Youth culture, sportswear and the New York Fashion Week calendar

Sportswear and streetwear brands at NYFW

Sportswear brands at NYFW

According to the fashion industry pundits, New York Fashion Week has been suffering from a little identity crisis for the last few seasons. Some might even trace the cause back to the numerous location changes- from the Bryant Park tents (which it left in 2010), to the rather corporate looking Lincoln Center, and then literally being booted out of there (in 2015) for a range of locations across Manhattan that have more editors stuck in cabs driving up and down the West Side Highway rather than taking up their front row seats. But I’m not here to whine, there’s been enough of that. And, actually all of these industry issues seemed to have actually helped, ushering in a new guard for this season, one that looks really exciting.

For the first time in a long time, New York Fashion Week feels like it’s getting a fresh lick paint, you know that striking new paint smell that gets in your nose, and raises your heartbeat up a bit? The NYFW schedule this season looks like it might actually rival London with its host of fresh new faces. It used to be that as an editor you flew to NYC for great fashion that had a commercial sensibility above all else, and then you flew on to London to immerse yourself in creativity, to watch recent graduates who want to make art rather than clothes that might appear in global department stores. But that is changing. And it’s thanks to a cluster of things, the increasing presence of the youth consumer who is always craving that ‘new’ new, the fact that some staple designers are moving from NY this season to show elsewhere and therefore freeing up space on the roster, and the rise and rise of sportswear.

“What’s most interesting to me are the sportswear and street fashion brands subverting New York Fashion Week. FENTY will be doing its show, KITH is sure to be a spectacle, and Nike is teaming up with Virgil Abloh to host so many activations that they could easily have a Nike Fashion Week,” says Jian DeLeon, Editorial Director of High Snobiety. “It’s very relevant to how New Yorkers actually dress on the streets, and channels a youthful energy into the old-hat institutional idea of what fashion week is.”

In addition to KITH coming back to the New York Fashion Week line up (the NY streetwear store debuted last September with a show and musical performances at the Samsung 837 store in the Meatpacking District), Rihanna for Puma is back too (after heading to Paris for a season). Then there’s Namilia, the label from two designers based out of Berlin who showed for the first time last September to rave reviews of their subversive streetwear, and Barragan who we profiled as a one to watch, the label is going from strength to strength as part of the MADE fashion week line up. All eyes will be on Shayne Oliver, of Hood by Air fame too, who will be bringing his gender fluid streetwear style to Helmet Lang with a new capsule collection debuting on Monday. Finally, you have Rihanna’s favourite denim designer, Matthews Adams Dolan, who we interviewed a while back (check it out here) and is now hosting his first women’s show at NYFW, showcasing his comfort-wear inspired, statement oversized denim looks.

To be clear, sportswear at NYFW is nothing new, it used to be a staple on the catwalk in the late 90s and early 2000s, when fashion week was held at Bryant Park and P Diddy’s Sean Jean collection was on the main stage; the pinnacle of sportswear having its moment in the sun. And in the retail stores, sportswear was selling through the roof too, it evolved from an urban way of life to a multimillion-dollar industry.

“When I was a fashion reporter in the 90s, 1996 was a really interesting year for both music and fashion,” says Elena Romero,  Media Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology New York and The City College of New York, and author of the book Free Stylin‘: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry. 

“We witnessed hip-hop crossing over to the mainstream, and becoming an international phenomenon, and with it, youth fashion, which had previously been predominately sold in local region/speciality stores, crossed over. We saw youth fashion becoming becoming part of these fashion week tent shows, and for the first time we had designers like Marc Ecko and brands like FUBU use that platform to show the fashion industry that they had arrived and they too were players in the game. In retail stores we saw a huge push of these types of labels in places like Federated Department Stores, which is now Macy’s. At the time, the market skyrocketed, we had never seen a youth fashion brand make a couple of million out the box, but that’s what was happening. And then, like with all popular things, consumers craved it and the market oversaturated. These urban sports brands went from mom and pop stores to department stores, and if you don’t have the sales figures they need you can be in trouble.”

After the rise and fall of sportswear on the catwalk, this youth/street fashion movement didn’t die, but it did lose steam and its NYFW catwalk presence. However, fashion as we know is cyclical, and so it gave rise to a new wave of designers and consumers who are craving these styles again.

“For a while sportswear suffered, because of its hip-hop origins, it was pigeonholed and continues to be boxed. The industry still doesn’t know what to call it, we move from different names, first it was ethnic and urban, then it was skate and ultimately now we call it sportswear and it’s more diverse,” says Romero. “But the fashion industry initially boxed it in as this baggy, oversized, head-to-toe look, with a hip-hop heritage. Ultimately, the look and the culture evolved, but its appeal is as strong as ever. And, that original customer base that was from Gen X has paved the way for Millennials and Gen Z who love it too. I think that now is a really exciting time for the new designers, and the classic sportswear brands that are coming back with a fresh take on the look. I think we need that newness and that spark,” adds Romero.


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