In January, the men’s fashion month kicked off in London and with the exception of Burberry, Gucci and Balenciaga — each have opted for co-ed shows presented during the upcoming women’s fashion month — another men’s season has drawn to a close.
The most evident shift could be observed in the transition from dominant streetwear silhouettes to a new sense of tailoring as seen at Louis Vuitton, Dior Homme and Prada. After all, the same young men who in recent seasons have been parading down the runways in sneakers, technical outerwear and oversized everything are growing up. And so it wasn’t surprising that a number of fashion publications were quick to shout that streetwear is passé, over, done. But it’s not. Streetwear as luxury brands have made it out to be is evolving, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
Ever since the early days of subversive subcultural movements in the 1970s, young surfers and skaters have gravitated towards garments expressing individuality and comfort, while also serving as sartorial emblems that signify being part of a specific tribe, often an international community of like-minded youngsters with a lifestyle encompassing similar tastes in fashion, music and art, and political beliefs.
Wearing Stüssy T-shirts and later FUBU sweatshirts weren’t just status symbols, they were physical tokens of belonging. These brands never made just clothing. They made clothing with meaning.
Still, major luxury houses remained dismissive of the growing cultural power of street culture, deeming it brand diluting. It took a number of forward-thinking designers to cross-pollinate the two once thought of as opposites by sending their luxury versions of banal streetwear items down the Paris runways — think Riccardo Tisci’s Fall/Winter 2011 “Rottweiler” collection for Givenchy, Balenciaga’s “Join a Weird Trip” sweatshirts designed by Nicholas Ghesquière for Fall/Winter 2012 and Céline’s beige rendition of the Air Force 1s for Fall/Winter 2014 under the helm of Phoebe Philo.
By 2015, every luxury house, big or small, had created their indistinguishable take on the white, minimal sneaker inspired by adidas’ Stan Smith and Superstar models. It was as much of a safe entrance into this new phenomenon called “athleisure” and its closely-knit ties to streetwear, as it was a response to the casualization of the way people were starting to dress. Nothing innovative there.
January 2017 was a turning point when Louis Vuitton’s artistic director Kim Jones launched a full-ranged collaboration with Supreme for the house’s Fall/Winter 2017 season. That same month, Demna Gvasalia debuted Balenciaga’s chunky Triple S sneaker — designed by footwear legend David Tourniaire-Beauciel, and inspired by retro Nike and New balance models — prompting instant consumer hysteria.
For the first time, it was luxury, not streetwear, dictating the consumption behavior of young shoppers when it came to sneakers. Streetwear, sportswear and other luxury brands followed suit with a thousand and one versions of the “dad” sneaker and by the time Virgil Abloh debuted his first collection as artistic director of Louis Vuitton and Kim Jones at Dior Homme in June 2018, that same luxury influence on youth culture had transcended beyond sneakers alone.
It isn’t hard to understand why premium brands want to court younger audiences. By 2025, 45 percent of the luxury market is set to be made up of Gen Z and Millennials, while these generations combined resulted in 85 percent of all luxury growth in 2017.
In part, the new luxury consumer is starting to respond to luxury’s efforts towards streetwear. Mainly because of luxury’s new guards, including Virgil Abloh, Kim Jones and their more emerging peers Matthew Williams, Samuel Ross, Heron Preston and Jerry Lorenzo, who clearly understand that streetwear is about more than simply appropriating literal street style cues like graphic hoodies, oversized outerwear and sporty sneakers. Instead, the direction they’re taking us into isn’t streetwear as we know it.
As Virgil Abloh worded it in the show notes for his latest Michael Jackson-inspired Fall/Winter 2019 collection: “Streetwear’s sportswear properties are undergoing a critical transformation into luxury.”
Indeed, streetwear, as it was presented in the past Fall/Winter 2019 men’s season, is a first glimpse around how luxury brands will cater to young consumers in terms of design in the near future. Colorful, relaxed tailoring — not in the Saville Row way — paired with formal shoe-sneaker hybrids and a fresh take on leather goods made relevant to a younger generation through innovative hardware and prints is exactly what will get the new luxury consumer excited, especially when done by designers close to the culture.
Designers without direct ties to street culture equally succeeded this season, by using fabrics, creating silhouettes and authentically partnering with aspirational brands and figures with roots in youth culture like Fendi x Porter, Dior Homme x Matthew Williams and Valentino x UNDERCOVER.
The new way of working was reflected by Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli after his latest show in Paris. “I’m not going to say that streetwear is over, I don’t think so,” he told Highsnobiety. “It’s about rethinking the values of sartorialism, but with a more streetwear approach. So less effort and more relaxed. That’s the only way for me.”
But while luxury brands are finally learning how to speak the language of streetwear their own way, the majority still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the main component that makes kids around the world line up for hours each week to buy the newest drop and the hours spent on forums and Facebook groups.
For younger generations luxury no longer means exclusivity or high price-points. Instead, having access, being value-driven and buying into a tribe is what makes them tick. Without those elements, hyped clothing without any cultural credibility won’t be enough to buoy young shoppers going forward.
Luxury brands need to learn how to speak through this new luxury audience, not to them. Streetwear as we knew it in past seasons isn’t necessarily streetwear anymore, yet counterculture, and its interconnected sense of dressing, will be around forever in whatever form that may take, be it hoodies today or tailoring tomorrow.
And until luxury brands crack that code, step down from their ivory tower and let in the people they’re designing for, they’ll always be one step behind where youth culture is truly playing out.