What is streetwear and why does it seem so immiscible with high fashion?
When Virgil Abloh presented his debut menswear collection for Louis Vuitton's Spring/ Summer 2019 show this June, he introduced a series of classic suits amongst sweatshirts, hoodies, technical fabric ponchos, and sneakers — streetwear elements aplenty. The clothes were divisive — some fans lauded his advancement of streetwear into high fashion, other fashion traditionalists were turned off.
A flurry of reports and forums tried to reconcile streetwear and its place in the luxury fashion circuit. Most of them concluded that streetwear was a hyped trend has infiltrated the runways in a trickle-up effect, and that the two will eventually merge as one.
Maybe not so. Hype is too simplistic a reading of the current zeitgeist. At least to Samuel Ross, the British fashion designer who was mentored by Virgil Abloh at Kanye West's creative agency, Donda, there is more than meets the eye.
"I think that what we are seeing now with the streetwear and high fashion overlay is really capturing the moment of subversive protest through clothing," says the cerebral 27-year-old as we met in Dover Street Market Singapore. "I mean clothing can be used as a form of protest — subversive protest."
Samuel Ross: The Thinker
Ross likes to think into things. He was born in Brixton to a working-class family of thinkers. His grandmother was "part of the Windrush generation who moved to England" with her sewing machine in hopes of becoming a fashion designer but ended up being a nurse. His father studied fine art at Central Saint Martins, specialising in stained glass art and church restorations. His mother is a psychology and sociology lecturer. Ross has a younger sister who majored in English. When he was a child, the family moved to Northampton where Ross grew up watching residents don technical outerwear and industrial boots (Dr Martens and Kickers were produced there). He pauses as he weighs up his past against the person he is today, "I feel like that has filtered through in my collections now."
"One of my grandfathers was a pastor, so there was an element of suiting in that as well — very serious, sharp-cut suits," says Ross.
He likes to read (just completed Homo Deus and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari) and theorise quotidian and creative affairs, including his three-year-old brand, A-Cold-Wall* (ACW). Ross talks about how he could write a 2,000-word essay to present his collection's ideas, and how he writes lengthy 3,000-worded briefs to his design team. He knows he rambles like a theorist and jokes, "Here's where I go deep" as a warning and laughs.
ACW is essentially a conflict — Ross employs vessels of the upper and middle-class, such as art and high fashion, to communicate the condition of the "corrosive nature associated to" working-class communities living in council estates.
It is a cross-pollination of ideas and mediums that Ross thinks is a mirror of the current state of London. "[It's] how you get this mix of working-class, middle-class and upper-class in one city. And when these individuals grow up together, there's a cross-pollination of ideas talked about in schools, universities, clubs, and parks." Ross runs on.
Incidentally, cross-pollination is an apt adjective for the marriage of streetwear and high-fashion — placing ACW right smack at the heart of this streetwear uprising.
Within the streetwear industry, Ross draws a clear line between the previous generation of streetwear brands such as Supreme, Stussy, Palace and the likes of Maharishi and the crop of designers such as Jerry Lorenzo (of Fear of God), Shayne Oliver (of Hood By Air) Virgil Abloh, and himself.
"If I think about what I remember men wearing when I was a child, a lot of my influences locally were in technical nylon, to be honest — much more so because I come from a working-class, urban background." Here, looks from A-Cold-Wall*'s Fall/ Winter 2018 collection.
Streetwear & High Fashion: The Protest
The latter group is what Ross dubs "the bridge", an in-between genre of fashion that sits between streetwear and high-fashion. It fills up the gap. "It's almost its own category. It comes from streetwear because those were the means that were accessible, of course," says Ross. "But this new form of clothing that's subversive protest, in essence, doesn't fall into streetwear and doesn't fall into traditional fashion. But it is a form of communication through design."
What are they protesting against?
Walls. Like the British subcultures that came before, Ross seems to be tearing down the walls of a class-system that has imposed itself on, and divided the freest of creative fields — art, architecture, and fashion. In a recent interview with Hypebeast, Virgil Abloh echoed the same thought, explaining how the current streetwear-meets-fashion phenomenon is "[mixing] the sociological ramifications of what art is and how it can break the barrier of high culture and relate to real life, regular people."
This may well be a reaction to the current divisive political zeitgeist, which has created a thirst for unison, homogeneity, and democracy. The high has to come down, and the low to take over.
"I'm like the mediator between high-fashion and streetwear. That's my job to communicate between the two," says Ross.
Fashion's relationship with political conditions is not a new phenomenon. In fact, throughout fashion history, silhouettes only drastically change in face of equally drastic political upheavals — be it during the French Revolution years when the elaborate Rococo dress declined, or in World War I when clothes were pared back out of necessity, or during the inter-war period when a decadent 1920's flapper style came about as a celebration.
The silhouette slimmed down once again for World War II but puffed back into voluptuous shapes in 1947 when Christian Dior introduced the New Look. Silhouettes stayed that way until the May 1968 Sorbonne student riots took place in Paris. Coupled with the onset of youth subcultures in Britain, the hemlines grew shorter, jeans were tighter. The silhouette shrunk to the look we're all now well acquainted with (and are still wearing) — until streetwear found its way to the runways.
These new ideas of dress were not always immediately accepted. When Christian Dior released his New Look in 1947, the public sang in dismay, with some threatening to burn these Dior skirts on the streets. Likewise today, Ross finds their proposition of bridging streetwear to high-fashion often misunderstood.
"I think it might be more so conventions that are being challenged," says Ross.
"Until 'the bridge' is built up and sustained, there is still a miscommunication of what I put down the runway and what Virgil puts down the runway," says Ross. "If you see the comments, there is still a lot of work to be done."
Ross recognises the importance of the fashion repertoire that he, along with Virgil Abloh and other designers, are producing. He, however, doesn't expect the public to understand it conceptually overnight.
The streetwear fans think that their look has been capitalised by high-fashion brands. The high-fashion crowds may see it as an infiltration but Ross notes that the latter crowd is more "willing" to receive the streetwear concept.
The ones who will truly understand this "bridge" will be the next generation — the students who are growing up with the streetwear phenomenon. "You need someone to go through their entire education system, from age 11 all the way through university — not just to be inspired later on," says Ross. "It needs to be a whole cultural shift of processing information to then get the real results."
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