What is a streetwear brand? If only we knew. “Streetwear”, a clunky catch-all term the fashion industry uses to bracket a vast spectrum of styles, has never been a comfortable descriptor. At best, it’s reductive, flattening the nuances of a diverse cohort of brands into an easy rubric. At worst, it smacks of bigotry, a convenient way to dismiss the work of nonwhite or non-classically trained designers as lesser-than. Do streetwear brands sell hoodies and T-shirts? Many of them do, but so do the hoariest of French maisons. Do streetwear brands sell suits and ties? Sure, some of them far more compelling than their runway counterparts. Couldn’t all of fashion, then—save for the most delicate of couture creations—plausibly be considered streetwear, at least in the most literal sense of the word?
Yet here we are. Absent a better term, streetwear seems to have stuck—and despite the absurdity of the premise, the genre has never been more influential. Figures once on the bleeding edge of the scene are now some of the most prominent movers and shakers in the industry, and the concepts they pioneered have become the norm. Seasonal drops? Internet-breaking collaborations? Sky-high resale values? Countless hallmarks of the modern fashion industry have roots in the streetwear scene, even if fashion is loath to admit it.
What do the brands on streetwear’s vanguard have in common? Often a deeply-felt appreciation for subcultural style, and strong ties to fashion-centric cities like New York, London, and Tokyo. Their clothes are meant to be worn and worn hard, designed for the type of easy versatility favored by the artists and athletes that are menswear’s foremost avatars. And no matter what you call them, it’s impossible to deny their prime of place in the fashion psyche. These are the 13 most important brands you should be familiar with, whether you’re on the cusp of signing up for your first raffle or simply refreshing your memory waiting on line before another big drop.
In 1991, Shawn Stussy, a California surfer with a distinct cursive scrawl, enlisted a young retail impresario named James Jebbia to help launch the New York branch of his fledgling skate brand. (A few years later, Jebbia would leave to open his own store, Supreme, just around the corner.) From the outset, Stüssy brought together a who’s who of big-names from the world of fashion, music, and art. In its heyday, it pioneered a remarkably prescient form of cross-promotion, cultivating an international tribe of certified cool people to lend the brand an aura of cosmopolitan exclusivity. In the late aughts, the brand’s appeal waned slightly, a casualty of over-expansion chasing the type of mass-market dominance that’s anathema to loyal customers. But under the careful stewardship of an expert team of Stüssy enthusiasts, the brand is once again turning out clothing that feels exciting and undeniably cool, a compelling proposition that hasn’t gone unnoticed—by us, or the new generation of customers flocking to its wares.
Before Supreme became the kind of company your try-hard cousin studies in business school, it was a small boutique on Lafayette Street quietly catering to an in-the-know crew of skaters, misfits, and downtown scenesters who appreciated the brand’s sardonic designs and no-frills approach to retail. In the years since, the New York institution has solidified its place at the top of the fashion industry food chain, trading in on the type of can’t-be-bought cool that makes marketing executives quiver with excitement. In the process, it helped birth modern streetwear as we know it, inspiring countless imitators and cultivating a powerful group of alumni that rival Ralph Lauren’s in influence. It remains the quintessential streetwear brand through and through, a force to be reckoned with in the broader fashion industry and proof that it is possible to scale cool, as long as the cool you’re hawking comes stamped with a Supreme logo.
A Bathing Ape
It’s hard to overstate the stranglehold A Bathing Ape had on the culture in the late 2000s. Founded by the Japanese designer Nigo in 1993, Bape was popularized stateside by Pharrell (who would go on to co-found Billionaire Boys Club with Nigo a decade later) and eventually artists like Lil Wayne, then at the peak of a legendary mixtape blitz. On red carpets and in music videos Bape’s splashy camo designs became pervasive, proof of hip-hop’s nascent power to make or break a brand through association alone. But as demand for Bape’s zip-up hoodies and shark tees skyrocketed, the brand expanded into product categories at a rapid clip, saturating the market with new products until the buzz gradually died down. By all indications, though, Bape’s stock is once again on the rise. Its Bapestas—a candy-colored riff on Nike’s Air Force 1—pop up regularly on the feet of today’s influencer class, and just this month Nigo debuted his first collection as artistic director of Kenzo, a long-overdue nod of recognition for a designer who remains one of his genre’s most influential.
To call Palace the British answer to Supreme wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though they share a certain kindred spirit. (Supreme was one of the first retailers to stock the younger label in the US.) It’d be more accurate to dub Palace an inheritor of Supreme’s stylistic mantle, a clothing label founded on a lark by a ragtag group of lads nostalgic for a certain era of skateboarding. Today Palace boasts an ardent following all its own, a global fanbase it keeps entertained with madcap product descriptions—still fired off by co-founder Lev Tanju himself—and zany, just-weird-enough collaborations. The other things they have in common? An instantly recognizable logo—in Palace’s case, a three-dimensional triangle known as the Triferg—and the uncanny ability to sell hundreds of thousands of units in a matter of seconds.
It took husband and wife duo Brendon Babenzien and Estelle Bailey-Babenzien years to refine the idea that would become Noah, the brand the two re-launched in earnest in 2015. Prior to that, Babenzien spent over a decade designing for Supreme, but he wears his status as a grizzled veteran of the scene lightly. At Noah, the two speak to a certain type of customer Babenzien knows from his last position: a guy who couldn’t care less about the resale value of a graphic tee but wanders into Supreme once a month to eye the brand’s stellar knits or buy a pair of jeans. (Last year, Babenzien was tapped to revitalize J.Crew’s flailing menswear division by bringing a similar guy into its stores.) Noah specializes in precisely the type of elegant “streetwear” that makes the term feel so redundant—walk into its Mulberry shop and you’re just as likely to walk out with a striped crewneck as you are an Italian-made double-breasted suit. You could call it grown-up clothing for repentant skate rats, but it’s really just grown-up clothing, period.
