Streetwear’s Internal Conflict: How youth fashion grew up, got a job and got even weirder.

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Hood By Air SS16
Hood By Air SS16 Photography Virginia Arcaro, Dazed

Streetwear now occupies a prominent place within fashion week. but rather anything might see actually worn by youths on the street or in clubs, today’s street wear features wild dystopian styles not readily identifiable to any particular scene. Streetwear once signified belonging to a group, usually one out of the mainstream (Hippie, Punk, Goth, Skater) and its deviance from style norms represented rebellion against authority and affirmed the wearer’s outsider status.

However, the general decline of youth subculture and rebellion coupled with the rapidity of mainstream co-opting subcultures, makes increasingly difficult for a street wear brand to maintain its underground credibility, especially after named a finalist for a Vouge CFDA award.

Subdued by general apathy and robbed of its elitist pretension, youth turns its angst inward – focusing on the struggles of internal conflict and self doubt. For a fashion designer, self-questioning is the tension between creative integrity vs. commercial success and most clearly expresses itself in the duality of the garment industry: Fashion vs. Retail. To outsiders, the terms may seem synonymous, but, in reality, the two operate in a perpetual war of ideals and control.  It’s the creative idealism versus the business practicality and the fight for leadership between the artist with the ideas and the boss with the capital.

In smaller upstart labels, who don’t have to answer to finance or merchandising departments, you can see the creative side’s dominance, especially in streetwear brands like Hood By Air, Gypsy Sport and Eckhaus Latta.  These brands put out some bizarre stuff.  In describing their looks, critics use adjectives like “gender-bending”, “avant garde” and “deconstructed” the last one seems refer to a garments destroyed appearance rather than the critical theory. In any case, it describes the clothes well. For his SS16 collection, Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver showed pieces of a like shirt flayed open resembling a medical dissection and pant legs slashed into three parts. Gypsy Sport, led by Rio Uribe, paired basketball netting and floor-length skirts (for men) with seashells, completed with visors and septum rings. Gypsy Sport’s clothing, though shown on male models, all seem gender-less: dresses, crop-tops in pink and baby blue, all fantastically wild stuff.  Though the concept was trying to say something about uniforms or Rio’s Carnival, they all make a strong artistic statement through one fact: lack of identifiable clothing categories.

Gypsy Sport SS16
Gypsy Sport SS16 Photography Rebekah Campbell, Dazed
Gypsy Sport SS16
Gypsy Sport SS16 Photography Rebekah Campbell, Dazed

Uncatogorizable clothing is a deftly subversive. For a retailer, concerned with the business side, which needs to buy, assort, and merchandise the product as well as track it selling, poorly defined product categories is hugely destabilizing. Is it casual or formal? A top or a dress? Male or female? Clothing type, even more than style, will define and control the brand’s image and even creative direction. And once established, it can be difficult to break the mold. Take for example Levis, universally admired and known, but hemmed in by perception of a Jean company. Despite doing denim well for over 100 years, the brand has failed to meaningfully expand its image and vision into new categories – 80 percent of sales still come from denim categories. Maybe Levis wanted to be an actor, but so many people depend on him for jeans. Without product categories and the pressure to “comp the sales”, the retail industry can’t control your brand.

How long can a brand resist itself? Sooner or later business interests and art come into an insurmountable conflict. “People might start to question the authenticity of our actual spirit,” Uribe says in an interview with the New York Times, “But my job is to make sure that Gypsy Sport and its presentation still has the same message of being different and being an outcast from the norm.” In acknowledging the struggle ahead, and his role as a guardian of authenticity, Uribe suggests he may become the outsider within his own brand.

In every narrative conflict exists. Streetwear once represented the struggle against the oppression of society and its expectations. But now with the rebellion quelled, an internal conflict takes hold about what we want to be and responsibility to others. The story of streetwear and its youthful defiance will probably end with a kids collection and weekends in the outlet, but in 2016, it did what it wanted and didn’t give a fuck.

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