What Happened To Streetwear? The Shift Beyond Web 1.0
Forums fostered streetwear communities. Where are they now?
Street To Street is a monthly column on the globalization of Black American culture through fashion.
Hi! I’m Isis––like the Egyptian Goddess, the superhero, and the real protagonist of Bring it On (2000). In Street to Street, I’ll bring you musings about how streetwear took over the world. Streetwear—or as it was perhaps more accurately labeled by filmmaker Aishamanne Williams, Hoodwear—is a fashion category rooted in the Black working-class, carried out through subcultures, and fostered in American cities. Pioneers of the style valued nonconformity, showcasing their individuality while signaling their cool to the desired crowd. Eventually, streetwear ascended from American cities and permeated the globe from Brazil to Japan and beyond. How did an anti-establishment culture get adopted by that very establishment and later the whole world? I’m traveling around trying to figure that out. In this column, we’ll explore how and why streetwear arrived at this ubiquitous place and what that means for the future of fashion, identity building, and (Black) culture more broadly.
Over the past two decades, streetwear has undergone several transformations: It’s been named streetwear, it’s been adopted by the luxury world that once worked so hard to ostracize it, and it has entered the mainstream lexicon. The internet undoubtedly played a role in streetwear’s ascension into popular culture, and as digital technology evolves, so do the online platforms where conversations about streetwear take place. Bonding over garments, which once required in-person interaction, now only calls for internet connection and the ability to look at videos and photos.
Prior to this age where media consumption is seemingly all it takes to assert one's place in the web that is streetwear, there were forums. NikeTalk, Female Sneaker Fiend, Vintage Gear Addicts, Strictly Supreme—these were some of the online discussion forums that streetwear fanatics frequented to connect with people who had similar interests and learn about their particular niche. Users from different states, countries, and continents were able to commune and exchange thoughts resulting in a worldwide web of streetwear. These forums eventually grew beyond mere discussion: People began selling and trading goods as well as proxying international exclusive releases, creating what was effectively the first online streetwear marketplace and strengthening streetwear’s international footprint.
Even the most general forums, such as Sole Collector, which focused on sneakers, catered to niche audiences. Users would further compartmentalize themselves by forming user groups about specific parts of streetwear culture. If your primary interest was Air Jordans in colorways that Michael Jordan played in, there was a space for you; if you were only interested in the Japanese label A Bathing Ape, there was a space for you, too (in fact, there were two Bape specific forums). The nature of forums was both accessible for those with general curiosity and those with hyper specific, in-depth banks of knowledge.
A large part of the appeal for many users was the sense of community fostered within these forums. Users got to know each other. Some formed long-lasting relationships and even launched careers with the relationships they made. It’s clear that financial success was never the intention for users such as Marvin Barias, who quickly moved through the ranks of the Sole Collector forum, eventually becoming an administrator. Barias, who is better known as MJO23DAN on YouTube (where he has over 49k subscribers), was on the platform for thirteen years and only paid for his services for five of them. Barias saw it as his personal duty to support and maintain this space that he felt so connected to. He worked on the forum site up until Sole Collector, its parent magazine, shuttered its boards.
A quick look at the menswear-focused site Styleforum feels like taking a trip back to the 2000s. The layout is boxy and convoluted, making it unwelcoming for unfamiliar users or those who just want to skim. Aside from Reddit, most forums haven’t evolved much since their inceptions. They stood no chance against the robust and streamlined user interfaces of the social media platforms that would eventually usher in their deaths. Forums gave users autonomy over their experiences. That also meant users had to do the heavy lifting. In contrast, platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have simpler user interfaces and feed users what they like using algorithms. With many of its initial audience entering adulthood and outgrowing the formatand new generations gravitating to social media, forums became dilapidated shells of what they once were. What was once a hub for lively conversation and cultural exchange is now home to digital cobwebs.
While forums were dying, algorithmic media sites only grew stronger. Gone are the days of making a friend 200 miles away by bonding over a photo of raw selvedge denim on a forum. Now it is the norm to watch people and attach to how they present themselves. Instead of delving into the nitty gritty of streetwear-related interests through interaction and historical deep dives, people are more comfortable looking at pleasing imagery and replicating it. Conversations no longer take place in smaller, interpersonal groups. Instead, they occur through the broadcasting and consuming of content. As a result, the barrier to entry for the streetwear world is lower than ever. This newfound accessibility can be viewed as an opportunity for the community to include more people, but in actuality, it dilutes the culture and essentially dissolves all sense of community.
The shift from forums to algorithmic media platforms coincides with the shift from communal engagement to individualism. This can be seen in the devaluation of knowledge sharing and the valuation of ownership. During the forum era, owning a collection of sought after pieces was respected, but so was having extensive knowledge about those pieces. The algorithmic media era has done away with that. Now, all one needs to do is own the thing or have the look—what you know or how you acquired the items doesn’t mean as much.
While the worldwide streetwear web is growing larger, its threads are becoming weaker. Furthermore, newcomers to the streetwear world are less and less familiar with its roots. The increased malleability of streetwear has caused the communal sentiment to dissipate rather than expand. It is difficult to organize around something that has grown to encompass everything and nothing simultaneously. Consequently, there are less spaces and opportunities for people—newcomers and old heads alike—to engage with each other and learn about streetwear. This contributes to the overlooking of streetwear as a function of Black American culture and, in turn, makes it harder for Black Americans to claim and maintain ownership over their cultural contributions to the category.
Ignorance regarding where things come from and why they exist begets the misuse of culturally significant practices. Successful cultural exchange via streetwear is possible, forums were clear examples of that. The question is: How do we foster meaningful connection in the more individualistic, post-forum world? How do we navigate an ever-growing web whose threads are continually thinning?