The Rise of Luxury Streetwear

InStyle February - Eric Wilson Freestyle
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Faith Connexion, one of the coolest new stores to arrive in New York’s SoHo shopping district in some time, is not intended for the consumer who has any preconceived ideas of what luxury should be. In fact, the place looks like a relic from the raw edged SoHo of yore, with its graffiti-swirled windows and darkly lit, factory-like interior. The racks are stocked with wildly priced hoodies and shredded jeans, and some of the weirder designs, like a formal blazer fused with the sleeves of a baseball jacket, are displayed in glass cubes.

But, one has to wonder, is there really a market for a tent-size camo fleece jacket that costs $855? Who’s going to wear those carnival red lounge pants trimmed with strips of the Kappa logo, or a fuzzy yellow coat that screams Big Bird?

And, hey, isn’t that Taylor Swift over there?

Since it opened on Mercer Street during Fashion Week in September, the store has become an unlikely hot spot for celebrities, artists, and assorted influencers by tapping into a desire for more individualistic designs and less conventional approaches to fashion and marketing. Faith Connexion’s quick success (the label was reinvented two years ago in Paris by a group of former Balmain executives) reflects the broader growth in recent years of rule-breaking brands that are often categorized as “luxury streetwear,” a very refined version of what were once considered fashion basics. Many of them, like Off-White, Fear of God, Marcelo Burlon County of Milan, and Amiri, were created by designers who came to the business with little more than a T-shirt and a dream and now hold an outsize influence on the industry at large.

InStyle February - Eric Wilson Freestyle
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The rise of freestyle fashion owes a great deal to social media and the endorsements of Instagram-famous models, of course, but it also has to do with the fact that these designers recognized a changing consumer dynamic long before the establishment did. That is, shoppers were bored.

“Everything was the same,” says Ben Taverniti, who spent a decade working for traditional denim labels in Los Angeles before starting Unravel Project in 2015 with his partner, Joyce Bonelli, a celebrity makeup artist whose clients include the Kardashians. “Fashion was only driven by business and financials. The prices were getting crazy, and I couldn’t see why.”

InStyle February - Eric Wilson Freestyle
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Taverniti, inspired by independent thinkers like Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela, wanted to launch a business that he could operate instinctively. Producing his distressed bomber jackets and leather lace-up pants in small batches meant the prices were also very high (a jacket can cost upwards of $1,700), but at least they weren’t overexposed. A handful of stores like Maxfield and Barneys ordered the collection, and soon it became a staple of the Jenners and Hadids. In September, Taverniti and Bonelli presented their collection in Paris, complete with a bride wearing a deconstructed jean jacket trimmed in tulle and a video backdrop displaying the brand’s name burning to ashes, reflecting Taverniti’s philosophy that to create something new, you first have to destroy.

There is a similar thinking behind Faith Connexion, which recruited a West Coast street artist to custom-shred denim on demand and invites customers to choose embroideries and appliqués that can be added to just about anything in the store. Although there is a creative director working quietly behind the scenes (widely known to be Christophe Decarnin, formerly of Balmain), the company does not publicly name him because it doesn’t want to play into the industry’s obsession with the “hero fashion designer,” says Maria Buccellati, the president of Faith Connexion. Working with artists and collaborators like Kappa, the DJ Sita Abellan, and the model Isabeli Fontana gives the brand a feeling of discovery.

InStyle February - Eric Wilson Freestyle
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“When you come to Faith Connexion, you have the experience of working with the artist,” Buccellati says. “Your mind becomes ignited. We were all just tired of brands that had become so corporate that designers had to deliver a certain type of product four times a year.”

Several of the labels were started by designers who trained in the school of Kanye West, working on his fashion collections or concert merchandise. Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo, and Heron Preston are among the best known, each creating his own collection with a similar questioning of the status quo. Lorenzo, for instance, does not design a seasonal collection but rather makes clothes under his label, Fear of God, at his own pace. The results might look ordinary at first—drawstring sweatshorts or a denim jacket—but the precise, unusual fits are the result of endless experimentation (which helps justify the three-figure prices).

InStyle February - Eric Wilson Freestyle
Courtesy Unravel

“Most importantly, I’m here to disrupt this industry,” Lorenzo says. “I don’t have a desire to play by any archaic rules but to find a new way of approaching things.”

In a way, the success of these labels represents the same democratization of fashion that has played havoc with retail and media over the past decade. Now anyone can become a designer by having a little persistence, a good product, and, hopefully, a connection to Justin Bieber or Gigi Hadid. Natalia Maczek and Thomas Wirski, for example, started their label, MISBHV, when they were law students in Poland. First, they made T-shirts for their friends to wear out to nightclubs, then they slowly added more complicated pieces like jackets and swimwear and found a showroom in Paris that sold the collection to Browns in London. There, G-Dragon, a South Korean rapper, purchased a shirt and wore it in a video. Before long the label was being sought out around the world and is now sold in more than 90 stores, often displayed next to Balenciaga and Balmain.

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“We didn’t even work with PR until a year ago,” Wirski says. “We’ve just been very lucky.”

Perhaps a bigger shift is happening as customers seem less interested in the heritage brands that ruled fashion for the past decade and more into undiscovered names that speak to modern street style.

“I don’t think the younger customer cares about where it came from,” says Wirski. “They care about cultural references. It’s the remix that speaks to them.”

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download now.

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