In 1965, a young guy called Darryl Cornbread started writing with paint brushes “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” all over North Philadelphia. After winning over Cynthia, he continued tagging his name on the walls of the city: modern graffiti art had just born! This became a widely extended trend spreading to NY City and blossoming into the modern graffiti movement, which reached its peak in the US in the late 70s and the early 80s and then spread to Europe. Graffiti Art with hip-hop, skate, surf and other influences have now created a multi billion-dollar retail phenomenon, that is known under the broad appelation « streetwear ». Here is its history.
While the movement has roots in California and NY, other early adopter like Nigo and Hiroshi Fujiwara, both influential DJs and designers, were largely responsible for pioneering the street style and hip-hop scene in Japan in the 1980s. Like other major cultural movements, streetwear quickly rose simultaneously in major cities and regions throughout the globe. « The first thing that caught my attention in streetwear was the skate label Vision — clothes for skaters. Skateboarding was a sport you did on the street, so I think that’s where it comes from, originally », said Hiroshi Fujiwara. « Of course other brands such as Stüssy (surfwear brand) were also around back then, but as for streetwear, it started with Vision »
What would be the current definition of streetwear?
« If you’re talking about the origins, then I think what we call street fashion now has naturally flowed on from skateboarding; but the current reality is different. It feels like a sneaker culture now; sneakers and hip-hop culture have become the street culture », Hiroshi Fujiwara. And, like any major cultural movement, streetwear has not risen in a vacuum. Streetwear should not be viewed as a trend within fashion, but as the fashion leg of a larger shift that has given power to popular culture spanning fashion, art and music.
The mindset that drives this popular culture shift appeared as early as 1960s, when Andy Warhol questioned what constituted contemporary art. In the 1970s, artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring extended this conversation to street art, challenging traditional notions of who could access art and who it was for. Hip-hop and rap similarly promoted a raw form of music motivated by rule breaking and finding art and sound in unconventional ways. Streetwear is analogous to an artist’s street art or a hip-hop artist’s lyrics: picking a spot and dropping a signature.
The communities that originally led streetwear were largely male dominated and as such the style was originally adoptes and driver by men, depicting traditionally masculine looks. In the beginning, streetwear was simple and an antidote to the elaborate, complicated styles that were in fashion at the time. The formula was straightforward: people wore T-shirts and hoodies because that’s what they liked. This uniform was tied to both comfort and self-expression. Pioneers of the movement include Jame Jebbig founder of skate brand Supreme, and Shawn Stussy, founder of surf brand Stüssy. Designer Dapper Dan played a pivotal role in elevating streetwear to luxury as early as the 1980’s out of Harlem, New York, creating styles for hip-hop artists who were shunned by traditional luxury brands at the time.
This level of authenticity is unmatched elsewhere in the fashion industry, which has typically operated through a top-down effect. Insiders used to act as the gatekeepers to the newest styles and trends, but streetwear has subverted this formula with a more democratic model!