To Survive, Streetwear Must Abandon Sexism
The “boys’ club” mentality puts the entire movement in danger.
Streetwear as a culture is built on an unwavering sense of community, leveraging a grasp on authenticity that the fashion industry has become desperate to capitalize on. At the core of this is streetwear’s unique ability to appeal to men in ways that have eluded mainstream fashion. Where traditional brands have long cultivated an air of unattainable luxury marketed primarily toward women, streetwear has done the exact opposite.
The industry at large is only now beginning to give due respect to this movement, but the seeds of streetwear were planted decades ago and can be traced back to countercultures of the ‘80s and ‘90s. With global outposts, the constantly evolving face of streetwear originally rose from communities like graffiti, hip-hop, skate, street and surf — all of which have traditionally been male-dominated.
“From the very start, streetwear has been this weird, strangely male thing,” says Bobby Kim, owner of The Hundreds, a Los Angeles streetwear label founded In 2003. “But I think the reason why it was like this from the very start is because of the subcultures that this fashion was associated with.”
Ironically, the very idea of streetwear was, in the beginning, that it was the antithesis to “fashion.” But whereas men and fashion had traditionally neglected each other, streetwear was a game changer, enabling men to express themselves through style without having to worry about societal labels they deemed unbefitting. “Streetwear was an easy way for guys who were interested in clothes to get into it and also not be seen — in a homophobic sense — as being gay or trying to be like a girl,” adds Kim.
Streetwear gave men yet another space to socialize and stick together. Only this time, the camaraderie that has long dominated politics, sports, music and art would find its way into fashion. “The [streetwear] industry is predominantly white men, which is not a bad thing, but it started off with white men running the show, hiring white men over and over again, and predominantly selling to men in a very closed off space,” adds Kim.
On this foundation, streetwear was set on a path to gain prominence within the fashion industry and also in other cultural industries, shielded by its reclusive community: the “boys’” club.” Bolstered by male privilege, as streetwear became a well-oiled machine and fortified a new type of style, it also found itself grounded in sexism and the objectification of women.
Streetwear’s Roots of Sexism
The harsh reality is that this boys’ club mentality often creates a toxic environment, particularly for women. “There are certain stores in New York that have staffed a whole group of predatory men who many of my friends have been assaulted by,” says Married to the Mob founder and president Leah McSweeney on the early culture and environment in streetwear circles.
McSweeney, who founded her brand in 2004, was an early pioneer in women’s streetwear and has long fought to both fill the void of a streetwear offering for women and to combat the industry’s treatment toward women. One of her most iconic early designs that read “Supreme Bitch” landed her in a $10 million USD trademark infringement lawsuit with Supreme, who — ironically — directly appropriated their own logo from artist Barbara Kruger.
“It was definitely very predatory. It’s almost sad how much it was. It was such a part of my world that I didn’t realize it was a bad thing.”
Stylist and Creative Director Beth “Bephie” Gibb, who worked at Stüssy and then Supreme in the mid-’90s, also recalls the common predatory culture in prominent New York skate stores. “It was definitely very predatory. It’s almost sad how much it was. It was such a part of my world that I didn’t realize it was a bad thing.”
This heightened sense of awareness is a product of recent social movement, as public discourse shifts to create a more open space for women and men to share their personal experiences. This dialogue allows for reflection on and deeper understanding of the impact workplace discrimination can have, ranging from women being systematically paid less than their male counterparts to longstanding cycles of harassment and abuse.
Stemming from predominantly male communities, streetwear was predestined to mirror this larger societal structure and be a breeding ground for these issues. On the language and actions that existed within the “boys’ club,” Gibbs adds, “It’s just disgusting and you hear it now but it falls into that whole young boy’s world of them being allowed to do stuff like that and say stuff like that and keeping it just boys. It is a boys’ club where boys can be boys and they’re very young and they’re very immature.”
