhuigi Villaseñor's Rhude, Kerby Jean-Raymond's Pyer Moss and Jerry Lorenzo's Fear Of God found success outside the system before it eagerly welcomed them. These labels in particular were built on the backs of discerning consumers whose self-taught tastes were becoming increasingly sophisticated.

But the perspective wasn’t just that of unwavering fanboy, but connoisseur who wasn’t afraid to call out labels when the quality of their product started to slip. We knew back then that brands weren’t elite clubs anymore, they were platforms with audiences that gather around cultural credibility, that X-factor that turns a label into a bona fide community.

The barrier between what was 'street' and what was 'luxury' wasn't broken, it was flattened.

"I just hope that we do live up to the James Jebbias and the Shawn Stüssys... It's sort of our duty to pick up after all the streetwear legends," Virgil Abloh told BoF back in 2014, presciently noting that the moment felt more like a tipping point than an arrival. The title of the article, "​Streetwear's New Guard​," inspired the name of a company that Farfetch recently acquired for $675 million: New Guards Group, the Milanese firm that, in recent years, birthed many of fashion's most-hyped brands, including Off-White, Palm Angels, County of Milan, and Heron Preston.

And now things are coming full circle. In 2018, following a cultural appropriation scandal, Gucci reopened Dapper Dan's Harlem boutique years after it was cease-and-desisted out of existence. Kanye West's Yeezy line and ongoing partnership with Adidas have become a dominant pop culture (and political) talking point. The three members of DJ collective and part-time streetwear brand Been Trill — Heron Preston, Matthew Williams, and Virgil Abloh — have become legitimate fashion figures in their own right.

Even Kim Jones, whose first job was working for streetwear distributor Gimme Five (an early wholesaler of Stüssy and Supreme founded by Michael Kopelman) has managed to close two loops: The first being his Supreme/Louis Vuitton collaboration in 2017, and his recently revealed partnership with Shawn Stüssy for Dior's latest men's show. In the world of new luxury, aspiration isn't about price, but cultural values. Both Supreme and Stüssy were brands built on the premise that there was a whole cadre of fashion enthusiasts that the industry was completely ignoring. So in their own way, they created fashion that understood the cultural codes of this previously untapped market. In the process, they helped fashion and streetwear develop a wholly new lingua franca.

Virgil Abloh’s rise to Vuitton and Shawn Stüssy’s partnership with Dior do not mean that streetwear has become elevated, but that luxury is now a level playing field. The most important lessons from streetwear aren’t business practices like drop models or collaborations, nor is it about the timeless aesthetics of sportswear and military staples. Rather, its legacy is tied to establishing shared values grounded in a strong, self-assured brand identity: ones that emerge from DIY worlds such as club culture, punk, reggae, and hip-hop. This new luxury was born from creatives who emerged by writing their own rules. And now we’re all playing by them.

David Fischer is the founder of Highsnobiety. 

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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