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000 Streetwear Epistles

Brands are so reluctant to lose potential sales
that they rarely say anything of substance.
And we don’t expect them to.

Conscious Streetwear

*updated 4/9/2020

The idea of “consciousness” has an annoying stigma attached to it. I think pineal glands, yoga, and my woke buddy Tien and his energy crystals. But consciousness in this context holds an entirely different meaning. For one, it was vital in shaping hip-hop into what it is today.

The Intersection of Hip-Hop and Streetwear

If you study hip-hop’s adolescent years, there’s a distinct subgenre of “conscious hip-hop.” Which was pretty much just hip-hop that had socially conscious messages in it.

That term isn’t as widely accepted nowadays. It’s rejected by several popular hip-hop artists like Talib KweliHomeboy Sandman, and Vince Staples. Times change. Definitions can grow outdated. But a clear distinction of “conscious” music was undeniably important early on.

Revolutionary Hip Hop (by Tony B Conscious)

The conscious agenda initially pushed by KRS-One, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D and others was a necessary and beneficial step in the evolution of hip hop, diversifying, maturing, and cementing it as a vital part of global culture rather than a self-contained phenomenon. First in contrast with the B-Boying and block party-centric nature of early rap, then as a respite from the gangster wave of the late ’80s and early ’90s (mostly imitators of the somewhat conscious N.W.A.), the movement sprung up in times when it felt like an alternative to the dominant style of the day was needed.

-Patrick Lyons of Hot New Hip Hop. Dec 18, 2015.

lol the conscious agenda? Off to Wikipedia we go.

Conscious hip hop, or socially conscious hip-hop, is a subgenre of hip hop that challenges the dominant cultural, political, philosophical, and economic consensus, and/or comments on social issues and conflicts.

Kendrick Lamar (by MyPseudonym7)

Modern conscious hip-hop efforts are incredibly diverse, and incredibly popular. It’s as relevant as ever with our social and political turmoil in America.

Kendrick Lamar, a mainstream hip-hop artist with powerful meaningful lyrics, dropped the hottest rap album of 2015. To Pimp a Butterfly was packed to the brim with sociopolitical messages, and it was unapologetically black.

Conscious messages have gone fully mainstream. And they’ve grown so integral to hip-hop that being labeled “conscious” is restrictive. It compartmentalizes artists. Trap artists can have meaningful messages, and conscious artists can make party music. Hip-hop has blossomed into a complex personality, and consciousness is just one aspect of it all.

When socially conscious messages were first emerging in hip-hop, streetwear followed suit. It was a natural fit. The streetwear movement was built by the same groups of people, alongside hip-hop out of the streets.

Streetwear used to carry an impressive amount of social commentary. Designs that commented on social and political issues, commonplace struggles, and the state of the world. Conversation pieces that were often uncomfortable, but made you think.

Cross Colours motto: “Clothing Without Prejudice”
A shirt by PNB Nation on police brutality.
“Post 9-11” tee by aNYthing.

Where has it all gone?

Resolving the Main Issues

Streetwear as a movement has exploded in popularity, and it’s diversified like no other. Modern streetwear encompasses so many new elements now it’s near impossible to define. But ironically enough, one of the key elements present in the beginning is nowhere to be found: socially conscious messages.

With its propulsion into the mainstream, streetwear’s core problems were never addressed: its obsession with status and self-validation. This deeply rooted insecurity issue was only magnified when hip-hop went mainstream. Successful artists now had purchasing power. Streetwear is no longer a voice for the unheard, but a means for the herd to be more heard.

Like hip-hop, streetwear’s fanbase has expanded and diversified dramatically over the past decade. It’s no longer a minority. They’ve both achieved global mainstream appeal, especially with younger generations. Half of the people who attend Kendrick Lamar concerts are white suburban kids. They really do vibe with his music and message, and most are active proponents of his ideas.

That’s because of the age we live in today. The proliferation of information and ideas through the internet, alongside a new digital era of activism and social justice. It’s never been so easy and so cool to care about social issues.

But streetwear, the global millennial phenomena, has hardly anything to say on the issues. Considering the movement’s reach, its newfound demographic, and the environment we live in nowadays, it’s awfully strange (and mildly discomforting) its lack of socially conscious messages. Not only that brands rarely provide it, but because we as consumers don’t see a need for it.

Or maybe we do.

Change on the Horizon?

