If exclusivity fuels desire, then some might see streetwear in danger of becoming passé.

The term is often used to describe “urban” fashion among cool city kids whose style stays on pace with rising and independent designers, buzzy industry collaborations and sneaker drops. But recently, streetwear is said in the same breath as activewear, as the obsession with sneakers, bomber jackets and logo tees infiltrates the mainstream fashion market.

Crossover in the fashion and streetwear markets is not novel: Raf Simons designed his first pair of Adidas Stan Smith sneakers in 2007. Ricardo Tisci’s Rottweiler-print T-shirts debuted on the Givenchy runways in 2011. Streetwear-affiliated labels Off-White and Hood By Air showed collections during Paris and New York Fashion Weeks in September.

And now, mass fashion retailers are also looking to grab a bigger piece of the lucrative streetwear pie: from department stores like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, to Urban Outfitters and Asos, which just launched Looped, an online platform for sneaker drops. In 2014, the streetwear market was valued at $75 billion, up from $60 billion in 2011.

“We’ve seen a demand from our core customer, and her lifestyle has evolved, so this is fully in response to her lifestyle. We have to go beyond the gym,” Liza Kazor, svp and general merchandise manager for Neiman Marcus in a recent Glossy interview.

Streetwear goes mainstream
No longer reserved for young consumers who have both the time and energy to line up outside of Supreme on Thursday mornings for its latest product drop, the market has been democratized by heightened visibility and a shift in modern fashion trends toward a look that is fashionable, comfortable and casual all at once.

“Streetwear sits happily — and lucratively — at the intersection of a few shifts in consumer [behavior],” said Katie Smith, senior retail analyst at retail technology company Edited. “Casual dress is acceptable almost anywhere. While athleisure has reached the mainstream, trend leaders want to dig further to differentiate. And the way most consumers receive information on fashion is on social media, where the immediacy is ideally suited to streetwear.”

For any streetwear purists who bemoan the loss of underground appeal, however, the market hasn’t actually changed that much. And there’s a built-in safety mechanism: The popularity of a streetwear brand is predicated on product exclusivity and an insider consumer mentality, which is constantly cultivated by the next cool thing.

“In general terms, if you define streetwear only as sneakers and staple clothing items, you may think it’s turning into a big bubble that’s ready to burst,” said David Fischer, CEO and founder of Highsnobiety. “But there will always be new youth movements that come from the street and that continue to drive this culture forward.”

But mainstream can’t keep up
As Fischer puts it, the mainstream will always be playing catch-up, even if some streetwear brands are eaten along the way. While a once-hot streetwear brand like Been Trill has been taken over as a PacSun brand, there will always be a Supreme and its equivalents: the kind of retailer whose smart strategy keeps it one, or several steps ahead of a Neiman Marcus.

“By nature, I don’t think mainstream can catch up to streetwear,” said Yu-Ming Wu, the founder of SneakerNews.com and CMO of Stadium Goods. “The mainstream customer doesn’t have time to line up at Supreme.”

To Wu, streetwear is part product, part culture, and that cultural element protects it from outsiders ever succeeding in overtaking it.

“A guy can walk into Neiman Marcus, put on a $500 Gucci T-shirt and think, ‘Hmm, I think I have the same coolness as the teenager wearing Diamond Supply.’ But the message of streetwear gets lost at that point,” said Wu. “You can wear it and look cool, but there’s a different status symbol.”

According to Edited data, the fast sell-outs of high-profile streetwear by releases signal that the market is not yet saturated: Both Vetements’ and streetwear brand Fear of God’s latest releases sold out in under a month, while Rihanna’s Fenty Puma line sold out in 13 days. (But there is individual product saturation: 88,000 new bomber jackets arrived in online stores in the last three months.)

Such fast-moving inventory is appealing to retailers, especially department stores, which are trying to pull themselves out of a constant promotional cycle.

“The swift movement [in streetwear trends] mean products are hyped and move fast. For brands, that means they don’t have to produce in huge volume,” said Smith. “Rather, brands can be nimble and optimize on consumer’s online conversations. There’s less threat of discounting, and sneakerhead and hypebeast culture brings a new swathe of shoppers into store.”

So while mass retailers will benefit from selling highly anticipated streetwear drops, the streetwear brands will have to continue to strategically navigate retail partnerships in order to remain elusive and desirable.

“Streetwear brands, at some point, have to decide: Am I going to sell out and say goodbye to my cool streetwear brand, or am I going to pull back? As one brand gets pushed out the next brand comes up,” said Wu. “There’s always going to be kids coming up who know what’s cool and kids want to be cool.”

And retailers and brands on the outskirts of that will always be playing catch up.

“Streetwear is not one product or one thing, and it cannot be placed into a neatly defined category,” said Fischer. “It represents the innovation that happens amongst the youth, which will never die or burst.”

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