Streetwear - a defining sub-culture in fashion

How did streetwear become so popular? The history of American Streetwear - the influences on the streetwear movement from the 1980's up until today.
Author Headshot
Charles Wells
Aug 10
3.5 mins
Aug 10
3.5 mins

Now a multi-billion dollar sector of the fashion industry, streetwear has come a long way from its humble beginnings. 

From the surf and skate scene in LA to the hip-hop culture of New York, streetwear historically is known for its simplicity, comfort and casual clothing, but has evolved over the years into something much more. Streetwear typically comprises a set of base items but usually based on a statement pair of trainers and a quality t-shirt along with one other defining factor - exclusivity! 

Once driven by a young male audience to combat the more elaborate looks of the time, streetwear has since been adopted by a female audience which skews to the younger generations often under the age of 25.

Stretching from the luxury brands to the highstreet mainstays, this once niche fashion culture  has spread far and wide for all to wear. Let’s take a look at the defining influences on the culture and  what defines a movement that is now driving the wider fashion industry. 

So firstly, what has influenced the streetwear movement? It all starts with the foundational years between the 80’s and 90’s.

Board riders 

Let’s take a trip to the California beaches in the late 80’s where surfboard designer Shawn Stüssy sold t-shirts out of the boot of his car with custom prints which he previously used on his surf boards. These custom T’s grew in popularity at which point he switched to selling out of stores and with continued growth he made a move that would lay the foundation of streetwear t-shirts and limited runs (exclusivity).

Later, skating became more popular and just like with surfing, it became cool to treat your t-shirt like your board - donning it with logos! This part of the streetwear story was really taken to another level by James Jebbia, founder of skate brand Supreme.

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New York & Hip-Hop 

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, hip-hop really began to take off and become a mainstream genre of music. Large record labels were beginning to take advantage with labels like Def Jam creating custom embroidered letterman jackets and forming partnerships with the increasingly popular work wear brand Carhartt. 

Hip-hop was not the only genre of rap helping shape the streetwear culture, gangster rap also played a key part. The link between music and clothing at this time being popular artists such as Jay Z, 50 cent (slightly later than the rest), Puff Daddy and Damon Dash to name a few. 

An important figure at this time was also Dapper Dan, a prevalent designer and haberdasher; he would become a key designer for the majority of the music industry and its artists. His talent would also see him work with some of sport’s biggest names. 

These foundational years have provided a solid base for streetwear to thrive in today's market.

Sneakers & Sportswear

Sportswear and Athleisure have become a major part of streetwear and are often considered interchangeable with the culture. This has largely been driven by major brands such as Nike, Adidas, Puma, Vans and more recently, New Balance and their main line sneaker collections. Sneaker culture has always been a key aspect of streetwear, but is there more to it than just a fresh pair of creps?

Predominantly known for their shoes, Nike, Adidas and Puma are sportswear brands at their core and the clothing they produce was a later addition to the streetwear wardrobe becoming increasingly popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s with Nike’s famous partnership with Michael Jordan. Their popularity continues today and these partnerships have gone even further with the likes of the Jordan brand partnering with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG).


Streetwear has also crossed into the luxury sector of the market through partnerships such as, Off-White and Vetements. 

These brand partnerships are driven by a shared purpose-driven approach to fashion. Lately, other major brands such as Adidas and Balenciaga, Adidas and Gucci, Supreme and Louis Vuitton have followed suit.

Streetwear is now a beast in its own right, becoming a main pillar of the wider fashion world - built upon a community, exclusivity and comfort, its popularity is something that can no longer be ignored.

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