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  • By Calum Gordon

Streetwear Was Big Business in 2017, But is That a Good Thing?

As this year winds down we’ve recapped its highlights to bring you the best of 2017 in fashion, sneakers, music, movies and more.

I know it’s uncool to talk about what’s “cool.” But I’d like to.

For streetwear, where the concept of cool is imperative to success, the past year has posed somewhat of an existential paradox.

In January, when Louis Vuitton teamed up with Supreme, there was a sense of palpable excitement and trepidation from those within the industry. It was a collaboration which had smashed through fashion’s fourth wall, irrevocably changing the relationship between streetwear and high fashion as we know it: a marriage that was inevitable, but could only have been initiated by a handful of brands.

Yet for what seemed like a seismic shift, something felt a little off. There had been no sighting of Supreme founder James Jebbia at the show – although he was in Paris, and attended LV’s show the season before – and Angelo Baque, Supreme’s Brand Director at the time, remained in New York (he would soon leave the company, although he still consults for the brand). For what should have been a landmark event for Supreme, a conquering of Paris Fashion Week on its own terms, there seemed to be little sign of jubilation.

Maybe they knew what was to follow. Pre release, Supreme x Louis Vuitton was spotted on the likes of Cruz Beckham and Madonna. After the collab dropped, via a stalled series of pop-ups, the internet was awash with crass displays of materialism as Instagram rich kids flaunted $60,000 Supreme-branded trunks. A few months later, news would break that The Carlyle Group had bought a reported 50% stake in Supreme, taking over from Goode Partners, who had held a minority investment in the company for three years previously.

Few would have imagined that by the end of the year, BBC’s Children In Need mascot, Pudsey, would be kitted out with a custom Louis Vuitton x Supreme bandana instead of his customary eye patch. The gesture was charitable, but it felt starkly dissonant with the idea of cool that the brand had spent the best part of three decades cultivating.

Louis Vuitton x Supreme was merely the beginning, in a year in which streetwear set about cannibalizing its own concept of “cool”—in both unsurprising and novel ways. If anyone needed definitive proof, look no further than the second iteration of ComplexCon.

Held over two days at the beginning of November, it was officially described as a “an unprecedented festival and exhibition conceived to bring together pop culture, art, food, style, sports, music, and more.” In reality, it was a streetwear festival dedicated to “the culture” but driven by unfettered commerce—a hyper-visual realization of a landscape where resellers have laid waste to the genre’s anti-corporate attitude.

It was “perhaps the biggest example of street culture’s evolution from anti-establishment to establishment itself,” posited Jian DeLeon, describing it as a “Valhalla for cool shit, where it goes to be praised amongst its peers, consumed en masse and ascends to eBay at a 300% markup.”

But for all the “cool shit” on sale, there’s nothing cool about a packed convention center, and little discernible community outside of the crews of resell entrepreneurs. The convention even included an eBay booth, so those itching to flip product didn’t need to venture outside the venue.

Streetwear, like the rest of the fashion industry, has always been about turning profit, but rarely has it been so ugly.

Plenty of O.G.’s of the streetwear world were present at ComplexCon, such as UNION Los Angeles’ Chris Gibbs, Bobby Hundreds, and venerable sneakerhead DJ Clark Kent. But there was a pervasive sense that the culture they represented was being overshadowed by the shallow consumption of limited-edition product. Here, the idea of that has always underpinned the allure of streetwear—being part of a clandestine, in-the-know club—vanished. There was no need to learn of cultural codes, and no notion of discovery. “It’s a cultural shift—the desire to do and create things that become cool has been overtaken by the desire to simply be cool,” wrote Rembert Browne for SSENSE.

Simply pay your ticket, join the line, and purchase until your cash runs out.

At one point, one could have genuinely argued that streetwear extends beyond pure commerce. Virgil Abloh, one of streetwear’s most prolific provocateurs, has compared it to a form of art. At times that seemed like an interesting, even valid, proposal—streetwear as a late-capitalist creative movement defined by an idea of aesthetic and cultural bricolage. An odd, mixed-up blend of Situationist detournement and Warholian pop-art, sure, but something that held more intellectual merit than simply selling product.

Take Supreme’s release of a brick in September last year. As a product, it was fascinating. Was it Koons-ian style mocking of its own consumer base, reflective of the idea that they could literally make anything and it would sell out? A reference to “Big Brother Skateboards” which, as one SupTalk Forum user wrote, “released an ad in 1995 satirically selling a brick with a sticker of theirs placed on it?” Did it suggest rebellion? Bricks are the literal foundations of cities and whirring hubs of commerce, but also usually the first things that are picked up and thrown when rioting and civil unrest occurs. Or was it just a brick?

Brands like Supreme have continually laced their products with implicit meanings and cues—and this practice has always been both extremely clever and worth exploring, even for those with no interest in purchasing the actual thing.

Virgil Abloh’s Nike “The Ten” collaboration offered hope that 2017 was merely a blip, a bad year. It was a brilliant collaboration, both in its design language, and in how the release was accompanied by symposiums-slash-workshops in London and New York, where aspiring designers of the future could speak to, and create with, the likes of Heron Preston and Michele Lamy. It was not only great product, but it felt like an exciting a teaser of how streetwear might, and perhaps should, look in the future: impactful and open to all, in theory.

But as Nike launched the product, the overwhelming demand crashed their SNKRS app and sent resell prices through the roof, highlighting the paradox where streetwear’s popularity has outgrown its outsider status.

Today, streetwear is big business. Recently, it was announced that HUF would sell a 90% stake of its business to Japanese investors for $63 million. Compare Carlyle’s $500m Supreme investment to when BAPE was sold to Hong Kong’s I.T. Group back in 2011 for a paltry $2.8m. BAPE was, at the time, in poor financial shape despite being at the height of its popularity, but the comparison is still striking.

Streetwear isn’t just driving its own growth: it’s the dominant trend for luxury fashion houses too. In October, The Fashion Law reported that “high-end streetwear helped boost global sales of luxury personal goods by 5 percent this year to an estimated 263 billion euros ($309 billion),” according to a report by the consultancy Bain & Company.

It’s notable that those who are arguably making the most interesting moves this past year also exist with one foot in the streetwear industry, without being archetypically “streetwear.” NOAH is categorized as such, but is more post-#menswear in its aesthetic and punk in its attitude. 032chas translated its blend of intellectualism-meets-pop-culture populism into a highly successful array of products. Grailed has set about revolutionizing the resell market, while Chicago’s Boot Boyz have been conscientiously constructing complex narratives on cotton, with references ranging from Goldie to Bauhaus. All of these entities operate in the spirit of streetwear which originally lent it its original amorphous quality. They’re starkly original, disruptive or revel in a sense of otherness – sometimes all three.

But for others, from Supreme to the brands showing at ComplexCon, 2018 will present a pronounced challenge in maintaining the buzz that made streetwear an outlier in the first place. Can an industry so visibly profitable remain cool?

Courtesy : Style, Asia Typek / Highsnobiety


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