“Being fresh is more important than having money,” Kanye said in famous streetwear documentary, Fresh Dressed. Hip-hop culture in the ’90s had a boldness to it, where clothing was worn as a sense of pride and heritage that showed people you were down with the movement. Dressing fresh was how people related to the culture. And we would be hard pressed to not mention FUBU, Rocawear and Sean John as leaders in the streetwear, hip-hop culture.
What started off as screen printed T-shirts in response to Rodney King riots in 1992, turned into FUBU (For Us, By Us) founded by New Yorker, Daymond John. LL Cool J made FUBU famous when he wore a FUBU bucket hat in a Gap commercial, which Gap brilliantly didn’t pick up on. After that, FUBU was seen on major rappers and Black influencers, eventually worth $350 million by 1998.
Jay-Z’s brand, Rocawear — famous for baggy jeans and fur-lined puffer coats — was seen on everyone from Usher to Beyoncé. Rocawear, worth more than $700 million started to decline in 2006.
Sean John, Diddy’s brand, sold luxury denim and furs, but their valor sweatsuits were the most memorable . Sean John was one of the only streetwear brands that had a spot at New York Fashion Week, where fashion elites like Anna Wintour, were often seen in attendance, granting Puffy the Designer of the Year award in 2004. In fact, Channing Tatum and Tyson Beckford were discovered on Sean John runways.
So if these labels were so profitable and loved by the Black community, and streetwear fans alike, why did they fail?
For starters, the success of these three megabrands made other rappers and celebrities believe they could become successful too. Remember Apple Bottom (Nelly) and Shady Wear (Eminem)? Everyone tried to have a fashion line, leading to oversaturation in the market. Aside from the big three, there was no differentiation in the brands, so consumers were forced to pick and choose the same items in a sea of different retailers. And because everyone sold the same big logo-inspired items, consumers got sick of having the same pieces as everyone else.
But this wasn’t the only factor. As the world started to look to the new millennium, their style began to change. In the early 2000’s, consumers no longer cared about logo-obsessed T-shirts and baggy jeans, they wanted more form fitting items or polished sneakers, and the streetwear brands either didn’t adjust quick enough or failed to recognize the shift. The clothing that was once adorned by youth culture, became tacky and irrelevant.
And to make matters worse, rappers started signing deals with high-end brands. A lot of the clothes they started wearing were from Prada, Gucci and Givenchy. Their clientele were confused that they were selling “urban” clothes but no longer wearing it. And since the fans were originally buying their clothes because they idolized the rapper, they couldn’t connect it back in an authentic way.
Eventually, the big three couldn’t compete anymore and were forced to fizzle out.
Photo via Keith Perrin/Queens Library Digital Archives