By keeping it “just boys,” those involved in streetwear — from the upper echelons right down to consumers and fans — have consciously, though perhaps at times unwittingly, created an environment that ostracizes female participants whilst promoting male unity.
As more men began to follow streetwear, the male-dominated community appeal remained integral to its growth. Standing in lines with other men and waiting to cop the latest merch quickly became synonymous with “the culture” — a phrase often used by streetwear and industry insiders to specifically refer to streetwear culture. With the advent of the digital age, this sense of community was only amplified online and found a vehicle in forums and comments, generating a digital space for like-minded people to forge genuine connections; it also created a breeding ground for trolls.
“The thing that people were saying on these forums was nuts. ‘I hope she gets AIDS, she’s just sucking dick to get into the scene.’”
Away from public scrutiny, in corners of the internet populated mostly by men, the language on forums and in comment sections like HYPEBEAST’s own, still involves speech that can be not only derogatory toward women, but also to other communities subject to discrimination. “The thing that people were saying on these forums was nuts,” recalls McSweeney: “‘I hope she gets AIDS,’ ‘she’s just sucking dick to get into the scene,’ ‘she’s not going to get greeted at the gates of heaven.’”
The anonymity granted behind the virtual screen allowed much of streetwear’s rhetoric, that was perhaps hitherto hidden, to be exposed to the public. From the campaign and lookbook imagery to graphics on T-shirts and the language on forums and comments, the authentic appeal that was found with streetwear’s brotherhood has often been one that promotes and normalizes inequality and the hyper-sexualization of women.
So strong is this binding that many streetwear brands’ DNA has become synonymous with this, and considering or opening up to women could potentially harm that DNA. “I think some younger boy consumers may be backwards enough to see unisex clothes styled on women and get it fucked up and think that they are somehow cut different for women and would not fit them in a rad way,” says Brendan Fowler, co-founder and creative director of Some Ware, which adopts a unisex approach to its design. “Or maybe they are just conditioned to think this way by years of gendered styling.”
The context of the culture is indeed changing and as the shifting zeitgeist is finally shouting, “boys will be boys” is not an acceptable excuse for imagery that objectifies women, work environments that discredit women, or language and actions that fail to teach young men how to respect others — all of which has been true for streetwear.
Women’s Path of Breaking In: The Exceptions
While men were largely the early adopters of streetwear, female pioneers also contributed, yet often went unrecognized. In fact, when retailer Union’s first outpost opened in New York City — a landmark point for the commercialization and birth of streetwear as we now know it — it was at the hands of not just James Jebbia, but his then-partner Mary Ann Fusco, she tells us. When Supreme was founded, this too was a joint effort between Jebbia and Fusco. Women like Fusco, the founding mother of streetwear, have rarely received due recognition.
“Mary Ann was one of the main players in the game and you never hear about her,” says Gibbs. Why Fusco hasn’t received the acknowledgement she deserves as the early doyenne of streetwear is unclear — it’s also lost on Fusco. “Sometimes I get a little mad about that,” says Fusco, sitting in her vintage store, Maison Jadis. “I was the force that made everything right in the shops. James would never not acknowledge that if it wasn’t for me there, he wouldn’t be where he is today,” she adds.
“I think part of that is because a lot of women who were really brought into streetwear, were brought into it by men. Because of that stigma, which it shouldn’t be, no one really took you seriously,” says Gibbs on why more women aren’t recognized.
Whether because of the patriarchal structure that dominates media and the outside spectators or the internal structure of the movement — but most likely both — the women who did have a role in the early days of streetwear have been excluded from the historical narrative. The path for many women who have made an impact has been a result of their self-awareness and constant battling of gender dynamics. “A lot of the people high up in these brands and companies are men. So it is sometimes a challenge to go into these meetings as a woman and prove yourself,” says Alexandra Hackett, founder of menswear label ALCH. As true for all industries, the difficulties of gaining a seat at the table posed a challenge that has both driven the experiences and molded the role of women in streetwear.
