Is streetwear a subculture?

The question has been debated for decades: is streetwear a subculture?

 Is streetwear a subculture? The answer is a resounding no.
Is streetwear a subculture? The answer is a resounding no.

The answer is a resounding no – although that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, streetwear used to be considered a subculture until quite recently. Today it is a staple of mainstream fashion, and therefore, can no longer be considered a subculture. That transition took nearly four decades to complete.

Stussy started streetwear

Streetwear came to be in the early 1980s when Shawn Stussy, a talented surfer in summer and avid skier in winter, began making graphic T-shirts bearing his stylized last name to compliment the punk rock/new wave-inspired art that he was already putting onto surfboards.

 In the nearly 40 years since Stussy first started hocking shirts out of his car, Stussy is a brand that has stood the test of time while so many other labels have come and gone. Stussy endured because it was able to infiltrate and celebrate the many subcultures who embraced the brand. Stussy is still a perennial outfitter of multiple subcultures from skaters to hip-hop, to punk and much more.

 During the ‘80s when Stussy was launched and through the ‘90s, subcultures like punk and grunge were mostly defined through the music their fans listened to. The same is true of hip-hop after its rise in popularity some years later as well as such non-musical hobbies like skateboarding and surfing.

Throughout this period and up until very recently, clothing was used more as a symbolic representation of affiliation to a certain subculture rather than as a status symbol of a certain type of culture.

 Brands like Stussy were embraced by subculture groups like skaters and boarders, but that doesn’t mean that streetwear is its own subculture.
Brands like Stussy were embraced by subculture groups like skaters and boarders, but that doesn’t mean that streetwear is its own subculture.

Stussy’s eventual move into exclusive sales firmed up the baseline definition of streetwear: taking “a multi-faceted, sub-culturally diverse, Southern California lifestyle-based T-shirt brand and establishing the limited feel of a high-end luxury brand” is a contributing factor to the end of streetwear as its own subculture.

The death of streetwear as a subculture

It’s definitely safe to say that luxury’s appropriation of streetwear and its popularity in the mainstream has stripped streetwear of its status as a subculture, but that is a subject we’ll examine later.

Whereas streetwear once was about owning brands that defined the subculture in which you identified, that paradigm shifted slowly but surely over the years.

The purpose of purchasing streetwear was about identifying with a subculture or within a counterculture group, especially when supporting a genre of music or the ideology of a certain group. Different subcultures have used certain styles of music and fashion to help express their philosophical views, and it’s also true that these same groups have been traditionally at odds with the mainstream, serving as a symbolic form of resistance to the powers that be.

During grunge’s supreme reign as a music form, you had to be knowledgeable to be accepted into the culture and acceptance only came through learning. Grunge was different than rock, and simply donning a Pearl Jam shirt did not mean you were an accepted member of that subculture.

Grunge had its own style that was unique to the culture that followed it. You had to work hard to be in the know, and while an artist like Neil Young blurred the lines between rock and Grunge and is even considered to be a forerunner of the genre, the roots of Grunge ran much deeper than what was played on the radio.

 Grunge had a distinct style, until it was ruined in 1992 when a high-end line of streetwear was introduced by Marc Jacobs via the Perry Ellis brand.
Grunge had a distinct style, until it was ruined in 1992 when a high-end line of streetwear was introduced by Marc Jacobs via the Perry Ellis brand.

To be a true grungester, you had to attend shows, especially of lesser-known bands, you had to subscribe to grunge-focused publications and you had to have a deep understanding of the music and what it represented. It was, quite frankly, impossible for a poser to fool a true grungester.   

Today, however, thanks to music subscription services that make multiple forms of musical styles readily available to the masses and the growth of the information superhighway, the lines of individuality that were pervasive in music have become blurred. Since music was no longer able to produce this sense of individuality, the responsibility fell to fashion, and particularly on streetwear.  

