Streetwear Origins: Part 1


Streetwear: You’ve heard the term. Probably witnessed people of all ages wearing oversized hoodies, baggie pants, skinny jeans, ripped jeans, combined with a hat with shoes to match, the list goes on and on.

This begs the question, what exactly is streetwear?

Streetwear fashion is the unique blending and mixing of clothing items and accessories that allows individuals to express themselves. This cultural and social trend has found its way across the world and has been influenced by different mediums to include: Location, culture, politics, language, psychology, and economic class.

The motivation for streetwear traces back to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Each decade brought a unique style evolving over time and passed through different mediums such as music, television, skateboarding, sports, contemporary art, graffiti, and magazines. Today, the spread of streetwear has accelerated thanks to the rise of technology, specifically, social media.  

Streetwear is more than just clothing, it is a connection between the clothing and the community. Streetwear has been used to express creativity and to send a social or political message.

Influence and origin

Streetwear is unique for many different reasons. Historically, fashion is influenced by designers, through fashion shows, media, catalogs, magazines, and other outlets. 

What makes streetwear so unique is it is influenced by the consumer, the subcultures that dominate America and across the globe. Consumers have become trendsetters influencing how designers perceive the future of streetwear.

Where designers used to dominate fashion shows and set trends, today, the opposite is happening. Fashion shows are now influenced by what people on the “streets” are wearing. 

Street wear fashion has been adopted by not only the folks at the bottom of the economy, but by luxury brands shifting towards the new norm in fashion to get a piece of the pie. 

Definition of Streetwear

The definition of streetwear is unique and ever evolving, involving different variables. This includes location, culture, politics, language, psychology, economics and many other factors.

Streetwear is not constant, rather it is always changing, evolving, depending on what era we observe. It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of streetwear. Many have speculated the movement began in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and in every decade the definition of streetwear changes. In fact, the actual term streetwear wasn’t coined until after the 2000s with other terms used to describe clothing trends such as surfwear, punk rock wear, skatewear, and urban wear. 

For example, the term “Urbanwear” was used to define urban clothing, and was termed by hip hop artists LL Cool J and MC Hammer in the 1980s. 

Regardless, streetwear began as a counterculture, small subcultures in inner cities such as hip hop, skating, punk rock and rock and roll had their own unique sense of fashion that quickly spread to the rest of the country. Globally, places such as Japan and the UK have left their mark on the Streetwear scene and continue to thrive.

 Let’s dive into streetwear by the decade. 

By the Decade

The 1970s brought rock and roll, the 1980s brought gangster hip hop, and the 1990s brought out skaters and punk rock. 

In my research, I found most of the origins of streetwear to originate in NY, and Los Angeles. But is this so? How did the hip hop culture, rock, skateboard, and surfboard cultures of the United States that took place in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s shape global streetwear fashion? Let’s dive into some of the history of streetwear and how streetwear has shaped the lives of many around the world.

Streetwear 1970s

The 1970s was a unique time period with the rise of punk rock, heavy metal, and early hip hop. Although if you dig deep enough you can find street wear elements a lot further back in time, it is widely accepted that the 1970s began a wave of streetwear trends that resonates till this day. 

Influenced by the “youthquake” of the 1960s which was a cultural movement involving art, music, and pop culture, the 1970s was more of a social response, an anti government one.  

Punk Movement

The punk movement was a response to the “Paris couture as the fashion authority in the 1960s” with clothing designed to provoke the status quo and redefine what fashion was all about. This momentum carried over into the 1970s creating a decade of new music, fashion, and a response to the culture at the time. 

New York Dolls 

The roots of Punk can be difficult to distinguish, but they trace back to both the UK and United States. In the early 1970s, a band known as the New York Dolls emerged on the scene. They were one of the first bands to wear makeup, dress in heels, mix used and new clothing as if they bought it at a thrift shop, and helped blur the gender lines of clothing. 

Unfortunately for the band, they were met with the negative externalities associated with popular rock groups. Drug abuse, alcoholism, threaten to break up the band, and they had one final hope. 

Malcolm Mclaren, who in the 1970s owned a clothing storefront known as SEX became the bands manager. In an attempt to salvage the band, he dressed the entire band in red. Red heels, red leather pants, red everything. They even played in front of a giant red flag. 

