Streetwear is what happens to fashion when consumers start dictating the terms

It’s not just a style of clothes. It’s a mindset.
It’s not just a style of clothes. It’s a mindset.
Image: Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images
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Streetwear may have become one of the most disruptive forces in fashion in recent years, but it would be easy to write off as a fleeting trend. It boils down, the thinking goes, to sneakers and hoodies, and eventually people will tire of those and move on, as they do with everything else in fashion.

But streetwear is much more than that, argues a new report by Strategy&, the global strategy division of professional-services giant PwC, and Hypebeast, a streetwear-centric media company and retailer. Sure, it could be described as a style that mixes graphic-heavy hoodies and t-shirts, casual American sportswear, military references such as M-65 jackets, puffers, and of course sneakers. But it isn’t about any specific product. Rather, it’s the result of large cultural shifts and a fundamental change in the power balance between brands and consumers.

Its growth isn’t stopping either. Strategy& and Hypebeast surveyed 763 people in the fashion and retail industries, and 76% said they thought streetwear would continue to grow significantly over the next five years. “Streetwear is not a trend within fashion but rather the fashion component of a larger popular culture shift that spans fashion, art and music,” the report says. “Whether or not sneakers remain a hot trend misses the point; the mindset that is backing the rise of popular culture will persist.”

That mindset puts a premium on authenticity and trusting likeminded people—mostly on social media these days—rather than looking to traditional authorities such as fashion sites or magazines. The consumer with this mindset tends to be young, listens to hip-hop, and is willing to spend on casual, exclusive clothes that communicate some insider knowledge. It makes streetwear “democratic,” the report notes, because the community decides what’s popular. “The distinction between contemporary streetwear and the fashion industry at large does not come down to a sneaker versus a handbag, but to who is driving the taste-making,” it says.

In that sense, streetwear epitomizes a broader trend, in which power has shifted away from corporations and to consumers. Global consultancy A.T. Kearney has described it as evolving from an “affluence” model, where money bought access, to an “influence” model.

Historically, fashion worked from the top down: Brands and other gatekeepers, such as editors, possessed most of the information and influence, and spent large sums spreading those things outward to consumers. But the internet and social media gave the consumers their own platforms and reach, letting communities form around shared interests and values. Peers started to become more important than the gatekeepers.

Streetwear is built for this approach, Strategy& and Hypebeast note. It emerged as part of a counterculture that embraced artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as rap—black culture, the report states, was a driving force in the emerging movement. The clothing piece of it appeared amid California’s surf-and-skate scene, then migrated to New York during rap’s early days, where it absorbed a good deal of influence before key figures in cities such as London and Tokyo picked it up.

The brands involved, like Stussy, A Bathing Ape, and Supreme, didn’t look for traditional retail channels, such as finding distribution in big department stores where they could sell to the masses. They focused on selling straight to likeminded people, pioneering a now widely copied “drop” model where they trickled limited numbers of items into stores. And because they came from the same culture as their audience, they understood who they were selling to.

Eventually, with the rise of the internet, that audience grew into an online community, coalescing on forums such as NikeTalk, BapeTalk, Strictly Supreme, and Sole Collector, where people traded information, and bought and sold products. Those forums have mostly dwindled, but the same activities are now happening on Instagram and resale sites at a far larger scale, creating a powerful consumer movement that has only grown as streetwear and the culture that fed it have exploded.

Hip-hop, which still has close ties to streetwear, has grown into the dominant musical form in the US and continues spreading elsewhere, including China. Streetwear brands such as Supreme have become influential in mainstream fashion. Even luxury labels have had no choice but to pay attention. Designers with roots in streetwear, including Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones, are now among the most successful in fashion, heading up menswear at Louis Vuitton and Dior, respectively. The ties to contemporary art continue, too, through popular artists such as Daniel Arsham, Kaws, and Takashi Murakami.

These are the people streetwear shoppers still look to for their cues. The report surveyed nearly 41,000 consumers around the world, mostly in Asia, Europe, and North America, and found that musicians, industry insiders, and contemporary artists were the people considered most influential in streetwear. They came in ahead of social-media influencers, celebrities, and athletes.

Hypebeast isn’t totally impartial in detailing streetwear’s impact: It’s a publicly traded company that stands to benefit if streetwear continues to grow. But it also got to where it is by being a leading source of news on streetwear and by understanding its audience.

That audience likes to shop. Of the nearly 41,000 consumers surveyed, 54% reported spending $100 to $500 on streetwear every month.