Streetwear, a notorious boys’ club, is spending more time in the spotlight of mainstream fashion as heavyweight Supreme rises to billion-dollar brand status and retailers like Bergdorf Goodman carry inventory from Kith. But is women’s streetwear rising along with it? In this series, we’ll ask women inside streetwear to weigh in on the current standing and potential for their category.
When Lanie Alabanza-Barcena launched HLZBLZ in 2005, she didn’t see herself as a pioneer. But as the creative force behind one of the first women’s streetwear brands, Alabanza-Barcena — known by her peers as “misslawn” — was helping to refashion what has historically been a male-dominated category.
After moving to New York from San Diego in the early aughts, Alabanza-Barcena got her start in the industry doing graphic design for the then-buzzy urban wear label Triple Five Soul. She hopped to Rocawear under co-founder and music producer Damon Dash soon after, working her way up to an art director position just as Jay-Z was taking over.
At the time, the look that Rocawear was selling was based on what Alabanza-Barcena calls “the hook up” — a hip-hop inspired outfit featuring matching hoodies, sweatpants and shoes. Alabanza-Barcena’s Southern California roots, however, had her looking to skate culture more than her colleagues for design ideas, and she found herself itching for more graphic tee options like she’d seen on the skaters back home.
A recent lookbook image from HLZBLZ
“I tried to educate my bosses at the time that there were other girls like me wearing graphic tees that didn’t need to match the rest of their outfit,” she said. When a capsule collection pitch didn’t convince them, she decided to start selling the tees herself on the side to streetwear doors across the country — Union (New York) and The Information (Hawaii) included.
Dubbed HLZBLZ after the AC/DC track “Hells Bells,” the brand quickly took off and began taking more and more of Alabanza-Barcena’s time. When Jay-Z himself asked about one of her T-shirt designs (the face of Kate Moss with “Good Girl Gone Bad” printed across it) during a Rocawear company meeting, she took it as a sign to leave her job behind and build out the HLZBLZ brand.
Although streetwear is still largely a man’s world, HLZBLZ’s assortment of edgy, graphic T-shirts, sweatsuits and bombers has since widened the playing field for female designers in the space. The brand has also brought male-centric streetwear giants into the fold, frequently collaborating with the likes of Stussy and Vans.
“My girl is strong,” said Alabanza-Barcena, of her core customer. “She’s not afraid to express herself vocally or through her clothing.”
We called her up to chat about the lack of streetwear brands for women and how a growing interest in the market has affected the original culture.
How has the streetwear scene changed (or not) for women since you started?
In the beginning, it felt very promising, because there were other women’s brands like Married to the Mob, Mama and MadeMe. But then, slowly, I began to notice that a lot of them were phasing out. I kept with it because I had no other choice — this was my passion. But when the economy took a hit in 2008, the scene felt dead. About three years ago, it started to pick up again, thanks to people like Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea trying to be street. It might sound corny, but it expanded the audience beyond just the core streetwear girl.
Today, there are a lot of girls working in the industry — but most of them are focused on designing for men. I don’t even buy that much women’s streetwear; I buy a lot of the men’s clothes instead because that’s what’s mostly available.
Why do you think there’s such a dearth of women’s streetwear brands?
I think it’s partially a cultural problem — we know that it’s a male-dominated industry — and partially women’s disinterest in the scene. I had this talk with Leah McSweeney [of Married to the Mob] at ComplexCon, and we just couldn’t figure it out. Is it because women are scared to enter the space? I don’t know. I think women today, like the influencer Aleali May, are more into styling streetwear in their own way rather than creating their own.
How do you feel about men’s streetwear brands’ attempts to design for women?
It’s never really worked. It’s always feels like a water-downed version of what they think women want. It’s always pink, for instance, and I’m like, “I don’t wear pink.” And I’ve definitely never seen a girl wear head-to-toe pink in streetwear. That was one of the main reasons why I started my brand in the first place: The stuff that was out there for women always felt like a guy’s perspective of what a girl wants.
HLZBLZ x Vans sneakers
What’s the vibe among women in streetwear? Is it close or competitive?
A lot of people might think women like me and Leah [McSweeney] would hate each other or that there would be some sort of rivalry, but in reality, that’s far from the case. We’re constantly texting each other about what’s going on in market and how business is doing. There aren’t many of us, so it feels good to stick together and support each other. I’ve seen a lot of these women go through many stages with both their personal lives and their companies, and it’s always awesome to see where they’re taking their brands next.
What do you think about streetwear becoming more mainstream?
I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love seeing that the market is expanding and that, even after all these years, it’s still really popular and relevant among the youth. But what I hate is what’s happening to parts of the culture, especially with the rise of the resale market. The focus has turned to be all about making money, and it can be really disheartening to see what people value most now. At ComplexCon, I literally saw people crawling on the ground and pushing each other just to get shoes they were never going to wear [and just wanted to sell]. It’s gotten ugly.
I don’t mind the increased artist interest, like with Yeezy, as much — it introduces the culture to people who didn’t necessarily grow up with it. But I don’t like when it’s just about the cult following of that artist or when kids wear one label head-to-toe, adding no individuality to it. Some people don’t see beyond the brand name today.
So streetwear style was more individualistic before. How else was the culture different?
Back then, it just felt so fresh and new and exciting. Nobody knew what they were getting into. Now, kids have an exact blueprint of what can happen if they get into streetwear. Rather than get involved because they love it, it’s about making as much money as possible.
How will Carlyle Group’s investment in Supreme affect the streetwear scene?
I think it’s generally good because it gives other brands and designers hope that they can achieve that kind of status, and it likely motivates them to keep going. But we also have to remember that Supreme is another beast altogether: They can come out with anything, and it’s going to sell; they can just do no wrong. Sometimes I think they’re corny, but the fact is that they’re core to streetwear and they’re not going anywhere.