Portraits by Shaniqwa Jarvis
Someone had to call 911. As droves of police began to close off Orchard Street on a cold day in February, 2005, it became clear that Staple Design’s release of the limited edition Nike Pigeon Dunks was not your average product launch. Only 150 pairs were available worldwide, and Internet hype reached a fever pitch.
“People were coming the Friday before the release to camp through the blizzard,” recalls Nico Reyes, manager and buyer for the Reed Space, Staple’s art gallery. After the cops broke up the crowd, hastily discarded knives and baseball bats littered the street. “People were ready to fuck kids up over shoes,” says Reyes. The New York Post put the story on its front page and called it “The Sneaker Riot.” The Pigeon Dunks started popping up on ebay for up to $2,500.
That same February, under the desert heat of Nevada, Magic descended on Las Vegas. The biannual Magic is the world’s largest fashion tradeshow, with thousands of brands vying for a cut of the market. Of the hundreds of different fashion categories—everything from maternity wear to men’s suits—the fastest-growing, then and now, is streetwear, with its style vocabulary of ’80s pop colors, allover prints, and limited edition collaborations.
left to right: Jeff Staple and Nico Reyes
Fiercely independent, the streetwear industry has managed to bubble and explode outside the reach of corporate dollars. Urban fashion chain stores, like Up Against the Wall and Dr. Jay’s, are slowly phasing out corporate hip-hop brands like Rocawear and buying more streetwear-inspired brands like LRG. Small, independent brands that rely on limited boutique distribution are driving a widespread cultural shift.
In a country driven by corporate interests, leveraged purchasing power, and fashion designers with European accents, how did a young, loose collection of street-inspired upstarts manage to steal the fashion zeitgeist?
A Brief History of Streetwear
Tracing the lineage of today’s streetwear inevitably leads you to Shawn Stussy’s story. Stussy, a local cult surfboard shaper in Laguna Beach, California, in 1980 transferred his signature logo from surfboards to T-shirts. Skaters quickly picked up on the brand, and the resurgence of skateboarding throughout the ’80s helped propel Stussy into a worldwide phenomenon. Stussy became an inspiration for a generation of creatives, and one of the first to gain recognition in the mainstream without losing underground appeal.
Sung Choi, an industry veteran who worked with PNB and DC Shoes, remembers, “Seeing Stussy shirts in the late ’80s inspired PNB. It was like, if this surfer dude out in Cali is speaking on his lifestyle, why can’t we speak about ours?” In addition to that sentiment, Choi recalls, “People of color had no voice in any media at that time. The emergence of hip-hop [enabled us] to use fashion to speak visually about our experience.” In the ’80s and ’90s, hip-hop became a global language for youth swagger, with NYC street culture as the prism for urban youth rebellion. “Hawaii” Mike Salman, sneaker culture pioneer and publisher of LTD magazine, remembers growing up in SF: “I was in 6th grade b-boying and wanted to dress the part—fat laces, sweatsuits, sneakers, bootleg Fila, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton—I wanted to look good while spinning on my head.” Hip-hop’s foundation, built on sampling, storytelling, cultural references, and competitive attitude, encouraged an entire generation to express themselves.
Sung Choi, Clae Footwear
People of color had no voice in any media at that time. The emergence of hip-hop [enabled us] to use fashion to speak visually about our experience.
“People of my generation sparked creativity out of necessity,” relates Minya Quirk, a founder of the NYC fashion PR house Brand Pimps and Media Whores. She comments on the time before youth-targeted brands: “We weren’t being marketed to, we were shopping at stores alongside mom, mixing it up and turning things into our own.” And the limited access to what few early streetwear products existed fueled natural competition. Salman, remembers, “I always bought two pairs of sneakers, wore one and put the other one on ice. It was about what I liked and getting it first. It was the same thing [as] in the music business: who had the advanced albums before anyone else?”
This collector-as-consumer mentality was a natural fit for Japan’s obsessive culture, and, by the ’80s, the youth market there had an insatiable appetite for all things American, with surf/skate brands like Stussy and Fresh Jive leading the way. By the early ’90s, Japanese youth stopped being simply consumers, and began to innovate on the themes and styles they saw coming from the US. At the time, Choi was sharing a studio with the graffiti legends Stash and Futura. He recalls, “Those original Harajuku street brands were heavily influenced by US street style, and a lot of the Japanese guys came through, whether it was Bathing Ape (BAPE) or Real Mad Hectic.” That influence, combined with homegrown visionaries like Hiroshi Fujiwara shaping the ebb and flow of the youth market, led brands like Nigo’s BAPE into a new type of relationship between brands and consumers. Japanese brands nurtured a cult following amongst trendsetters by focusing on limited offerings, inspired collaborations, an emphasis on backstory, and high price points atypical for the youth market.
