Virgil Abloh was a true visionary in his field – or should we say fields. Straddling music, fashion and art amongst academic and personal endeavours, the late great creative came to redefine how the fashion industry operates. However, one of his most controversial moments came in an interview with Dazed in 2019, in which he stated that ‘Streetwear is Dead’. Quickly transformed into a viral soundbite sans context, the comment led to public (or at least, hypebeast) outcry, bewilderment and furious denial that read as something along the lines of: ‘what does he mean streetwear is dead?! I just spent £400 on a vintage deadstock BAPE tee!!!’.
Well, relax. No need to list it on Depop yet. Clarifying his earlier statement in another interview to Vogue later on and in the midst of a collaboration with Nigo, Virgil explained that he “didn’t say it to be polarizing…if you speak to anyone that’s been in streetwear for the last 15 years, it’s always had this sort of nine lives, dying and coming back, and dying and coming back. There’s so many first-generation streetwear brands, stores, and retailers. The market wasn’t as vibrant as it is now, so they went out of business and people don’t remember those…Partially what I meant by “it will die” is that new things like tailoring from guys like Nigo and me will be born from the regeneration of it”.
Lots to unpack. Far from the perceived surface reaction of binning the hoodies, tees and logos we’ve all accumulated, Virgil’s point was actually that the distinction between ‘fashion’ and ‘streetwear’ has almost entirely disintegrated. And judging from the runways of recent seasons, we’d have to agree. What were once staples of ‘streetwear’ silhouettes (oversized, dropped shoulders etc) soon just became immersed into most collections debuting in fashion month – from emerging to established brands. There was no need to enforce a rigid binary between the two – they became one and the same. We’re taking a look at how this actually happened.
Brand of the moment, Balenciaga, has been quick to cosign this shift – with Demna summarising this movement by noting that “(streetwear) has simply become the platform on which the whole system stands”. Designers now straddle both spheres, or amalgamate them into one. To be a creative director within today’s fashion industry is to understand the history of streetwear, but also to recognise that in some ways, it no longer matters. Streetwear is fashion, and fashion is streetwear.
From the 80s and 90s streetwear pioneers such as Shawn Stüssy, Nigo and James Jebbia, to the brands like Off-White and VTMNTS who took streetwear into the spaces of high fashion, the subculture shifted away from the outer pools of fashion firmly into the mainstream. What were once entirely separate spheres merged to create a new genre in the fashion world – and the late Virgil Abloh was a pioneering force in this space. Starting with Pyrex Vision, his first label, Virgil saw a gap in the market for simply updated fashion staples – buying a load of Rugby shirts and adding ‘Pyrex 23’ on the back. These pieces resold for a markup of 700%. Naming the brand after the glassware used to cook crack cocaine, The Reality was the first to suggest the kinship of two buyers: drug and fashion addicts in need of their next (fashion) fix.
When Virgil made the superficially divisive statement, Off-White was gearing up for a new direction: out were the streetwear staples of reappropriated sportswear, and in were slim fit trousers, leather trenches and a distinct lack of graphic designs. It was as if Virgil was ringing in a new era for fashion and his brand with the statement and Pre-fall 2020 collection: streetwear just grew up and got preppy.
When Abloh moved to Louis Vuitton, streetwear began merging with luxury, not just ‘non-streetwear-fashion’ spaces. In a bold move at the time, Louis Vuitton’s appointment of Abloh for creative director was revealing of their shift in perspective: it was as if they had seen, understood and processed the eventuality that luxury houses needed to adapt for the 21st century in order to survive. By appointing Virgil, the house not only generated a ridiculous amount of hype around their brand, but also let the watching world know that they were valuing community, culture and how fashion could be a vehicle for subcultural expression – a marked and important change in what had been quite a traditionally lux trajectory for LV.
With the news that Off-White are now launching a dedicated ‘high-fashion’ line breaking at the brand’s most recent presentation in Paris, as well as launching a similarly-hinted-at beauty line, we can expect more seemingly separate spheres in fashion to converge in the near future. So no, to put it simply – streetwear is not dead – it’s just become one and the same as fashion itself.
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See also: DISSECTING DEMNA
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