Recent luxury brand headlines have been dominated by collaborations that might surprise some, like Gucci x The North Face. But, argues Luke Hodson of youth culture agency Nerds Collective, the history makes these collabs far less surprising.
Traditional luxury was an unapologetic display of wealth: the alluring combination of craftsmanship, heritage, quality and timelessness.
Today, the new luxury genetic code has evolved through hybridization with contemporary culture. The kinetic energy driving this formula originates on the streets.
The appropriation of luxury on the streets of inner-city urban environments stimulated this new revolution. Urban neighborhoods have always been the source of ‘cool’. Lower socio-economic, ethnically diverse communities responding to the oppression, alienation and hardship of inner-city living have found release through creative and cultural expression. The symbiotic relationship between music, style, art and immigrant communities drives the street culture economy.
Street culture, expressed sonically through hip-hop and originating within New York’s African American community, has always been synonymous with conspicuous consumption in fashion. The desire for products that signify status has always been a reaction to a lack of privilege. But with lack of privilege comes a hustle mentality that finds ingenious and creative ways to exploit opportunities and create change.
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A prime example of this entrepreneurial spirit and hip-hop enterprise saw fashion innovator Dapper Dan in the early 80s in Harlem repurposing Gucci bags. Turning them into more hip-hop-suited fits, such as the varsity jackets for local pimps, hustlers and rappers, these became the glimpses of a new dawn for luxury fashion’s context.
Luxury and hip-hop’s relationship was further propagated by 90s rappers like Tupac and Biggie adopting brands like Versace and Gucci, they became the mainstream, unpaid megaphones for ‘new’ luxury. This was the genesis for the reorientation of luxury equity.
Instead of cultural capital set by aristocrats, the upper class and social elites’ accumulation and possession of branded goods on the streets started to drive the new aspiration economy. However, out of prejudice and fear, the fashion houses actively rejected and distanced themselves from the street culture communities brewing demand for their goods.
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Street culture’s second fascination was sportswear and athleisure. This drove the appropriation of on-court sneakers in hop-hop and terrace culture, subsequently becoming the foundation of sneaker hype and the streetwear movement, which eventually became as fetishized as luxury fashion across the globe. Streetwear social currency came from scarcity, insider knowledge and street cultural lifestyle resonance rather than just being ‘Veblen goods’ – sought after purely based on how expensive they are.
Luxury brands started to wake up to cultural equity coming from the streets, and desirability was set within streetwear communities. The democratic rise of luxury was a slow response to this demand and traditional high-end fashion’s waning relevance. This saw brands like Louis Vuitton bring in the GOAT (greatest of all time) of streetwear, the late Virgil Abloh, as creative director and trojan horse, with the ambition of penetrating the street culture economy.
Today, the new luxury consumer still obsesses about high-end designer products and associated experiences, but also the street-inspired cultural equity of the brand.
Through our research, we see young people aspiring in equal measure to Dior and Nike, marking a paradigm shift in the new luxury classification, and might explain the Gucci x The North Face and Nike x Stone Island collaborations.
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So: the ‘luxury 2.0’ frontier forced the democratization of high-end fashion. The formula was street culture-stimulated, streetwear-cultivated, aspirational products whose equity came from culture, not solely price.
Today more than ever, street culture is the fashion zeitgeist, actively leading luxury in a more casualized streetwear-inspired direction. Fashion designers are incorporating street culture’s conspicuous, maximalist logo-mania style and the use of sneakers, tracksuits and hoodies.