One November afternoon, a few hundred people stood in line outside Undefeated, a sneaker and streetwear retailer on La Brea Avenue. August Roth ’19 wasn’t one of them: he walked out the doors of Undefeated, triumphant. In his hands were the Off-White x Nike React Hyperdunks: basketball shoes, fittingly off-white except for a black Nike Swoosh and a bright orange zip-tie attached to the shoelaces.
Roth and the several hundred others were all winners of a raffle—not to get free shoes, but to stand in line for hours and buy the coveted Hyperdunks.
“It’s usually not about the brands,” Roth said when I asked if he often spends hundreds of dollars on sneakers. Pointing to his black jeans, he told me he thrifted them from Goodwill. He bought his shirt, designed by an electronic music record label from Barcelona, from the resale shop Wasteland. But he was proudest of his shoes, handmade black military boots from Netherlands-based Filling Pieces, because he believed no one had heard of the brand before.
“With streetwear, you can’t go all-in. You need to have something that looks nice but isn’t well-known,” he said; lest, one runs the risk of looking like a “hypebeast.” The term refers to HYPEBEAST, a website popular among those interested in streetwear fashion. Founded in 2005 as a blog about sneakers, HYPEBEAST has since diversified to produce online content on men’s fashion, both streetwear and high-end, and attracts over 3 million visitors per month.
For Roth, streetwear fashion shouldn’t be an ostentation of well-known brands like Gucci, Off-White or Supreme. Rather, there’s an element of approachability that he appreciates—he views streetwear as “high-end low-end fashion.”
“It’s what people wear on the street, and it’s way up there without breaking the barrier of crazy expensive,” Roth said. “If you see someone on the street and they’re wearing all black and shades, you wouldn’t want to approach them. Obviously, they don’t want to talk to you. But, if they’re wearing normal clothing and they look good, you think ‘this person dresses nicely and I can talk to them, let me talk to them.’”
Yet recent collaborations between streetwear and luxury brands have blurred the distinction between the two: the 2017 Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration produced a collection of bags, jackets, and shoes where the signature monogram was conflated with Supreme’s iconic box logo.
Lying somewhere in-between streetwear and luxury brands is MASON, a clothing line rife with motifs such as gothic script, skulls and serpents and worn by the likes of Kourtney Kardashian and record producer Metro Boomin. Its creator, Joe Perez, was a former creative director and art director at Kanye West’s creative collective DONDA.
Regardless of how a brand may be categorized, Perez told me over the phone that he believes in the necessity of a narrative behind it.
“Everything has a story and a timeline,” he said. “From that, you can derive meaning and understand where the branding needs to come from, what kind of logo best represents the narrative [you’re] creating. Everything ties back to that original narrative so it feels like it’s on-brand. Look at something like Anti Social Social Club. Their name is so good already, that’s the story. That’s the conversation piece.”
As for MASON, the narrative is inspired by Perez’s teenage years spent skateboarding around Providence, Rhode Island. He recalled coming across a derelict Masonic temple and breaking in to graffiti the temple walls with his friends.
“It was just this space where the history of the Masons collided with the culture of the time—skateboarders, graffiti artists in Providence, which was back in the ‘90s a small mecca for music in its own right,” Perez said. “It’s the story of where culture collided, and that was the birthplace of the brand.”
He also said he sees MASON as a platform to educate others on the origins of grunge rock, heavy metal, hip-hop and skateboarding, all of which have influenced his brand.
Moreover, Perez’s past experiences working closely with Kanye West and designing notable album covers, including those of Nicki Minaj and A$AP Rocky, have made him privy to the close relationship between streetwear fashion and the music industry.
“A lot of merchandise in hip-hop is heavily influenced by streetwear,” he said. “Everyone is looking for fresh ideas and big creatives to work with from a music standpoint. They want to collaborate with [Off-White creator] Virgil and anyone that has their head wrapped around culture, and especially street culture.”
