In the past few years, street culture, its associated clothing, and the brands that have stemmed from it are no longer relegated to specialty shops and cool-guy boutiques that the cognoscenti had to put you onto. It hasn’t been that way for a while.
And there’s nothing wrong with that—any band would love to make the transition from garage shows to selling out stadiums, no question. Undoubtedly, brands are the new bands. The amount of kids who would rather spend their time getting ill at guitar or banging away at a drum kit is dwindling in comparison to the number who slave away flipping graphics on Photoshop, curating Instagram feeds, and thinking about the aesthetic of their Shopify or Big Cartel pages.
A huge part of this is because of the pioneers that have proven their parents wrong, and showed a new generation that it's possible to not just "make it" in the creative industry, but actually make it big.
Supreme is a multi-million dollar brand. Just recently, we helped Barneys turn "the drop," that Pavlovian conditioning that has eager shoppers ready to spend every Thursday morning at 11 a.m., into a shopping event that attracts kids eager to cop wares by Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston and Palm Angels. Tons of kids came ready to cop exclusives, and many more came just to hang out in a department store, turning the storied retailer into a community hub.
But perhaps the biggest example of street culture's evolution from anti-establishment to establishment itself is ComplexCon, a two-day event that transforms the Long Beach Convention Center into a Valhalla for cool shit, where it goes to be praised amongst its peers, consumed en masse and ascends to eBay at a 300% markup.
Resellers ruining things for diehards is nothing new. The same goes for bros who want to be down and take a bit of authenticity away by liking something a little too much and championing it as if they discovered it themselves (just look at dubstep). But when subculture just becomes culture—an all-encompassing driving force that fuels the zeitgeist and numerous memes—it needs the O.G.'s and real heads to keep it more honest than ever.
This year we lost two irreplaceable critics. The kinds of people who love something enough to call it out when it's fucking up. Glenn O'Brien and Gary Warnett were one-of-a-kind dot-connectors that emphasized that nothing is really new today, but importance and value are derived from meaning and context, two things that seem to matter less and less to modern consumers.
All respect to Complex; I worked there for four years, and Highsnobiety was a part of their media network for a long time. And we are just as complicit as our peers in turning a genuine love for product into a marketing demographic all too eager to cop whatever next hot release we cover. Seeing Complex evolve from bimonthly magazine to multimedia juggernaut is unprecedented—as is witnessing our shared, once-niche perspective grow more mainstream.
ComplexCon isn't the source of the problem; it's on all of us. What it did, however, was shine fluorescent lights on an uncomfortable truth: As the publications in this world grow from start-ups to corporations, we're too old to be the kids waiting hours in lines for gear anymore; we should be the responsible adults empowering them to make informed choices.
So in the words of Gang Starr: "Can we be the sole controllers of our fate? Now who's gonna take the weight?"
We live in an era where everything that can be commodified probably has been. Nerd culture has been mined to sell us bananas with Star Wars stickers. San Diego Comic Con has gone from being a place to find rare back issues and meet random extras from Star Trek to a full-blown pop culture event. What better place could Marvel and DC promote the barrage of entertainment properties they're coming out with this year? But the bigger it's gotten, and the more relevant it's become, it's still maintained that sense of homegrown geekiness that makes it special.
Streetwear has long been an obsolete term to describe what this world has become. Now, the question we should be asking ourselves is: how do the progenitors of this weird space we share ensure we can make it a better place for future generations?
In the wake of the second ComplexCon, which was an undeniable success, some people in the industry are beginning to question if we've hit a dead end. There were many upsides to the event, like panels that included Kobe Bryant speaking with Kendrick Lamar and Lavar Ball dishing out serious mogul talk with Complex CEO Rich Antoniello, a N*E*R*D* reunion in anticipation of the group's first album in seven years, and impressive art direction from the inimitable Takashi Murakami.
Yes, there were plenty of amazing collaborations from expected labels like Nike, adidas and UNION, but there were also subversive products from the likes of PLEASURES, who sold bootleg Goyard tote bags, and Online Ceramics, who ditched the convention floor altogether in favor of selling their gear out of a car trunk in the parking lot.
Deliberately limiting the number of product available to increase demand remains a popular formula for streetwear brands. ComplexCon put a ton of that under one roof, but also gave eBay a booth with a photo studio in the middle of the pandemonium—something akin to giving out gold bars to attendees. People could spend $500 on gear that would instantly be worth $5,000. It was an open invitation to engage in the most polarizing aspects of the culture.
Bobby Hundreds took to Instagram to express his thoughts, while acknowledging that it had been a lucrative weekend for him and his brand, which launched a collaboration with the film IT that weekend.
"This year, I left dispirited and confused. What's going on here and what exactly is the point?" he laments. "We have the youth's attention, so where are we taking them?"
Meanwhile on the East Coast, artist Barbara Kruger took over the Coleman Skate Park on New York's Lower East Side for the Performa 2017 Biennial. It includes a pop-up shop with Volcom, which is being billed as a performance piece called Untitled (The Drop), where attendees can buy a small collection of gear emblazoned with Kruger's signature anti-capitalist sardonicism—hoodies, tees, and beanies that say "Want it. Buy it. Forget it." It's an apt descriptor of our ravenous appetite for hyped-up things, which is beginning to seem more like a drug addiction than a fun hobby shared by people with a like mindset.
Four years ago, Kruger responded to the controversy surrounding a lawsuit between Supreme and Married to the Mob with a file named "fools.doc." The Cut recently wrote about its contents, which referred to all parties involved as "a ridiculous clusterfuck of uncool jokers."
Having been at Complex that day, it's ironic that Kruger's words have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At face value, there's absolutely nothing cool about blindly buying things simply because not everyone can have them. What used to be about understanding references and identifying with brands has turned into memorizing drop dates and defining one's self by how many logos are adorning your body.
At ComplexCon, Highsnobiety Managing Director Jeff Carvalho witnessed kids being pushed and shoved in line by groups of resellers eager to make a quick flip. It created a situation that made him feel uneasy, worried about the safety of young people who just wanted to buy something. It spurred him to post: "It is our responsibility to keep each and every kid safe who comes into this 'culture' regardless of how you feel about the culture."
That got a lot of other industry heads talking, from consultant Phil Chang to music executive Dante Ross, who commented: "I feel like the term 'culture' holds no weight these days. [It] has been reduced to another meaningless word abused by [hypebeasts] and marketing people alike."
Chang called out the media's complicity, saying it "needs to be slower, more considered, and less beholden to metrics/goals set by quantity-driven investors and advertisers. The pace at which kids are being inundated with clickbait and shitty non stories is eroding their ability to think critically before they're even old enough to have a gauge for processing information."
So instead of being yet another nail in the coffin, this year's ComplexCon is actually a clarion call. The floodgates are open; no one can stop the influx of neophytes and curious outsiders who want to take a deeper dive into this thing we represent—"the culture," 'streetwear," whatever.
What's important is the people that have been here from the start are now the vanguard of this world we've helped create—and proliferate. And it's time for us all to think critically about how we can do better.
Now read about the rise of celebrity influence in sneaker culture.