By  on July 31, 2014

Backpacks. Bomber jackets. Bucket hats. It’s apparent that the Nineties have made a strong comeback — and with it, a wave of streetwear nostalgia.

Streetwear is in its fifth iteration with everyone from megabrands such as Nike, Adidas and Timberland, to traditional labels such as Brooks Brothers and up-and-coming designers like Off-White tapping into its aesthetic. Its resurgence, both in terms of fashion influence and revenue, stems from a variety of factors, including the growing importance of Generation Z consumers; the boom in activewear as everyday apparel, and the exponential increase in online shopping, which enables even the smallest of labels to gain worldwide distribution.

The current market is saturated with hundreds, if not thousands, of streetwear brands, which is what separates today’s movement from what it was two decades ago. So big is its potential that industry sources now estimate the category to have annual sales of $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

There also is increasing segmentation. No longer is there one look; instead, streetwear ranges from urban Goths to the skate and surfer market to new-era grunge and punk and, finally, hip-hop. Because of social media and the Web, all of these underground subcultures are now accessible to the public.

“True independent streetwear was always a secret club,” said Bobby “Hundreds” Kim of Los Angeles-based brand The Hundreds. “But the Web cracked the mystery wide open. The biggest reason why the culture and style have become so prevalent today is because of desktop publishing, the facility to print T-shirts and manufacture apparel, and the lowered barrier to entry for a newcomer to participate in the market. Just a decade or so ago, kids wanted to grow up to be rappers, baseball players or movie stars. Today, the youth aspire to own a brand and have a streetwear label. Even musicians and athletes and celebrities want in. With two clicks of a mouse, you can have a silk-screened T-shirt and a snap-back cap to stand behind and position your place in the world.”

The influence is being seen in the designer market as well, where trend-setting labels such as En Noir, Off-White by Virgil Abloh and others are showcasing streetwear influences in their collections.

“These days I believe that you can judge a designer by a graphic T-shirt they make,” said Abloh, who also moonlights as Kanye West’s creative director. Abloh’s brand, rooted in street culture but influenced by designers like Riccardo Tisci and Raf Simons, is now sold at retailers such as Barneys New York.

“My clothes are created out of an atelier in Milan and the production is mainly in Europe,” he said. “It’s sold on a designer floor at Barneys but [has] streetwear sensibilities.”

Even as streetwear makes a comeback, traditional teen retailers such as American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch and Aéropostale have been struggling, as have traditional surf brands like Quiksilver and Billabong. Analysts believe there are a myriad of reasons as to why, but one thing is certain: The Generation Z consumers (ages 12 to 17) have become highly informed shoppers, with 91 percent plugged into the Internet and social media. According to a study made by The Intelligence Group, a division of Creative Artists Agency, Gen-Zers are as discriminating as older consumers when shopping for the best products and deals.

“They’re on every platform now and they are constantly being fed new information — what’s cool, where to get it,” said Jamie Gutfreund, chief strategy officer at TIG.

Among the brands that are attracting these younger customers on social media are established streetwear labels such as Stüssy and Supreme; West Coast brands like The Hundreds, Black Scale, Undefeated, Huf, Diamond Supply Co., and Crooks and Castles, and East Coast firms like 10.Deep, SSUR and Been Trill — many of which have their own freestanding stores and e-commerce capabilities. Diamond Supply Co., for instance, opened its second freestanding store in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in June. The brand plans to open a third store in New York City later this year at 268 Lafayette Street across from Supreme.

Nick Diamond, founder and designer, said he plans to open other stores internationally in Asia, Canada and Europe in the next few years in addition to expanding Stateside. “I like to think of our flagship stores as more of a great marketing tool and a retail showroom for our fans to experience what the Diamond life is all about,” he said.

Despite its growing retail footprint, Diamond Supply Co., along with other brands, maintains its “cool” factor by keeping a low profile and steering clear of producing apparel in mass quantities. To excel, they sell the notion that their items are not only exclusive, but difficult to find. While brands such as Stüssy and Been Trill sell at chains such as Urban Outfitters and Pacific Sunwear, it’s a controlled strategy to reach consumers in markets where streetwear specialty stores are few and far between.

“All of our streetwear brands perform very well,” said Gary Schoenfeld, president and chief executive officer of Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., which also has seen its share of struggles in the past few years.

The retailer, Schoenfeld said, now views streetwear as integral to its survival. “PacSun works hard — whether [it’s because our] employees are skating on the street, we’re getting feedback from social media or we’re at events — to keep up with the latest trends,” he said. “Some of this is knowing who the authentic players are and keeping a pulse on what they’re currently doing. We’re seeing new brands and trends every day. In the end, we evaluate who’s behind the brand and see if they are viable in the streetwear industry.”