Minya Quark, Brand Pimps and Media Whores
This type of cross-pollination yielded interesting fruit. In 1988, in search of the perfect pair of vintage jeans, Japanese tailor and denim otaku Hidehiko Yamane, handcrafted his own denim using original Levi’s shuttle looms and natural indigo. This Japanese improvisation and perfection of an existing American theme led Evisu and its superior denim to take over of the backsides of hip-hop celebrities in the late ’90s. Then, in 2004, Nigo’s strategic collaboration with American super-producer and style icon Pharrell Williams and the launch of the BAPE store in NYC marked the brick-and-mortar introduction of streetwear to the MTV crowd.
Media and the Hype
Growing the community is a media network that has cropped up to promote the lifestyle surrounding streetwear. On the print side, shopping-guides and magazines like Ecko’s mass-distributed Complex and the highly selective LTD picked up on the Japanese “fashion showcase” format—a comprehensive, obsessive, catalogue-like way of visually dissecting fashion. The format uses photographs almost clinical in their precision, presented in layouts designed for maximum uptake.
It’s so refreshing to see editorial that is served up without the multimillion dollar ad buys that influence the pages of magazines.
Online, the community of creatives at Riott “aim to engage, enable, and organically align you with like-minded cultural movers.” Hypebeast was founded by Canadian college student Kevin Ma in 2005 and represents one of the most popular streetwear blogs. Its reporters provide a direct channel between brands and consumers by providing up-to-the-minute streetwear news. Quirk of Brand Pimps and Media Whores remarks, “It’s a radical new form of media with kids who are fans of the game running blogs with a ridiculous circulation and a reach more targeted than print media. They’re not Condé Nast, they’re not media empires. It’s so refreshing to see editorial that is served up without the multimillion dollar ad buys that influence the pages of magazines.”
For retailers that stress brand education, the blogs can be both a blessing and a curse. “It helps gain more awareness,” admits Reyes, “but you used to be able to go to the store, see something you’ve never seen before, and pick it up right there and then. Now there are no surprises.”
The ironic use of the term “hypebeast” recognizes critics of the blog outright. In an interview with The Tastemakers Society, Ma explains that “a hypebeast is a person who only buys into the hype. He doesn’t pay attention to what he’s buying and just follows the crowd.” Those who have been in the industry warn of the implications. Steven Vogel, the impetus behind industry publication Streetwear Today and author of the upcoming book Streetwear writes, “Streetwear is 99% regurgitation these days—what is being either blatantly copied today or under the name of paying homage to what was rebellious 15 years ago is nothing but old and tame today. Fashion by itself is meaningless.”
Jules Kim, Bijules
With that danger in mind, the importance for brands to “create a story, maintain a dialogue, and keep it going,” Salman points out, is crucial. Brands like LA’s The Hundreds have used their blog to create a demand for their product and encourage their consumers to buy into their lifestyle and attitude. One of the most popular features on Hiroshi Fujiwara’s online magazine, Honeyee, is the wall of personal blogs of a global network of cultural creatives including Stussy Creative Director Paul Mittleman, Jeff Ng of Staple Design, and Edison Chen, the Hong Kong pop icon and partner in design collective Clot.
“I’ve always done everything to put myself out there, because if they don’t see me, what are they gonna see first?” says jewelry designer and NYC promoter Jules Kim, a.k.a. Bijules. “I think it’s like playing a game of chess: you can choose to be the pawn or be the queen.”
The spreading influence of streetwear reflects the progressive attitude of its proprietors. While interning with PNB during college, Staple’s Jeff Ng—who didn’t see himself in fashion, but in communication—found himself influenced by the philosophy of the label. “T-shirts are viral, you see them as you walk around. For our generation, [making a statement on] T-shirts and cotton is more effective than paper and canvas, where you have to go to a gallery space or museum to see it.”
For this generation, where you shop is almost as important as what you buy. Boutique retailers across the US like Grey One, the Reed Space, Bodega, In4mation, Commonwealth, and SugarHead Quarters support independent brands and artists, but also serve on the forefront of street fashion. As Jerry Meng from Grey One puts it, “We are part of a global movement, and it’s our job as retailers not to saturate the market, but to work to preserve global brands.” Because of early boutique support, streetwear designers like Crooks & Castles, The Hundreds, and Hellz Bellz now have street recognition.
