Is the Streetwear Bubble About to Burst?
Originally published on Highsnobiety and in Issue #17 of their magazine.
History has shown several instances of “bubbles,” boom and bust periods involving everything from tulips to the American housing market. If the current state of streetwear is any indicator, the golden years of the movement might be about to end with an almighty pop.
In 1841, Scottish writer Charles Mackay published Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The book detailed examples of social epidemics, market speculation, and urban legends. In the 177 years since its publication, Mackay’s outline of how humans form social in-groups and endorse the absurd to their own detriment has only grown in relevance. Its insights are particularly relevant to the realm of streetwear today, which is officially a billion-dollar business.
As the dominant facet of 21st-century fashion, streetwear has come to define and be defined by the fervor with which it is coveted by adoring fans and cunning resellers the world over. It is a single red thread that extends through youth culture in nearly every major city around the globe. It is a bubble at least two decades in the making whose growth shows little sign of slowing. It has evolved from the uniform of skaters, punks, and hip-hop heads to a commercial fad powerful enough to upend the fashion industry itself.
Streetwear and sneaker culture is a form of mass hysteria, propagated by the internet and fueled by insecurity. In the near future, streetwear fever will reach its apex, and the category will shift into something entirely different, if not dissimilar. Here’s how.
If one positive social trend has grown out of streetwear’s mainstream success, it’s the rise of recognition. For the first time in history, major brands aren’t only borrowing from a previously unrecognized style subset, they’re embracing it fully. In this new era, names such as Shawn Stussy and James Jebbia drip, quasi-fetishized, from the lips of high society in Milan, Paris, and Seoul. But so do Rammellzee, Dondi White, and Dapper Dan. Are these complex, often revolutionarily important figures becoming one-dimensionalized by a European fashion industry that truly couldn’t care less about the history of a culture they’re now so ardently taking as inspiration? Absolutely — but that’s kind of what they do. And if it gets a few stories out there that need to be told, that’s certainly better than allowing them to be swallowed by the abyss of history.
When Yves Saint Laurent dove into North Africa and East Asia for inspiration and showed black models on the runway for the first time, he certainly could have been accused of tokenism. And sure, by today’s standards there was some ignorance in how he presented his collections. Yet, in the end there was more good than bad done by his willingness to tap into other cultures’ perspectives. And it can be argued that something similar is happening today. In fact, Virgil Abloh, the patron saint of this movement, has compared the rise of streetwear to Saint Laurent’s introduction of ready-to-wear as a democratizing moment in fashion.
Streetwear is often defined not by product category, marketing schemes, or price point, but rather as a culture. Yet this definition is too easy, and repeated so often that it has become a platitude: “Do it for the culture.” This common streetwear-adjacent phrase has even inspired a Migos track, two album titles, and the name of Migos member Offset and Cardi B’s first child — although the baby’s name is spelled “Kulture.”
Many well-meaning titans of the industry, Bobby Kim — better known as Bobby Hundreds — chiefly among them, have written diatribes on what defines “the culture” and how corporations are negatively impacting it. “Sales distro and image are what ultimately constitute a brand as streetwear,” Kim wrote. “Not the art or design.”
In 2017, Kim also wrote, “After 14 years of building my own brand, The Hundreds, I saw the ‘streetwear’ label get twisted and turned by the media and mainstream… Today, streetwear is the hottest hashtag in style, youth culture, and music, but no one agrees on what it means or where it came from.”
This perspective is valid, but it would have had a bigger impact had Kim not been promoting his own documentary on the scene, Built to Fail, at the time. He’d announced the film seven months earlier at ComplexCon, perhaps the most successful attempt to corporatize the community yet. This hustler mindset, one of constant self-promotion combined with a persistent and scorching thirst for relevance, is core to the world of streetwear. There is a fear, it seems, that no matter how big a brand becomes, it could be forgotten overnight.
If anything, streetwear was born as a subculture. It rose from a DIY aesthetic and a loose community of surfers, skaters, artists, graffiti artists, punks, and new wave and hip-hop musicians. Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo once defined streetwear in the following way: “No investors, no partners etc. The product is pure, as we’re not on the fashion calendar… I guess anything would be considered street that comes outside of the traditional fashion system.”
Yet, of course, many streetwear brands (including Lorenzo’s own) are now deeply ensconced in the system. The majority have outside investment (including Supreme — even before the $500 million Carlyle Group deal) and the fashion industry on the whole has followed streetwear’s lead, eschewing seasonality more and more with each passing year.
