How Asian Streetwear Got Hyped
Streetwear may be heavily associated with New York, but Asia has been an unsung global leader in the fashion revolution that’s all about hoodies, t-shirts, sneakers, and tracksuits. The products might not seem special to the uninitiated, but their limited quantities—sold by brands with a distinct style and ethos—gives them the cool factor that makes them beloved by Gen Z and younger millennials.
Hong Kong, Shanghai and Bangkok have become immersed in in the “hypebeast” scene, the name given to the consumers determined to own whichever hyped streetwear is ‘dropped’ that week. In Hong Kong, queues snake around the block, with teenagers and university students fighting their way into 8Five2, a local streetwear brand famous for its skate videos and eyebrow-raising prints, or Y-3, a a collaboration between Adidas and celebrated Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. CLOT, the streetwear brand launched by Hong Kong actor Edison Chen and Gen.T honouree Kevin Poon, debuted at New York Fashion Week in 2018 to critical acclaim, and has fans across mainland China.
In Bangkok, there is Carnival, founded by Anupong Kuttikul, which is rapidly expanding around the region. Carnival's influences hail from the '80s New York hip-hop scene, and the brand is becoming increasingly popular around the country for its bold, clashing camo prints and flashes of neon. "I launched Carnival because I had such a love of sneakers, and then expanded into streetwear and other items," says Kuttikul. "Bangkok is becoming such a streetwear hub. In the whole Southeast Asia area, the scene is huge: we have stores around Thailand that offer such a wide selection of sneakers and streetwear. Many of them can't be found elsewhere in the region, so people come from around the world to find us."
Yeti Out, which is based in Hong Kong and Shanghai, says that global sales of its clothing doubled this year. Annual sales at Jakarta-based Paradise Youth Club—which has become a cult brand globally—are said to have risen by the same amount. And, like Carnival, the majority of their sales are aimed at those under 30.
"It's so popular all around the globe," says Kuttikul. "I think it is because streetwear is influenced by sub-cultures like music, art and fashion, and especially sports. The fashion world is always trying to find something new, and a new way of influencing people. Streetwear has become such a phenomenon because for the first time ever, it wasn't just sports companies that were selling sneakers and tracksuits, but cool brands. Since then, luxury brands have also got into this area and streetwear has blended into the mainstream market."
And then there is Kevin Ma, who founded Hypebeast in 2005, the go-to media for streetwear consumers. Originally founded as a passion project, Ma—who was then working in finance—almost single-handedly launched Asian streetwear culture from his kitchen table.
“While working at the bank, I was really into fashion, music and street culture," he said in an interview with Maison Kitsuné. "So, as a side project I decided to create Hypebeast to gather all the fashion, culture, and music news into one place. Slowly, it became my full time job and now my business.”
Following the lead of Supreme, which launched in New York in 1994, Ma and Kuttikul have both targeted the under-25s from around the continent who were looking for a way to get their hands on the latest merchandise from streetwear brands in Asia.
The numbers reflect their success. Teens and twentysomethings have flocked to streetwear labels—and rejected brands that haven't embraced the trend. This is partly due to the savvy way streetwear brands have marketed their wares, raising awareness and excitement by releasing them in a weekly 'drop', which is always is heavily hyped in advance on social media. Carnival has been a central part of this new youth phenomenon, with hundreds of students camping outside the brick and mortar stores whenever a new line is launched—of which there is always only a limited number of items available, and only for a few hours.
"Social media has been absolutely essential to the growth of streetwear," says Kuttikul. "It has become the main channel of communication for our brand. For nearly any launch, and certainly for any new product drop, the customer will be notified via our social media channels—be it Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. So you could say that without social media, it would be very difficult for us to reach to this point and to continue to grow our connection with customers."
This marketing tactic has worked particularly brilliantly because streetwear is very much linked to online culture: sharing brand-new looks to followers on Instagram the day they drop is all-important. In order to fund their purchases of new weekly drops, many teens and young adults resell their items online, with a thriving micro-economy taking place on social media and resale app Depop.
And some of them are making a fortune, often queuing in rain or sun for hours to buy items on the day they're released in store, showing off their winnings by posing in them that afternoon on Instagram, then immediately selling them on at a profit.
Streetwear is influenced by sub-cultures like music, art and fashion, and especially sports. The fashion world is always trying to find something new, and a new way of influencing people. Streetwear was the perfect phenomenon, because for the first time ever, it wasn't just sports company that were selling sneakers and tracksuits, but cool brands
— Anupong Kuttikul
And increasingly, Asian labels are becoming more of a target for this group, with many brands outselling their Western counterparts. Major Drop, a bricks-and-mortar streetwear shop in Kuala Lumpur, told the BBC that physical sales of Asian-made brands in its store now eclipse those from the West for the first time ever. And by a spectacular amount: it says it sold 22,504 items of Asian streetwear in 2018, compared with just 3,765 pieces from US or European designers.
Our prediction? In no time at all, those New York hypebeasts will be queuing around the block for Asian-made drops—or, as some in the industry like to call it, the Eastern beast.