Nor are only youth-oriented chains tapping into the trend. Harvey Nichols partnered with Been Trill to create an exclusive collection that was unveiled in June. The collection included collaborations with designers such as Kim Jones, Gareth Pugh, Linda Farrow and others.

As the style makes a comeback yet again — and more retailers and brands jump onto the bandwagon — the very term “streetwear” stirs more confusion than ever over what it exactly defines.

Take, for instance, men’s wear (and now women’s wear as well) label Public School, which recently won the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award. Started by Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, the line is New York-inspired with its oversize shapes and expensive fabrics, but the designers decidedly do not consider it streetwear.

“People incorrectly refer to us as streetwear, but the brand isn’t streetwear at all,” Chow, who began his career at Sean Jean, said. “We aren’t chasing trends or commenting on what’s going on in culture. Our DNA is in mixing high and low, mixing different worlds, referencing and creating fabric combinations, but making it with a versatility and practicality to it.”

Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air said that his collection, though inspired by skaters, is not traditional streetwear either.

“Many people have their definitions of what we are, but I wouldn’t call it streetwear,” he said.

So what is streetwear?

“You know it when you see it,” said Aaron Levant, founder of the streetwear show Agenda. “It’s all about the independent spirit and an emulation of street culture. It’s about the design aesthetic, a mix of New York, skate culture, fashion, music, graphic design, art. It’s a reflection of how the youth is today.”

Kim, who started his brand The Hundreds in 2003, said that streetwear to him is a mélange of youth culture.

“[My definition] sits somewhere between urban culture, skateboarding and high fashion,” he said. “The vital ingredient — what makes streetwear streetwear — is the limited distribution, the specialty factor and the response to a blown-out, corporatized industry. Streetwear is the underground to mainstream fashion. Music has garage bands. In every generation, the counter-culture rises against the hegemony and then becomes it. Rinse and repeat.”

Arguably, the top-selling and oldest brand in the business is Stüssy.

The surf-based line has been privately owned since its inception in 1980 by surfer-turned-designer Shawn Stussy. The company operates 16 stores — or “chapters,” as it likes to call them — across the world, and wholesales to around 250 accounts, ranging from Urban Outfitters and Active to Zumiez.

Its current owner, Frank Sinatra Jr. (no relation to the other Frank Sinatra), said the brand was sold at Macy’s and Nordstrom in the Eighties. But today, Sinatra said selling to department stores isn’t appealing to him mainly because “Macy’s customer isn’t necessarily as individual or fashionable.

“Where you sell and what you sell is key,” he said. “We are very selective in where we sell and we are trying to be practically selective about what we make.”

Sinatra said that, in streetwear, a controlled distribution model is essential to survival. Unlike traditional business models, where more distribution equates to more revenue and is therefore considered “better,” streetwear brands take an opposite approach to guard against oversaturation that could impact their “cool factor.” Sinatra said that, today, Stüssy’s sweet spot is around $50 million in total revenues.

“We don’t try to hit it and we’ll take less, but [it’s a number] we want to control,” he said. “If the orders are too large, we’ll cut it back and we’ll take less.”

Sinatra said that in the Nineties, Stüssy was approached by some major mass-market retailers to carry the line but declined all offers.

“We could have sold $100 million but that would mean we were not in control,” he said.

Scott Sasso, founder and owner of the New York-based label 10.Deep, agreed that the limited-distribution business model is what allows him to stay afloat.

“I don’t want to see every other person wearing my brand,” he said. “That would be my nightmare.”

Sasso, who developed his company in the mid-Nineties, said he actually scales back production any time he needs to grow his brand.

“We’ve always produced apparel in small quantities, not only because we wanted to target a specific customer, but because then the items are more sought out. Limited quantities equate to more people vying for it,” he said.

The Hundreds, which was founded by Kim and his law school classmate Ben Shenassafar, was built on the Web, which was in its infancy then.

“This was over 10 years ago, so the idea of interlacing fashion with the Internet was foreign — not how it is today where every designer has an Instagram following,” said Kim. “After a few years, some people knew us for our streetwear brand, others knew us for the blog and media platform. The Web site evolved into a morning newspaper for many in the industry and that trickled down to the consumers.”

In 2007, the company opened its first flagship in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, two years before the economy crashed, bringing many streetwear brands down with it.

“It was tough for all of us and we didn’t know if we’d even make it through,” Sasso recalled.

As a result, according to Levant, the market has become fragmented.

“Many small brands control big amounts of dollars,” he said. “Not any one brand is controlling the market or becoming very huge in value or market share. There are around 50 to 100 brands now making significant brand value as opposed to a handful in other years.”

Today, street-style blogs, Instagram and Tumblr are available to everyone worldwide, which is fueling the democratization and globalization of the market.