In the Northern states, such as NY, fans were ok with the style. In the southern states, not so much because of its resemblance to communism. The band unfortunately didn’t make it, and eventually fell apart in 1975. 

Malcolm benefited from his time with the band, and brought the band’s style and swagger back to Europe. Ripped jeans, spike hair, accessories, Malcolm introduced this style back in his own shop. It has been attributed that this was the start of the punk movement.  

As the punk movement began to grow, more relevant bands began to emerge onto the scene. 

Sex Pistols 

British band known as the Sex Pistols “were a high profile Punk band that helped to popularize the style as fans ripped their clothing and created their own homemade version of the clothes seen on the band.”

The Sex Pistols success can be attributed to Malcolm Mclaren, who in the 1970s owned a clothing storefront known as SEX and incorporated styles he learned from the NY Dolls. In fact, it was at this very store where the Sex Pistols were created. Glen Mattlock, the bands first bass player worked at SEX storefront and met the other bands who were customers at the time. The success of the band ultimately helped the store gain popularity as a place to purchase clothing that was considered “anti-establishment.”   

The band was highly popular with the young crowd, but the older crowd hated them. In fact, political leaders at the time felt the band was a threat to the British government. This anti-establishment rhetoric would not falter, and only gain momentum as it spread to not only rock, but to the mainstream. 

The “torn fashion” was a response to unemployment, and a low income environment where people would go to thrift shops and purchase cheap clothing, and create their own styles at home. The 1970s also provided a platform for people to rebel against the status quo, often choosing to pierce their bodies, input tattoos, and deliberately rebel against and to offend societal norms at the time. It was this rebellious attitude that helped spark the wave of streetwear and fashion at the time and allow poorer individuals to shape the future of street fashion.

 By the mid 1970s, the punk movement became more artistic and many began to experiment by creating their own work. People began to print out their own shirts, creating there own styles, setting up fashion trends for the next decade. 


Willi Smith was a prominent black designer that began a clothing brand known as Williwear Limited in 1974. Willi was unique in many different ways and had a vision to democratize fashion by providing affordable, stylish, high quality garments to people of all walks of life. 

Willi enrolled in the Parsons school of Design and also interned with famous couturier Arnold Scaasi. He gained the skills necessary to create high-end garments and later recalled this experience as “the clothes i didnt want to make.”

So what did Willi want to make? Willi was unique in combining and mixing sportswear and high end tailoring. Given his experience at Parson’s and learning how to create high end garments, Willi did not forget where he was from or who he wanted to serve. 

Smith’s vision of Williwear was straight to the point:

“I don’t design clothes for the queen, but the people who wave at her as she goes by.” 

Willi Smith

Willi’s ability to create affordable, unique garments that fused high end tailoring, sportswear, and street culture from his own experiences set him up perfectly as his brand entered the 1980s.

 In the fall of 1983, he released his autumn / winter collection. It was called “street couture”. Later that year, he became the youngest-ever to win the American Fashion Critics’ Award for Women’s Fashion. “By 1986, Wiliwear was grossing sales of more than $25 million a year in more than 500 stores.”

“Bringing urban culture to the catwalk” – Willi Smith 

Sadly, Willi passed away in 1986 from pneumonia after catching a parasitic disease in India where he frequently traveled to buy fabric. Unfortunately, most of history does not remember Willi Smith and what he did for street wear, but it is undeniable he helped shape the stage of streetwear for generations to come.

Streetwear 1980s

Gaining on the momentum of the 70s, the 1980s was a defining decade that brought skate, surf, graffiti, hip hop and other subcultures into the limelight. From upcoming designers such as the founder of Walker wear and Dapper Dan, to the surf culture that influenced Shawn Stussy and his motivation to sell custom print t-shirts from his car, the 1980s had a lot going on.

Surf and Skate Culture of the 1980s

Surfing and skating have a unique relationship with each other. Surfing can be traced back to the time of the ancient Polynesians, it is not new, in fact, it has been traced back to around 1500 years ago. Of course, in the 1960s, surfing became mainstream thanks to the surfers of Southern California, Australia, and Hawaii. This generated a wave of surf cultural elements to include unique customized boards, board shorts, surf slang,and the bikini. 

