Family Style: The rise of Chicago’s streetwear culture

-Streetwear, Bronzeville, Chicago Boutiques, Events/Exhibitions, Hyde Park, Near West, Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village Add comments

By Molly Each

Friday night at Leaders 1354 in Wicker Park and a DJ spins beats in the back of the room. Each person who walks through the door is greeted like an old friend, and small groups of guys chat amiably, admiring t-shirts, sneakers and intricate wall murals in between conversations. They speak their own language; a language peppered with phrases like “treated,” “kicks” and “throwing out the tongue” (a reference to shoes rather than the mouth). It doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t just a shopping stop for the customers here. Sure, some guys stop by to pick up a new shirt or hoodie before heading off to the clubs or parties. But others are here to talk about a new designer or a soon-to-drop limited-edition pair of sneakers, while a handful are here just to say hi to their friends, to hang out in their circle.

“It’s the closest thing we have to a beauty salon, you know?” explains Marc Moran, one of the six people behind Leaders 1354. Here you’ll find the everyday, old-friend conversation of barbershops; where guys go to touch base with friends, the store providing an outpost for streetwear lovers to convene.

Across the street at St. Alfred’s, over at the West Loop’s Self-Conscious, down at PHLI in Hyde Park and even at the Bronzeville outpost of Leaders, any Friday or Saturday night you’ll find groups of streetwear devotees gathering with their communities. Because like mods, punks and rockers before them, streetwear is more than just a way to dress: it’s a lifestyle.
Even if you think you don’t know what streetwear is, you do. That’s because it’s everywhere, a little-acknowledged but major player in the fashion scene. Think Pharrell Williams or Kanye West—two icons of the streetwear look and two people who are consistently noted on any “best dressed” list. Contrary to some stereotypes associated with hip-hop fashion, streetwear does not imply sloppy attire—these days, it’s a clean, tailored look, just with a different, laidback vibe than mainstream fashion. Though a casual graphic t-shirt is an essential streetwear item, throwing a blazer on top is a quick, sharp-looking way to dress things up, a trend that has been absorbed by the mainstream.

“If I had to strip streetwear down to any items, I would say a dope pair of jeans, a nice t-shirt and a clean pair of kicks,” says Vic Pietre, another partner in Leaders. It’s a blend of skateboard and sneaker culture, a look that has melted together as each separate style has evolved on its own and then as one. Following the lineage of streetwear will lead you down several different roads. The foundations were laid in the late 1970s, with the initiation of hip-hop and the urban wear that accompanied the attitudes and lifestyle of the music; then gained traction in the 1980s, when surfboard designer Shawn Stussy created an underground line of laid-back, skate-friendly clothing, which went mainstream as skateboarding surged in popularity. These elements were then heavily influenced by, surprisingly, the Polo craze of the early 1990s.

“It was the first thing we could see in our generation that we could afford and they gave you everything from stuff to dress up in to stuff to hit the streets in,” says Pietre, who cites the original crew from New York, called “lo-lifes” or “lo-heads,” as instrumental in streetwear origins. “When you think back to the early nineties there wasn’t much clothing made for the urban community—it was more so suburban. So people had to take that stuff and make it into their style. People had their own ideas of taking what they got [from Polo] and making their own stuff that had the same feel to it but was different.”

But streetwear would be limited—if not nothing at all—without the sneaker culture. Though designed with basketball or other sports in mind, the sneakers in this culture aren’t your average Nikes. They’re made with patent leather, ostrich skin or anaconda skin, are produced in limited editions (sometimes as few as 1,000-1,500 will hit the market), can run anywhere from $250-$2,000 and are highly, highly coveted.

“Me personally? I like to wear my shoes. But there are a lot of people who get two pairs, one to wear and one to have. It’s bragging rights,” says Cliff Castillo, who manages Self-Conscious, a streetwear boutique that is devoted primarily to sneakers. “It’s the rarity of the shoe. It might be a limited release so not all stores have it, not all cities have it.” The exclusiveness is a theme that permeates the entire streetwear genre. T-shirts are produced in limited numbers as well, appeasing a customer base that prefers clothing not available to the masses.
“Old Navy carries graphic tees too, but they don’t appeal to our culture because they’re so mass-produced,” Moran says.

Local streetwear designer Dwamina Drew, whose line Enstrumental is sold in streetwear shops around the world, credits Chicago with being at the forefront of the sneaker movement. Because of our love for hometown hero Michael Jordan, Chicago’s sneaker culture gained fast momentum.

“Everyone in high school, despite your economic status, had a pair of Jordans. Guys were breaking the bank to collect them. So that helped foster the sneaker movement,” he says. That love for Jordan, and his shoes, laid the framework for a culture that now includes sneaker shows and independent sneaker clubs, where you can buy, sell or trade their goods. Gone are the days of heading to the mall for a pair of athletic shoes. Drew points out that the average Joe might go to Foot Locker or Athlete’s Foot for a pair of kicks, but that in the last few years that business has shifted to Self-Conscious and their peers. “I don’t even remember the last time I was in a Foot Locker. It’s been years.”