424 Fairfax, an LA streetwear boutique, dropped their own collection, Post Apocalyptic Gardening, in late 2015. A controversial release based wholly on police brutality. The “We’re Here to Help” design went viral partly due to being worn by Kylie Jenner, but it’s a powerfully relevant statement and a strong design at that. The innocuous text juxtaposed against police decked out in riot gear begs conversation.

We’re Here to Help by 424 Fairfax

The “Make Amerikkka Suck Again” design by Ev Bravado is another one of my favorites; it’s skillfully done. It was released in mid 2016 by Everard Best. The piece has been adorned by Joey Bada$$, who wore the crewneck in a photoshoot for his single, Land of the Free. A politically charged ballad in lieu of America’s political turmoil.

Make Amerikkka Suck Again by Ev Bravado

More so than one-off releases is the brand, Noah NYC, created by Brendon Babenzien, who was design director of Supreme for over a decade. But Noah is nowhere near the Supreme knock-off it was expected to be. It has numerous conscious messages embedded into each drop, with a thorough description of meaning for practically every piece.

He’s extended his social commentary so far as to explicitly share his disdain for President Trump through his brand’s Instagram. Even offering to refund any merchandise purchased by a Trump supporter in full.

Political correctness what?

And as the icing on the cake, one of the legendary conscious brands of the early 90’s, Cross Colours, actually reopened their doors in 2014. The brand with the motto, “Clothing Without Prejudice.” Maybe they‘re trying to seize a market opportunity, or they’re just distraught by the state of the world. Either way, it’s exciting to see some sort of resurgence of the early movement.

Whether these examples are anomalies or are indicators of change on the horizon, it’s hard to say. Explicit, controversial messages are always the first to gain media traction regardless. But it’s safe to say we can refer to these as “conscious streetwear.”

Consciousness at the level of modern hip-hop, as an integral aspect of streetwear, is a long ways away. But hopefully not too long.

What is Streetwear?

*updated 4/9/2020

If you loathe your personality, if you can’t stand to look in the mirror, then maybe dressing in cool trendy clothing can boost your confidence! Or at the very least, distract you enough from your problems so you stop thinking about them all the time.

Streetwear is the latest outlet for self-conscious teenagers to try and “be themselves”… but then seize every opportunity to bully one other for not wearing the right clothes. To cry out “this brand is lame!” or “this isn’t streetwear!” (as if they hold any sort of legitimacy to make that kind of claim) while preaching that streetwear is all about self-expression, wearing whatever you want is key.

But streetwear isn’t dead. It’s far from it. If anything, it’s on the verge of finally becoming what it should have been in the first place.

A Brief History of Streetwear

Streetwear’s roots trace back to late 80’s New York – heavily intertwined with b-boying and hip-hop culture. Bright colors, bold branding, and statement pieces dominated the landscape. Image was everything. If you wanted respect, you had to look the part first.

Now, this was especially relevant for kids in the ghetto. Imagine you’re living in a run-down apartment living off grits and instant macaroni  – you don’t want to be judged off that. You don’t want to be that kid.

Your clothing provided an escape: no matter what your situation was like, if your fit was on point, you earned a level of respect through that alone.

This led to an unhealthy obsession with luxury brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent. These epitomized the upper class lifestyle (aka would earn you the most clout), but were practically impossible to get. You can bet, if a rapper made it big, you’d find them drenched in Polo.

My life got no better, same damn ‘Lo sweater

So now you’ve got a suburban culture with a huge interest in luxury brands, full of kids looking up to the stars who broke out of the ghetto, but left unable to afford the pieces that their idols were rocking.

Enter: 90’s Streetwear Brands

Brands like Stussy, Freshjive, FUBU, and Staple sought to fill this void – creating their own underground brands that emulated this feel of effortless luxury cool, while giving a personal, home-grown vibe to it. For Us, By Us.

But how was this successful? The main component of what makes luxury what it is… is its inaccessibility to the layman.

Early streetwear hit this idea of inaccessibility out of pure necessity. Though, it was driven not by price this time, but by availability: Shirts were made in limited quantities because of costs. There were no mass distribution channels; instead, merchandise was often sold out of car trunks in pockets of the city. Which then was only disseminated through friends and word of mouth.

This all culminated into similar feelings of exclusivity – being a part of something cool that not everyone was in on.

Oh how times have changed.

