If runway fashion is about dreams, streetwear is about reality. In its original iterations, in the late seventies and eighties, it combined branding with utility. Those early brands were, basically, uniforms for subcultures—skaters and surfers in California at first, and soon hip-hop and DJ culture in NYC and beyond. Labels like Stüssy, started in the surf town of Laguna Beach, aped and appropriated the self-regard of high-fashion brands (Stüssy's double-S logo was apparently modeled on Chanel's interlocking Cs) while remaining functional. You showed them off, but you could skate in them.
America kick-started the movement. London, with its combustible mix of fashion and politics—epitomized by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's Seditionaries—added an anarchic spin. But it was Japan that took the ball and ran with it, mixing the three strands: gilding functional, performance-oriented clothing with new levels of craftsmanship and infusing designs with a sensibility derived in part from London punk. If the godfather of streetwear in Japan is Hiroshi Fujiwara—a onetime DJ and Seditionaries fanatic who founded his own label, Goodenough, in 1989—soon enough he had plenty of company: his protégés Nigo (the founder of his own line, A Bathing Ape) and Jun Takahashi (of Undercover), later collaborators like Hiroki Nakamura (of Visvim) and Hirofumi Kiyonaga (of SOPHNET). But as the energy grew, so did streetwear's influence. And eventually people around the world were building lines that blurred the high fashion/street divide.
There are so many major milestones in streetwear's evolution that a comprehensive catalog is impossible. But that is at the heart of its charm. Streetwear in the present day is as self-created, self-promoted, varied, and uncategorizable as Tumblr, Twitter, or any other digital-age platform. Subcultures are more specific than they've ever been, and so are the designers cropping up to outfit them. What connects them all is the commitment to the people who wear them and the neighborhoods they began in. Where they end and where they end up is open-ended. In the Internet era, what begins intensely local goes instantly global.
And so, the evolution continues. The five labels here represent the current generation of streetwear, its reigning heroes, and its emerging new guard. These are the people injecting the real with the spirit of the dream—and whether they admit it or not, every savvy runway designer is paying attention. They're modeled here by a woman who understands the value of keeping her ear to the ground and her eye on the street: Tokyo-based designer/singer/DJ Mademoiselle Yulia, a blue-haired subculture unto herself.
Vintage workwear—the kind that was a staple of the Tokyo streets in the vintage-mad eighties—is an obsession for Hiroki Nakamura. "When I started to develop an interest in fashion, it was utility clothes like denim or workwear. I never knew about designer clothing." With the idea of creating future vintage in mind, he launched his cult brand, Visvim, in Tokyo, in 1999. Since then, he has built one of the holy grail brands for fellow vintage fanatics, one that blends the ultimate in high-tech sports elements with vintage treatments.
The line started with shoes—specifically boots inspired by fifties- or sixties-era military style that were also lightweight and built to last (he uses a Goodyear welt on his leather soles, which can be replaced easily when they wear out). It grew into denim and clothing, like down vests with handkerchief patchwork and indigo-dyed zip sweatshirts made with natural ingredients and dyes, and inspired by his vintage collection—vintage French workwear, old Japanese indigo, American military standard issues, and vintage fabrics from all over the world. Even techniques and treatments favor the old as much as the new: One pair of Visvim jeans features hand-constructed denim, with buffalo leather that was tanned using a process from the forties.
"In the Edo period in the 1800s, everything was made by hand," Nakamura points out. "Everything now, to my eyes, looks flat and the same. But using natural dye, which is a bacteria, is impossible to control. It makes every piece different." Introducing old techniques into mass production makes each product personal, uneven, and that, for Nakamura, means perfect.
The word rasvyet means "sunrise" in Russian. The word, and images of sunrises, decorate T-shirts in the latest collection of Moscow-based designer Gosha Rubchinskiy." All is good for the future, and the future is good. The sunrise is now!" he explains.
The future does look good for Rubchinskiy, who gained wide recognition for his graphic tees and sweats printed with Cyrillic lettering and Russian graphics—enough that Comme des Garçons took him in and is now managing his production. Before launching his line—which has now expanded to include denim, trainer-style jackets, and accessories—he'd done a little bit of everything: studied art, styled for movies, cut hair, and bounced around the Moscow fashion scene. But when, in 2007, he met a group of teenage skaters in Moscow and spent time photographing them and partying with them, he found his vision. His work reflects their lives in a new Russian world. His collection is a document of post-Soviet-generation youth.