But that’s not to say that Chicago has always been at the forefront of sneaker or streetwear cultures. We were years behind New York and L.A. in the streetwear world, leaving early fans with few style resources. Though in the nineties Chicagoans could turn to Untitled for skate-centric gear and Tony’s Sports for the best sneakers around, they were forced to look elsewhere to catch the streetwear train, having to travel to find items, order through friends in New York, L.A. or Japan, or later, to order online. But most importantly, early streetwear junkies had no idea there was an entire world of people out there just like them.

“When I started collecting sneakers I didn’t know I was collecting sneakers. I didn’t know there was a bunch of other people doing the same thing as me,” Pietre says. “But then the culture developed more and became a global community of other people who are out there like you.” One reason streetwear has taken off so much in recent years, both here and elsewhere, is due to a massive online presence. It’s a blog- and forum-driven culture, where devotees can learn about new products and trends and share their sneakers, outfits and thoughts with the world.

“People are on there literally every day taking pictures of their sneakers and outfits. And it’s all about sharing that with the world,” Moran says.

“Everyone has a voice in this culture,” adds Pietre. “It’s like a democracy.”

Watching designers and store owners converse with enthusiastic patrons as they pick up sneakers and flip through t-shirts at Self-Conscious, it’s clear the conversation has no teacher-student dynamic. They are all learning from each other, regardless of their position in the streetwear community. These ideas of community and democracy are laced heavily through the Chicago streetwear scene, which is part of what makes it more subculture and less trend. Stores don’t view each other as competitors; instead they’re working together to bring every aspect of streetwear to the Chicago community. Each store has its own style and identity, and people go to each place knowing exactly what they’re looking for. While Self-Conscious leans towards sneakers, Leaders is more skateboardy, with an emphasis on tees and hoodies by up-and-coming designers. St. Alfred’s carries the very best nationally known streetwear brands, with an equal mix of sneakers and clothing, Phli carries its own label, and Sole Mates is a spot to score all of this gear on consignment. The streetwear culture spans widely across the Chicago market too, attracting people from all fields: musicians, entertainers, designers, lawyers, art students, accountants and athletes, all who flock to the idea that you can still look good without conforming.

“After college there’s a pressure to dress like a grownup, like the guys at clubs in button-downs,” Moran says. But streetwear is about looking good without having to put on a Banana Republic tailored shirt and black dress shoes. “We’re not going to work when we go out, so why would we want to dress like it?”

Having a streetwear store in Chicago is as much about providing a place to gather as it is about selling. It’s part of building the culture. Self-Conscious has a sitting area, complete with a shelf of empty Patron bottles, proof that more than one party has taken place. Leaders has a set of turntables, which showcases upcoming talent. And stores combine forces to stage events, such as the upcoming citywide celebration of streetwear entitled The Brotherhood. The event is a result of a collaboration between Leaders 1354, PHLI, Self-Conscious and Enstrumental and will feature a VIP party at the Nike office, followed by a DJ-filled, all-night gathering at Lumen. These events not only help build the culture, but they provide a ground for socializing that allows streetwear fanatics to go out decked in their favorite gear without having to worry about the dress codes of downtown clubs. The community vibe resonates not only between stores, but between designers as well.

“We all talk to each other,” Drew says. “Who does the best manufacturing? Who has the best shirts for us to print on? Who has overseas connections? It’s a family; it’s a beautiful thing. No one is spiteful, so we all help each other out. We have to build a strong network because the goal is to put Chicago on the map from a streetwear standpoint.”

So where does streetwear go from here? As with other style genres, trends ebb and flow; evolve and dissipate. Big, baggy clothing has evolved into a more couture-type fit, while busy patterns have shifted into solid colors. As for the future, it’s hard to predict.

“The past two years have had an eighties theme; people wearing skinny-type jeans, vintage Levis, Members Only jackets. But now I think it’s going to be more clean, simple,” Castillo says.

And as for the community, the emergence of new stores, new labels and a burgeoning culture means streetwear can only skyrocket. Events and partnerships with artists such as Lupe Fiasco and politicians like Barack Obama (who has smartly partnered with Enstrumental for a line of streetwear Obama tees) ensure that streetwear will only further engrain itself into our collective style palates.

“Streetwear in Chicago is in its infancy,” says Krabby Rangoon, a manager at St. Alfred’s. He notes that with the emergence of several Chicago-based brands such as Enstrumental, PHLI, Fashion Geek, Ends Wealth and Addicted to Culture, Chicago will have to look less to what’s happening other places and will instead be a source of new and unique streetwear for everyone around the world.

But wherever the business of streetwear heads, whether it becomes more mainstream or delves into a strictly underground subculture, our hometown streetwear impresarios will stay true to the origins of the style.

“Streetwear gives people that freedom of expression. Be a walking piece of art. Live through your clothing. Show people that you’re not a robot—you’ve got something going on up here,” Pietre says, as he points to his head.

The Brotherhood takes place on December 19 at Lumen, 839 West Fulton Market, (312)733-2222, at 10pm.

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