An Explorative Look at the Origins of Streetwear

Exactly how far does the style sub-genre go?
Chris Shonting

What are the origins of streetwear? Well, that depends on who you speak to and how you define it.  If you ask someone in their ‘20s, many would likely acknowledge Shawn Stussy as its foremost godfather. Through his trailblazing Stüssy imprint, Shawn began creating surfboards and was the pioneering figurehead who parlayed surf and skate culture into apparel by printing his now infamous logo onto T-shirts. Conversely, if you ask someone unfamiliar with the genre’s historical lineage, he or she may credit Supreme, based solely off the strength of its name and reverential timeline. Initialized in the mid ‘90s, Supreme can be seen as a modernized art form and one of the most over commercialized franchises ever to be introduced. Regardless of which side of the fence you stand on, it is the first streetwear brand to achieve superstar status. Needless to say, there is no escaping Supreme’s brand power on social media. Much the like the brand itself, Supreme’s founding father, James Jebbia, is not a big proponent of highly-publicized marketing efforts, however, the brand’s lasting influence on Instagram is one that cannot be overstated. 

Streetwear isn’t a new phenomenon by any means and at one point was commonly identified with rebellious outcasts rife with an anti-authority state of mind. Its democratization of the fashion industry extends beyond geographic regions and class systems, finding ways to exert influence across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Some of the genre’s more recurring elements include DIY style, collaborations, luxury, hip-hop, skateboarding and global digital cultures—many of which juxtapose against one another within a single collection. Far removed from the disruptive graphic tees and hoodies of yesteryear, streetwear has found ways to imprint the upper echelons of the fashion elite, establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with beyond any one stylistic category. Designer brands such as Vetements, Stüssy, YEEZY, Fear of God, A Bathing Ape, Off-White and Supreme have become the hottest properties in the industry, with no telltale signs of slowing down. Ironically enough, European luxury brands appear to be moving in the same direction as its younger streetwear sibling. With that in mind, it is now becoming evident to most that streetwear is the new norm and has even climbed out from under its underground niche status into full blown “Celebrity wear.”


Dmitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Originally, streetwear was an easy way to describe casual clothing predominantly worn by people within LA’s thriving skate and surf communities. However, on the other side of the geographical pond, there were figureheads, like Def Jam’s Russell Simmons, who were often spotted rocking full-on adidas tracksuits in and around New York City. A trip further back in time can also be explored as a possible incubation period for its birth. Back in the 1960s during UK’s post war period, there were fundamental changes in social attitudes, which in turn resulted in the breakdown of societal class barriers—a once solidified fabric of traditional British culture. Furthermore, in 1959, UK Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, declared that the class system was deemed obsolete, which was not only premature but also unrealistic. Well, as it turns out, the once subversive style of dress originally initiated from underserved communities ended up influencing, not only high-street fashion, but the larger luxury market. How exactly did this come to be?

In the 1980s, Katherine Hamnett‘s slogan-driven, block letter T-shirts were popularized by pop bands, including Wham! For those who can recall, George Michael wore his white “CHOOSE LIFE” shirt in the music video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” That same T-shirt also appeared in Queen’s video for “Hammer to Fall” (worn by Roger Taylor). Elsewhere, Taylor wore Hamnett’s “WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW” shirt during Queen’s historic appearance at the first edition of the Rock in Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro. For those unaware, Hamnett is a renowned political activist who elected the simple T-shirt is her mainstream medium.

Katherine Hamnett

What about punk? Crust punk can be traced back to Bristol, UK. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bristol bands like Disorder, Chaos UK, Lunatic Fringe, and Amebix, broke out from its customary fashion confines, creating a disheveled DIY look originating from low-brow locales. Vivenne Westwood was another key architect of the early punk fashion phenomenon. The eccentric artist inspired legions of punk iconoclasts, such as Viv Albertine, who wrote in her memoir, “Vivienne and Malcolm use clothes to shock, irritate and provoke a reaction but also to inspire change.” In those days, early British punks expressed nihilistic and anarchist views with such slogans as, “No Future,” which came from the Sex Pistols song “God Save the Queen.” 

When the 1990s rolled around, Tokyo began to establish itself as a hotbed for up-and-coming streetwear design.  Japan had its own unique spin on western cultures, taking cues derived from the West and parlaying them into a language distinctly unique from anything introduced before; much of it stemming from the streets of Harajuku. From here, the revolutionary “Urahara” movement was born. Every weekend, tens of thousands of hip-hop, punk and anime-obsessed youth flocked to the cultural hub as away to freely express themselves. As a direct parallel to the swarm of vintage shops selling peculiar pieces imported from the US and UK, were new imprints, like NOWWHERE who were keen on carving out their own respective niches. Hatched from the minds of Jun “Jonio” Takahashi and NIGO (Tomoaki Nagao), much of the shop was dedicated to graphic T-shirts under A BATHING APE, to which many still regard as the “grandfather” brand of the Urahara movement. Alongside such trailblazing figureheads as Hiroshi Fujiwara and Hiroki Nakamura, the aforementioned Takahashi and NIGO helped Tokyo establish its voice as a real and ever-present player in the global streetwear scene.

Djamilla Rosa Cochran/Getty Images

CUTiE Magazine

To some, streetwear is not as defiantly angry as it once was, and depending on who you ask, not as politically active either. Today, it has much more commercial appeal than ever before and has far more legitimacy in moving from the minds of subversive youth into the realm of high-fashion circles. Once upon a time viewed as an antagonistic voice to the larger fashion collective, streetwear has trickled upwards into each and every fashion house, doing well to inform, and subsequently enough, artistically alter each’s creative process. Today, streetwear is looked upon as a global platform effective at reinforcing network identities, while empowering disparate subcultures to come together in a unified voice able spark societal change. Perhaps, viewing it as an unorganized religion for creative types is another way to illustrate its monumental impact. As we look at 2020 and beyond, streetwear’s impact will likely extend into other cultural areas with more and more players of distinct backgrounds primed and ready to contribute. Unfolding right before our eyes for all to see, only time will tell where streetwear is headed next; it’s only just the beginning.



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