"It's a collaboration with friends, and it's their story," Rubchinskiy says. He shoots them in skate videos, commissions them to provide the soundtrack, and to collaborate on the collection. (This season, he worked with Ukrainian artist Igor Okuniev on the sunrise graphics.) He considers himself more a director than a designer: His collections aren't based on fabric or shape, but instead are developed to fit the final imagery.
The ultimate goal is integrity and authenticity. "In the past, fashion, music, and art were linked to identity and subcultures; things have lost their meaning because of all this chaos," he says. "We need something new. Global chaos is why we need a sunrise."
Back in the mid-2000s, designer Stephane Ashpool and his friends dubbed themselves "Pain O choKolat" and started throwing street parties that reflected the diversity of their neighborhood, Pigalle, in central Paris. The crew got a uniform when Ashpool started making his now-famous Pigalle T-shirts, and a home base when he opened a store, in 2008. (For good measure, he also opened a nightclub, Le Pompon.)
"I call this movement 'mixity,'" Ashpool says. "Mixity defines me. I was a basketball player involved in nineties culture, and my parents were very open-minded. They spent time at Le Palace, around Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana—eccentric people with very good taste."
For all the eclectic inspirations, he's Pigalle through and through. He is practically the honorary mayor of the neighborhood—people stop to greet him as he walks down the street, and kids wear Pigalle T-shirts on the basketball court he opened nearby with Nike—and his multiethnic surroundings are a major inspiration for the full collection that is now the store's house line. He staged his Spring '14 show in the street, right outside the shop, modeled by friends striking poses in athletic tank tops and silk shorts. (Sports is an obsession: He's opening a basketball-themed shop this spring, along with a new and improved Le Pompon.)
"Pigalle is where I grew up," he says. "My mom came here from Sarajevo." (She now works in the store.) "I was born here and now I make people come here, too."
Balancing elements from the urban street and indigenous cultures is a Kokon To Zai (KTZ) signature. So you might expect from a line designed between London and Bali, where designer Marjan Pejoski and partner Sasko Bezovski first dreamed up the line on holiday, and where they still keep an atelier. "The street is an important part of what we do," says Pejoski. "I adore couture, but at the same time, the street is the platform. It's all about the mix. It's my vocabulary."
Pejoski trained at Central Saint Martins and had his own namesake label in the early aughts. Even in his earliest days he was ruffling feathers—in one infamous case, literally: He designed the swan dress Björk wore to the Oscars in 2001. "She said, 'Marjan, you are like the Che Guevara of fashion, '" he recalls. "'This is a revolution in the jungle.'" But in the years that followed, the revolutionary decided to step away from the runway and the world of high fashion.
A partnership, in life and business, with former DJ Bezovski brought him back. Bezovski's store Kokon To Zai (Japanese for "east meets west") had opened in 1996 as a music store but over the years evolved into a fashion boutique, one that drew young designers like Bernhard Willhelm, Riccardo Tisci, and Peter Pilotto. In 2003, Pejoski created KTZ as its house line; he now designs it alongside Koji Maruyama. It is still heavily influenced by Pejoski and Bezovski's travels, but its references to the style of the streets, with its tribal-gang badges, oversized shapes, and military inflections, have made it a favorite of stars like Rihanna and Kanye West. Today there are three Kokon To Zai boutiques—two in London and one in Paris.
"A brand is a life-form," Pejoski says. "It's dangerous. No control, just anarchy. It's been a steady journey, not overnight, and very bumpy—but that's exciting."
When Shinsuke Takizawa founded his label in 1994, he named it Neighborhood, a reference to Harajuku. At the time, the Tokyo enclave was a quiet residential area, but it was quickly transforming into a center of Japanese cool, the hangout of "neighbors" like Nigo, of A Bathing Ape, and Jun Takahashi, of Undercover.
Eventually they'd all go on to change the face of street fashion, in the area and around the world, but in the beginning they were focused only on creating something new. "Around that time, fashion in Japan meant Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto," Takizawa says. "But our level was about DIY, used clothing, customizing. It had nothing to do with high fashion."
Neighborhood was informed by Takizawa's cultural obsessions: Vivienne Westwood's 1980s designs (circa the Pirates collection of 1981), New Wave, punk, vintage workwear, and fifties and sixties motorcycle culture. (Takizawa has a collection of more than forty Harleys and Triumphs.) "I like things that look dirty," he says. "I don't choose fabrics if they aren't sturdy. I make street-level lifestyle clothes that also work for going out to dinner, to match my lifestyle."
Neighborhood is proving sturdy itself. Next year, the label will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Harajuku has changed, but the label's spirit has not. "We are the only ones still around and independent," Takizawa says. "Our philosophy is remaining independent."