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Streetwear in India: The Shapers & Shakers of a Fashion Movement

Street wear, a ripple from the sportswear high-tide, is fashion’s favourite buzzword at the moment. From heritage houses, fast-fashion brands to retailers and big-budget investors, everyone wants a bite of this lifestyle trend.

But what actually is street wear? In its simplest sense, streetwear is the casualisation of clothes that are oft inspired by sportswear with styles like sweatshirts and graphic logos a key fixation. On a closer look, street wear is more of a lifestyle orientation of subcultures including hip-hop, DIY punk, graffiti, skate/surf scene and most importantly the sneaker fandom, all of which form the ecosystem of ‘streetwear’, a youth-focussed lifestyle trend that first became popular in California in the ’70s.

Globally, almost half a century old and hyper commercialised by now, street fashion is youth culture in its truest form and youth culture sells! Quite simply, its global mainstream dominance has democratised the entire fashion system.

What about India? Is the world’s largest youth population country landscape feeling the vibrations of the street wear wave?

A simple survey of social media influencers in the country reveals that we are very much at least ‘buying’ into the trend. But in terms of giving birth to our own youth fashion movement – that might take a bit longer.

Our most popular ‘street’ brands like Noughtone, Sahil Aneja, HUEMN or Theorem, are on average not more than 5 years old. This means that while their work is covetable among those aware of the trend, it will take a long time for them to shake the designer fashion system that continues to be dominated by ethnic wear designers.

Narendra Kumar at Amazon India Fashion Week, Fall 2018

With that being said, industry stalwarts are also incorporating street influences to give a fresh spin to their work. For example, designer Narendra Kumar went all out on sport influences, using ‘fakes’ as the main theme for his last collection. Similarly, more traditional Indian wear labels like Ritu Kumar and Anita Dongre, embraced sporty accessories like elongated belts on sarees and bum bags and sneakers with everything at this season’s fashion week.

This comes as little surprise because as a consumer, we are never detached from the global conservation. Things you see on the runways of say, Paris are quickly spotted in not just India’s metros but even the smaller cities.

There is no better germination ground for streetwear than India, with 50% of the population under 25 and about 65% under 35! However, adopting runway trends is very different from pioneering a cultural movement and making it your own.

For instance, most people in the country will prefer international brands if they can afford it, or their knock-offs, but buying local for what we call ‘Western Wear’ is an abstruse concept.

Nevertheless, streetwear’s easy going t-shirt driven vibe has birthed several niche labels in the Indian market. These are brands you might have not seen anywhere save for their Instagram page or website. They are run by millennials who often see it as more of a passion project than full time hustle.

Take the example of Almost Gods, a renaissance art prints meet oversize hoodies and sweats label whose one founder Dhruv Khurana (of DAKS India Industries) is based in New Delhi and the other, Kobi Walsh, in Chicago. According to Walsh, while the production of the 2 months old brand is based in India, they would like “have a global appeal and keep their collections small for an affordable but luxury setting”.

Similarly, there is Strey Offical that manufactures animal-inspired clothing in Bombay, with a retail range INR 2,000 for a ripped graphic t-shirt to over INR 7,000 for a bomber jacket that have fast gained support of Bollywood celebrities. The brand also sells accessories like snapbacks and skateboards which seems to be a common thread amongst these online-only brands.

Mumbai-based young streetwear, skate and snapbacks label Strey Official

NOIRE Company, another such barely in the market label, started with the idea of making caps, as the founders couldn’t find any in the market. Since the 2-month-old launch, the label has also moved into making t-shirts now.

Co-Founder Eesh Kakkar jubilantly explains, “We wanted to make something for women and decided upon simple black t-shirts but couldn’t settle on a neckline. Hence, our first collection is simply 6 basics t-shirts sporting a different neckline for each piece.”

Animated and honest is a natural attitude for these millennial founders. Perhaps more a necessity than tactic for digitally-native businesses where building authentic brand relationships is of utmost value.

A better known label in the t-shirt scene, Brown Boy is famous for its celebrity stamped success. Founder Prateek Khayan boasts of everyone from Robert Downey Jr and Dwayne Johnson to Hritik Roshan and Varun Dhawan having been spotted in his designs.

It is easy to see that there are more than a handful of brands operating in the segment but most of them are too young to have an actual independent voice. To join the global conversation, these young brands would need to first begin their own. Especially in a market where Indian and Western are popularly categorised as two main segments, streetwear can very easily get mixed in the Western mega-category.

Being an irrationally diverse market, homegrown Indian brands face the dual challenge of representing the cultural gamut they exist in while not isolating themselves from global attitudes.

Dhruv Kapoor creating refined ready-to-wear with streetwear bent

We do have designers like Aartivijay Gupta, who spins out new, locally inspired prints season after season to a dedicated comfort-loving clientele; Kanika Goyal and Dhruv Kapoor, both of whom have been presenting refined collections that define what it means to be a (g)local fashion brand in 2018.

There is also NorBlack NorWhite mixing local textiles and dyeing techniques with ’70s hipster and ’90s pop culture. NBNW and its contemporaries are part of a bigger movement with designers like Kaloll Datta, akaaro and last year’s Woolmark Prize winner Bodice, who are trying to move the needle of fashion in the subcontinent.

Due to our bridal market being the main driver of profit, India’s high-end fashion industry is quite separated from everyday clothing so street fashion that essentially capitalises on making luxury more comfortable is a great fit for the country. An opportunity for veteran designers, sports brands and retailers to come together with young labels and present our very own high-low mix.

From artists who have mastered the art of taking digs at local cultures to the gender fluidity movement – the growth of street culture in India depends heavily on how well the industry can organize and collaborate with each other. Strong sentiments always translate into stronger fashion concepts and if treated carefully, everyone stands to gain from this lifestyle trend.