The Streetwear Manifesto
Most people would say streetwear began with Shawn Stüssy when he founded his eponymous line in 1980, but I would argue that the roots of streetwear began with the above photo where European Jews on Ellis Island were protesting against their deportation to Germany. After all, the current streetwear climate is saturated with brands displaying billboards on tee shirts—only that it’s screen printed rather than worn.
Today we have walking corporate billboards, where if people want to showcase status or wealth, they will put a luxury fashion label’s logo center-printed on a shirt.
Since the dawn of civilization, clothing has been worn as a ways to showcase status, wealth, and nobility. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese and even the English under the Victorian Era had sumptuary laws regulating the types of clothing that individuals could wear. Purple has been historically a symbol of royalty now known as Tyrian purple, thanks to the exclusivity of the dye. Wearing purple-dyed textiles became a status symbol, whose use was restricted by these laws. (More info regarding color here)
With the democratization of humanity, the industrial revolution, the mass market, liberalism, and globalization, anyone can wear purple now and it has lost it’s allure of being a status symbol. That’s where luxury European fashion houses come in. But mainstream luxury in the 21st century has become walking corporate billboards, and the market is saturated with these already.
The advent of streetwear and band tees changed the game. Instead of clothing being about status, wealth, and flexing ‘I have more money than you’—clothing becomes the idea of identity. In the 1970s, mohair jackets, safety pins, and ripped jeans were emblematic of the punk movement. What you wore determined who you wanted to project to the world and with it your identity. “Cue social constructionism and the looking glass self—I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.”
Screenprinting became this tool where any individual could create whatever image they wanted onto a shirt. The shirt became a canvas where anything can be placed. However, with it came the idea of emulating established corporations—creating a logo, and thus turning the shirt into another walking corporate billboard.
The problem with this is that if you create a logo, you have placed yourself into the same box as all the other brands with logos. They have way deeper pockets than you and they are already cool, so it’s a losing game to compete with corporations or established streetwear brands in this way. When Kanye says, ‘What’s the name of your clothing line, we don’t know!’, the logic is the exact same. Individuals are’t corporations, we don’t have millions of dollars to give to NBA players, sports stars, hip hop artists, or any famous person who corps can put under contract. Instead we have creativity and the power of us as individuals—who we are, where we came from, and the conceptual ideas we bring to the table.
Therefore, for better and for worse, if you create a logo you lost. Your logo can’t compete on status, it can’t compete on identity cause it doesn’t mean anything, but it can probably compete on design, aesthetics, and coolness. The only problem with that is there’s another million graphics in the world, and Supreme and Palace are established heavyweights with the coolness factor under wraps.
Why would anyone wear your product? There’s another million graphics out there, why would we buy yours?
If you take a look at most of the standard streetwear garments, there is no meaning in it. Virgil Abloh and his creative outlet, Off White, injected humor into streetwear and luxury wear, but let’s take it a step further. Let’s add meaning, ideas, message, and knowledge into a shirt.
By injecting intellectual layers into a shirt, whether it be political, social, economic, or just plain humor, it humanizes a shirt. A tee shirt can express an author’s conceptual or imaginative idea in the same realm as art, because a blank tee is just a canvas. It’s just that most people are not using it correctly. In time, streetwear will be an art movement—it’s time to rewrite the history.
Political tee shirts are not new—the photo above shows Katherine Hamnett wearing one when she met the English Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Her medium to get out her message was to print it in giant letters on a t-shirt, but this is incredibly in your face and obtrusive. It’s akin to having a conversation with someone and shouting at them. Why do we need to shout in order to get our message out?
Research done by Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton University, has shown that if you make something harder to read, it is more likely to be remembered (Economist). Center logo prints are cool, but if we make the text smaller it makes your message stick more. Counter-intuitive, but don’t be an anti-vaxxer and deny science. I wore this to the Seattle Art Museum and I could see people looking at my chest, trying to make out what it was saying.
Designing streetwear pieces is akin to designing a skyscraper. If you design a poorly structured building and it collapses, you will be responsible for the deaths of people. If you design a tee shirt and it looks poorly, then people who wear it will be clowned and can possibly commit suicide. (cue the Atlanta FUBU episode). In both these cases, we as designers are responsible for the loss of human life. However, there are also design principles that translate between architecture and streetwear design—one of them being horror vacui.
Horror Vacui - A tendency to favor filling blank spaces with objects and elements over leaving spaces blank or empty.
Recent research into how horror vacui is perceived suggests a general inverse relationship between horror vacui and value perception—that is, as horror vacui increases, perceived value decreases. For example, in a survey of more than 100 clothing stores that display merchandise in shop windows, the degree to which the shop windows were filled with mannequins, clothes, price tags, and signage was inversely related to the average price of the clothing and brand prestige of the store. Bulk sales shops and chain stores tended to fill window displays to the maximum degree possible, using every inch of real estate to display multiple mannequins, stacks of clothes, and advertising promotions, whereas high-end boutiques often used a single mannequin, no hanging or stacked clothes, no signage, and no price tags—if passersby need to know the price, they presumably could not afford it. This result is certainly consistent with common experience, but somewhat surprising as lavish decoration is historically considered an indication of affluence and luxury.
Generally speaking, designing a shirt and putting as much ‘stuff’ on it as possible lowers the value of the shirt. There are all over print designs by Gucci which are fire, but on a more general scale, slapping a bunch of logos on something lowers the value of it and is not good design.
The Social Studies x Grailed North Face Nuptse is an interesting case study because although it is bad design, it still sold for 8k. So the confounding factors of marketing, brand names, and exclusivity (it is 1 of 1) has lead to it being sold at a pretty insane price point regardless of design principles.
Occam's razor — Given a choice between functionally equivalent designs, the simplest design should be selected.
Implicit in Ockham’s razor is the idea that unnecessary elements decrease a design’s efficiency, and increase the probability of unanticipated consequences. Unnecessary weight, whether physical, visual, or cognitive, degrades performance. Unnecessary design elements have the potential to fail or create problems.
There is also an aesthetic appeal to the principle, which likens the “cutting”
of unnecessary elements from a design to the removal of impurities from a solution—the design is a cleaner, purer result.
The idea of highlighting these design principles is not to state that if you follow these rules, you will make it to the level of Supreme or Off-White, but rather as a means of education and knowledge to build new work upon.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”—Issac Newton
What does it mean to be luxurious? What does it mean to be streetwear?
designed by dennis xing