“It was a way of growing up in the hood and being fashionable and saying I’m a tough girl, don’t holla me on the street. In a way it was fashion but it was also protection.”
“[As] a young woman who was really focused and serious about my work and art, it was a way for me to have meetings with men and not look at me as an object,” says Vashtie Kola on why she was attracted to streetwear’s “masculine” style. Kola, who is also a music video director, is largely credited as a pioneer in early 2000’s downtown New York club culture. In 2010, she became the first female to collaborate with Jordan Brand; in fact, it was the first Jordan II collaboration ever. Speaking about how she developed her influential style, Vashtie continuously points to necessity as the mother of invention.
“It was always like a masculine look although there were feminine touches. It was a way of growing up in the hood and being fashionable and saying ‘I’m a tough girl, don’t holla me on the street.’ In a way it was fashion but it was also protection,” Kola adds.
Identifying with traditionally masculine traits and characteristics stands out as a common thread among women who have been accepted into streetwear’s boys’ club. Kola, McSweeney, Gibbs, and former KITH women’s lead Emily Oberg have all expressed that they at one point were attracted to masculine style and often grew up around men, whether family members or friends. “I have grown up being around boys and surrounded by boys and sort of being comfortable in that world of being a tomboy, and I didn’t necessarily have the challenge of how to fit into this male dominated area,” says stylist and creative Aleali May, who recently released a collaboration with Jordan Brand, almost a decade after Kola’s.
Because streetwear style grew from male circles, women who were initially attracted to the style early on were often interested in traditionally masculine style or hobbies. They were, in a sense, both the exception and ahead of their time in their nonconformity. For some women like May and Kola, this meant a feeling of acceptance. “I feel like I was accepted because I was also a tomboy” says Kola. “I think that my entry into that scene in a way was almost level to how the boys dressed or the boys acted or the fact that I skated.”
Of course, there are also exceptions to the exceptions. Not all women who are involved in streetwear find an allegiance within “tomboy” mentalities, and not all of them felt overlooked and disrespected. “I was my own boss, I kind of ran things. And the guys were beneath me,” says Fusco, who held a position of power early on.
“Just because I’m ‘accepted’ doesn’t mean that men should go around disrespecting other women.”
For other women, though, being part of streetwear — even as a “tomboy” — has been synonymous with a constant battle to disarm gender roles and traditional expectations. “Sure, I’m accepted as one of the boys in a way,” says McSweeney. “But is it okay that they go and treat other women like shit? No. Just because I’m ‘accepted’ doesn’t mean that they should go around disrespecting other women.” In either case, the male dominance meant that many of the women who joined the circles faced constraints in how they may have pushed the boundaries for women otherwise.
Meanwhile, streetwear was not rising in a vacuum and does not exist in a vacuum today. Women aiming to break into streetwear may also have been battling for opportunities in video, music or art production. Being part of streetwear is not just about being part of the “boys’ club”; it’s also about being part of the cultural machine that has quickly gained steam and established its place as a leading movement.
Pointing to streetwear’s male-centricity to discredit or disavow women’s role in this industry is only a reflection of the patriarchal structure that needs to be dismantled. Not only is this thinking abruptly tone-deaf, it inhibits the potential growth, expansion and relevance of streetwear.
Dismantling the “Boys’ Club”
As the streetwear market grows and the lines with traditional fashion blur, the face of streetwear is bound to change and evolve. But what remains to be seen is if the on-the-ground movement that has long fuelled it will also align with the shifting social climate and market needs.
“As women we’ve evolved to say what we truly want. The market [for women’s streetwear] has grown with it and now the market is much bigger,” says Kola. For many new brands entering the space, targeting a female consumer is a logical and lucrative decision. However, across industries, this has often resulted in a problematic “pink it and shrink it” mentality when creating products marketed toward women.
