The Lucrative Business of Streetwear

by Charlotte Smith

The 80s were a fabulous time in fashion. Across the fashion capitals, structured shoulders, bodysuits and sequins were amongst some of the biggest and wildest trends commanding centre stage. While all of that was happening, somewhere, under the warm Californian sun, Shawn Stüssy was somewhere printing t shirts with the same signature that appeared on his surfboards. Probably little did he know that decades later his printed trademark signature on simple graphic tees would decades later play a part in streetwear becoming one of the most lucrative fashion business models of the 21st century.

Streetwear has its roots in Californian surf and skate culture, but it most certainly did not stay there. Amidst the hectic trends that swallowed the 80s fashion scene, a need for a relaxed and comfortable lifestyle grew imminent and Stüssy began establishing the foundation for streetwear, mimicking the exclusivity of high end luxury brands – a major component of streetwear today. This was not a widespread look but soon Stüssy had birthed a culture of like-minded creative individuals that began to adopt this look as a lifestyle and over time began taking its aesthetic from punk, new wave, the Harajuku street scene and the hip hop streets of New York. The prominent rise of hip hop began to have a noticeable influence on youth culture and in turn streetwear, so naturally the first flagship store opened 2451 miles away from the west coast surf culture and into in the up and coming neighbourhood of Soho, where soon his signature had turned into an exclusive social movement that began to  shape this new youth culture.

It almost seems bizarre that a style with a distinctive visual identity took such a dramatic turn to become the lucrative business it is today. If today’s business climate has taught us anything, it’s that you can pretty much capitalise on everything and the streetwear industry is no exception, currently valued at a massive £47bn, which is rather ironic of a trend that started around the refusal to follow norms. Despite its recent astronomical growth, there is more to streetwear than standing in line for hours – or in some cases overnight to cop the latest Supreme hoodie or t shirt. If a self proclaimed hype beast tells you otherwise, chances are they are part of a cultural shift that has moved streetwear from once being a form of expression and communication to simply wanting to be identified as cool. Decades ago when no one would have dared murmur the word streetwear, is now regarded as a status symbol for most and in a modern consumerist society slapping a hefty price tag seemingly translates into luxury goods that one must own.

Nothing is to really say this is all a bad thing. In modern day you survive by being innovative and at the forefront, with the end goal being to make money. Your beliefs and culture belong to you, but you can almost bet your life someone will see it as a marketing opportunity. ComplexCon, the place to be for streetwear enthusiasts, is a two day event at the Long Beach convention centre, where shoppers can browse from dozens of brands, secure never before seen products and enjoy musical events. To say this is the perfect embodiment of what streetwear has become wouldn’t be so far off. But despite this, it seems this paradoxical way of advertising has allowed brands like Supreme to sell nunchucks, hammers and crowbars, amongst other items that you most likely will buy, Instagram and then sell for 70x the retail price, all in the name of buying into the brands hype.

Photo by Arianne Antonio via presstelegram

High price tags aren’t wholly responsible for the industry’s new found interest in streetwear. While we often attribute social medias influence as the driving force of success, the streetwear market has been operating on a system of ‘drops’, once a favourable feature in the Japanese streetwear market which created a scarcity and importance around newly released products, with website traffic increasing by as much as 16,800% on Supreme drop days. In 2017 management consulting firm Bain & Company reported that high-end streetwear helped boost global sales of luxury personal goods by 5% this year to an estimated $309 billion. This comes as no surprise when you take into consideration HUF recently sold 90% of its stake to Japanese investors TSI for $63m, which may seem a mere amount when you compare Supremes $500m to Carlyle Group.

Predominately at the centre of every streetwear debate the word culture is a prevalent force. Once acknowledging youths freedom, creativity and authenticity, the culture is considerably overshadowed by what it has become today. The start of streetwear laid the groundworks for a unique distinctive identity within youth culture, collective of individuals who share a common interest in style, music, culture and vision still exist today and who aren’t to say that those principles are still a driving force in what streetwear has become. It is likely that the fashion world will tire of streetwear, because that’s the business of it all. The celebrity cohort and social media will soon move onto the next big thing, because in today’s age, people grow tiresome of consistency and the constant need to reinvent and look for the next big thing is inevitable. Rest assured, if the hype around streetwear was to disappear tomorrow, the identity of streetwear would remain in the place it started – the streets.

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