In order for streetwear to truly evolve, it is vital that brands work with interesting, subversive creatives who challenge the stereotypes and perceptions surrounding masculinity.
Amid the designer labels explosion of the 1990s, men’s streetwear appealed to a generation who found nothing inspiring about homogenised chain retail or flashy brands.
Founded by creative individuals in Tokyo, New York and London, who combined elements of art, music and subculture to express their identity, the streetwear scene had an eye for detail and a passion for authenticity.
The internet was still emerging and social media was non-existent so to acquire these niche brands you had to make far-flung pilgrimages to streetwear boutiques, where you would meet like-minded individuals and share your knowledge. Back then, being part of this tight-knit community was a strong identity marker for young men, many of whom became store owners, brand founders, designers, distributors, DJs and artists.
But as the men’s streetwear market grew and its popularity brought mainstream success, brands stopped taking risks. Designs became stale, and the identities and influences that were originally intrinsic to streetwear became more diluted, replaced with corny t-shirts emblazoned with images of half-naked glamour girls and marijuana leaves. Favoured by teenage boys, they acted as billboards for their visions of masculinity.
While the streetwear movement emerged from wanting to wear something different, today a new, shared identity has emerged in which young men wear brands in order to fit in rather than stand out.
Fast forward to 2018, and if you walk past one of the famed streetwear boutiques such as Palace, Supreme and Patta on a ‘drop' day, you’ll see tribes of young men queueing outside. They’re still embracing streetwear, except they’re dressed in an identikit uniform of printed hoodies, graphic t-shirts, limited-edition trainers and branded accessories.
While the streetwear movement emerged from wanting to wear something different, today its followers all look the same. A new, shared identity has emerged in which young men wear these brands in order to fit in rather than stand out.
And with validation through social media seemingly more essential than forging real friendships through the streetwear scene, these new disciples feel equally pressurised to conform in order to be accepted by an online community.
It was a huge breath of fresh air when, in March 2018, streetwear brand Supreme announced a capsule collection with respected American photographer Nan Goldin. Images representing the LGBTQ+ community and drag culture proudly adorned its streetwear and skateboards – a welcome change that highlights exactly what Supreme does best and, arguably, what’s still needed in streetwear: the unexpected.
Across the male-dominated streetwear scene there are far too many elements of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and bigotry.
The collection divided opinion. Some hailed it as a groundbreaking project while others, perhaps those with a more fragile sense of identity, sadly dismissed it as ‘too gay’.
But it’s exciting to see a project that confronts its audience’s identity head on. Across the male-dominated streetwear scene there are far too many elements of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and bigotry. For Supreme to proudly place an image of a transsexual wearing only a rhinestone-jewelled thong on a t-shirt is a bold step forward in challenging traditional notions of masculinity, and a huge leap from the graphic, glamour girl t-shirts of the 1990s.
For streetwear to truly evolve, it is vital that brands continue to work with interesting, subversive creatives who challenge the stereotypes and perceptions surrounding masculinity. It is to be hoped that Supreme’s customer base and contemporaries will be as open-minded, embracing a more diverse mindset and output for future streetwear incarnations.
Having spent two decades travelling the world, collecting and working with some of the best streetwear brands, becoming a father and refining my tastes, I now rarely identify with the brands that shaped my 20s. And with the average age of streetwear buyers dropping from late-20s to the mid-teens, the sector’s biggest challenge will be enabling young men to grow with the scene as their personal lifestyles adapt and mature, as mine did.
It's time for streetwear brands to broaden their vision, not only to educate and inspire changing demographics and future streetwear adopters, but also to allow them to define their own identity through the future pieces they wear.
Ross Wilson is a streetwear brand consultant and writer, and collector of Supreme clothing and accessories.