“Women feel confident and cool in their oversized clothes now. We don’t need tight dresses to feel feminine.”
“A lot of brands don’t quite understand how that specific industry works. I think we’ve seen this with a lot of brands and people thinking that women are really into pink or into luxurious fabrics,” says Hackett. That’s rarely the case: when it comes to female consumers in streetwear, what is necessary is equal billing.
Whether for older brands or new players, abandoning traditional concepts of masculinity and understanding that the style fits for all-genders is critical to streetwear’s future success. “Women feel confident and cool in their oversized clothes now. We don’t need tight dresses to feel feminine,” says Olga Karput, founder of leading streetwear and fashion retailer in Moscow, KM20.
After all, T-shirts and hoodies, arguably the core of streetwear, are inherently unisex. Aligning with recent shifts will be integral to how streetwear builds its future. The movement is in a position to lead this conversation, but also in a position to be dismantled if it does not join the conversation. Many brands and companies have already aligned with this ethos. To claim that the entire notion of streetwear is problematic would be to do a huge disservice to the creatives and entrepreneurs, male and female, who have built what was once the underdog of the fashion world into one that luxury brands now clamour to be a part of.
In fact, the most successful new wave streetwear brands like Vetements, Off-White™, Heron Preston and ALYX are driven by their offering for women. Meanwhile, legacy brands like Balenciaga or Gucci that have been reinvigorated by their adoption of streetwear are also fluid in their approach. Even e-commerce giants like ASOS have turned to streetwear, adopting a gender neutral strategy.
Emerging labels like Brashy Studios and Unravel Project, too, are leading the charge as young designers who fully understand and consider their diverse customer base. In the footwear space, companies like Nike are also making efforts toward more balanced gender representation.
”When I was in that Nike meeting, they showed me all these Jordans, colors, it was dope, it was fresh, no gender,” says May. Her Jordan 1 collaboration, the second of its kind since Kola’s, was created for men, women and children. “There are always going to be women in the industry that are going to break barriers; even inside Jordan, these women are behind the scenes working to break that mold,” she adds.
It’s integral that “the culture” gives women their overdue recognition and begins to understand that including women in the workforce can only be beneficial for streetwear companies. The reality is that often, not only can women do this job as well as men, they can do it better. “Sometimes I can feel that guys from streetwear stores don’t believe in my ability to buy sneakers or tech wear. But in the very end, I am the one to sell all the limited releases from NikeLab and adidas Consortium, and Virgil, Heron and Gosha are doing special capsules with KM20, not any other store,” says Karput.
“There’s an edge and a coolness to being a young disrespectful, straight male and I think the streetwear industry has definitely glamorized that.”
Streetwear’s figureheads — both the original pioneers who founded this culture and new leaders in the space — need to accept that, like any other organization or company, the movement is now more than ever, subject to public scrutiny. Onlookers, especially young, are beginning to ask questions. “These kids don’t want to know about your next project or your next release. They want to know know what you’re doing about women,” says Kim.
Given streetwear’s especially strong following of young men and relative youth as a movement, it’s in a unique position to shift the overall rhetoric and effect positive change. That begins with accepting and acknowledging that society’s strongest shield — male privilege — has been a driving factor in breeding the success of streetwear’s “boys’ club”. “There’s an edge and a coolness to being a young disrespectful, straight male and I think the streetwear industry has definitely glamorized that. It’s wrong and we need to change that, and we have the power to change that,” says Gibbs.
Streetwear has proven powerful as a movement, rooted in an appeal that has long rejected societal norms — especially in relation to fashion. If streetwear can once again capture that nonconformity, this time using its position of privilege to promote inclusivity, “the culture” will continue to thrive. However, as the patriarchal structure that has long-dominated numerous industries begins to be dismantled, it stands to be seen if streetwear and its “boy’s club” will survive.
- Image Credit
- Rinny Perkins/HYPEBEAST
- Jade Chung