Mainstream Surf culture was beginning to take shape. 

Development of the Skateboard

Surfing became mainstream and a global trend quickly, but one of the drawbacks was the weather. You cannot control nature, so there were time periods where surfers couldn’t surf. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the invention of the skateboard, it can be traced back to around the 1940s and 1950s. The skateboard is said to have been invented to imitate the surfboard. Surfers wanted something to do when “The waves were low.” 

Although not as popular as surfing at the time, skateboarding had a place. One of the first skate shops to emerge in the late 1970s is a Los Angeles brand known as Powell Peralta. A brand ran by George Powell, and Stacy Peralta, a professional skateboarder at the time. The brand had its ups and downs, but still exist till this day although both George and Stacy stopped working with each other in the 1990s. 

There was resistance to the skateboard with many people attributing it to children getting injured. The popularity of skateboarding from the 1950s to the 1990s did not rise steadily. It rose in popularity then withered away only to reemerge. It wasn’t until the 1990s where skateboarding really took off as a cultural movement rather than just a sport. 

Shawn Stussy

During the 1980s, surfing was still more popular than skateboarding as there was already a cultural movement for people who wanted to catch waves. Shawn Stussy, who was an avid surfer, first picked up a surfboard at the ripe age of 13 and quickly grew reputable as a crafter of customized surfboards. At trade shows, Shawn quickly scribbled his name on his customized surfboards not knowing the implications it would have for not only surfing, but streetwear in general. Not only was he selling surfboards, Shawn had the idea of sourcing Hanes black plain t-shirts, but they were not for sale. When people purchased the surfboard, they also inquired about the t -shirts. He responded, they are not for sale. People insisted, so he sold them for 8 dollars a shirt. By the third day he sold 1000 shirts. 

This was the beginning of the Stussy Brand, a trend that has helped shape streetwear today. 

Stussy Brand 

Shawn gained on this momentum, he began to create print T shirts and shorts to promote his vision following the DIY movement of the punk era. He sold these items out of his car slowly spreading his name.

In 1984, the Stussy Brand became official and Shawn worked with his friend Frank Sinatra to showcase the business. In a few years, the brand slowly grew, and what began as a passion for surfboards soon shifted to showcasing designs in small showrooms in New York and California. 

The Stussy brand has been credited with the print t-shirt movement as it resonated well with many youth subcultures at the time from California to New York quickly spreading across the United States. The brand was a result not only of surfing culture, but of the 1970s with the rise of punk rock and other subcultures. 

In 1996, Stussy left the brand for good citing he wanted to spend more time with his family. He worked 20 hour days and made alot of money, but he also said what’s the point of all of it if you can’t spend any time enjoying it. There is no doubt Shawn has left his imprint on the streetwear scene and today, there are many other surf brands that exist. 

In the late 2000s, Stussy collaborated with a Japanese team and started a new brand known as S/Double that operated from around 2010 to 2016.

In 2019, Stussy filed a trademark application for a new logo known as “SHAWN” through the S/DOUBLE corporation according to Hypebeast.

looks like Shawn may be making a comeback, we shall stay tuned. 

Hip Hop Culture in the 1980s 

There is no doubt that the 1980s was the “golden age” of hip hop bringing unique sounds, rhythms, lyrics, and fashion styles never seen before. Influenced by up and coming artists like LL Cool J, Run DMC, and many others, it was in the 1980s where hip hop fashion really took off with the combination of unique clothing items, jewelry, and the rise of sneaker culture and collaborations. 

In 1986, Run DMC released a hit single called “My Adidas” which helped mark the blending of hip hop, sneakers and product endorsements. In response to the song release, Adidas rewarded a 1 million dollar endorsement for the group that generated over 100 million in sales surpassing Nike at the time. 

Another shoe brand to rise and fall is TROOP. A clothing brand designed for hip hop created by Teddy Held, initially the brand did well with even LL Cool J rocking the brand. But just as fast as it rose, rumors spread that the brand was run by the KKK, and that it stood for “To rule over oppressed people.”

