In 1989, cool opened for business.
That year, James Jebbia established Union NYC, a Spring St retailer that would go on to become America’s first-ever “streetwear” boutique. If that name sounds familiar at all, it should: in the nearly thirty years since, Jebbia’s vision of culturally-fluent, skate-influenced cool has colonized the world.
To see this takeover in action, look no further than this January’s fashion season. Former tee designers command their own runway shows. Luxury brands walk models in knock-off Adidas. From backstage to the front row, everywhere an omnipresent rectangle bearing the label Jebbia himself founded: Supreme.
In less than three decades, a fashion movement defined by its countercultural authenticity has become the world’s favorite way to dress.
No wonder it’s coming to an end.
In short: due to a recent mass normalization and the steady march of the trend cycle, streetwear’s time as cool kid genre du jour is almost up. In long: well, let’s go back to Spring St.
When Union, Stussy NY (1991), and Supreme (1994) opened around early 90’s New York, skateboarding wasn’t just a cool thing – it was the cool thing. At that time, skating (a trend straight from the sunbleached sidewalks of Los Angeles, CA) was neither widely understood nor widely legal. It also was – and still is – pretty dangerous.
The same applies for these skate brands’ tangential influences (ex. rap music, sneaker culture, experimental art). Thanks to their associations with these unfamiliar-yet-appealing cultures, Union, Supreme, and Stussy were – well, cool.
While there is no dictionary definition of “cool”, the emergence of appealing cultural trends throughout history is often correlated with their danger, their nonchalance, and their perceived inaccessibility, culminating in a popular “romanticizing” of the behavior.
Punk rock, underage drinking, hell, even extreme planking: if it’s edgy, effortless, and somewhat difficult to access, people (especially a subset of important people called “early adopters” – more on them later) eat that shit up.
The same holds true for fashion, but with one important caveat: because wearing clothes is passive (compared to moshing at a rock show), “cool” fashion is often born from association. Cool clothes, therefore, are those that signal all things edgy, effortless, and inaccessible – think moto jackets, concert tees, and the persistent appeal of military surplus gear.
Here’s where those “early adopters” come in.
Early adopters are novelty-seekers that also tend to be highly visible within their respective networks. This small subset doesn’t just embrace new things (which, due to their unfamiliarity, happen to often be edgy and difficult to access); it also promotes them.
Because of their network visibility, early adopters are essential to a trend’s mass adoption. If enough early adopters align with a cool new thing’s values, their visible consumption of – and association with - it will provide a bridge between the small group of “innovators” that created a trend and the “majority” (i.e. everyone outside downtown Manhattan, from Midtown to the Midwest).
For a trend to hit critical mass and really take off, early adopters must align with it. If they don’t, the trend crashes and burns.
The reasons and process behind something becoming “cool” work just as certainly in reverse. The surest way for a trend (especially a fashion trend) to become uncool is to make it the opposite of what drew early adopters to it in the first place: normalize its originality, make it accessible or *gasp* associate it with try-hards.
The upshot: once that adopter-to-majority transition takes place, a trend is bound to become uncool.
While “coolness” is a human invention, as more and more people consume a trend (i.e. eat that shit up), mass normalization naturally occurs. Whether you’re looking at Rogers’ diffusion curve or the 20-year cycle of fashion revivals, all trends must eventually die.
This is a universal process within fashion. Think the rise and fall of prep brands in the early 1990’s: within two decades, Polo goes from crime-worthy desirable luxury to suburban curiosity. Ditto for Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, Lacoste, and Izod. Ashes to ashes; wavy to herb.
However, what’s really interesting is the point where the decline begins. Trends peak when they become saturated in the eyes of the early adopters that powered their rise. Once enough people outside the trend’s original circle are on board, it’s all downhill from there. By definition, something a majority of people know about isn’t edgy or inaccessible. The perception that the trend is normalized, then, is actually well along that formerly-cool thing’s descent.
Which brings us to the present:
Streetwear – the fashion genre that emerged as edgy, inaccessible, and effortlessly counter-cultural close to thirty years ago – has been normalized. In 2017, we are rapidly approaching the end of streetwear.
Examples like this year’s fashion season indicate saturation within a trend’s original environment, but for more graphic illustrations of streetwear’s normalization to the majority, just look around.
Store lineups make major national newspapers. Mid-tier department stores like Lord & Taylor spend millions to merchandise “street style.” Luxury fashion lines fetishize streetwear tropes (ex. Vetements (pictured above); Balenciaga’s Resort 17 dad caps) to buff their margins.
Yet even that wasn't streetwear's fever point.
