How streetwear became a platform for social causes
As a category founded by fusing multiple subcultures together, streetwear has solidified itself as the go-to wardrobe for championing social causes.
Streetwear isn’t just about the latest drop, hype labels or products – it’s always been bigger than that.
Rooted in rich cultural influences, we explore why streetwear has solidified itself as an advocate for social justice, brands on the rise and how the next generation is getting involved.
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An original champion
A pivotal figure in bringing luxury to streetwear in the 1980’s, Dapper Dan engineered pieces for hip-hop artists ignored by traditional high fashion brands. The designer established the first fashion house in Harlem, NY and was a crucial pioneer of bringing the style to the fore. Read the full background in illuminating Black culture’s influence on fashion.
[Streetwear is a] multiethnic community of different countercultures, a blend of skate, surf, hip-hop and graffiti scenes, with a dash of punk rock, united by an exclusive knowledge of where to find and buy certain brands.
10.Deep Founder Scott Sasso to the LA Times.
What makes streetwear different?
The rich history and fusing of cultures is exactly what makes streetwear labels the perfect advocate to champion important causes. It’s built into their brand DNA and participation in this community means vocalizing and fighting against injustices everywhere.
More than just a T-shirt
The significance of the tee
The silhouette has become a streetwear icon and is an integral piece in any wardrobe. So, it makes sense that this product is used as a vehicle to both speak about and donate to important social causes. The item sits at an affordable price point for most customers and provides healthy margin rates for the brand.
Whether the label designs the graphic or enlists the help of a local artist to create an impactful image, the visuals on these tees are significant and are intended to evoke a call to action.
KidSuper is a Brooklyn-based artist who brought a personal touch, transforming his drawing of those wrongfully murdered by the police into a beautiful graphic. Meanwhile, Tremaine Emory of Denim Tears used a powerful image of a protester to convey his message.
Making a statement
Consumers buying social justice tees are not only doing so to financially support the cause, but to make a statement showcasing where their values lie. Politics and equality for all have never been more prevalent than they are right now – and the streetwear community is speaking up.
It is essential we continue these conversations moving forward. However, brands must be aware and transparent with the intentions behind affiliating with these organizations and make sure it’s not viewed as opportunistic. Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.
The fearless initiative by Dover Street Market
The streetwear retailer teamed up with an impressive list of designers below to launch 31 tees dubbed ‘The Fearless Initiative’ where all proceeds go to supporting healthcare workers during the pandemic.
Awake NY • Better • Bianca Chandôn • Brain Dead • Cecilie Bahnsen • Charles Jeffrey Loverboy • Clot • doublet • Dreamland Syndicate • ERL • Expert Horror • Kar/L’Art de L’Automobile • I-D • Marine Serre • Nemeth • Nike • Nine One Seven • Noah • Off-White • Online Ceramics • Raf Simons • Rassvet • sacai • Simone Rocha • Undercover • Valentino • Walter Van Beirendonck • Wes Lang
The Sports Banger approach
Jonny Banger, founder of bootleg label Sports Banger, joined in on the altruistic tee movement, using his Nike x NHS collab to help feed NHS hospitals.
Banger’s designs are not only a conversation starter, but have proved effective. He’s received five warnings from the UK government and had several online shops and PayPal accounts shut down. However, his initiatives have all raised money for important causes like Black Lives Matter and the NHS, or politically-charged topics to raise awareness.
Taking the fight online
Historically, streetwear has created a hype culture around in-store experiences and queuing up for the latest drop. However, COVID-19 turned all that on its head, funneling more sales to e-commerce and fueling the success of direct-to-consumer businesses. Supreme had its first online sale in nearly five years this season and Union Los Angeles founder Chris Gibbs attributed his brand staying afloat to selling easy-to-print products online like hats and tees.
Another reason for streetwear brands to increase their online presence is to provide aid through a difficult time. With all small businesses hit hard the past few months, labels will struggle with high rent prices in cities like New York City, Los Angeles and London on top of a decrease in store traffic. Actively purchasing from these labels online not only furthers social causes, but supports local business as well.
TikTok & Instagram
Big name brands often seem a step behind when it comes to engaging consumers with video. Streetwear labels naturally appeal to a younger consumer, the same consumer that is vocal and passionate when it comes to social causes. TikTok, IGTV and Reels are all untapped spaces by the streetwear community and there is opportunity for brands to partner with influencers on these platforms to create authentic content and raise awareness around social justice reform.
Streetwear brands should take cues from the resale industry – GOAT, StockX and Stadium Goods all post content on TikTok and partner with popular content creators. Complex posted on TikTok to raise money for Beirut and Supreme partnered with Katt Williams to cover a range of issues from Black Lives Matter to voting. This is an important way to elevate important issues to reach a younger consumer.
Brands on our radar
Co-founded by John Dean out of Akron, Ohio, this rising streetwear label draws attention to racial injustice and donates proceeds to charitable foundations and organizations.
Based in Amsterdam, the brand is ‘fueled by the rich heritage of African culture wrapped in contemporary design’ and frequently highlights and encourages the exploration of different backgrounds.
Resurrect by Night
Dubbed as a “DIY streetwear art collection,” the clothing label was discovered in NY by artist Daren Chambers and features designs inspired by music, art and culture often adorned with social and political statements.
The next generation
Gen-Z is intrinsically aware of and active in social issues, from anti-racism to climate change. The digitally native demographic utilizes the power of social media, online publications and even video games to keep up to date with world happenings and to participate in protests. To engage the activist generation, social causes and values need to be baked into the overarching ethos of the brand – authenticity is vital here.
Established streetwear labels, including Stüssy and Palace, were born out of anti-culture and themes of irony, which has resulted in a loyal following over the years. Brands are increasingly enlisting the next generation of activists and changemakers to front campaigns and to work collaboratively as an approach to further bridge the gap between activism and fashion.
In May, the footwear retailer enlisted four creatives who are passionate about sustainability to participate in an upcycling challenge as part of its ReNew campaign. The results were shared on Converse’s Instagram alongside videos from the participants, exploring how they stayed creative and committed to the cause during lockdown.
GapKids Be The Future
The retailer recently launched its fall campaign featuring a host of youth activists. Launching on International Youth Day, the campaign highlighted Jerome Foster II, climate activist and founder of One Million Of Us, a youth-led organization encouraging the younger generation to vote in the 2020 election.
Future direction for gender equality
Over the years, streetwear has primarily catered to men, leaving female streetwear consumers feeling left out of the conversation. At its height, Hypebeast culture and the lack of representation in the media further emphasized the gap in the market for womenswear. Although streetwear collections and staple trends are often unisex, there is a growing space for ranges and brands explicitly designed with the female consumer in mind.
Nike’s coveted 2019 collaboration with streetwear icon, Aleali May, made her the second woman to have a collaborative Jordan Brand sneaker. Elsewhere, Stüssy and KITH tapped into the market with dedicated lines. With Gen-Z earmarked as the most gender-fluid generation to date, it is crucial that streetwear continues to diversify and increase inclusivity.
The online marketplace, founded in May of this year, aims to be the leading source for women’s sneakers. Stocking labels such as Eytys and Y-3, the site features a range of curated and coveted styles, improving accessibility for female shoppers.
Supreme x Pat McGrath
The streetwear juggernaut paired with make-up artist Pat McGrath to release the brand’s first lipstick in its signature red hue. Although Supreme is still aimed mainly at men, the new release marks a step towards acknowledging its female followers.
Contributions by Retail Analysts Krista Corrigan and Ashley Graham.