Still, streetwear did indeed once exist outside the established systems of fashion, retail, merchandising, finance, and marketing. It entered the mainstream in 2017, morphing into something new. There’s a simple fact about the movement: it’s easy to produce, relying heavily on graphics and screenprinting rather than cut-and-sew, and it’s culturally viable. People want streetwear because it looks cool — validated by celebrities around the world — and it’s comfortable. Fashion brands love this.
To charge the best part of $1,000, as Balenciaga does with its Triple S, for a shoe made in China is a coup for an industry struggling to improve its ever-slimming margins. By tapping into the release methods of Supreme and its ilk, often referred to as a “drop” model, high-end brands can bypass seasonality for monthly or even weekly brand moments. Gucci was probably the first to jump on this model. Hedi Slimane at Celine and Riccardo Tisci at Burberry have promised to follow suit.
On the flip side, the embrace of the luxury sphere allows street-level brands to upsell their own collaborations. The thought of Nike charging $1,000 for an ACG shell jacket, for example, was unimaginable a decade ago. Today’s consumer culture is a dream come true for the finance guys over at Nike, adidas, LVMH, and Kering, yet it’s creating an evolving reality in which items that should cost a few hundred dollars end up being retailed for thousands and then resold for triple those prices.
What if, as sites like StockX suggest is starting to happen, the demand for some of these items doesn’t meet the supply? What you have is a huge set of products that are overinflated in price, bearing little relation to the intrinsic value of the garment because its value has been defined solely by hype.
That’s the classic first warning sign of a bubble.
The rise of streetwear coincides with a greater casualization and deconstruction of societal norms. Men no longer need to wear suits to work in most industries and women are no longer tied to high heels or traditional ideas of femininity. As trust in institutions around the world is shattered, young people are modeling themselves in the image of the public figures they admire, and that started in the mid ’00s with the likes of Kanye West.
Claims that West invented leather jogging pants, for example, are wide of the mark — but it’s hardly debatable that he popularized them. Before West, men didn’t wear a lot of the things we do now. He helped turn Slimane, Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Haider Ackermann, Alexander Wang, Balmain, and even Celine and Chloé into household names — if there’s a streetwear fan in the household, at least. By the time he got around to designing his own sneakers for Nike and adidas — although he did it for BAPE first — he was a bona fide fashion god. Everyone started dressing like him.
For diehards, though, there have been moments when it’s been more difficult to follow Yeezy’s path. In 2010, he launched the short-lived but politically charged “Rosewood” movement, named for the majority-black town in Levy County, Florida that was burned to the ground during a 1923 race riot. In this period, he wore only black suits. A year later, around the time Watch the Throne dropped, he started rocking leather kilts. For 2013’s Yeezus era, he took to bejeweled Margiela masks that completely obscured his face. Nowadays, he has fully embraced the “cool dad” aesthetic, and every look at Zara seems to reflect a different era of his personal style.
Streetwear began without the internet but came to be defined by it. Forums on Hypebeast (now defunct), Superfuture, and Reddit have had outsized influence on the industry. These early social media communities looked different from the ones we see today — for one, they were (mostly) positive places.
Before it was considered the norm to obsess over what Kanye wears, how to wash raw denim (put it in the fridge, walk into the ocean while wearing it, and so on) or where to get limited-edition BAPE camouflage bandanas (find a 2006 issue of Cool Trans, a Japanese fashion magazine that came with the scarf as a gift), members of the streetwear community helped each other out on the forums. Fans shared information on sizing, releases, and the availability of their favorite brands. They would even sell to and trade with one another for (gasp) little-to-no markup on pricing. Debating music was another core function of these networks. In the early days, forums featured frequent posts from the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Kid Cudi.
The major shift in high-end fashion from the beginning of this era to now is from leader to follower. Kim Jones, by no means an untalented designer, helped bring things full circle when he engineered a collaboration between Supreme and Louis Vuitton during his tenure as the house’s artistic director. In a previous life he had worked for streetwear distributor Gimme Five in London, which doled out rare Supreme gear to a select number of stockists (Supreme wouldn’t open its London outpost until much later, in 2011).
Jones brought the same ethos to his debut men’s collection at Dior, enlisting the services of street artist KAWS for several installations and reimaginings of venerated Dior motifs, brought in AMBUSH designer Yoon Ahn to oversee the house’s accessories, and tapped 1019 ALYX 9SM’s Matthew Williams to craft logo-laden quick-release belt buckles — one of his signature street style-ready items — in conjunction with the house.
