A Tale of Two Trends: Grunge and Streetwear

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

Here what: Streetwear is basically the 2010's version of Grunge.

via vogue.com, /u/bule_eyes, @calvincarmody,

Picture it: America, the early 90’s; Home Improvement is on the air, Bill Clinton is on the cusp of his first term in office, and America is still reeling from the 1980’s AIDS panic. The internet hasn’t yet been invented, so Northwestern American youth hit the streets with skateboards under their arms on a mission to alleviate some of that pent-up angst. Walkman blasting Nirvana, these teens sport baggy jeans, band t-shirts, and flannel. Their long, greasy hair is the perfect visual representation of the youth movement: grunge.

It’s the perfect trend, East Coast Americans could never understand, with their preppy, neon outfits leftover from the late 80’s. Grunge could never appeal to mainstream culture, let alone fashion elite. Right? But then, the (inevitable?) impossible happened: in late 1992, at a traditionally upstanding label designer Marc Jacobs dredged up from the depths of American subculture the trend that would define the 1990’s for future generations. On the stage of New York Fashion Week, Perry Ellis presented a spattering of plaid, tweed, and over-sized knits. Impossibly famous models (Tyra, Naiomi, Christy, Kate, and Carla Bruni) stomped the runways in combat boots and Birkenstock sandals to the utter and resounding disdain of the fashion community. Editors were appalled, and their scathing reviews reflected their complete shock and disgust at Marc Jacobs’ gall as he dragged Perry Ellis through the mud that was youth culture. Perry Ellis was aflame and Marc Jacobs was booted from his position as head designer.

Naiomi Campbell walking for Perry Ellis 1993 via vogue.com, edited

The aftershock of this infamous show did not manifest in the way that fashion editors predicted, grunge became mainstream and ended up defining the style of the 90’s. The middle of the decade saw Clueless star Alicia Silverstone express her bewilderment when affronted by peers that embraced the trend, but by the end of the 90’s, TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer were built on a healthy dose of grunge.

Fast forward 20 years, fashion has continued to shy away from formalities and, while preppy still exists, the public still craved anti-establishment and comfortable clothing. In the early 2010’s, on the heels of athleisure, streetwear broke into the public consciousness with a barrage of logos and sneakers. Streetwear, a combination of casual, athletic clothing and logo-mania, was arguably the brain-child of brand Stussy, but was given a leg up by others like Supreme, a brand that made streetwear popular through collaborations with other powerful labels like Nike and Louis Vuitton.

Streetwear became mainstream through similar channels and grunge in the 90’s, music played a huge roll. While the 90’s had Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam, early 2010’s had artists like Rihanna and Kanye West who took more direct roles in delivering the streetwear trend to the masses.

Street via @gustavsolis

Streetwear didn’t break into mainstream fashion in a landmark collection like 1993 Perry Ellis, it had a more gradual rise into the fashion narrative. However, this slower adaptation allowed streetwear to permeate more fully throughout fashion, bringing the trend into luxury and ultimately shaping creative directions for many major fashion brands for years to come.

Bringing grunge into the mainstream was a risk on Marc Jacobs’ part, a risk that would ultimately land him a namesake label and a comfortable reign as creative head of Louis Vuitton. The status quo at the time of the collection was a commitment to establishment ideas of fashion, publications like Vogue and WWD were gatekeepers of fashion and tolerated little. It was also early in the game, John Galliano’s homeless-chic Dior collection wouldn't arrive for another 8 years and bad-boy designer Alexander McQueen only founded his own label that same year, not coming into the fashion mainstream at Givenchy until a few years later. Marc Jacobs was largely giving the middle finger to “fashion people” of the early 90’s, a first in many ways, by giving them low-brow culture in high end materials.

The nature of the industry at the time created the perfect environment for a trend like grunge to gain traction and spread like wildfire. People perceived major publications to be elitist and the harsh reaction fed the fires of the antithetical street credit of grunge. Further, grunge was a way for people to get out of the head-space of designer labels that seemed stiff and ordinary.

Tyra Banks walks for Perry Ellis 1993 via vogue.com, edited

Likewise, streetwear is a product of today’s industry trends. Fashion is no longer in the hands of any gatekeepers. The advent of the internet and social media effectively killed major publications’ narrative hold over fashion, making way for a more democratized fashion industry. Designers no longer needed a positive or negative review from Vogue, they needed a viral moment and the attention of millions via social media. Social media culture also emphasized the importance of self, and brands took advantage of this with a revival of logo-mania, something that defines streetwear. Consumers became obsessed with status symbols to flaunt on their own social media channels. Streetwear met this demand with an outpour of branded merchandise in the form of garments and beyond.

Most surprisingly is the level of influence that streetwear has had on the fashion industry. Where fashion had an influence on grunge, streetwear has been able to reciprocate and make drastic changes to the fashion industry. Luxury brands have perhaps been more open to change and reform with the quick pace of social media trends. Nonetheless, it is still shocking to see how much brands have changed internally to accommodate the styles, trends, and designers of streetwear. Streetwear designers like Ventement’s Demna Gvasalia, now at Balenciaga, and Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, head of Louis Vuitton menswear, and Kim Jones (formerly of Louis Vuitton) at Dior Men are just some of the high profile directorships influenced by streetwear.

Pigalle via vogue.com

It appears that the ripple effects of streetwear are much deeper than that of the grunge movement, however, it is easy to see the similarities in the impact and scope of these two trends. History repeats itself and fashion is the greatest example of this (chokers have already come and gone, again). With all of their similarities, it can be argued that streetwear has a strong possibility of following in the footsteps of the grunge movement. Grunge has cast quite a long shadow over time, the trend has transcended decades, becoming more than nostalgia and entering into everyday fashion vernacular. You would be hard pressed to find a closet today without a comfy plaid or band T, ironic or not. It is easy to imagine streetwear having a similar future in the decades to come. Nike and Yeezy don’t seem to be slowing down their drips, and people don’t seem any less eager to buy. Considering the waves that streetwear has made in luxury, we can expect a trickle down from high fashion for many seasons to come. Even as Raf Simmons, Dior, and LV pivot to more tailored clothing, it will take a while for consumers to shake their love of street. From its comfort to its effortlessness, it will be a staple of fashion for many years to come.

Nevertheless, trends will have to go and we are on the cusp of something new (which is actually something old, just repackaged) very soon. Perhaps in 2050 Millennials will be sitting with their teenage children, flipping through photos and reminiscing about their favorite pair of Off-White x Nike shoes or letting the kids borrow their will-be-vintage Stone Island combat pants. Or maybe we’ll all just be laughing over the ridiculousness that is the Balenciaga Triple S. Either way, we’ll probably always have parts of streetwear and grunge around. Let’s just hope the grunge-y hair and dad shoes stay deep in the closet of history where they belong.

Clueless, 1996