Skip to main content

Street Smart: How Urban Style is Stealthily Overtaking Fashion

Gianna D., a 20-year-old college sophomore from suburban Michigan, transitioned gradually, during high school, from a repertoire of Lilly Pulitzer dresses, Sperry shoes and colorful headbands to Vans, bomber jackets, baseball caps and avant-garde graphic T-shirts. She wouldn’t dream of going back to the more-conservative style she embraced in adolescence. For her, showing her individuality with a side helping of attitude has been an empowering and liberating step toward maturity. “Having this new way to dress has helped me work through who I am and how I want to be perceived,” Gianna said.

Multiply this by the many millions of young consumers who have embraced a similar sentiment, and it’s no wonder streetwear and fashion have become virtually synonymous. Once the domain of the alternative and the rebellious, urban style has exploded as a mode of youthful self-expression.

Despite the rumors that younger shoppers have eschewed buying stuff in favor of investing in experiences, the most recent Piper Jaffray study on teen spending concludes that clothing remains the No. 1 category for young women, at 25 percent of total spending, and No. 2 for young men (after food). The study showed that street labels like Vans, Adidas, Gucci, Supreme and Champion all rose in the ranks in the past year, while Ralph Lauren and Nike fell. In other words, teens are pouring more of their money into street-inspired hoodies, tees, and sneakers than into polo shirts and khakis.

Street Smart: How Urban Style is Stealthily Overtaking Fashion
Gosha Rubchinskiy

Matthew W., a 24-year-old Californian who’s been wearing brands like Gosha Rubchinskiy, Kanye West’s Yeezy, and Kith for the past several years, is wondering how long his urban-inspired wardrobe will last him. “The question is, how should I be thinking about style for the next phase of my life? Can I dress like this when I am in the real world, with a real job?”

The answer, it turns out, is an enthusiastic yes.

Related Stories

Garments and accessories adorned with simple graphics and pop culture references have made their way onto the runway, into the office, and even to formal events without eliciting so much as a second glance.

“What we feel about streetwear is that it is a movement, not a moment,” said Leslie J. Ghize, executive vice president of TOBE. “While preppy may have been a lifestyle-driven style–a trend, if you will–streetwear is being worked into everyone’s style, whether they know it or not.”

The strength of the movement, according to Ghize, is in timing and influence. “Timing in that casualization and comfort have steadily gained steam and are here to stay. Influence in that the most dynamic designers and creatives in fashion, music and art are unconventional rule-breakers. They live, dress and create on their own terms.”

Some of the oldest and most venerable design houses are today being driven by (and stealthily appropriating) this style culture with roots in ’90s hip-hop. Gucci, Vêtements, Balenciaga, Chanel, even Dior and Valentino are joining the club. There’s almost no brand in the designer segment that doesn’t have a luxury sneaker, and virtually all have streetwear design cues threaded through their collections, including things like monogram logos, high/low collaborations, track pants, sweatshirts and graphic tees.

This is giving a sizable dose of legitimacy to the aesthetic.

Leaders in the space

One of the most successful streetwear brands today is arguably 24-year-old Supreme, the underground label with a cult following and only a dozen stores. The company sells skateboardings, apparel and accessories. It has bypassed traditional marketing strategies, instead relying on word-of-mouth and referrals to generate consumer excitement—and that excitement is palpable.

Visit Supreme’s store in New York’s Soho neighborhood at any hour of any day of the week and there will be a line to get in. It’s a scene virtually unheard of in today’s heavily disrupted teen apparel retail space in which brands like Abercrombie and Fitch are struggling to attract traffic, and Aéropostale and American Apparel have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Unlike traditional brands, street players give social media-savvy Millennials and Gen Zers connection to a community that embraces authenticity, peer recommendations over agency-produced commercial messages, and a new shared culture that’s celebrating the shift in how younger shoppers live and dress.

Supreme’s most popular items are those featuring their logo. Items disappear rapidly, and the dearth of merchandise creates a longing similar to one generated by a sold-out concert. Is this a broader theme for Gen Z and Millennials?

The young have grown up with boundless information and resources at their fingertips, so perhaps elite streetwear is filling an inherent need to covet things that are in limited supply. Last year, Supreme sold a stake that reportedly valued the company at $1 billion to private equity firm Carlyle Group. This staggering valuation spoke directly to the power of streetwear.

Supreme is not the only major player in the industry. Off-White, founded by Virgil Abloh, who worked as Kanye West’s creative director and was hired by LVMH as creative director for Louis Vuitton earlier this year, has been called a fashion/streetwear hybrid, reminding some of Yves Saint Laurent’s introduction of couture-influenced ready-to-wear items in 1966.

Another major player is multi-brand purveyor Dover Street Market, which was launched in London by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Dover Street sells brands like white-hot Balenciaga, Nina Ricci, Saint Laurent and Valentino. Maxfield is a luxury boutique in L.A. with a similar business model. Even urban locales in far-flung places have given birth to their own streetwear brands, like Kraków, Poland-based MISBHV and Warsaw’s UEG, which recently did a capsule collection with Puma.

Companies like Revolve have also increased offerings of streetwear brands, including Australian label I AM GIA, an urban-inspired fashion label loved by Millennial It Girls Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski for its masculine, bad-girl style.

Street Smart: How Urban Style is Stealthily Overtaking Fashion

“I think mainstream girls are starting to embrace streetwear mainly because of the casual, comfortable nature of the outfits,” said Lucie Fink, producer and lifestyle host at Refinery29. “The clothing is generally oversized and is extremely functional while still being expressive.”

Where collaborations come in

Part of the recent success of the streetwear sector can be attributed to collaborations between luxury and athleisure brands like North Face, Fila and Puma, many of which have included high-profile celebrities like Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar and The Simpsons. The more-mainstream Adidas has fueled the movement for the masses with its 2018 redux of its Stan Smith sneakers that now seem almost as common on some city streets as cell phones. Celebrities have also started to influence the streetwear brands more directly, as Rihanna has with PUMA x Fenty by Rihanna.

Using pop-up stores as the retail format of choice and limited-edition new product “drops” as marketing events, the brands give off a vibe of casual yet artistically driven, scarce and desirable, and offer entertainment beyond just shopping. They also provide great social media content. This process allows for considerable combinations and permutations that can revive and evolve streetwear for years to come.

What’s up next for streetwear

In June, the Council of Fashion Designers of America named Supreme the “Best Menswear Designer of the Year.” Given that the last three winners have been Raf Simons, Thom Browne and Tom Ford, the recent win for streetwear is huge, and proves the trend won’t be going away anytime soon.

According to TOBE’s Ghize, there’s a whole new crop of streetwear 2.0 labels on the horizon.

“Some of our favorite newer brands are Ader Error, Mad Happy, Perks And Mini, Kid Super, and Aimé Leon Dore.”

She hastened to add, “But we still love Palm Angels, Supreme, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Golf Wang, Noah, Kith and Off-White, although we see these collections growing up a bit, and we like that.”

Street Smart: How Urban Style is Stealthily Overtaking Fashion
Ader Error