The Sefton Guide To: A Brief History of Streetwear

It’s fair to say that streetwear has taken over the world. A global phenomena, it stretches across fashion and into every vein of popular culture. Despite its popularity, it is by no means a new trend. Streetwear has a 50 history, rich in cultural icons. It was born and raised in California amongst the surfers and skateboarders. Originally, styles were made to withstand the skatepark, easy-to-wear pieces rendered in denim, heavy cottons and loose fits.

Streetwear owes much of its heritage to Shawn Stussy. In the mid 80s, roughly the time that the New York sneaker culture was in its infancy, Stussy was developing a reputation across the West Coast as a talented surfboard designer and shaper. A kid with a penchant for punk and new wave inspired graphics, he was also inspired by his uncle Jan Stüssy who was a fine artist known for signing his work with a signature, reminiscent of hand rendered graffiti. With this inspiration, Stussy began putting his signature on his boards and eventually a series of graphic t-shirts which would form the basis of his eponymous brand. Stussy offered an alternative to the day-glo, tie-dye surf brands, opting instead for dark, primary coloured staples. 

Shawn Stussy is often credited as being the originator of the streetwear movement. Arguably, without him, the likes of Vetements and Virgil Abloh’s cult label Off-White would not exist today. The Stussy brand seemed to be keenly aware that it’s customers were the frontrunners of cultural movements. Skaters, graffiti artists, DJs and musicians were certainly aware of high fashion brands like Chanel and Comme des GARÇONS, but could not help noticing the divide between how these labels communicated with a monied consumer versus a culturally impactful one.

After its popularity in California, the streetwear look spread to the west coast where it became a mainstay of the skate and hip-hop circles in New York. Early streetwear brands took inspiration from counter culture tribes and their DIY aesthetic. Punk, heavy metal and hip-hop were all reflected in the casual styles. The hip-hop scene was crucial to the evolution of streetwear with established sportswear brands such as Kangol and Adidas keen to attach themselves to the exploding hip-hop revolution of the 80s.  From the mid 80s sportswear and streetwear became synonymous. Professional American sports franchises had a big impact on global style. Los Angeles Raiders and Chicago Bulls caps and jackets were seen on jocks and in music videos, not just as markers of one’s favourite team, but as fashion statements.

Puff Daddy, 1992
Notorious B.I.G, 1991

The 80s aesthetic was sportswear heavy. The cool kids wore tracksuits and shell suits, Reebok classics, Converse, Diadora Maverick’s and the newly introduced Adidas Pro Shells. Basketball players achieved god-like status and so saw the rise of basketball inspired sportswear.

Michael Jordan; the most notable player of the time, fuelled the success of Nike’s Air Jordans which were introduced in 1984. The sneakers remain a must-have piece and major collaborations over the years have cemented the Jordan’s as the holy grail of sneakerdom.

The rappers and music icons of the 80s were names like; Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys and in 1987 N.W.A. A generation of hip-hop heads were born, each keen to emulate the outfits of their chosen hero. Style was oversized t-shirts, name-brand tracksuits and bomber jackets. Accessorising was key, Kangol bucket hats as seen on L.L Cool J, heavy gold chains and sneakers with fat laces.  

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

The opulence of the 90s was a stark contrast to the sportswear of the 80s. Biggie, Tupac and Mace  defined the era and much of their style shaped the streetwear trends that still dominate today. Timberland boots, denim, premium sportswear, plaid flannel and puffer jackets were everywhere. Brands like Champion, Wu-Wear and Avirex were making sportswear to be seen in. High-end brands were beginning to recognise the power of the hip-hop icons and started to cater for this new  customer. Labels like Guess, Versace, Moschino and Calvin Klein were leading the way in high-end, fashion focused denim.

The 2000s saw the arrival of “Bling” culture and an even greater rise of hip-hop to the mainstream. The turn of the century saw established luxury brands making inroads into the streetwear market. Gucci, Burberry and Fendi were now making regular appearances in music videos as well as on the red carpet. High-fashion brands were acknowledging the power of celebrity and the hip-hop scene was just the kind of counter-culture that streetwear-styles resonated with. Hip-hop has become synonymous with streetwear from early trailblazers like L.L Cool J to present day figures like ASAP Rocky and Kanye, the impact on fashion is undeniable.

Image from Pause Online by photographer Alexandre Gaudin

It was, in fact, New York based Supreme which had started in 1994 as a skate shop that propelled the streetwear movement. The success of Supreme has baffled many. From humble skate shop beginnings to a global, multi-billion dollar behemoth. Alec Leach, the digital fashion editor for highsnobiety said in an interview “the way they distribute their clothing is key. Supreme’s drop is actually a lot like belonging to a football club. It’s a way for young people to get together.” Supreme’s collaborations have undoubtedly helped shape its desirability. From collaborations with indie brands to equally International names like Nike and The North Face, anything limited edition is a guaranteed sell out. The brand secured its top spot in the world of streetwear with the 2017 collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Perhaps the global appeal of streetwear is also owed to the changing values of the fashion world. The traditional gatekeepers of the industry no longer dictate the rules. Leach also says “streetwear is basically from pop culture.”

The undeniable success of streetwear is in the data. If there’s anyone that can shed light on the  boom, it’s Lyst. A global fashion search platform, Lyst revealed that searches for both affordable and high-end streetwear have consistently been amongst the highest search terms on site. Arguably, one of the biggest indicators of the global domination of streetwear is the increase in searches for the OG, Stussy with an 11% increase year on year. Retailers are embracing the rising style. No longer confined to skate-shops, high end retailers, boutiques and e-commerce sites now stock names like Nike alongside classic brands like Prada. The once humble aesthetic has successfully worked its ways into the upper echelons of fashion. The seismic shift in our everyday dress goes some way to explaining how a small movement of skater fashion took over the world. Everyday and workwear has become infinitely more casual, sneakers and jeans now acceptable for almost any event.

Luxury brand’s have fully embraced streetwear. From Balenciaga to Fendi, present day collections are full of pieces more reminiscent of skate wear and early hip-hop than high-fashion. Streetwear allows its wearer to blend high and low fashion into an aesthetic that it instantly recognisable. Collaborations have propelled brand and celebrity alike. the A$AP Rocky x Gue$$ collaboration was an instant sell-out with t-shirts reselling for at least triple their original value. Today, the more limited the item, the higher the demand. Queues of hundreds are not uncommon outside any Supreme store on ‘drop day,’ resale values can skyrocket in an instant. The so called ‘clout’ of a brand is all part of the appeal for many. Brand emblazoned basics are the new way to show your belonging to a tribe.

Like so many movements, there is a cult like secrecy to much of the streetwear world. The exclusivity and access to limited edition products, the mania like excitement caused by ‘drops’  all regularly work consumers into hysteria. For a once humble aesthetic founded on the beaches of California, cultivated in the New York’s hip-hop and skate scenes and then adopted by the world, streetwear is here to stay.