 In 1988, MC Shan released “I Pioneered This” with the lyrics containing “Puma’s the brand ‘cause the Klan make TROOPs.” Shortly after the brand withered away, thanks to a hip hop song. 

These two examples above showcase the first several “collaborations” and product endorsements that are so relevant today. There was a need to accessorize artists where prominent designers began to take advantage of the opportunities hip hop provided. It is here where people like Dapper Dan, and April Walker began to emerge on the scene thanks to hip hop while other brands withered away.

Dapper Dan 

Born Daniel Day on August 8, 1944, Dapper Dan was an influential and controversial figure in the streetwear scene and this is no fault of his own. 

From gambling to selling shoplifted clothing out of his car, Dapper Dan was a product of his environment. He dealt and worked with drug dealers, hip hop artists, and found a way to make a living creating unique streetwear designs utilizing “bootlegged” fabrics. 

In 1982, Dan opened his first boutique in Harlem gravitating clients from different walks of life. Notable clients he served include: Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, Mike Tyson, Mark Jacosn, and Bobby Brown.  

Dan originally had aspirations as a wholesaler, even venturing into the fur business. However, he faced racism as many retailers were hesitant to sell or refused to do business with him. He had to improvise. Dan with his entrepreneurial mindset decided to design his own streetwear. He ventured into stores such as Gucci and purchased all of their garment bags to use as raw materials in his inception of his own designs. He created custom pieces, bomber jackets, track suits, leather jackets, and other designs that were NOT knockoffs, but rather, knock-ups. 

Today, collaborations are an integral piece to luxury brands and celebrities, designers, athletes, artists, etc. From Travis Scott/ Jordan, to Supreme/Louis Vutton, these associations were indirectly inspired by Dan’s willingness to take luxury garments and take them to another level even in the social, legal, and racial environment Dan endured. 

Sadly, Dapper Dan was forced to close his boutique due to a series of lawsuits of high end fashion brands including Gucci. A fight between Mike Tyson and Mitch “Blood” Green in front of his boutique broke out, newspaper photos and media reported on the fight that put Dapper Dan’s boutique on the radar of the high fashion houses. 

When his boutique closed, his influence did not. Many brands emerged that imitated his style, such as FUBU, Sean John, adopting baggier clothing and incorporating logos on everything. Eventually, Dapper Dan could not be silenced, and he had one final shot at redemption. 


The story of Dapper Dan did not end in 1992. His legacy lives on and is bigger than ever. In 2016, Gucci director Alessandro Michele sent homage to Dapper down the runway in the 2018 Cruise collection with a design eerily similar to the Diane Dixon one in 1989. 

In 2017, Gucci and Michele announced a partnership with Dapper Dan resurrecting many of his designs from the 1980s. In 2018, Dapper, with the assistance of Gucci, opened a new luxury house in Harlem. 

“Aw man, let me tell you something,” Dapper Dan told Vanity Fair last night. “This is like . . . you ready? This moment right now is like a Christmas I never had. This is just too amazing. I’m overwhelmed. This is like a dream. Really and truly like a dream.” He hadn’t been consulted about the use of his jacket prior to the fateful runway show, but he didn’t seem to mind: “I was used to seeing people re-create the things I’ve done . . . man, I thought it was a great homage.” – Dapper Dan

Walker Wear – April Walker

It is tough to talk about the 1980s streetwear scene without mentioning April Walker. Although the term streetwear wasn’t coined into the mid 2000s, April Walker focused on something else. 


At the time, April was hesitant to allow people to know that Walkerwear was run by a female. 

In 1986, April began to venture into the “streetwear” scene. The streets were flowing with money, hip hop was solidifying itself, and April was even stopped by Dapper Dan. She knew she needed a place to customize and “rep her tribe.” 

April started her business out of her own home. She was heavily influenced by her father who managed musicians to the likes of Biggy, Puffy, Queen Latifa, LL Cool J, and many other prominent artists. It was her father who first showed her the “entrepreneurial spirit.” April also was influenced by the rise of hip hop and wanted to be a part of the trend. 

