How Retailers Use Streetwear Brands to Reach Today's Consumers

How Retailers Use Streetwear Brands to Reach Today's Consumers

This post was written by Sarah Boesveld.

Let’s be honest, most of us wear sweatpants to the airport. But when Selena Gomez appeared at New York’s JFK airport for a flight back to Los Angeles earlier this month, her comfy duds made headlines. She was decked out in an orange hoodie, pristine white Pumas and a pair of navy track pants bearing the slogan “Support your friends.” 

Selena Gomez sporting streetwear brands at the airport

Image by Robert Kamau / Getty Images

Gomez was essentially supporting her ex, the luxury streetwear clothing line’s designer Samuel Krost, whose affordable and socially conscious clothing line gives all proceeds to anti-gun violence initiative March for Our Lives. Slung over her shoulder was also a sold-out Louis Vuitton OnTheGo bag. The mix of high and low was right on trend. 

According to Popsugar.com, the pop star has been “crushing it with her style game” lately, and an increasing number of fashion-forward celebrities seem to be sporting streetwear brands. The comfort-meets-luxury look that has been described as one of the most disruptive forces in the fashion industry today for the way it’s brought coziness and authenticity to the masses.

Important collaborations between Louis Vuitton and Supreme, the recent partnering of LeBron James’s UNKNWN sporty streetwear label with American designer Thom Browne and The New York Times’ pop-up collaboration with trendy Brooklyn-based streetwear brand knickerbocker have taken us to a place where “graphic T-shirts are beginning to hold a higher value than Italian leather.” 

In 2015, the global urban streetwear market was valued at approximately $175 billion USD, with the U.S. market alone worth around $80 billion USD—with its rise in popularity, you can only imagine how much bigger it’s gotten from there. 

What’s going on here? This post walks you through exactly what you need to know about streetwear’s place and influence in the retail world today. 

  1. Why are retailers using streetwear brands to reach today's customers?
  2. What does this say about consumers today
  3. Why are consumer brands flocking to streetwear?
  4. What’s the opportunity for retailers in fashion?
  5. What’s the opportunity for the rest of retail?

Why are retailers using streetwear brands to reach today's consumers?

It’d be a mistake to write off streetwear—which includes stylish T-shirts, hoodies, sneakers, and headphones—as a passing phase. “Streetwear is not a trend within fashion but rather the fashion component of a larger popular culture shift that spans fashion, art, and music,” according to the 2019 Streetwear Impact Report, published by influential streetwear website HypeBeast and consulting firm PwC. 

With roots in skate, surf, and hip-hop culture, the rise of streetwear dates back to the late 1980s/early 1990s. During that time, Italy-based Luca Benini brought labels like Stussy to European markets through Slam Jam. And in Japan, brands like A Bathing Ape (BAPE) and NEIGHBOURHOOD were born. 

Streetwear has always been about exclusivity, the report reads, and therefore it makes total sense that these casual duds have found their way to the runways of Paris. “Both traditional luxury fashion and streetwear depend on their positions as cultural status symbols in order to drive demand,” it says. In fact, the founder of iconic streetwear brand A Bathing Ape (BAPE), Japanese artist Nigo, intentionally made a limited amount of merchandise when he started out in the early 1990s because he knew the desire for exclusivity would help his brand grow.

But there are new ingredients to add to the popularity of streetwear today: It’s much more community-based, thanks to social media. “Now that Instagram is the definitive medium for discovering fashion, traditional luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have adopted the defining characteristics of streetwear, finding bold logos and exclusivity to be key to reaching younger generations," Benjamin Schneider, a research analyst at Euromonitor International, told Business Insider

Supreme streetwear brand logo on a bag

Image by Christian Vierig / Getty Images

Those flashy logos and bold texts? They’re instantly transmittable memes. Streetwear has also opened the fashion world up to men, who have been historically dissuaded from caring about what they wear, HypeBeast argues, by putting comfort above all else.

What does this say about consumers today? 

