By Kaylin Tran
Streetwear has grown immensely since it was first popularized around the 1970s. With brands like Stüssy, Supreme, and Off-White leading this multi-billion-dollar sector of fashion, it is certainly not fading anytime soon. Even more, Virgil Abloh—founder and creative director of Off-White, as well as the menswear artistic director for Louis Vuitton—and Matthew Williams—founder of streetwear brand 1017 ALYX 9SM and newly-appointed fashion designer for Givenchy—reveal how streetwear has merged into high fashion. For something that is so well-loved by celebrities and everyday consumers alike, it is worth diving deeper into this trend. Behind the hundred-dollar sneakers and luxury sweatpants, microaggressions have manifested from its origin of male-dominated cultures. The style has quickly amassed millions of followers in recent years, but prejudice and sexism still persists throughout all aspects of streetwear fashion today.
Streetwear was born from communities like hip-hop, skateboarding, or surfing that are known to have a boy’s club mentality, meaning that they often exclude or mistreat women. Misogyny is deeply ingrained in countless rap hits and skate culture, so it is no surprise that it is seen in the clothing companies that cater to these audiences. The reason why this style thrived is because it served as an outlet for men to show their appreciation for style and clothing. For the most part, fashion was seen as feminine and something that was uncool for men to be passionate about.
“Ironically, the very idea of streetwear was, in the beginning, that it was the antithesis to ‘fashion,’” wrote Enrique Menendez and Nav Gill in their article to Hypebeast about dismantling sexist prejudice in streetwear. “But whereas men and fashion had traditionally neglected each other, streetwear was a game changer, enabling men to express themselves through style without having to worry about societal labels they deemed unbefitting.”
Initially, the majority of streetwear brands only made men’s clothing and were mainly owned by white men, but companies have since been expanding to be more inclusive. Even then, women’s styles are typically designed quite differently than men’s. When Billie Eilish went sneaker shopping in a YouTube video with COMPLEX, a network that focuses on youth and pop culture, she commented that she often has to buy her well-loved chunky sneakers in men’s styles because the women’s ones are much smaller and flatter than she prefers. Of course, she then runs into the issue of finding men’s shoes in her size. Designer Recho Omondi repeated this exact sentiment in “OMONDI Presents: The Cutting Room Floor,” her podcast about current fashion events and interviews with industry professionals. Omondi spoke about how she likes the style of men’s sneakers but can never find them in women’s styles because they are highly feminized in shape and color.
Aside from the lack of inclusivity, there is also an issue with the treatment of women or even queer individuals in this subculture of fashion. Supreme released a capsule collection in 2018 with photographer Nan Goldin to represent the LGBTQ+ and drag communities in its designs. While some consumers loved the new collection, others criticized it and called it “too gay.” Toxic masculinity—with all its bigotry, homophobia, and sexism—certainly plays a large role in this type of behavior found in streetwear. Even in the work environment, women have to be more assertive in the face of unfair treatment.
“There’s an inherent language used in streetwear because women haven’t been represented fairly or equally,” said Bobby Kim, owner of the L.A. streetwear company The Hundreds, to Glossy. “It is such a boys’ club. When women are portrayed, they’re either a half-naked girl on a blog or the cool girlfriend—that’s women in streetwear.”
Highsnobiety, a German-based streetwear blog that covers the latest trends and news in fashion and entertainment, has a page called “GIRLS” on its website with content that is geared towards a male audience. With headlines like “Bella & Gigi Hadid Go Nude in British ‘Vogue’ March 2018,” “Lily-Rose Depp Poses Topless for ‘CR Fashion Book,’” and “Unseen Photos of Emily Ratajkowski Fill New NSFW Book,” women are clearly being objectified for the male gaze. These blog posts are from 2017-2018, but interestingly enough, Highsnobiety published an article in March 2018 condemning “streetwear’s sexist imagery.” It is a small sign of growth, but it is hope that the industry has been capable of addressing the issue to move forward in the right direction.
Women in Streetwear
The good news is that women are taking initiative to change the game in streetwear. The tendency for brands to “pink it and shrink it,” as Menendez and Gill put it, defeats the entire purpose of streetwear fashion. These clothes are meant to be casual, comfortable, and trendy. In fact, the bagginess of the clothing suggests a more unisex or gender-neutral style.
“Just because I’m a girl, doesn’t mean I want a V-neck, slim fitting version of the men’s design in a leopard print pattern,” said Alexandra Hackette, owner of the brand ALCH, to Vice. “I don’t like being categorized into one area, or gender segment, of the market. Don’t get me wrong, I love a baby pink trainer, but brands need to broaden their horizons in terms of the female streetwear industry—we’re not all ‘girly girls.’”
More women are ensuring inclusivity in both the clothing options and workspace of streetwear. Beth Gibb is the co-owner and creative director of Union, as well as the designer and founder of her own women’s streetwear brand, Bephie. Gibb aims to represent women of color in the industry. As an emerging female creative, she recalls being mistreated by both men and women, but gaining more confidence in her work allowed her to become a stronger leader.
“To a certain degree, it’s hard because most women are told that’s not acceptable,” Gibb told Complex. “I’m passionate, and sometimes people say, ‘You’re angry. You’re yelling. You’re aggressive,’ because they’re not used to seeing that. People tell me I’m aggressive all the time, but I’ve learned to be OK with that. I’m not aggressive to the point where I’m trying to hurt people. I feel like if you’re not going to speak up, and pull anyone else up with you, then you’re wasting space.”
Estelle Bailey-Babenzien, co-owner Noah, sometimes finds it difficult to even get respect in her own company. Her husband, Brendon Babenzien, is the former creative director of Supreme, and his notoriety often overshadows her. However, Bailey-Babenzien could not care less. Instead, she focuses on deconstructing gender norms in a field that is hyper-focused on gender. Noah aims to be diverse both on screen (it includes women in its menswear lookbooks) and off (the brand hires women in many different roles).
“We shouldn’t worry about whether we’re a man or woman,” she told Complex. “Just go into something thinking you’re an individual, you have a voice, because I feel like once you think about your gender limitations, you’ve very away of them and they can hinder your perspective of how you’re going to go forward. If you notice that that’s a hindrance in the person you’re talking to, then address it. But I want women to not be limited and know that their influence is valuable. It’s important. It’s powerful.”
Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.