Streetwear was built on sexism — now women are shaping its future
Most Thursdays, one can walk down Manhattan’s Lafayette Street and find a winding, densely packed line seeking entrance into clothing boutique Supreme, their hands and wallets eager to snatch up the fresh merchandise, most of it emblazoned with the brand’s distinct logo nestled amidst a slew of pop culture references. Other days, these same individuals may wait in the rain, their colorblocked parkas nearly soaked through, for the opportunity to enter the Yeezy Boost 350 lottery — a chance at a chance. These clothes and shoes, and those who covet them, have scaled from oddity to full-blown phenomenon. The New York Times, NPR, and The Guardian have attempted to congeal the world of streetwear into a bite-sized morsel for the average public intellectual to discuss at cocktail hour.
What many of these “X designer is a game-changer” profiles and “The phenomenon of the Supreme line” viral video clips fail to fully digest is the absence of women from the surface level of this culture,and the problematic nature of this absence. Despite a media culture that is championing the work of women more than ever before, they have failed to offer their perspective as vital to the most electrifying fashion moment of our lifetime.
In order to understand the full breadth of the fashion revolution that is streetwear, one mustn’t neglect the critical developments being made by female designers, stylists, and influencers. Fortunately for the sake of streetwear, these women are not passively awaiting recognition, but carving out unique spaces in media and e-commerce, as well as in the realm of clothing and sneakers, that elevate streetwear to its purest form: a celebration of popular culture, an exploration of the boundaries of fashion, and a cultural annex for all walks of life.
While some may not find it surprising that streetwear — a look and lifestyle rooted in the male spaces of skateboarding and hip-hop — has traditionally faltered in depicting women as three-dimensional lifeforms. Such is a flimsy excuse, though, and one that should not be enough for the call-out culture that defines our digital age. Still, it is all too evident in the advertising of brands like Anti Social Social Club that, while women may be allowed to fit themselves into a baggy men’s t-shirt, they are still fundamentally seen as sex symbols by the men who design, and are intended to wear, these clothes. Supreme has repeatedly used adult models in its campaigns, often pictured full-length and wearing a Supreme t-shirt or less. The brand, as recently as SS17, is also notorious for working with Terry Richardson, the “edgy” photographer who banned from working with Vogue and all other magazines under the Conde Nast Umbrella, due to numerous accusations of predatory behavior on and off-set. Supreme, who has essentially made their aesthetic synonymous with Richardson’s, did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Anti Social Social Club, Diamond Supply Co. and Huf are all guilty of similar advertising conundrums: picturing women wearing only a t-shirt, creating a narrative that these women don’t actually wear these brands, but have some sort of quasi-sexual relationship with the viewer of the ad. This sexualized imagery is not merely a fantasy, but backed by real, physical violence. Vision Street Wear, one of the more prominent and long-standing skate brands, continues to tout its representation of Mark Rogowski, a former professional skateboarder who, in 1992, plead guilty to the violent rape and murder of Jessica Bergsten. Nowhere on Vision’s website is this mentioned; instead Rogowski is referred to as one of “the sport’s most recognizable skaters” on the company’s About page. When sites like Mass Appeal and Topman have chronicled the history of Vision Street Wear, Rogowski is simply referred to as “infamous” or “a legend.”
Even Supreme’s logo — something so simple and integral to the streetwear scene — is a form of intellectual violence against women. The red box logo, featuring Futura Italic Bold lettering, is a blatant appropriation of the work of artist Barbara Kruger. Supreme has admitted as much, while attempting to shelter themselves under the idea that their logo is as much an “homage” to pop culture as their t-shirt featuring Kermit the Frog. (Considering Kruger’s quasi-public loathing of the brand, she likely joins the ranks of those cringing at Supreme’s success in a drawn-out legal battle with Italian counterfeiters.) In a sense, these brands could not exist in their current state without the exploitation of women.
Yet, while certain major streetwear brands attempt to steer the scene in this increasingly irrelevant direction, there are those seeking the joyful irony and communal spirit that made the likes of X-Girl and A Bathing Ape so refreshing in the first place. Women are using this lull in the menswear space to build up their own empire, as both wearers and innovators. Kristen Dempsey, founder of women’s fashion marketplace Heroine, she says her site was borne out of a potent demand.
“We had a lot of women using Grailed [Heroine’s brother site] and they said they wanted a women’s equivalent,” says Dempsey. “It was a great place to meet like-minded enthusiasts, but [the women on Grailed] wanted to be talking to, buying and selling with other women who were into more of the same things.” On Heroine, one may still find Stüssy t-shirts (alongside Alexander Wang and Opening Ceremony pieces), but the female nature of the space allows for an exchange of perspectives (and shoe sizes) that would not typically be found on sites like Grailed.