As higher-end brands hopped on the streetwear train, collaborations, graphic tees, sweatsuits, and sneakers were, above all, safe bets. There’s little chance anyone on the internet would lambast these items, and there was a strong likelihood that the now-influential OG streetwear personalities would wear them, serving as free channels of “earned” media.
Meanwhile, the original online communities started to wane. A new generation of kids completely detached from the inner-city skate and hip-hop communities that had popularized streetwear trends started chasing them with gusto. Rich suburban kids and new wealth in Russia, Dubai, and China all began coveting brands like OFF-WHITE, Supreme, and BAPE. Others started reselling to them — hard.
Streetwear has long battled for legitimacy in the fashion universe, but now that its coup d’état has succeeded, it’s left with little to give besides a hype-based business model and a penchant for styling, photography, and marketing that makes it all look a lot more exciting than it actually is. It’s in the best interest of all parties involved that their products continue to demand a high level of cultural credibility and cool. This is why previously ostracized resellers are now being heralded as champions of the industry, with brands such as Nike openly collaborating with Sean Wotherspoon of consignment resale store Round Two, and Nordstrom adding an in-store space in New York operated by reselling platform Stadium Goods.
Yet a little sleuthing on the web tells a different story — one of excess inventory, sinking profits, and vast discrepancies in pricing between the likes of StockX, Stadium Goods, and eBay, for example. What we have here is industry-wide speculation: the second telltale sign of a bubble.
Beyond the inflated value and rampant speculation in the streetwear industry today, there are other signs that we’re in a bubble. Traditionally, the stages of a bubble are as follows:
1. displacement, which occurs when a new paradigm is touted, wooing industry stakeholders (e.g. the drop model); 2. a boom, the at-first slow and then rapid increase in the price of a particular asset or assets (for example, T-shirts and sneakers); 3. euphoria, also known as the “greater fool” phase, wherein valuation reaches absurd levels (like the May 2018 Supreme auction in Paris nauseatingly titled “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” which garnered around $1 million for what are essentially mass-produced tchotchkes with logos emblazoned on them); 4. profit-taking, the phase in which smart people grab their money and get out (like those who own and operate reselling operations), and finally; 5. panic, which is self-explanatory.
To argue that we’re currently in the fourth, profit-taking phase of a streetwear bubble isn’t outlandish. A basic characteristic of a bubble is the suspension of disbelief by the majority of participants involved. With this mindset, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world in which every metropolitan city isn’t bustling with kids obsessing over sneakers and drenched in designer logos. Yet bubbles are also usually only ever identified once they’ve burst.
The point of this analysis isn’t to predict what comes next, but rather to take a moment to look back at the beautiful, sometimes infuriating culture streetwear has evolved into — and to forewarn that it could be coming to a close in its current form. No one is arguing that sneakers are going away, they just might not always trade at the level they do today, wherein people are willing to spend thousands of dollars on them. Perhaps we’ll experience a return to minimalism, with affordable basics such as white Vans experiencing a surge in popularity. Perhaps the next generation will consider comfort a crutch and return to hard-bottom shoes and tailored shirts (there are small pockets from London to Hong Kong already doing this). Perhaps Supreme, now beholden to its $1 billion valuation, will overextend itself, diluting the brand and the culture to such a degree that it ends up self-immolating. Or maybe Supreme will do everything it can to earn that capital and realize it simply isn’t the lifestyle brand we all thought it was, leading to a panic phase in which investors flee the sector entirely.
No matter what happens, we can’t keep up the charade. YEEZYs, once the holy grail of streetwear, are now available for days at a time online at retail price before selling out. Brands such as Vetements are rumored to be underperforming from a financial perspective. ComplexCon, the ultimate celebration of the culture, has been on the end of a substantial backlash from consumers, oddly, for being too consumerist. The cycle might just be coming to a close. Like with the late-’90s dotcom bubble, the subprime mortgage crisis, and even bitcoin, warning signs abound.
In the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, “tulip mania” gripped what is today the Netherlands. This event is often considered to be the first ever market bubble. A perfect storm of free-market capitalism, consumerism, and social trend, it saw a new wealthy elite go crazy for tulips. The flowers had been introduced to Europe about a century earlier, and their colors were unlike anything that existed on the continent. The Dutch elite became obsessed with trading tulip bulbs, and a boom market was born. At the height of the craze in 1637, a single tulip bulb is reported to have been valued at more than 10 times the annual salary of a skilled worker. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Mackay wrote that one man had traded 12 acres of land for a single bulb. A formal futures market had been set up in 1636, although short-selling was banned. And then, in February 1637, less than a year later, it all came crashing down.
Are hyped sneakers the new tulips? We’re about to find out.