I miss the scavenger hunt most of all. The discovery. The more obscure the brand, the harder to find, the bigger the win.
Of course, back then, there was no streetwear trophy. There wasn’t even anyone else in the race. But, there was a quiet and confident pride in knowing you were the only one in the neighborhood with an ALIFE hoody, or who knew the difference between an X-Large, Fuct, SSUR, and A Bathing Ape gorilla. You had traveled cross-country with a Mapquest print-out, searching for that one shop with that one T-shirt you saw in the back of a Mass Appeal. In those days, if you were into streetwear, it was because no one else was into it.
If you’re into streetwear today, it’s because everyone else is into it.
Streetwear was established on this notion of mystery and exclusivity. Therefore, it can feel a little awkward and uncomfortable out in the open – in the mall window or hanging on a celebrity. Even for non-wholesale brands, a box-logo or ape face used to act as a secret handshake amongst gatekeepers making moves behind the scenes. Today? You have to admit – from one fan to another – it’s inescapable. Ubiquitous. There’s now an entire documentary just about reselling. Death to discovery!
Although, you’re right, there’s always a new brand to congregate around- in fact, now more than ever. A few years ago, I was speaking to a roomful of 500 streetwear kids. I asked how many had their own line, and almost all raised their hand. That’s 500 competitors we didn’t have a few years back, just in that hall alone. “There’s a couple of these little brands that are making dad hats, selling like fucking $14,000 USD worth of hats a week online,” Aaron Levant, founder of Agenda Show says. “It’s huge for them coming out of nowhere. It’s not like they’re stealing all your money, but there’s like 20, 30, 40, 50 of these brands that are eating up market share.” Out of these, rise the new class of Braindeads, the Babylons, and the Born X Raiseds. Some of my favorite HYPEBEAST headliners are only months old! Who knows what will surface tomorrow?
“In those days, if you were into streetwear, it was because no one else was into it.”
That leaves larger, established streetwear brands with a very big problem, and 2015 framed the crisis succinctly. I turn to Aaron for the objective summary. The news is grim. “It’s absolutely true that a portion of the young men’s street market – the guys that, let’s say, came up in your class – is extremely flat, if not down significantly. I would say a lot of people I’m talking to are down like 30%+ year over year.” Let me break this up for you: That’s a lot of percent, the kind of blow that can level a business.
And hell yeah, did we feel it too. This was one of our worst years on record. If you’re in the industry (and still have your job), chances are that it was yours, as well. I hear the same wherever I turn, from skateboarding to emerging streetwear to the bygone, moustachioed Americana of 2011 (Brands claiming otherwise are pulling a slick PR circumvention, salvaging their reputation in the press (Come on bro, we all share the same vendors, accounts, and friends)).
There are a myriad of reasons why streetwear’s numbers are declining:
- Kanye stopped wearing graphics, so the plastisol coated T-shirt – Streetwear’s core competency – vanished.
- We can blame the malls for homogenizing the product and diluting the artistic spirit.
- Joshy from Rebel8 decries, “Streetwear itself. Our small industry is not working together, but against each other. – When a brand goes on sale too frequently or for an extending period of time, it is not just the brand that suffers in the long term, but the entire industry.”
- The Internet, for lowering the barrier to entry.
- The Internet, for cannibalizing culture through hyper-accelerated trends.
- The Internet, where you can learn it, not earn it: Consumers adorn themselves with interests. This, to seem interesting vs. actually being interested.
- Overhead spun out of control.
- Bottles popped, and now the bubble. In a marketplace bolstered by ego and insecurity, the allure of world domination confused original intent.
“Some of my favorite HYPEBEAST headliners are only months old! Who knows what will surface tomorrow?”
But the biggest mistake was abandoning distinction. Streetwear once held significance. That prestige wasn’t just derived from exorbitant price tags or classist snobbery á la high fashion. Whether it was scant distribution or thoughtful design, we gravitated towards these brands because they felt special. In turn, we felt special. Everyone longs to feel spoken to, regardless of where they sit in the marketplace, in society, or in the schoolyard. Wholesale or direct, mall or boutique, it’s about making things that matter, are better, and push people further.
2015 was a long, dark night, and many won’t make it to see morning. My comrade Benny Gold says, “The good news is that we were making things before anyone cared or bought it outside of our peer group. We will all probably have to scale back, but I believe that the brands that really are passionate about what they do will still be creating cool stuff.” I agree. Does this make for sustainable business? It’s the art vs. commerce question that haunts all creative and compelling subcultures. Maybe not, but back when we didn’t think to ask ourselves questions like that, we were glorious. Streetwear always shined brightest in the recesses of the underground. May streetwear crumble under the weight of commodification, and be reduced to paucity.
Because, as you know, the harder we are to find, the bigger we win.