What exactly is luxury streetwear and how did it become so popular?

Streetwear is no longer merely seen as casual dressing. Sneakers and hoodies now add flavour to luxury fashion collections, even as they continue to be favoured by the masses. Photo: Louis Vuitton

What exactly is streetwear? Simply put, streetwear is relaxed, cool dressing. T-shirts, hoodies, cargo pants and a pair of sneakers – they are the type of clothes that you would wear while hanging out with your friends.

Then luxury fashion brands learned how to speak “street”. Now, you see sports shoes on a Chanel runway. Those drawstring tracksuit bottoms on the Gucci model? An integral part of a high-end look.

For the longest time, the worlds of streetwear and luxury fashion are as distinct as can be. Things have changed though. They are currently intertwined. Such is the end result of the luxury streetwear trend.

Major fashion houses are pushing designers with a streetwear background into the upper echelons of the industry. Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton or Kim Jones of Dior, take your pick. They are both the rockstars of today’s style scene.

Read more: Fashion in pictures: The intersection of streetwear and luxury

Nobody is really sure when exactly streetwear started merging with luxury fashion, but the 2010s saw a big rise in its significance. Collaborations between street brands and fashion houses popped up within the decade.

In 2018, there was (hopeful) talk about how classic tailoring is making a comeback. The appointment of streetwear star Matthew Williams as head of French fashion house Givenchy in June this year, put that belief firmly to rest.

“The streetwear world and the high fashion world used to be very separate, ” says Malaysian Lim Kok Kean, who is also known as DJ Bunga of the now-defunct indie dance collective Twilight Actiongirl.

“High fashion has always been very elitist. A very snobbish and hoity-toity scene. But now the ‘kids’ have stormed the castle and taken over. It began with luxury fashion co-opting streetwear”.

Lim, a streetwear enthusiast with a vast personal collection of denim and sneakers, explains that a majority of the younger generation who are into streetwear just want something more elevated.

“They are just looking for something more branded or more expensive to wear, ” he notes. “On the other end, I think luxury fashion has realised that younger shoppers now have money. They now have the consumer power.”

In a lot of ways, streetwear (in the sense of the more popular brands) and luxury fashion do share similarities. Both bank on their positions as top status symbols within their fan base in order to drive demand.

Cult streetwear labels like Supreme or Off-White grew based on the contingent of know-how. Insider knowledge of what’s specifically cool on the streets – and its associated fashion – sort of fuelled exclusivity.

Fundamentally based on countercultures like skate, surf and hip-hop, streetwear is about being different and special. These values are coincidentally, also valued by the high fashion community.

Read more: Streetwear is now fashion's new luxury, and Malaysia isn't left out of the scene

“I don’t think what has happened is right or wrong, but with the merging of the two worlds, I personally feel like streetwear has lost a little of its appeal and mystery. As long as you have money, you can get it, ” Lim points out.

“Streetwear was never about money. It was about being part of a ‘tribe’. It was also about making a statement. For example, you wear a particular T-shirt and only people in the scene would recognise it, or realise the significance of what you’re wearing”.

Other fans however, are more accepting of the luxury streetwear trend. Or maybe they are just resigned to the fact that this is something inevitable and no amount of resisting can change anything.

Bryan Chin, co-founder of Malaysia’s biggest sneakers, streetwear and lifestyle convention, Sneakerlah, says that it is totally expected for luxury fashion houses to try and embrace streetwear.

He says designer labels know that they have to remain relatable – and one good way is to reach out to the younger consumers. How are they doing it? By incorporating streetwear pieces into their collections.

“If they go down their own road without tapping a new market, they will easily become irrelevant, ” he explains, citing the example of sneakers and how the footwear has become accepted as a luxury accessory.

“For the big fashion houses that have not entered the sneakers scene, you can see that there’s no energy around their launches. There’s no acceptance from the younger generation of shoppers”.

Read more: People are stepping out in sneakers costing thousands of dollars, here's why

Dior’s release of the limited edition Air Jordan 1 OG makes for a good case study. The sneakers was launched online on June 25, with only 8,000 of both the high and low top models available for sale – and with prices starting from US$2,000 (RM8,480).

Despite that, it sold like hotcakes. The chairman and CEO of Christian Dior Couture, Pietro Beccari, later told Women’s Wear Daily that five million people signed up to pre-reserve the sneakers.

But not everyone buys streetwear to be worn. The Dior Air Jordan 1 OG is reportedly selling for more than US$20,000 (RM84,800) on resale sites. Such is the crazy demand for luxury sneakers.

“The commoditisation of streetwear is also a factor of its push. There is a resale value to streetwear items. So it becomes more than just clothes. There is money to be made from owning streetwear, ” Chin points out.

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