“Kids who were in New York could see what kids in Paris were wearing and vice versa,” said Darryl “Curtains” Jackson, brand director of En Noir, who considers himself a product of streetwear. “You would see kids in Japan wearing super high fashion clothes but they were wearing only a T-shirt, they weren’t wearing the typical Gucci outfit. You could see it in Japanese streetwear and how Supreme and Bape were infiltrating high fashion. Japanese culture was a big influence with Neighborhood, Visvim and Wtaps — all what I consider high fashion streetwear.”

“The Japanese market is where streetwear traditionally went to become cool and gain its status — just look at Stüssy in the Nineties,” said Iveet Shiau, head of international content at the Web site Hypebeast. “Now, foreign brands or American brands go there to incubate, then gain status, and expand. Then there are the Japanese brands like Neighborhood and Wtaps that have always been cool and are always influencing streetwear and where it’s headed.”

Shiau believes the next streetwear surge will come from Europe.

“It was America that led the way, then Japan, then America again, but now I see that Europe is where we will see the next wave,” he said.

Or back to American brands from yesteryear. This is the current goal for hot Nineties-era brands such as Ecko Unltd., Rocawear and even Fila, which are all re-branding to become new players in the lucrative youth apparel business. According to a study conducted by TIG, Gen-Zers directly influence around $600 million in consumer spending every year.

“Every moment is a shopping moment,” said Gutfreund.

As they reinvent themselves, these Nineties-era brands face increasing challenges in appealing to the new digitally savvy customer.

“The consumer is more global than in the Nineties when these brands were very relevant,” said Elena Romero, adjunct assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a hip-hop apparel historian. “Today, kids who listen to hip-hop aren’t defined head-to-toe by the music they listen to. The consumer is transcultural and blurs lines of cultures as well. To make themselves relevant again they need to ask what their customers’ needs are, what are their concerns?”

To tackle this question, the footwear brand Fila is taking a “back to the basics” approach for its relaunch. The company, which was at the height of the streetwear movement in the Nineties through collaborations with NBA stars such as Grant Hill, lost its hold on its core customer after being sold to Gene Yoon, who raised $450 million to purchase the company in 2007. Under its new ownership, the company became more focused on casual footwear with lower price points and was sold at midmarket retailers such as Kohl’s.

Today, the company has given its American division the lead on brand strategy to once again grab a piece of the market.

“Fila is still around and is a 103-year-old brand,” said Louis Colon, director of heritage and lifestyle product at Fila. “We want to share with the consumers that we haven’t gone anywhere. At the same time, today’s focus is to reeducate and target our customers and the new Millennial kid who is looking for a product to differentiate themselves.”

For the past two years, Colon has been leading the re-branding strategy to focus on creating limited-edition shoes and collaborating with specific brands, retailers and personalities.

“We understand that there’s a lot of competition in this space and we understand there are other brands people love,” he said. “There’s a guy’s closet filled with Jordans, Nike, Adidas, but we want to have the guy make room for Filas, too. You can’t take Fila out of the history of streetwear or footwear.”

Fila is beginning to heavily market its new direction. One campaign will launch later in August with the upcoming film “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which Fila partnered with as the official shoe sponsor.

“It’s a long game, it’s not a short one,” Colon said. “There was no one specific way to tell a story. We want to be authentic to who we are and know that kids are interested in rediscovering the past.”

Colon said that later in the year Fila will collaborate with the popular L.A.-based brand Joy Rich with a capsule collection.

Then there is the once-mega streetwear label Ecko Unltd., which was created by Marc Ecko, Seth Gerszberg and Marci Tapper and was fully acquired by Iconix Brand Group Inc. in May 2013. Ecko Unltd. is banking on the new fall collection to resonate with the Gen-Z market; it just released its fall campaign with hip-hop artist B.o.B., and is aggressively pushing a new, more streamlined image.

“We understand that there isn’t just one kind of guy anymore,” said James Ling, vice president of the men’s division at Iconix. “He likes hip-hop but watches action sports, likes to skate, he’s into a variety of things.”

Gone are the brand’s heavily emblazoned rhinoceros logo and XXL-size shirts so popular in the Nineties. Instead, the new fall collection — including button-ups, jogger pants and printed shirts — will hit J.C. Penney shelves this fall.

“It’s about tapping into what the new generation wants and understanding that we can’t box them into one single demographic,” Ling said.

Rocawear is following suit and shedding its long-standing image of being heavily hip-hop focused in hopes of reaching a new demographic. The brand — which was sold to Iconix in 2007 by Jay Z — tapped MTV star Nev Schulman to be the face of the fall ad campaign. Iconix declined to comment when asked about its long-term strategy with the brand.

“There’s definitely potential in reinventing these past brands,” said FIT’s Romero. “The brands just have to approach young people differently.”

Successful or not, streetwear — new and/or old — is a market that isn’t seen diminishing anytime soon.

“Because of social media, streetwear will never go away,” Levant said. “There’s an audience that never waivers and that are loyal consumers. And now with so much information out there [with the Web], the interest will never falter.”


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