The aforementioned exclusivity is a really important element for streetwear fans, who tend to be Millennial or Gen Z (and therefore have some disposable income—working professionals who don’t have children or mortgages to worry about—although there have been some streetwear collabs with Gen X in mind: “Worn by supermodels and dads in Ohio” is New Balance’s genius marketing slogan for selling their 990v5 sneakers). 

Consumers of course care about looking cool and mirroring what celebrities are doing. But it shows they are keen to remain authentic to their own personality, and above all else, stay comfortable—which feels like the antithesis of fashion (anyone who says they are comfortable in high heels or a buttoned up suit is a liar). 

According to Business Insider, rich millennials can be largely credited with the rise of luxury streetwear because it’s a status symbol—thanks to the democratization of social media, everyone will know that cool T-shirt or pair of headphones costs $3000. And the rise of the tech sector and less stuffy traditional industries employing these younger people has meant smart, expressive and casual clothing is acceptable in the workplace too. “[Millennials] like streetwear's casual and comfortable silhouettes like t-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers, which have become increasingly accepted in work and social spaces alike in the U.S. in the midst of a larger casualization trend,” Schneider says. 

Why are consumer brands flocking to streetwear?

Consumer brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma see major growth opportunities in the newfound elevation of streetwear. All of a sudden, they’re more than just sports apparel brands—they’re nods to high fashion, open doors to what’s cool. Sales numbers back it up: The global sports apparel market is expected to rise from $180.6 billion USD in 2019 to a projected $207.8 billion USD in 2025. Retail sales of the global apparel and footwear market is on a similar steady trajectory, with $1.8 trillion in sales on track to rise to $2.1 trillion in 2020. 

These brands also know “sneakerheads” who are addicted to the chase for an exclusive item will wait hours in front of a Nike store for a limited edition pair of Air Jordans.The coinciding rise of athleisure and the celebrity influence on that stream of fashion (Beyoncé has her line, Ivy Park) has further encouraged these consumer brands to lean into the fashion-meets-casual look.

What’s the opportunity for fashion retailers?

The rise of streetwear has paid off big time for luxury brands that needed to breathe new life into their labels. According to Business Insider, Gucci nearly doubled its sales in 2018, with 55% of those sales attributed to shoppers under age 35. Michael Kors, Fendi, and Ralph Lauren have also partnered with streetwear brands to major success. Social media and the Internet at large has changed the game for streetwear brands—the market is no longer local or regional, but global. “Social media helps people who are curious about streetwear, but have no knowledge, not look dumb,” Racks Hogan, a musician, streetwear influencer and the man behind The Stylish Stoner Instagram account told DigiDay. Social media also offers a more cost-effective marketing strategy. Here’s how Miami-based streetwear clothing brand 8and9 puts it: “Social media has been huge for us. Our first sales came from the Sneaker Con shows. Word of mouth, hand to hand, and social promotion powered our launch.” 

What’s the opportunity for the rest of retail?

The biggest takeaway from streetwear’s success for anyone selling a product is the possibility of building a loyal, passionate customer base. 

Think the velvet rope out front of Drake’s OVO stores, or the excitement waiting at your computer to score that exclusive model of Yeezy boost. About half of the respondents to the Hypebeast Streetwear survey said they are willing to wait in lines for a product release — a positive response to what marketers call the “drop model,” the Hypebeast report reads. 

“Many popular streetwear products can only be purchased directly from a brand …[in which] customers are rallied to be the first online or in-store to secure products that are released at a particular place and time.” 

This is especially important to younger shoppers, whose loyalty you’ll want to build to last well into the future. “It’s not like these streetwear products are personalized with their name, or that they’re getting to choose a color or a graphic, but because of the scarcity, they’re very likely to be the only one among their friends or social group that has these items, so it feels as if they’ve been created just for them,” Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at Landor told AdWeek

The drop helps solidify the cult-like following of a product and a loyal market. And who doesn’t want that? 

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