Hip hop emerged as a music genre and subculture in the seventies. Rooted in urban African American and immigrant communities, particularly in New York City, the music—which incorporated rapping (emceeing), deejaying and sampling and is associated with graffiti art and breakdancing—served as a means of expression for America’s disenfranchised and underprivileged. By the late 1970s, hip hop rose from its origins in low-income communities (often through block parties) to the mainstream—it rose to prominence as the most popular musical genre in the U.S. in the 90s.

1) In the streetwear industry, influences of hip hop and skate culture resound.

Though its origin is difficult to pinpoint, streetwear emerged in the early nineties as the offspring of a number of influences, including skateboarding and hip hop culture. Like skate culture, streetwear is founded on resistance to authority and dissonance; like hip hop’s affinity for sampling music, borrowing and repurposing aesthetics is endemic to streetwear. One of the earliest spearheads was the Brooklyn-born entrepreneur Daymond John who sought to create cheaper versions of the clothes he liked, but were too expensive to buy. John screen printed t-shirts and hats, which eventually led to his trailblazing streetwear brand FUBU, which by 1999, had captured $280 million in sales. The name, For Us By Us, encapsulates a similar sentiment to hip hop’s core tenet, as a way to assert the marginalized voice.

When it comes to sampling, there is no preordained set of rules or any set-in-stone strategy—rather, hip hop artists build on the pre-existing body of work. In this way, each new creation has its own genealogy that can be traced back to its predecessors. In music, 16 different artists, from Missy Elliott to Kaytranada, have sampled Ann Peebles’ 1973 song, “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” borrowing its melodies and lyrics. Likewise, Supreme has appropriated designs from groups as disparate as the Kings, a Los Angeles hockey team, to The New Yorker. The brand is not only the subject, but the object of its own appropriative fantasy: its logo—a red rectangle with “Supreme” in white Futura Bold Oblique font—comes from the work of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger (who filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement in 2013). But the sample lived on in the skate brand Married to the Mob, whose founder Leah McSweeney spun the Supreme logo on one of her first designs: a t-shirt with the words “Supreme Bitch.”

Sampling has garnered streetwear brands their fair share of IP scandals, perhaps most famously with Louis Vuitton’s 2000 cease-and-desist letter to Supreme for appropriating its monogram on skateboards—17 years later, the brands would work together on a blockbuster collaboration. But as hip hop would have it, sampling is not about piracy—instead, its a creative process that takes something old and repositions it in a new context. All content is up for grabs and value is defined not by prestige or price, but by the artistic task of taking something from point A to an unexpected point B (distribution).

If the meaning of hip hop sampling is not about what we hear, but how we hear it, streetwear’s repurposing—or appropriation—of designs is not about what we see, but how we see it. This tradition not only redefines authenticity, but also works to spread culture, encouraging creativity (authenticity). A streetwear brand that screen prints the logo of a luxury brand on cheap t-shirts, for example, simultaneously upends and praises high fashion. This reversal is a large part of streetwear’s allure: culture you can wear, anywhere, for anyone.

2) Supreme oscillates between subculture and mainstream, marking the popularization of streetwear, but threatening its core values.

The Brand and business model

One of the most prominent streetwear brands founded in 1994, Supreme entered the industry with a business model built on scarcity. Each Thursday morning, the brand release a new, limited product “drop,” which ensures that the brand obtains high margins and sell through because supply is always lower than demand. At the same time, these “drops” cultivate immense hype, attracting long lines of hypebeast enthusiasts as they rush to collect the new product before it’s sold out.

For Supreme, product is the vehicle that evokes the mentality and subculture it stems out of, solidifying the company as an exemplar of a brand embedded within a lifestyle and living within an ecosystem. As a more evolved and coveted brand, this differentiates Supreme from a 1.0 or 2.0 brand.

Aesthetically, illustrates the crossover between its main influences: hip hop and skate culture (its founder, James Jebbia, defines it as a skate brand and “a fuck you to fashion”). Supreme repurposes (“samples”) aesthetics from the luxury sector to pop culture and everything in between (distribution). At the same time, the Supreme logo acts like a stamp that gives customers access to an underground club. Supreme’s affinity for repurposing styles also engenders a collaboration-minded strategy, on both the luxury and the mass market end. Despite their fraught past, Louis Vuitton partnered with Supreme in 2017, and the streetwear brand has collaborated with companies as disparate as Nike and Hanes.

Between subculture and mainstream

Today, a customer can purchase a four-pack of Supreme x Hanes socks for $20 or a suit jacket for $598. This vacillation between inclusivity and exclusivity—the relative accessibility of the products in terms of price point and aesthetics, but the limited releases, long lines and luxury collaborations—are core to Supreme’s brand as it straddles the line between subculture and mainstream.

Still, some streetwear devotees fear that too much exposure, especially with high-fashion brands, poses a risk to the subculture. With the Louis Vuitton partnership, some enthusiasts criticized Supreme for turning away from its origin story and becoming too established and successful (authenticity).

To the most devoted streetwear followers, some of these collaborations can also seem exploitative, raising questions of Louis Vuitton’s intentions. Was it to receive street cred and amplify the coolness factor for the heritage brand in order to retain relevance? Was it a creative impulse? Does Vuitton view Supreme as a passing trend or something bigger? Depending on how streetwear aficionados answer these questions, Vuitton may be a destructive force that dilutes streetwear culture—if Supreme wanted the Vuitton logo, it could just take it, as it has done before—or as validation that streetwear culture has climbed all the way to the top, so much so that luxury brands seek to emulate it. Similarly, high-end department stores including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus are now selling streetwear brands like Kith and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White to meet consumer interests, which signals streetwear’s cultural resonance, but also means that it is becoming—perhaps perilously—mainstream.

Over time, as streetwear navigates the existentiality of its position between its subcultural origins and rising mainstream presence, sites like Hypebeast and Highsnobiety—known for news and analysis about hip hop, streetwear and skate culture—have morphed from blogs to bona fide media hubs in order to discuss these questions and act as a cultural yardstick for the industry. These online platforms will prove integral to streetwear’s future development as they assess the authenticity of the canon’s moving pieces, especially as players in the industry—like Leah McSweeney, who founded Married to the Mob to confront the male-dominated industry or 88rising, a “Vice for Asian culture” to document hip hop, rap and streetwear—shine light on streetwear’s own room for growth.

The secondary streetwear market

More recently, a secondary market emerged for Supreme and other streetwear brands, which both establishes streetwear as a culture while diluting its original skate and hip hop influences and their accompanying values. Today, entire stores including the Unique Hype Collection on eBay, Grailed, Basement and Sup Talk now resell streetwear online.

On the one hand, the secondary market signifies that streetwear is shaping as a culture: the development of the industry is largely outside of the brands’ control. Importantly, it gives consumers more leverage to dictate the progression of streetwear culture, taking authority out of the hands of businesses and transferring it to the crowd. Skate culture and hip hop illustrate that the more vocal and authoritative the crowd, the more the culture will stay true its core values and their evolution—this is particularly true of cultures in which brands seek commercial gain.

But in Supreme’s secondary market, sellers buy up products and magnify their price tags to the luxury range, sometimes raising the price of an item by more than 2,300% (distribution). The massive amount of revenue generated from resale doesn’t flow back into Jebbia’s business and creates a troublesome middleman between streetwear fans and the products. Jebbia has publicly admonished this market, arguing that Supreme is made to wear, not to sell. But arguably more threatening is the secondary market’s commerciality. For an industry founded on a “fuck you to fashion,” spending thousands of dollars on an item undermines streetwear’s core tenet.