The changes in the women’s streetwear scene are also reflected in the quality and quantity of media available to female collectors and admirers alike. The aforementioned Heroine serves as home to The Editorial, a parallel to Grailed’s Dry Clean Only blog, where streetwear mingles with high fashion and pop culture. Highsnobiety more regularly features women-oriented campaigns and content. In February 2016, Hypebeast launched Hypebae — a space entirely devoted to women’s streetwear.
Hypebae serves as a reflection of the fact that the women’s streetwear scene is not merely an appropriation of what’s happening in the men’s game, but a blossoming niche all its own. Yes, Hypebae reports on the latest Off-White collaborations and Nike sneaker drops, but it also focuses on beauty (one could easily make a case for Fenty Beauty being as hyped as the Supreme brick), arts and entertainment, and news told through the lens of a woman who just happens to know Air Force 1’s from Air Max 90’s. Sites like Hypebae also serve to highlight the growth of female designers in the streetwear space, such as Yoon Ahn’s AMBUSH and Frankie Collective, in a meaningful way.
Frankie Collective, a project that began as an offshoot of Vancoucer-based F As In Frank Vintage, has made its mark by reworking both retro and contemporary streetwear brands into women-specific cuts. A 2017 re-work saw Supreme t-shirts re-envisioned as sexy separates, and vintage Champion athletic wear remodeled as flattering cropped sweaters and pencil skirts. Perhaps some dedicated streetwear enthusiasts would balk at the notion of slicing and sewing a pricey t-shirt into an off-the-shoulder crop top, but Frankie Collective serves as a testament to the fact that women see the power and potential in streetwear and will reach out and grab it, box logo be damned.
The work of Yoon Ahn’s AMBUSH defies classification and inspires a change in the tone of conversations happening around high fashion, streetwear, and gender. Ahn’s own highly-coveted personal style is extremely menswear inspired, which she tells me is “not about being one of the dudes. It’s about learning menswear sensibility to make sure women’s style is perfectly tailored.”
“We’re in an era where men and women can wear anything. We have more choices now,” she says. “This has revolutionized gender-stereotypes not only in the workplace, but across the entire fashion industry.” Still, her private experiences prove there is still a ways to go in altering deeply-rooted mentalities.
“People still doubt whether I have really done the work because I am female,” Ahn explains. “If there are male co-workers, people will often turn to them to speak, without knowing it’s my business, and I have the power to make the final call.” It’s a scenario and sensation not unfamiliar to many women, and one that makes the work of AMBUSH that much more important in perpetuating long-overdue conversations about the relationship between women and menswear.
While many of the aforementioned menswear brands did not return a request for comment on the state of their relationship with women in either their advertising customer base, there exists a small yet potent handful of menswear brands who are eager for an opportunity to speak on the issue.
OnlyNY notably (and consistently) uses both men and women in their advertising campaigns, with women appearing as cool and casual as the men, and never sexualized. Furthermore, in an interview, representatives of OnlyNY admit to a “big lack of female-focused and female-operated brands in the scene.”
“Just like everything else, the industry can only stand to benefit from being more inclusive,” they observe. As for OnlyNY’s bottom line — treating women as human being certainly hasn’t sullied their earnings report, or their reputation for being some of the best skate clothes out there. “We’ve seen a positive response both on social media and in our flagship store by featuring women in our photography,” they said. “We want to continue to represent all aspects of our customer base.”
Bobby Kim, co-founder and designer of men’s label The Hundreds and women’s label Jennifer, hints that this mistreatment is more or less an open secret in the industry. When discussing the rise of women wearing streetwear, he notes that there is “irony and frustration” in the fact that “the majority of these [streetwear] brands have been neither very welcoming nor kind to women. And I stand guilty as charged.” Kim notes he remains committed to rectifying this attitude in the scene, beginning with building his women’s only label, Jennifer.
Recently, Nike launched “Reimagine 1,” a 14-piece collection that sees different female designers express their unique take on the Air Force 1 and Air Jordan 1 shoe. The results are blissfully unique — a 28-shoe testament to what women designers can achieve if given the resources of a major brand like Nike.
Model and stylist Aleali May, only the second woman to have collaborated with Nike on an original shoe (Air Jordan 1 Aleali May, released in October 2017), believes that “This is definitely just the beginning of women’s role in streetwear.”
“A lot of women that have helped pioneer [where we are today]. Brands like Hells Bells, Dime Piece — they helped plant the seed for it, and finally you can start to see the tree. A tree with a deep root.”
As for those who might continue to exclude women from the ever-growing streetwear world, be it passively or actively, May sums up the female perspective with an attitude of perseverance. “I’ve always had this attitude. It’s like when you’re trying to play basketball and the boys are like ‘nah.’ You’re like, ‘well I’m not going to give up, so you’re either going to give me the ball one day,’ you know?” May explains. “So I feel like with streetwear it’s like, if that’s you, don’t give up on you. If that’s who you are, you can’t step back.” From here out, women in streetwear are only stepping forward — one Jordan at a time.