When you’re a writer covering someone else’s work, the more guidance the artist can give you, the better. But when Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond (above) tweeted a piece of simple advice in November, it marked a revelation. “To all the writers newly covering Pyer Moss, thank you and welcome,” the Haitian-American designer wrote. “Please refrain from calling us a streetwear company. It’s lazy and singular, we are more, you are more.”
In three short sentences, Jean-Raymond reignited a conversation about the term that hinges on one simple truth: the involvement of people of colour (either designers or models) is ultimately not the determining factor of whether something is “streetwear”. The always-shifting category, which grew out of skate, surf and hip-hop subcultures, has historically done what it says on the tin – represented the way that those resisting the fashion mainstream have worn comfortable, everyday garments outside in the real world.
Nasir Mazhar (above), who has designed pieces for Lady Gaga, was the first to launch a thousand think pieces on the racial dynamics of the term, pointing out the racially coded way the word is deployed by fashion writers in 2016. The milliner-turned-clothing-designer told journalist Ted Stansfield: “The minute people see black or non-white models and casual silhouettes, they think it’s streetwear.”
When it comes to what is essentially lazy racial profiling, fashion writers should do better. But in some cases, the haste to eschew the label seems worth interrogating, too. Beyond simply being incorrectly deployed, the word “streetwear” has been described as tacky, basic and degrading by many – but why? Fashion designers have also often positioned streetwear as the antithesis to luxury fashion, but does this have to be the case?
When Mazhar elaborated on his gripe with the word, saying those that use similar terms “have to be like no, this isn’t fashion, this is something else. Fashion isn’t this, fashion isn’t tracksuits, fashion isn’t mixed ethnicities, fashion’s not about that really. So they have to be able to name it something else… Givenchy sells trackies and sweaters and T-shirts, but Givenchy would die if they called it streetwear!”
Although designers like Mazhar are entitled to label their work as they see fit, maybe this description of streetwear is where part of the problem lies. While fashion big guns may well take issue with the term, perhaps the negative connotations surrounding streetwear are also underpinned by a kind of racially charged elitism. Why must streetwear, a style closely associated with people of colour, be a dirty word at all? Although the subculture has historically been positioned as anti-fashion, as it has moved into the mainstream, rigid adherence to this idea has posed paradoxical problems, like what to call Louis Vuitton’s 2017 Supreme collaboration (above).
It’s worth considering the role appropriation plays in the problem of understanding streetwear in the mainstream. Ana Andjelic of luxury fashion consultancy Havas LuxHub told Complex magazine in 2017: “It’s all about cultural appropriation, but in a very flattened form. It’s like, ‘I’m going to take references, mix them and make them my own, but I don’t have any appreciation for the street to really understand that it’s an actual mixture of music, of street artists, of the local interesting people who reflect global culture.’ It’s very fashionable to be street.” I’ve seen truth in this myself; at my university, Cambridge, club nights were peppered with puffer jackets, thick gold hoops and cargo pants – visible zips lining every garment. This may be surprising considering the fact the university’s demographic is far removed from the style’s roots; in 2017, 81 per cent of Cambridge offers went to students in the top two socioeconomic groups in the country.
But there are ways to do streetwear in the mainstream without outright appropriation and exploitation. The popularisation of streetwear should be seen as appropriationist when designers and consumers don’t pay due respect and, where appropriate, money to the style’s roots, but some designers are undoubtedly doing this right; like Kim Jones, menswear artistic director at Dior, who has openly proclaimed that the style is a source of inspiration for his designs, but also takes issue with the term.
Above: Nasir Mazhar ready-to-wear spring/summer 2017
The politics of streetwear are ultimately complex – especially when the category is in many ways broad and nebulous. While it would be welcome to see more designers showing warmth towards the word, this is impossible in a climate where streetwear is either appropriated or doubles as a euphemism for “not fashion” or “not white”.
No one can change the meaning of “streetwear” overnight, repackaging it as something that all designers suddenly want to be associated with. But it seems the industry’s relationship with the word is due a makeover – and one that pays respect to its origins. The style encompasses and represents exciting, evolving, dynamic and subversive cross sections within fashion – and while we should be critical of the ways it can be weaponised against people of colour, “streetwear” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
Micha Frazer-Carroll is a freelance journalist and first person and opinions editor at gal-dem.