“I got this shirt because I got one for my son. His shirt says ‘The Copy’,” Steve Stoute jokes while referring to his t-shirt that reads, “The Original.” Stoute knows well the origins of what influence looks like – sounds like, and, more importantly, feels like. He explains the social capital during his coming-of-age, “[It was] Sergio Valente, Gazelles – they had glasses that everybody would wear with no [lenses]. Kangol, Lees, colored Lees, pinstripe Lees. ‘BVDs,’ which are like a rayon material. You’d wear two of them to get contrasting colors. So, you’d wear a base – one in black, and then a red.”
In the conversations happening around the evolution of streetwear – it’s far from dead, yet, it stirs a reluctance of acceptance as a category – and exploring its roots in hip-hop culture during the 1980s and 1990s, Steve Stoute, Founder and CEO of cultural epithet and advertising agency Translation LLC, 2004. Stoute established his purview and conversation in a culture-shifting book titled The The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture The Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy.
He saw the appropriation and adaptation of Black-American culture among white societal America and reclaimed it in text. Stoute is also building on a foundation in music with his UnitedMasters music distribution platform for independent artists.
Stoute understands the culture around streetwear and its roots from attending Holy Cross High School, located in the New York City borough of Queens. High school for New Yorkers presented the challenge of balancing social status through eclectic personal style, less about academics. “That was a uniform school,” Stoute recalls of his early education in street style.
“I would never wear a uniform to school. I would take the bus and wear regular shit because I used to date the girls from Bayside High School. And then at the next stop was my high school, and I just – boom boom,” Stoute says jovially while actioning an expedited wardrobe change.
His involvement in music, marketing, and advertising with his perspective is rare for where he sits among other influential leaders. Stoute has been influential in fashion, leaving a trail of game-changing fashion collaborations, eventually launching his UnitedMasters music distribution app in 2017.
Stoute represents a lineage of music moguls and business leaders who have crafted the worlds of sub-cultures into mass cultures. UnitedMasters has recently launched in Nigeria, making a lane for organic builds within a global community and setting up avenues for what makes Steve Stoute so impactful.
Stoute in conversation about fashion, rather than music, is reminiscent of iconic brands like Sergio Valente and Kangol – name brand mentions from early hip-hop music. “If you were a woman that was over a size 4 or 6, they weren’t even fucking with you. If you were a dude, there was no Extra Large. Extra Large became an idea because of hip-hop,” Stoute notes. This is a common size category today, Extra Large was more associated with a “Big-&-Tall” shape during the time.
“They wouldn’t make it an extra large unless you look like a coat hanger,” he says. “There was a whole other version of clothing that became the expression of style – and that’s streetwear.” This is streetwear in its earliest connotation, before access to building a clothing line for someone in an urban setting, essentially the Black-American population.
Adidas was the pivotal point for Stoute, as mentioned in his best-selling book The Tanning of America, outlining the impact of hip-hop music over a culture driven by early signs of consumerism. The cultural impact and visual queues of fashion, like BVD rayon material, emphasized the self-expression embedded in clothing choices.
“I’m hitting you with ‘82, ‘83 when [‘motherf-ckers’] would rob you for your sneakers. They walk up to you, put their foot right up to [yours] to see if it looked like a similar size, and that was just to set you up to rob you. I’m talking about that,” Stoute describes how valuable these items were and still are.
“Karl Kani and Cross Colours, with whom Karl was a designer, were the new expression. Lees had gone out and [it was] this idea of building a clothing line that encapsulated the cuts and the expression of colors. That’s why it worked. It was cuts and colors. The way it was sagging – it was a cut that you couldn’t get from anybody else.”
“Levi’s didn’t really have it. Cross Colours had it first, and then Karl took it to another level. It was certainly about [the] cut. They didn’t have the right cut. They didn’t have the cut where it could fall right on your boot. They didn’t have the right cut where it fit properly. Because they didn’t do that, it left this big void for every African-American designer. Black designers came into the game and created a brand that was for us, by us,” Stoute notes, playing on the acronym of the FUBU clothing line, a pivotal brand to come from an urban community.
The emergence of streetwear, spearheaded by figures like designer Karl Kani and the label Cross Colours, filled this void, offering a unique blend of cuts and colors that resonated with the urban and hip-hop community. Pivotal moments in streetwear history, such as JayZ’s collaboration with Reebok and Pharrell’s influence with brands like Ice Cream – also under Reebok – have had Steve Stoute’s imprint.
“Nike didn’t believe that music was a cultural force. So while we were all running around buying Air Force Ones, trying to do any commercial business for them was nonexistent. They didn’t believe that artists were a performance company – and they believed in athletes. So they didn’t look at artists no matter how big they were. They looked as if that was something that was against their mission statement. When they’re on stage, they’re performing. That would be a logical thought,” says Stoute.
“The most you could get, no matter how big you were, was some promotional sneakers. They’ll hit you with 50 pairs of sneakers with the Roc-a-Fella logo on the back heel or something like that. But you got no participation in sales or any other kind of stuff,” he explains of the market.