Most notoriously of all, as Beckham is to “soccer” and Deadmau5 is to “techno”, the Yeezy 350 Boost (that co-signed Roshe Run trapped in an asset bubble that would make a Dutch tulip quiver) has transcended its context to become synonymous with “cool sneakers.” World-spanning markets have developed just to sell its fakes.
In 2017, streetwear lies entirely divorced from the edgy, exclusive, counter-cultural cool that propelled it to fame. Its wearers are no longer SoHo street skaters, or even the early adopters (names like Mac Miller, Aaron Bondaroff, and Wil Whitney) that powered its ascent. Instead, because of its mass awareness as a "cool" clothing trend, streetwear’s present consumers are typically nouveau riche, status-seeking, and far removed from the original context in which the clothes were created: the very opposite of its roots.
Edgy? Not anymore. Even attempts to regain early streetwear’s provocative nature (ex. the Supreme FW15 “Hentai” hoodies) end up fetishized and resold à la Beanie Babies.
Inaccessible? Not anymore. While a select few “grail” items (ex. Yeezy Boosts) sell out in seconds, entire lines and collections of ancillary products just… sit. For a particularly vivid example, go to any mall shoe store in America: after two knockout launches of earlier models, adidas’ new UltraBoost 3.0 stagnates.
Effortless? Not even remotely. Short of personal connections at a Tier Zero retailer, dressing in hyped streetwear now requires objective wealth, hours of research, and online treasure hunts on resale sites like Grailed or eBay.
A 17-year old in Wayne County, New Jersey browsing Grailed to cop a botted Supreme hoodie at resell may live mere miles from Spring St, but in reality, inhabits a whole different world. Streetwear has become, in effect, a costume – superfluous, artificial, and wearable.
And costumes just aren’t cool.
My prediction: streetwear as we know it today won’t survive the decade. Nike, adidas, and Supreme will still be around in some way, shape, or form, but much of the culture that has sprung up in their wake - industrialized sneaker resell, ‘Gram-driven flex brands, BigCartel shops - will either wither on the vine or change so much as to be unrecognizable.
What, then, will take its place?
My guess: techwear.
All black GORE-TEX, “tactical” accessories, and an obsession with function lead your “top of the bell curve” citizen to assume the person wearing a $2000 ACRONYM jacket is either a) a terrorist or b) delusional. Given our current politics, it’s hard to get more edgy and countercultural than “suspected militant.”
Funny enough, this same line of thinking is how the MA-1 bomber jacket (a garment with cultural roots in the skinhead movement) and the traditional leather moto jacket (replace “skinhead” with “biker gangs”) arguably gained a foothold: the fashion crowd saw them and yes, liked the looks, but loved the dangerous connotation. Remember: trends are edgy, effortless, and inaccessible, but fashion trends must prove those characteristics through association.
In my opinion, techwear has all the marks of early-stage streetwear: unfamiliar looks, counterculture association, and wink-nod secret meaning to anyone cool enough to recognize that your $400 Stone Island Shadow pants aren’t just BDU’s in disguise.
Sprinkle in the fact that techwear is prohibitively expensive without much in the way of brand recognition to supply a social proof purchase motive, and you get the perfect conditions for a new edgy, counterculture trend.
While it’s impossible to tell exactly what the future holds, one thing’s for certain: nothing is timeless.
In late December, I met a friend for coffee at the La Colombe on Lafayette Street, New York, New York - in the shadow of the New York Supreme store. He had just given away his collection of vintage Supreme tees, and sounded almost wistful as he described handing them over to friends who cared only about the label. After all, he had grown up going to Supreme – he knew the employees, lined up for clothes, and had even sold skateboards that the store carried over a decade ago.
As we sipped espresso, we watched a hundreds-deep line of children and their parents (tourists, judging by their accents) shuffle into the store. Group-by-group, they came – bored parents, pleading teenagers, each seemingly obligated to be there.
The kids, driven by their Instagram feeds and the trappings of hype culture, were on the #fashion equivalent of a hajj. The parents, driven by protectionary biologic cues, were there to make sure their young children didn’t end up Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
Simply put: it wasn’t cool.
Yet, there we were. On the doorstep of the world’s hottest brand, my friend and I watched Beanie Babies craze pt. II unfold with no end in sight. The coffee was bitter, but I sat complacent. The December sun was setting over Lafayette St. Every dog has his day.
What do you think? Is this really the end of "streetwear" as a cultural trend? Leave a comment below or on my Facebook page here to start the conversation. Also, if you enjoy insights like these, please consider signing up for my weekly newsletter here!