I asked him why collaborations in streetwear fashion were becoming a part of the mainstream. Haven’t both streetwear and luxury brands been around for a while? Why now?
“I think a lot is being blurred because the new generation is redefining what luxury is,” Perez said. “There are lots of streetwear brands that have created ethos and movements that are similar to, like, I don’t want to compare them to Apple, but it sort of becomes a church. I think a lot of luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and staples that have been around for a while are noticing. Louis Vuitton is collaborating with Supreme, and we have people who are making bootleg Gucci hoodies being hired by Gucci. [Luxury brands] are cherry-picking the right people to work with at the right moment.”
But for Perez, the appeal of wearing brands is more intangible than simply “looking rich.”
“People subscribe to Off-White because they put on a T-shirt and it makes them feel a certain way,” he said. “I think high fashion is a state of mind. I can put on certain sneakers, and to me it can feel high fashion.”
Eileen Melissa Mae is among those who best understand the appeal of streetwear. She’s a writer for the womens’ streetwear blog STREETWEARCHICK, which stands out in a scene saturated by websites geared towards men’s fashion such as HYPEBEAST, Complex and Highsnobiety; according to its website, STREETWEARCHICK aims to highlight “the unity of women in the streetwear industry.”
“Streetwear is focused on men, in my opinion,” Mae said. “I think it’s because most brands are men’s clothing, and I don’t think there’s enough for women. HYPEBEAST is the top, and they really don’t cover much for girls. At STREETWEARCHICK, we cover more than that. We cover music, food, fashion, what’s in for today.”
Men’s fashion-focused websites such as HYPEBEAST rarely boast a similar variety of content, Mae said.
“I think it’s because their platform is based on the hype stuff, like what’s new,” she said. “Let’s say they write an article for Louis Vuitton x Supreme. That will get a lot of views. Sometimes for us, it gets boring. We see hype stuff a lot, so I guess it’s better to see something new. That’s why we have New Music Fridays. That’s why we have certain people working on different sections of the blog, so that it’s not just fashion.”
Although Mae herself graduated from college last year wearing the Yeezy Boost 350 V2, a sneaker designed by Kanye West, she said she believes streetwear has largely become unoriginal.
“It gets repetitive because there isn’t much to see besides box logos and zipper pants and Yeezys,” Mae said.
In a streetwear scene inundated by Supreme hoodies and mass-marketed sneakers, as Mae described, Bianca Valle stood out to me as a striking exception. A New York City transplant, Valle has built a following of 15.8k people on Instagram and an impressive resume, including features on Vogue and NYLON Magazine. Scrolling through her Instagram page, I saw Valle wearing blue jeans with a buttoned cutoff denim jacket and Oxford shoes in one photo. In another, she paired a knee-length and flared plaid skirt with a black hoodie.
“I think fashion is all about the ‘new,’” Valle said. “Fashion is very different from style though. It is funny to see all of these brands competing and copying each other. I am more of a timeless dresser. I love a good pair of jeans and a solid pair of shoes.”
She also differentiated her love of streetwear fashion from merely being a consumer of fast fashion and the latest trends.
“I love wearing [streetwear] and I love buying, but I am not a consumer. I will buy something every now and then that is a staple piece,” Valle said. “One hoodie, one pair of loafers, one pair of sneakers. I do not support this crazy consumer culture that has recently reached an all time high. I don’t really understand this whole ‘I need another pair of sneakers’ thing.”
Valle currently works as the Community Manager for VFILES, self-dubbed as “fashion’s first social media platform” and “mysterious multimedia conglomerate.” I found her insistence on authenticity—all the while coming into contact with the biggest names in both streetwear and high-end fashion—admirable.
“I didn’t ask to have a following,” Valle said. “To be honest, I really didn’t want it. But, I think it came because people have gravitated towards how ‘real’ I am and I’m okay with that. I’m just staying true to myself, which is being a funky, beauty-loving, streetwear-wearing angel, princess, painter-nerd. That’s me!”