Aimé Leon Dore
Is Aimé Leon Dore the hottest brand in New York? The throngs of customers queued up outside its Nolita store would say so. Ditto the various well-wishers and hanger-ons who regularly stop by to pay their respects to Teddy Santis, the press-shy Queens native who transformed his penchant for peppy, ’90s-indebted designs into a powerhouse force at the nexus of the New American Sportswear. (As of last year, LVMH is a minority owner.) For a generation of fashion-adjacent customers weaned on Supreme, ALD’s wares are the logical next frontier. In the brand’s deft styling, a fair isle sweater vest looks just as approachable as a fleece, and a corduroy suit—perhaps made in collaboration with the natty Brits at Drake’s, or the venerable Brooklyn tailor Martin Greenfield—looks like a viable alternative to a bomber. Consider the gauntlet thrown.
In a little over a decade, Ronnie Fieg remade the retail landscape in his image, fundamentally changing how and where young streetwear obsessives shop. What started out as a side-hustle tweaking lesser-known Asics silhouettes gradually evolved into a sprawling empire with a global presence, and a private label collection that does numbers as big as any of the designer brands it hangs out with. Today Kith operates in a tier entirely its own, a thriving ecosystem comprised of storefronts, pop-up shops, and a full-blown restaurant, all of which serve to burnish its image as one of the most influential stockists in the world.
Like Teddy Santis and Ronnie Fieg, Angelo Baque is a Queens native who grew up immersed in the world of downtown sneaker and skate culture. And like Brendon Babenzien, Baque put in time at Supreme, spending a decade honing his perspective as its brand director before pivoting to dedicate his time to Awake and a growing roster of solo projects. Informed by his experiences at Supreme but not defined by them, Awake is an organic byproduct of Baque’s wide-ranging references. In any given collection, fuzzy mohair cardigans and nubby overcoats coexist peacefully with trippy graphic tees and kooky embroidered jackets—a unique alchemy that increasingly looks like the future of menswear writ large.
Fucking Awesome, the Jason Dill-helmed brand that’s been around in one form or another for nearly two decades, doesn’t need to prove its skateboarding bona fides. Which might be way Dill and co. often look outside the sport for inspiration, pulling from a range of deep cuts to craft slightly bizarro menswear that makes it seem like they’re having way more fun than just about everyone else. Any brand named Fucking Awesome is morally obligated to be a good time, but FA takes that mandate seriously. Interested in a pair of lime green pleated cords? How about an iridescent, fleece-lined coaches jacket? Or a button-up with a large creepy-crawly zig-zagging its way up the front? If FA’s rising star—and plum placement in hyper-discerning stockists like Dover Street Market—is any indication, we’re not the only ones buying.
It’d be easy to dismiss Golf Wang, the clothing line founded by Tyler, the Creator in 2011, as another slapdash celebrity cash-grab. But that’s not the way Tyler—our most stylish man of 2021—operates. T’s an aesthete through and through, and as his personal style’s evolved Golf Wang has grown with him, blossoming into an impressive line of cheerful, easy-wearing essentials done up with a deceptive degree of finesse. (Late last year, he also debuted a capsule collection under his Golf le Fleur umbrella, a separate, standalone line priced in accordance with his high-flying ambitions.) Tyler became one of the most influential forces in modern menswear by refusing to compromise on his taste, and Golf Wang remains a reliable way of checking in on one of this era’s defining connoisseurs—bonus points if you scoop a pastel-colored trucker hat while you’re at it.
Brain Dead doesn’t have a billion dollars in backing or the imprimatur of a famous founder. But in a little over five years the brand has leapfrogged much of the competition, landing firmly at the top of the streetwear hierarchy. Founder Kyle Ng still describes Brain Dead as a creative collective of sorts, but the brand is primarily in the business of selling menswear, and very good menswear at that. Customers flock to Brain Dead for its loopy graphics and squiggly prints—the artist formerly known as Kanye West was an early fan—but squint a little and the workwear-inspired silhouettes look comfortingly familiar. Last year, the brand raised half a million dollars for charities aiding the Black Lives Matter movement, a testament to its values and its ability to corral the community in the name of the greater good. That’s real influence, the type impossible to measure on a P&L statement, and it’s what separates Brain Dead from the rest of the pack.
Back in 2005, the loose collective of skaters behind the Dimestore Crew was mostly focused on making videos and curating vibes, as all skate collectives should. After a few years, though, the Montreal-based group expanded their remit to include a limited run of T-shirts, shortening their name to Dime in the process. By 2011, Dime had slowly evolved into something closer to a fully-fledged brand, and comparisons to Supreme and Palace started shortly after. Those comparisons had less to do with the output itself and more to do with a shared appreciation for the hallmarks of skate style, but in the years since, Dime has made them look like prophecy, introducing its own hero products and occasional wild swings—all of it steeped in the ethos it cultivated as a ragtag collective.
In the streetwear universe, Nigo is a legendary figure: co-founder of A Bathing Ape (alongside the objectively well-named SK8THING) and the pioneering boutique called Nowhere (alongside Hiroshi Fujiwara of Fragment Design). Born Tomoaki Nagao, the Kenzo artistic director has been a fulcrum of the scene for longer than some of his customers have been alive. And for good reason—today, his oeuvre still inspires the household names that followed in his footsteps, and the collection of pop culture ephemera he’s accrued as a testament to it would keep the auctioneers at Sotheby’s busy for decades. Human Made, his post-Bape project, is far more pared-down than its predecessor but no less forward-looking, with a focus on menswear classics that feel retro and futuristic all at once.