Carol and Phina Nakamura, Sugarhead Quarters
Carving their own market niche, Bijules and Complete Technique (Osa Koyama) are working to position themselves as the generation’s luxury jewelers, like Tiffany or Cartier. With playful but finely crafted pieces that reference everything from DJ needles to hand grenades, this generation of jewelry seems consistent with streetwear’s referential and playful style. “We speak because of what we are wearing and how we present ourselves,” Kim relates. “I’m the voice for this jewelry, but once you put it on, you feel like you’re you. Your statement has been made, it’s the period to the end of your phrase.” The casual footwear market’s leading innovator Cr8tive Recreation is versatile enough to be carried at Barney’s and Fred Segal, but also in small boutiques. Peter Kim, a.k.a. Methamphibian, elevates sneaker customization into an art form.
Filling in the gap between urban and streetwear is cult brand Crooks & Castles. Nineties California gang culture and West coast hip-hop style heavily influenced founder and designer Dennis Calvero, 32. Riffing on the robber barons of yore, the Crooks brand message, “behind every castle there’s a crook,” reflects the lifestyle that defined Calvero’s youth in Cerritos, CA. At the Compton swap meet he’d pick up “Dickies, flannels, khaki jackets, and blank jerseys or hats that we’d get hand embroidered from this Korean lady.” In 1991 “we’d be on the wildout style and buy Dickies overalls and workwear, and we’d tie dye or bleach them out and get markers and write our crew on it. We’d line up at Paramount Studios on Saturday to dance on this show with Nena Peebles called Party Machine.”
Crooks and Castles
Like many brands, Calvero’s first complete fashion line, Landscape, took off in 1997 in large part due to the support of Japanese retailers. With his early success there, Calvero launched Crooks & Castles exclusively in Japan in 2002. The brand’s playful graphics have been seen on the likes of hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. The designs reference Versace and Chanel as well as icons of the crooked life. Calvero is in talks to open up a Crooks & Castles store in the Philippines and is working on an Airsoft BB gun revolver collaboration with Vapors studio.
As streetwear becomes a Wall Street Journal-approved phenomenon, independent brands continue to steer the small but influential market. Kilo International and Brooklyn brand Lemar and Dauley have advanced the tradeshow idea by creating an independent boutique exhibition of NYC and Tokyo-based brands. The exhibition called FoShoFoShow, supports a collective of independent NYC and Tokyo brands, including Lemar and Dauley, Rocksmith Japan, Phenomenon, 10 Deep, and Complete Technique Jewelry. Kilo founder Kenshin Ichikawa, 28, explains: “We’re setting a new standard for brand exhibition by presenting a carefully curated selection of brands in an environment that reflects our day-to-day lifestyle. We’re the only tradeshow being run for brands, by brands.” The Brooklyn-based brand development company also has a signature house brand. Kilo works with clients like Japanese hip-hop heavyweights DJ Masterkey (Rocksmith) and DJ Hajime (Double Hard) to design and produce their streetwear.
At 24, founders Chris Julian and Samantha Alonso’s vision for Fruition, the world’s only vintage streetwear boutique, is to “touch culture and community” by combatting the miseducation of the streetwear community. Fully integrated in the vintage market, Fruition presents an extensive offering of vintage streetwear from LL Cool J-style Troop jump suits, to early ’90s sneaker favorite British Knights, to Chanel chain link scarfs. Julian explains, “We’re educating kids about what got us here to 2006 streetwear; we carry brands and clothing that can serve as a foundation.” Fruition recently styled J. Dilla’s “Won’t Do” video and Lil’ Kim for VH1’s Hip Hop Honors Awards. Collaborations with Kanye West, Undefeated, and Union are in the works for 2007.
Like graffiti, streetwear is about getting your name out there and getting up in this world.
This moment for streetwear, with its monogrammed prints, pop colors, irreverent attitude and all, has been built on the idea of specialized promotion and mass communication. “Warhol taught us about Pop art and the value in producing art for the masses,” says Erik Marino of Kilo. “Like graffiti, streetwear is about getting your name out there and getting up in this world.” With a surfer’s business model, Harajuku aesthetic, and uniquely independent American attitude, the message of streetwear speaks to a global youth audience. “It has never been about what you wear but about who you are,” Vogel reminds us. “As always, there are a few people that continue to be rebellious, angry, and brave, and that push this subculture forward.”