Ever since Virgil Abloh, streetwear designer slash Kanye confidante, was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton in March, the fashion world can’t seem to stop talking about how the industry is being turned on its head. As graphic T-shirts are beginning to hold a higher value than Italian leather, the definition of “luxury” has become an elusive concept.
Streetwear, though, is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around for decades. Rooted in skate and hip-hop culture, it has given way to an underground market of logo-heavy athletic wear, establishing the personas of “sneakerheads” and “hypebeasts” alike.
But the reason this subculture seems to be experiencing its heyday only now is because we are living in the image-centric age of Instagram. Streetwear’s loud aesthetic allows the trend to make noise on social media. And as younger shoppers are beginning to favor uniqueness over craftsmanship, out goes the desire for traditional luxury. According to a 2017 study by consulting firm Bain & Company, luxury streetwear has helped boost global sales of luxury goods by 5 percent last year to an estimated 263 billion euros.
“I don’t even get the ‘streetwear’ thing anymore. In reality, they’re brands that understand culture and how it’s transmitted. Abloh has been the breakout designer for lots of reasons but high fashion brands have been ‘street’ for a while,” said John Matthews, strategy director at Siegel+Gale London, adding that because Instagram is now the most important visual medium for fashion, the industry has keyed in on streetwear’s logos and graphics as “instantly visible, transmittable memes.”
As high fashion houses tap more and more into this growing social media trend, streetwear is occupying a larger space within the upper echelons of style. But there’s no brand that does this quite like Gucci. Under the leadership of creative director Alessandro Michele, the fashion house has completely altered its aesthetic, collaborating with graffiti artist Trevor Andrew and photographer Coco Capitán. Adopting a very maximalist approach, the company has made its trademark interlocking “G’s” a symbol of Instagram fashion. Last year, Gucci launched its #TFWGucci—that Feeling When Gucci—campaign, a social media initiative that commissioned digital artists from around the world to create memes that featured its line of Le Marché des Merveilles wristwatches.
Before appointing Abloh, Louis Vuitton collaborated with New York-based label Supreme, arguably the most well-known name in streetwear. The collection, which launched last year, contributed to a growth in LVMH sales. Even the New York Post recognized Supreme’s influence. Last week, the tabloid’s cover wrap featured a Supreme advertisement, and copies are now selling for as high as $80 online.
Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of streetwear, and an aspect that high fashion brands are now attempting to emulate, is the model of the “drop.” Streetwear brands will release a limited collection of items with little to no notice, and people will wait in line for hours—sometimes overnight—to get their hands on the products. In June, luxury department store, Barney’s, hosted “The Drop LA” at their Beverly Hills flagship. The two-day event, in collaboration with streetwear blog Highsnobiety, featured over 20 exclusive capsule collections by designers such as Prada and Versace.
Citing Nike and its Air Jordan line as the predecessors of the “drop model,” Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, explained that it’s entirely possible for a larger brand to successfully release products with distinct skews.
“Any drop is of a specific item that has a specific look. Nobody is going to be dropping some mass produced Adidas shoe,” said Kodali. “It’s got to be exclusive in some way shape or form in order to constitute it being ‘dropped.’”
According to Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at Landor, the “drop” capitalizes on a trend popular among Gen Z, which is a drive for personalization, or customization, “It’s not like these streetwear products are personalized with their name, or that they’re getting to choose a color or a graphic, but because of the scarcity, they’re very likely to be the only one among their friends or social group that has these items, so it feels as if they’ve been created just for them.”
This drop model is especially conducive to creating hype, with items functioning as tickets to a world of cool. So much so that the products then get resold online at a high markup price.
“The brilliant thing about the drop is that it’s egalitarian by traditional criteria, but what it has done is create the aristocracy of the network,” Matthews said. “In that model you can’t buy cool, knowledge is everything and the premium that comes in on the secondary market is the price you pay for not being in the know. Of course if you are in the know, you can finance your style by trading your wardrobe.”