March 06, 2022
Streetwear is a popular style invented by and for the general populace. It goes against the consumerist glurge of fast fashion and the elitist thrum of haute couture fashion houses alike. It indicates culture, subculture, timing, and above all else, style.
Streetwear in its modern form emerged only a few decades ago, so tracing its history should be an easy task. If it is so pervasive, then ascribing a single inventor to the mode of fashion should be easy to do. The truth is not so simple.
Streetwear isn’t as easily delineated as a scientific breakthrough or an annual award. It exists in collaboration and always has. There is no single inventor, but rather a variety of inspired individuals seeking to create the best they possibly can.
Daniel Patrick will be showcasing where streetwear came from, and who did the most to bring it to the present.
Where Did Streetwear Come From?
No conversation about streetwear can be had without a discussion of subculture. The 20th century saw massive population increases in urban areas, turning cities across the globe into cultural hotspots. Theatre, art, fashion, and varied diaspora led to communities coming together with newly forged social identities.
Streetwear came from a few specific subcultures, but the conversation has to begin with hip hop. Hip hop has now entered every aspect of public life, but the music started in the Bronx. A few young students played records at a house party, adjusting the playback speed on each one.
The rest is music history.
Hip hop expanded beyond music to influence art, dance, and fashion. The dance styles which evolved from hip hop were intensely physical, using the whole body. These dances did not start in protected studios with Marley floors, and so a new type of fashion was necessary. The style for hip hop streetwear borrowed heavily from sportswear for the fluidity of movement and full-body protection.
Hip hop wasn’t the only subculture to influence the rise of streetwear. Every culture that required apparel melding the everyday casual with the athletically viable contributed to streetwear. This included skater culture, as well as surfer apparel. As we will be discussing shortly, each of these cultures had a massive influence on the modern state of streetwear.
It’s not enough to understand that streetwear developed from specific subcultures. Streetwear developed from specific times, places, and cultural attitudes. The 1980s and 1990s saw massive cultural shifts across all societies. Wars, epidemics, and a rise in digital technologies that is still strong today led to rapid evolution in culture.
The stage was set for a fashion evolution. All it needed was the designers to make it happen.
Who Were the Pioneers of Streetwear?
In many cases, the pioneers of streetwear were not established fashion gurus suddenly shifting their aesthetics. They were more often designers in other fields who either struck on massive successes by chance or by analyzing trends. Streetwear started as outsider fashion, created to provide people with practical apparel to wear.
Early streetwear had three central hubs, each of which are still considered centers of the movement today. The U.S. has two streetwear centers situated on rival coasts in the form of New York and Los Angeles. These are also the largest cities in each respective half of the country, but with widely varying cultures.
The third center of streetwear is also a major fashion hub in its own right: Tokyo, Japan, specifically the Harajuku district, is known for a wide variety of both classic and avant-garde style.
These three hubs are not simply interchangeable in the world of streetwear. Developments in one area influences the others until finally, the modern world of streetwear is created. They exist in conversation with each other and feature countless designers. For the sake of simplicity, we will be highlighting the defining designer of each area’s early streetwear.
In New York City, we highlight the legacy of James Jebbia, founder of Supreme. Los Angeles’ early streetwear is defined by “California cool,” Shawn Stussy and his brand of the same name. Ura-Harajuku fashion can only be attributed to the “Godfather of Streetwear,” Hiroshi Fujiwara.
These three figures are not the only essential ones. Streetwear is the result of countless craftspeople, designers, and most importantly consumers, defining what the movement is and could be.
Tracing the origins as accurately as possible requires some simplification. These three figures are not the only ones, but they have undeniably defined what streetwear is today.
New York City
Supreme is now known as an enduring streetwear brand, but in the early 90s, it was known as something else. The brand started as a skateboard manufacturer before slowly verging out into the world of apparel. The brand even sponsored certain skaters in a bid to raise awareness. James Jebbia, the founder, took a special interest in skate culture, leading to him creating the brand.
Supreme’s intentional scarcity led to its enduring popularity and esteem as an exclusive streetwear brand. The store focused on drop culture, the notion of releasing limited-edition pieces on particular days. Release days were well-marketed, leading to streetwear-seeking individuals lining up around blocks in an attempt to gather new gear.
Supreme did not originate the notion of the drop. Despite this, they are arguably more intertwined with it than any other American streetwear brand. Though the brand is ceaselessly popular, it is somewhat a newcomer compared to the oldest streetwear brands in existence.
Exclusivity was further garnered, but a small number of in-person stores. Supreme maintains less than a dozen stores, over half of which are in Japan. The brand has historical ties to both Los Angeles and Japanese streetwear, which we will next examine.
Shawn Stussy has become one of the earliest names associated with streetwear, but his fame came about almost accidentally. Stussy opened up a Laguna Beach surf shop with his name in 1979. The scrawled signature that forms the brand's logo was the only direct line towards the brand today. The shop did not sell apparel but did provide countless surfers with stylish surfboards.
Stussy thought that selling apparel to match the boards would help both sell. The result was tee shirts with the scrawled logo on them, arguably the first streetwear graphic tee. The introduction of apparel did boost sales. Contrary to Stussy’s expectations, his apparel began outselling surfboards by a wide margin.
Stussy wholly entered the world of apparel in the early 1980s. He began exploring the globe, including Japan, encountering like-minded artists, DJs, and designers. He met Hiroshi Fujiwara, up next for examination, during this time. James Jebbia actually worked with Stussy during the 1990s before setting out to found his own brand.
Stussy started out as pure California cool but integrated countless worldwide influences during this time. Though the shift was made from surfer to streetwear, the core influence of surf culture has never left the brand.
Stussy can arguably be seen as the inventor of American streetwear insofar as he is the most prominent figure. His influence must be compared to that of his contemporaries, who made massive waves a continent away.
The name “Godfather of Streetwear” is not one to be given or earned lightly. Hiroshi Fujiwara is influential not only as a designer but as a distributor of streetwear. Born in 1964, he was almost a contemporary of Stussy in terms of age.
A globetrotting youth sent him to London and New York City, where he absorbed hip hop music and skater culture alike. Chance encounters also gave him the opportunity to engage in early streetwear.
Fashion and music were his two core interests. He hustled as both a DJ and fashion designer, understanding the personal relationship between the two. Interactions with Stussy and other creators gave him the knowledge needed to embrace and reinvigorate the movement his own way.
At home, he began making his own clothes under a variety of brands. He ran his own retail store called Nowhere, which served as a launch point for many top Japanese streetwear brands. Japanese streetwear is also what popularized the drop, well before American streetwear brands adopted it.
Harajuku is known for its varied styles. All manner of subcultures can be seen, to the point where Harajuku fashion is considered its own distinctive umbrella culture. Fujiwara, beyond being the godfather of streetwear, is instrumental in the modern state of Harajuku streetwear.
Who Really Invented Streetwear?
Jebbia redefined the way American streetwear is made and consumed. Stussy brought about many of the earliest popularized evolutions in streetwear. Fujiwara developed streetwear for a nation and provided many of the evolutions we now see as inseparable from streetwear.
Can any of these creators truly be called the “inventor” of streetwear? Yes, and no.
Yes, each one was instrumental in their own particular way, Stussy and Fujiwara in particular. No, each one operated and developed streetwear as part of an ongoing cultural conversation. Streetwear at its heart emerged from countless creators and wearers, who are still actively redefining the style as we write.