Where once fans were united by picking up a new album from their favorite performer on the day it was released, clothing brands became the new subculture shibboleth. This is a reason that clothing “drops”, whose practice has been perfected to a science by clothiers like Supreme, have become so popular.

While picking up the latest collab within certain brands of streetwear has had a unifying effect on different groups, it has also had the unintended consequence of driving streetwear into the mainstream.

Why streetwear is no longer a subculture

As one supporter of the idea that streetwear is no longer a subculture stated: “There was a time where owning something from Supreme was not a status symbol but a sign of belonging to a certain group; now you walk down the street and see every next person in something either bearing Supreme or Thrasher. The soaring prices of luxury streetwear and the mad-grab of many houses to get into streetwear has stripped streetwear of its counter-culture and killed it into the mainstream.”

There’s also the stark contrast that while grunge stood for a stripped-down, minimalist approach to consumerism that streetwear has become the exact opposite, instead heavily relying on consumerism to be its driving force. This is further exacerbated by the belief that you have to have all the latest gear and be willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money to obtain it.

 Today, high-end fashion brands like Gucci have skin in the streetwear game.
Today, high-end fashion brands like Gucci have skin in the streetwear game.

This, in a nutshell, is the very antithesis of subculture. When he was at Perry Ellis, Marc Jacobs (who has his own line of high fashion today) put grunge into the mainstream spotlight by offering a high-end line in 1992. Ironically, Jacobs offered his own redux grunge line of fashion in 2018 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of what some would say led to the death of grunge-styled clothing as streetwear.

Today, luxury brands like Gucci, Luis Vuitton, and many others have destroyed the streetwear subculture by making it part of the fashion mainstream and, in the process, killing any notion that that streetwear is still a subculture. The soaring prices of luxury streetwear, exacerbated by limited runs and the plethora of many high-end and traditional fashion brands getting into streetwear has stripped it of its counter-culture status.

Some point to the first few days of 2017 as the beginning of the end for streetwear as a subculture. It was only 17 days into the new year when a slinky model wearing finely tailored pants, a dress shirt and bulky knitwear with the iconic Supreme logo on it hit the stage during the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2017 fashion show in Paris.

There was also a cross-body bag in that ubiquitous Supreme red with the brand’s logo emblazoned on it, a luggage set and a denim baseball shirt that mixed Vuitton’s monogram with James Jebbia’s “Futura Heavy Oblique” logo.

Suddenly, the flood gates had opened and there was a mad dash for other high-end brands to get in on offering streetwear brand collaborations.

The ideology of subcultures

Then there is the issue of ideology.

The like-minded beliefs of a group that differs from the main culture are the very building blocks that characterize what a subculture is. This variation from the norm made punk, punk, made hip-hop, hip-hop, and made grunge, grunge. And it is the individual ideology of a certain group, whether it be driven by cultural, political, or societal motives, that identifies a subculture.

To be sure, there are those who would answer the subculture question with a resounding yes. Industry experts who believe streetwear is “a culture and not just a product” and numerous fashion writers who quite frequently refer to the “culture” of streetwear are among the purveyors of this world view.

 Once dominated by groups whose clothes represented their cultural differences to the mainstream, today’s streetwear is inundated by high-fashion labels.
Once dominated by groups whose clothes represented their cultural differences to the mainstream, today’s streetwear is inundated by high-fashion labels.

Streetwear is not a subculture

But what is strikingly missing in their arguments is an explanation as to exactly how today’s streetwear is a subculture. Those who defend this premise usually do so with broad strokes, without offering any precise language on the subject.

However, clothing is not an ideology. It is merely a vessel by which the group can separate themselves from the mainstream and make himself or herself known to other members of their tribe.

Streetwear may have intimate ties to various styles of music and be repped by members of a subculture, but that doesn’t make it, in itself, a subculture. In fact, as it’s adopted by major brands and celebrated by the fashion industry, streetwear just becomes more mainstream every day.