Many words have been written about the ongoing love affair between luxury fashion and streetwear.
From the high-profile appointment of Virgil Abloh to Louis Vuitton to the many, many street-influenced sneakers prowling the runways of top European maisons, it is undeniable that streetwear has had an enormous impact on how luxury operates today. But the real question is whether the connection between the two is just a fling or a long-term engagement, and whether streetwear’s influence on luxury fashion runs deeper than aesthetics.
The new obsessions
“Brands are the new bands.” This is a phrase Highsnobiety founder David Fischer uses in the intro to the brand’s new book, “The Incomplete Highsnobiety Guide to Street Fashion and Culture,” to describe the way fashion and streetwear culture has become a major obsession for young people today. He draws explicit connections to the way people obsessively talk about their favorite albums and songs, and the similar way they talk about different collections and pieces.
For many kids today, fashion is something they can talk about with the same youthful intensity that punks bands, cult movies and sports teams inspire. There are hundreds of streetwear blogs and online forums – including Highsnobiety, Hypebeast, the /r/streetwear subreddit and large Facebook groups like The Basement – where people can discuss and argue at length about the nuanced difference between iterations of Yeezy sneakers or Vetements sweatshirts.
“Something that’s very fascinating is that fashion is really at the heart of pop culture today,” said Frederic Court, founder and managing director at Felix Capital, and investor in streetwear mainstay Highsnobiety, in a previous Glossy interview. “Maybe 30 or 40 years go, it was music and musicians. You would spend your Saturday at Tower Records buying music. Now Saturdays are spent looking at the cool fashion brands here. The kids that were buying records are now buying sneakers at Stadium Goods.”
Part of the reason fashion and street culture has become such a major touchstone for young people in particular is the proliferation of social media, which has allowed fashion, and information about brands and pieces, to be disseminated in a more youth-friendly way.
The analogy of fashion, and street fashion in particular, to music is one that is common in the echelons of streetwear aficionados.
“Street fashion used to be like garage rock, and now its like arena rock,” said Jeff Carvalho, managing director of streetwear media company Highsnobiety.
The deep knowledge that consumers now have of every aspect of fashion is one of the most profound and lasting effects the rise of streetwear will have on the luxury industry, particularly in the boost it has given to influencers.
The influence of influencers
With the arrival of social media, particularly Instagram, styles and trends that were once isolated to hyper-specific communities can now be seen around the world. The speed at which trends move have accelerated to a mind-boggling pace, leaving brands desperate to catch up.
“There used to be insular trends that would arise, and they didn’t leave Manhattan, but then social media arrived,” Carvalho said. “Brands and designers have the option to see what’s trending all around the world. We believe that consumers and influencers are driving what’s trending today.”
The influence of streetwear on luxury goes beyond just the superficial, surface-level aesthetics. It has permeated every aspect of luxury, including the way trends form and disseminate. Once, luxury brands designed their collections and put them on the runway, and that was the definitive guide to what was cool. The creative directors of big fashion houses were the ultimate arbiter of taste. Not so any more.
“The water really runs the other way now,” said Chris Paradysz, CEO of PMX Agency. “The word that comes to mind is ‘ta-da.’ Luxury has always been in the ta-da business. There was all this drama around what the designer has come up with this time. But now, it’s less about the designer creating than it is about discovering something new.”
Influencers on social media are able to create new trends independent of what the big labels are doing. By going into the thrift store, repurposing or modifying an old piece or combining existing pieces in a novel manner, these influencers are able to instantly launch entire new trends that can shake the fashion industry as a whole.
With social media, this trend can travel across the world, and be adopted and modified a hundred different ways before a luxury brand can even latch onto it. In response, luxury institutions have begun trawling social media for the latest streetwear trends to embrace before they go viral.
“We have a team here that does that,” Carvalho said. “They go on Instagram and look for the next big thing. It’s exciting when they start to bubble up and you watch these individuals that might have small audiences hit on the next big thing, and we watch them grow.”
Streetwear influencers tend to also be quite fragmented. Carvalho said the ideal influencer for him is not necessarily someone with hundreds of millions of followers, but someone whose followers are actively engaged with them and who bring a unique perspective to their personal style. Novelty, in this mindset, is the ultimate asset for a streetwear influencer and, by extension, a luxury fashion influencer.
If the day comes when sneakers fade out of style, street-influenced styles become a distant memory and skate brands stop gracing the runway, one aspect of streetwear is likely to remain: the drop.
The drop model has already gone so far beyond streetwear, even beyond the bounds of luxury and fashion in general.
“Shops need a reason to get people to come back,” Carvalho said. “A drop is the perfect way to do it. We see that way beyond the bounds of fashion. I mean, even tech retailers like Best Buy are doing drops now.”
Luxury brands like Burberry, once the symbol of British stuffiness, have embraced the drop model, with a T-shirt collection dropping and selling on Instagram after Ricardo Tisci’s first Burberry show. Traditional luxury retailers like Barneys have gone the same route, with an entire annual event called thedrop@Barneys dedicated to dropping these kinds of capsules.
Drops are powerful tools for luxury brands because they merge beautifully with the core luxury concept of exclusivity. If you were not able to grab the latest Moncler drop, you missed out. The concept plays up luxury’s strengths while giving customers a reason to stay actively engaged with brands’ product launches.
“To see the origin of drops, you have to start in Japan,” Carvalho said. “The way to get people to come into the store week after week was the drop. You have to give people something else to come in for beyond just the traditional thing they need, something exciting.”
For many in the fashion world, streetwear’s influence on luxury goes beyond just collaborating with Supreme or having a model wear a Thrasher shirt on the runway. The shift is deeper, stronger and more fundamental than that. Street style’s business model and philosophy — focusing on personal expression, hyped-up drops, consumer-driven trends — have all had a profound impact on the legacy brands of Europe.
“Streetwear is, in my opinion, as permanent as athleisure,” Chris Paradysz said. “I’m not trying to compare them in terms of style, but athleisure has become a mature, distinct category. It emerged and has now become permanent. It’s the same with streetwear. It gets in your bloodstream a little; a permanent shift.”