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The story of streetwear
Trend Forecaster

The story of streetwear

Wednesday, 09 December 2020
By Laure Gontier
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Laure Gontier

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6 min read

Originating in hip hop subculture and now part of mainstream fashion, rooted in affordable sportswear and now on first-name terms with luxury, streetwear is a more complex trend than it might appear. While some Haute Horlogerie brands refuse all comment, others have succumbed to its irresistible attraction.

So who are the current streetwear gurus? Virgil Abloh, in his uniform of hoodie, cargo pants and sneakers, is the creator of the hip Off-White label. Which doesn’t prevent him from being artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear and, as it happens, owner of a unique all-black Patek Philippe Nautilus and one of just three Jacob & Co Caviar Tourbillon, set with 424 baguette-cut rubies. Then there’s Kanye West, superstar rapper and creator of Yeezy sneakers – the ones that sell out in seconds at each drop. “Rollies and Pashas done drove me crazy” – in one of his first hits, All Falls Down, West sings the praises of Rolex and Cartier. Since then he’s established himself as a serious collector who, like Picasso, has his periods (the G-Shock period, the Audemars Piguet period).

Five Time Zone © Jacob & Co x Supreme
Five Time Zone © Jacob & Co x Supreme

These are spheres which couldn’t be further from streetwear’s origins, be it in terms of media coverage, bank accounts or social recognition – even if fantasising over gold watches and diamond-encrusted dials has always been part of the trend. Because of its current aura, as well as cases of mistaken identity (streetwear = sportswear???) we tend to forget one important detail: streetwear is a historic movement with its own socio-cultural voice, as big and angry as punk in its day, and one that has definitely dressed more people. Flashback.

From ghetto to logo

In the late 70s-early 80s hip hop was all the rage, and nowhere more than in New York’s Harlem and Bronx as an outpouring for youth anger that spawned its own subculture, including a new dress style. Each wave of contestation (hippies, for example) has created its own look. In the case of hip hop, this meant reappropriating streetwear, a reaction to Reagan’s America, populated by sharply-dressed Wall Street wolves and working girls in big hair and shoulder pads. But this was about more than angry lyrics. Hip hop was also a vehicle for the overwhelming energy and virtuosity of breakdance, which translated into sweatshirts, baggy tees, oversized pants, sneakers and baseball caps – the kind of thing the average American only ever wore to the gym (back to sportswear) – mixed in with the cool confidence of California skaters and surfers. From West Coast to East Coast. And so streetwear was born in the wake of the hip hop movement, but not only. The in-your-face luxury watch was already a feature, but not an obligation. Not every kid in the projects dreamed of becoming a millionaire rap artist and a Swatch watch was still considered cool.

© Frank Muller x New Balance
© Frank Muller x New Balance

In the 90s, what had sprung up spontaneously in the street went mainstream as Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and Public Enemy hit the charts. The rage that was hard-wired into hip hop permeated different social classes and so did the dress style that went with it, absorbing influences from alternative cultures such as Japanese avant-garde and grunge – something it would continue to do. Nineties streetwear also moved a step closer to its current luxury persona. Just as the logos emblazoned on sweatshirts and tees moved upmarket from the traditional sportswear brands to Guess or Gucci, and later Fendi and Dior, accessories – the chunky gold chains and bling watches – went the same way. Flaunted by rap artists as a symbol of newly-acquired wealth and success, watches and jewellery would be one of the first points of contact for luxury brands as they woke up to this new clientele.

In love with luxury

This didn’t happen overnight. In the early 2000s high-status brands were still turning up their nose at the sound of rappers stringing rhymes about what it was like to grow up poor and dissing traditional social values. Think back to Lacoste and Gucci trying to distance themselves from this appropriation of their ultra-recognisable crocodile logo or green-red-green stripes. It was only a matter of time before a new generation of designers emerged that had grown up with rap and all-over streetwear. Designing first for independent labels then guesting for prestigious names, they had no qualms about using streetwear’s familiar codes and no hang-ups about hoodies, sneakers and bombers. Nor, at the other end of the spectrum, the million-dollar watch that Pharrell Williams or Sylvester Stallone (yes, the actor) designed for Richard Mille; for some, borderline bad taste.

RM 52-05 Tourbillon Pharrell Williams © Richard Mille
RM 52-05 Tourbillon Pharrell Williams © Richard Mille

In 2015 Demna Gvasalia left Vetements for Balenciaga, redefining the concept of designer sneakers and sending prices sky-high on resale sites. A year later Hublot teamed up with tattoo artist Maxime Büchi of Sang Bleu to design a Big Bang (without hands). In 2020 Matthew M. Williams moved from underground fashion label Alyx to Givenchy while TAG Heuer gave Hiroshi Fujiwara, the godfather of Japan’s Harajuku scene, carte blanche. Meanwhile, Jacob & Co was teaming up with Supreme for a watch that splashes 50 diamonds on the cult brand’s “Fuck Em” slogan. It’s officially love for the diametrically opposed worlds of streetwear (street being the operative word) and luxury (born under the auspices of Haute Couture and Haute Horlogerie).

The age of x

While Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe, regularly namedropped in hip hop songs, have yet to comment on rap artists’ adoring attitude, the majority of Haute Horlogerie brands are clearly ready to embrace a younger and, more to the point, laidback clientele. Because the new luxury consumers aren’t all billionaires: they’re Millennials. The gender-fluid, inclusive, connected, woke generation, for who streetwear is simply wear, that makes no secret of its desire for luxury. Cartier features actor Rami Malek and singer Willow Smith in its new Pasha campaign and has launched #PashaCommunity as a rallying cry for atypical talents; the ones that defy social norms and conventional beauty. In a word, you don’t have to be Jackie Kennedy or Charlotte Rampling to identify with the brand’s values. Bucking the trend for collabs and their limited-edition watches, Franck Muller has transposed his obsession with numerals to a pair of New Balance.

Rami Malek, Willow Smith, Troye Sivan, Maisie Williams, Jackson Wang © Pasha de Cartier
Rami Malek, Willow Smith, Troye Sivan, Maisie Williams, Jackson Wang © Pasha de Cartier

On December 1 Hublot kicked off the promotional campaign for its Classic Fusion Concrete Jungle New York (a variation on a 2016 model, also in concrete, in collaboration with street artist Tristan Eaton). A canvas for graffiti, a skateboarder’s favourite surface, concrete is the ultimate streetwear material. Next stop: a Jaeger-LeCoultre collab with a rap artist? Why not! After all, Jay-Z is the proud owner of a Reverso 1931 in pink gold…

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