In recent years, two styles have dominated the clothing world: high fashion and streetwear. The former is as old as fashion itself and has been used throughout history to project wealth, status, and privilege. Streetwear is the antithesis of this rigid, unhumorous style. Streetwear is of, for, and by the people.
While high fashion depends on a top-down hierarchy, streetwear represents the mood and interests of the masses. Names like Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel illicit images of glamorous movie stars who seem to live in a world unrecognizable to the average person, but clothing manufacturers filter these images down to the masses, albeit with reduced quality. Kate Middleton’s wedding gown, for example, cost thousands of dollars, yet replicas and lookalikes popped up at low-end retailers soon after she wore it. This type of top-down diffusion creates a culture in which elite designers and models dictate trends.
Streetwear rejects this system by reversing the flow, so that trends are dictated from the bottom up. The staples of streetwear were born from practicality and function, rather than overt style or aesthetics. Bomber jackets, for example, originated in WWII for air force pilots; these jackets were intended to suit the needs of the working military member, not to serve some artsy purpose. This example reflects the general difference between high fashion and streetwear: high fashion prioritizes form over function, whereas streetwear merges the two. Furthermore, having roots in practicality contributes to creating a bottom-up diffusion flow as luxury brands stylize common apparel, rather than common brands simplifying luxury apparel.
Underlying these contrasting hierarchies are different sources of publicity and clientele. High fashion has historically been associated with and marketed to the wealthy upper classes because of its expensiveness. High-end magazines like Vogue and events like New York Fashion Week detail and publicize the the latests high fashion trends. Streetwear, however, depends on the masses for popularity, so companies often use social media and celebrity endorsements to gain attention. An Instagram search of “#streetwear,” for example, yields an astounding 15 million results! Along with social media, celebrities have been extremely influential in elevating streetwear’s status and popularity. Rappers and basketball players have been particularly important to the streetwear culture because these celebrities are widely seen as in touch with the masses because of their often rapid rise to fame from humble beginnings. More obviously, these two groups of celebrities contain some of today’s most popular individuals, so they have particular sway over the culture.
Despite their many differences, streetwear and high fashion seem to be on the way to convergence. Luxury clothing companies are now producing streetwear staples with added attention to detail and a few extra zeros on the price tags. Streetwear companies have also incorporated more sophisticated designs and motifs into their products, and new higher-end streetwear companies have emerged. Arguably no person has been more important to the meeting of streetwear and high fashion than Kanye West. Kanye has exposed his mainstream audience to urban clothing styles, collaborated with huge companies like Adidas and Louis Vuitton, and even appeared on the cover of Vogue dressed in a streetwear style. With rappers taking over the upper echelons of popular culture, we have seen gold chains replace pearl necklaces, and we should expect to see bomber jackets replace tuxedo jackets.