Still in sweatpants? Here's why
Matthew M. Williams, Kim Jones and Nigo are putting out collections that feel a lot like the future of fashion
Tuesday 22 February 2022 By Jack Stanley
The relationship between high fashion and streetwear used to be a one-way street. Back in the 1980s, Stüssy repurposed Chanel’s double C logo, while in 2000 New York imprint Supreme landed in hot water with Louis Vuitton for a tongue-in-cheek reimagination of its iconic monogram. Back then it was simple: for streetwear, high fashion was something to be referenced, mocked, and subverted. As Shawn Stussy said in 2020, his interlocking S logo was ‘taking the piss out of luxury’. These days, the boundaries between the two are so blurred, they have almost become irrelevant.
Such is streetwear’s omnipresence; it has become increasingly difficult to define. It has its roots in America in the 1980s and 1990s as brands like Stüssy and Supreme emerged from the surf and skate worlds respectively. And aesthetically, the focus was on casual pieces, including T-shirts and hoodies, with playful graphics and collaborations also playing an important role. As this world was accepted and then consumed into the wider fashion landscape, many of these founding principles have remained, although conversations around accessibility, authenticity and even the term ‘streetwear’ itself have become increasingly ubiquitous.
It’s hard to find an exact moment that the two worlds collided, but Kim Jones’s 2011 appointment as artistic director at Louis Vuitton marked the beginning of a new era. Jones – an alumni of influential London-based distributor, Gimme5 – incorporated streetwear references and silhouettes into his collections before overseeing a game-changing collaboration with Supreme in 2017. By then, Supreme was one of, if not the, leading light of the streetwear world and well on its way to becoming a billion-dollar brand. The collaboration was a statement of intent from both parties. Streetwear was now firmly sitting at the top table of the fashion industry.
Less than a year after that collaboration launched, Jones departed Louis Vuitton. His successor at the house was the late visionary designer, Virgil Abloh, who arguably did more than anyone to democratise the luxury world through his tenure at Louis Vuitton and Off-White, the label he founded. Under Abloh, Louis Vuitton introduced more relaxed fits, referenced everything from GZA’s Liquid Swords to The Wizard Of Oz, and reworked the house’s accessories. In a classic nod to the streetwear world, this period also saw the introduction of new trainer silhouettes, including the A View, a collaboration with London-based skater and Palace affiliate, Lucien Clarke, that launched with a full-page advert in Thrasher.
The world that Abloh helped to usher in was a democratisation of not just aesthetics, but also access. His Louis Vuitton shows felt like parties, with diverse casting and unique settings that eschewed traditional shows, while Abloh’s projects away from that job – his Nike collaborations, DJ sets and the launch of his “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund – broke the boundary between his job title and the people who looked up to him. Streetwear’s early years had been characterised by accessibility and a community spirit, and now that had reached the echelons of the fashion world.
Abloh wasn’t the only streetwear designer who took the reins of a major fashion house. Jones had moved on to Dior – where he would come full circle and launch a collaboration with Shawn Stussy – while long-time Abloh collaborators Matthew M. Williams and Heron Preston had joined Givenchy and designed collections for Calvin Klein respectively. One of the most eye-catching appointments came towards the end of 2021, when Nigo – the legendary founder of BAPE and a streetwear titan – took charge of Kenzo.
Nigo made his Kenzo debut earlier this year, unveiling its AW22 show at Paris Fashion Week. As was expected from a designer of his pedigree, the collection was a mix of high fashion and streetwear codes, with the ‘real-to-wear’ concept owing more to streetwear’s accessibility than the traditional world of luxury fashion. Speaking to US Vogue on the eve of that show, Nigo discussed his view of streetwear: ‘From my perspective, it started out as a rebellion against proper fashion or luxury.’
By 2022 it was a lot harder to define what streetwear was, and Nigo had been a huge part of that change. ‘I feel conflicted between wanting luxury brands to concentrate on remaining authentic to luxury, and street brands being represented by people that really understand the culture, and actually being in a position to fuse the two and enjoying it,’ he continued.
If the appointments of pioneers like Abloh and Nigo have been watershed moments, the ripples can be felt far into the fashion industry. Earlier this year, Hugo Boss launched a widespread rebrand that included the launch of ‘HUGO’, a streetwear-focused line that chief executive Daniel Grieder hoped would change the label’s ‘dusty’ reputation. Other luxury houses have also entered the space, with Gucci collaborating with The North Face, Margiela working with Reebok, and Tiffany & Co. linking up with Supreme.
Now, five years on from that pivotal Supreme collaboration with Louis Vuitton, a conversation around the term ‘streetwear’ is gathering pace. Speaking to The New York Times recently, Heron Preston expressed doubts about it, saying that he ‘never really identified with it or wanted to use it’. And in the same article, Supreme’s recently appointed creative director Tremaine Emory added that ‘calling someone a “streetwear designer” is a way to dismiss them’. As streetwear (or whatever you want to call it) has reshaped luxury fashion, the central irony is that the designers and creatives leading the charge have always pushed back against that label.
Part of the reason that streetwear in 2022 is so hard to define is because of how it permeates every facet of the industry. From the pieces themselves (including T-shirts, hoodies and trainers), to the stripped-back logos of brands (Celine, Burberry and Balenciaga all moved to minimal, sans-serif branding in recent years) and the full-hearted embrace of collaborations, streetwear has reshaped the luxury world in more ways than one. In 2019, Abloh famously predicted that streetwear would die – a comment he later clarified – and he was right. It died because it reshaped luxury fashion in its own rebellious, accessible image.