After touring Dapper Dan’s boutique in Harlem, Walker knew she wanted to open something similar and eventually opened operations out of her home known as “Fashion In Effect.” She eventually opened her first shop in Brooklyn and in the 1990s began a clothing line known as Walker Wear. 

Walker wear was a major success, dressing the likes of many celebrities that included Tupac, Biggie, Aaliyah and many other prominent hip hop artists. 

Today, April Walker continues the Walker wear legacy, and has helped motivate and influence contemporary streetwear. She has relaunched Walker wear, is currently a consultant, and also teaches at NYU, Colombia, and has been featured in many settings such as the Essentials Streetwear course for Parsons school of Design where she continues to spread her passion to new generations. 

Streetwear Origins: East meets West 

While the streetwear movement was taking place in NY and California and quickly spreading across the nation, other countries began to adopt their own streetwear trends thanks to the motivations of the 1970s and 80s. 

Harajuku District

Harajuku district takes up about four square blocks between the Harajuku and Aoyama districts. It is here where the beginning of American and European streetwear culture began influencing the way young people dressed with foreign inspired product shops began popping up.

 Hip hop and punk culture could be found here infused with Japanese culture. The younger generation loved it, spreading the new trends throughout the city and country. Much of this is credited to the streetwear pioneers of the time. Streetwear pioneers such as Hiroshi Fujiwara, Nigo, and Jun Takahashi helped bring the streetwear culture to light in Japan.

Hiroshi Fujiwara

Hiroshi Fujiwara has been touted as the “godfather of streetwear.” HIs ability to link the west and east through fashion, music, and other interests helped Hiroshi separate himself and begin a cultural trend in Japan in the late 1980s. 

At the ripe age of 18, Hiroshi moved to Tokyo Japan  from his hometown of Ise. He grew fascinated with the punk rock scene in London and fell in love with hip hop when he visited New York. When he returned to Japan, he brought with him these cultural trends that helped shape his vision and eventually started his first brand known as “GOODENOUGH” in the late 1980s. 

Tomoaki Nagao (NIGO)

It was around this time Hiroshi connected with Tomaoki Nagao and Jun Takahashi, two like minded people with a similar vision who were in the process of opening their own retail store known as NOWHERE. The store imported American products and sold products by Hiroshi and Tomoaki.

Tomoaki Nagao even resembled Hiroshi and earned the nickname “Number Two”, which in Japanese is “NIGO.” Nigo was also a famous DJ who helped bring hip hop culture to Japan. He is well known for the founding of BAPE, A Bathing Ape, a brand invented in 1993 and is still relevant till this day though Nigo is not a part of the brand anymore. 

NIGO is world famous, and after 1993 grew into a global streetwear powerhouse with collaborations with prominent up and coming artists such as Pharrell. 

Jun Takahashi 

Takahashi was another Japanese streetwear pioneer who worked closely with NIGO and Hiroshi. As mentioned above, Takahashi collaborated with NIGO to open the NOWHERE retail store in the now famous Harajuku district in Tokyo, Japan. 

He studied at the Bunka Fashion College, a well known prestigious school in Tokyo. His love of music, fashion, and culture made it easy to work with Nigo and Hiroshi. He founded his first label “UNDERCOVER” in 1989, which featured influences from the 1970s including punk references and similarities to the Sex Pistols and American culture. 

There is no doubt that Hiroshi, Nigo and Jun helped accelerate the globalization of streetwear in their native Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their vision has stood the test of time and they were ahead of their games with a multifaceted skill set that included designing, collaborating, producing music, and many other endeavors they helped facilitate inspiring generations. 

In a Nutshell

As the 1980s came to a close, the rise of hip hop, punk, surf and skate culture, and the globalization of streetwear helped propel the 1980s as one of the most consequential decades that have helped shape streetwear today. Without these processes taking place, the punk movement of the 1970s, the rise of hip hop, skate, and surf culture of the 1980s, the 1990s wouldn’t have gained the traction needed to bring street wear to the next level. 

In our next segment, we will explore the 1990s, 2000s, and the 2010s and how these decades built upon the decades of the past and how they are shaping the current climate of streetwear. We will also explore the consequences of fast fashion and how they affect the environment and things we can do to help make streetwear and fashion more sustainable. Till next time!- Phan

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