The Modern Marketplace

We now have access to a global marketplace. Brands are popping up and dying faster than we can keep count. We can purchase from brands across the world from our fingertips. We can express ourselves through anything imaginable. Yet, we still gravitate towards well-known “premium” brands. And those premium brands command premium prices.

And it’s not because of their quality.

The streetwear industry isn’t akin to that of the cell phone industry for example, where there’s a consistent, objective relationship between price and value. Often it’s not any tangible value in terms of quality or design, but in the intangible – the perceived value of the name brand itself.

Brand perception plays a role in every industry involved with marketing (Apple is a prime example), but streetwear is an oddity in its extremity – brand perception is of absolute importance; and often that perception seems indestructible. The streetwear fan base is one of the most die-hard, loyal ones out there.

A streetwear brand can offer vapid designs, low quality fabric, mediocre construction, embarrassing customer service, and still sell out of all of their merchandise. But if that same brand contracts with Zumiez, then the company loses its appeal?

Let’s be real, don’t you wanna shop here?

Why? Well, the answers lie in the early history of streetwear.

It’s building off the same obsession with exclusivity and brand recognition that drove consumer mindsets back in the day. We prefer to identify with brands that are recognizable and respected, not ones that we feel reflect our personal identity. Rather, we look for brands that are a reflection of who we want to be perceived as.

Bape x Dum Dums (near deadstock)

Streetwear is dressing for status and self-validation. It’s less a matter of quality, and more of hype and recognition. Less a means of self-expression, but of conformity and exclusivity.

This issue isn’t limited to streetwear, it’s just easily observable with it. Nor is it solely an issue with corporations and big name brands; after all, they’re just businesses selling what sells. It’s an internal issue of the heart for us as consumers. We focus more on external validation to tell us who we are, instead of finding our own identity and expressing that ourselves.

A Look Towards the Future

If we truly believe that streetwear is all about self-expression, it should reflect in the environment that we’re cultivating. And that all starts with us.

Just because something isn’t trending anymore doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Each brand, each trend, each aesthetic, has something to offer and can potentially resonate with someone. We need to move away from this dichotomy of right and wrong determined solely by relevance. And instead, focus more on probing into our identities as people and exploring how we can creatively express that.

We can return to a simpler time… when we wore something just “because I like it.”

But none of that is possible if we don’t know what we like. If our tastes are constantly changing based off of what’s hot in the market right now. Which is indicative of a much deeper identity crisis than it may lead on. But that’s for another time.

Next time you wanna buy something, take a moment to really think about what’s driving that purchase. Identify with brands, yes, but first you’ve gotta know your identity.

New Beginnings

I’m tired of the same rehashed ideas and designs again and again. Trends are popularized, get played out, then die. It’s the way of the fashion industry, and more so it’s an essential concept to grasp if you want to make it. But if a brand establishes its footing on a trend, where’s the originality?

Typically you have to innovate, be creative, differentiate yourself in some regard to earn respect and longevity (albeit often you just need a little luck). But I’ve found that with success, brands abandon their roots. Their designs are reduced to lazy lackluster concepts, regurgitated logo prints made for cents on the dollar.

First and foremost, clothing brands are a business. We want to cut costs, increase margins, reach new demographics. Running any successful business takes an incredible amount of time, focus, and effort. That initial hunger, that drive for creativity gets lost in the noise.

But there is always a balance to be achieved between concept and aesthetic.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea. Larger brands in particular have more than enough resources to do it, and on occasion, they do. But it simply isn’t a priority for a company with a coherent aesthetic, strong branding and a loyal customer base. It’s unnecessary.

It’s unnecessary because we’ve been conditioned to respect established brands. After a certain point, brands needn’t put as much effort into their releases because we’ll buy them regardless. So we end up in a marketplace saturated with lifeless designs, driven by both company supply and our consumption habits. Why supply if there’s no demand? If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.

Yet some of the greatest streetwear pieces of all time were ones that pushed the boundaries; that shed light on relevant issues; that held strong social commentary. Brands are so reluctant to lose potential sales that they rarely say anything of substance. And we don’t expect them to. We’ve lost touch on both sides of the spectrum the impact a thoughtful design can really make.

Windfall is my effort to have a voice and make a change. I’m still learning, I’m still making mistakes, but it’s all a journey and this is just the beginning. I hope for this to bloom into a diverse community of individuals, a joint effort towards spreading unity and love in the world. I pray for this to become something greater than just me.

I truly believe it’s possible, and that a simple t-shirt can make all the difference.