Stoute knew there was an opportunity in the same way Adidas tapped Run DMC. “That left an opportunity for me to go to a brand like Reebok and speak Paul Fireman saying, “‘Paul – blah blah blah – we do this JayZ sneaker.’ And then Jay had the idea to go to the old Gucci shoe. That’s another thing!”
“That’s ‘84, ‘85 D-boy shit. That, ‘You can’t get those.’ So when [JayZ] wanted to bring those back, we had to go find a picture of them – no one had them. And trying to find somebody who had them in real life was hard. Like, have you ever seen those? No!” From packaging to promotion, even doing diligence with the S.Carter silhouette, drawing inspiration from a Gucci sneaker from the early ‘80s, Stoute had identified the cultural queues that would resonate with consumers.
“Did you ever have them? You couldn’t afford them! They were $250 or some crazy shit in ‘84, ‘85. So when Hov said, let’s go after that, It was like, ‘Oh my god!’ It was like it had so much momentum because it was almost like the perfect sample. It’s like sampling the perfect record. And then I went to Pharrell.”
“I’ve known Pharrell for years, and I went with [him] to Tokyo 20 years ago. He went with Nigo. Bathing Ape was starting to take off, and Pharrell codesigned with Nigo to make the ‘Ice Creams’ – if you remember the box. It was it’s unbelievable! We also did a Yé [Kanye West] sneaker. We did a G Unit sneaker. We did a Daddy Yankee,” he elaborates.
“The key part was me bringing the idea of using Reebok as a platform that allowed the leaders of the culture to be able to express themselves through footwear. I remember it was the G-Units and the S dot, that we did a commercial for. It was in 2004. I remember saying to the guys from Reebok, ‘This is like Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart coming together.’ Like if you’re trying to sell women’s products and you have Oprah Winfrey, and Martha Stewart together saying, ‘This is it,’” made the most sense to Stoute.
“I remember using that example. That’s how I would explain things to corporate America back then. Using something analogous to Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart selling home goods is amazing – you can’t beat that! We got the street version of that. But these two dudes. How more blatant can you be?”
The challenges faced by individuals seeking high-end fashion were evident in designers like Dapper Dan, who was given a Gucci atelier in Harlem in response to cultural uproars against luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, which historically lacked inclusivity in sizing. A sentiment shared by many, the Gucci partnership with Dapper Dan was ushered in by Stoute, who played strategic roles in fashion partnerships that had roots in hip-hop and street cultures, effectively changing outlooks on performance wear for music performers and others.
“[It’s] the same thing with Pharrell. I want to see the people who are influencing the style actually get paid handsomely and be able to build something on the back of it. Not just employees, but also be able to build something in partnership which is why I did the Dapper Dan deal with Gucci. I thought it was wrong that [they] put this man out of business – the luxury brands – and then were basically copying his shit. The shit that they sued him for was the shit that they actually were doing.”
“For [Pharrell] to get acknowledged that way was a very special thing. I’m proud that I did that. And I went back into the fashion business literally to do that.” Stoute admits. “Pharrell would say that part of his journey of becoming who he is today was work that I did with him in the beginning. He gave me a shout-out at the CFDA awards saying that if I didn’t allow the opportunity to design his first design project the ‘Ice Creams,’ he wouldn’t be a designer today.”
Validation from consumers establishes brands, and vice versa, it is equally important that the cultures that have crafted these sartorial languages are acknowledged for their ideas. The choice to buy into these luxury heritage labels is a clear indicator of interest. Those brands have pulled inspiration from those consumers for their marketing strategies. The narrative extends to the present, with reflections on collaborations, acknowledgments, and the collaborative nature of the fashion industry. Provided it involves proper recognition and compensation for those influencing the culture.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of choice – validation is important,” says Stoute.” And those brands have so much value to us. They have always been something we’ve aspired to have in our lives for reasons that are way too long to describe. But it’s certainly not. That not the negative part,” Stoute pauses on the thought. “If we do it without that brand – they put a lot of money and years in history behind that brand. So, when you try to create something, even though it has those same silhouettes and cuts – and all that – it’s still missing that part too.”
As a credible stance on streetwear, the fashion industry has evidently noted how street culture moves the needle as it sees fit. As a credible stance on streetwear, the fashion industry has evidently noted how street culture moves the needle as it sees fit. Adidas [YEEZY], Timberland [50 years along with the Hip-Hop genre], Louis Vuitton [Pharrell], Dior [Travis Scott/Jordan], and Nike [Drake/NOCTA], for example. Those brands have recognized this with an effort to reflect those nuanced assets, like music, artists, athletes, and creatives from diverse disciplines.
“The part that’s not cool is if it doesn’t feel collaborative. I need, and I would want for the authors and the people who are influencing the culture to be properly recognized and properly paid by those brands for bringing that relationship together. It’s awesome that Virgil [Abloh] – god bless – was not only the head of Louis Vuitton [Men’s] Design but also [received] backing for Off-White.”
There’s an emphasis on collaboration, recognition, and the transformative impact of streetwear on the fashion landscape that Steve Stoute has authored in reverse, reclaiming those nuanced factors of culture. Stoute’s mission of regaining a stake in art forms and personas that shape the flavor of culture has ultimately become a part of an ever-evolving society, broadening horizons in fashion and music and creating equitable channels.