In October 2017, the impossible happened.
Supreme, once operated from a single store on New York’s Lafayette Street, had quietly sold half of its business to multinational private equity firm The Carlyle Group for a reported $500 million, valuing the company at a staggering $1 billion. Many of Supreme’s long-time fans weren’t impressed, accusing the brand of “selling out,” believing that with wealthy investors involved, the brand's growth would compromise its authenticity.
Aware of the potential backlash, Supreme boss James Jebbia kept the sum of the deal under wraps for months, afraid it could damage the street cred Supreme had carefully cultivated since its launch in 1994.
Cultural credibility, after all, is the secret ingredient that turned Supreme products into status symbols for youth tribes around the world. In the process, Supreme subverted the definition of “luxury” to a point where high prices and avant-garde designs are no longer the sole drivers of desirability.
Cred is what gives Supreme’s scarce box logo tees $800 resale values and differentiates them from any other white T-shirt on the market. They are 25 years of subculture and narrative embedded in one simple item of clothing. And that is the exact example many fashion brands have tried to replicate, with only a handful succeeding.
But cultural cred is intangible. It transcends geography and demographics and isn’t created by one group alone. It's ambiguous and imbued with nuance, making it hard to define and put into practice. Brands that try to place themselves as authentic to youth culture via strategy alone are indisputably inauthentic.
Cultural cred is made up of various components, many ever-evolving, with specific overarching elements that need to coexist. Without all the pieces in place, a company risks losing resonance and longevity with the influential Gen Z and millennial generations of shoppers, which represent $350 billion of spending power in the US alone. So how do brands crack the code?
Make product responsive
Core to any fashion brand is its product. For consumers, product is the trophy that both unifies them with peers and sets them apart.
“Simply, it’s about making product that young people aspire to wear,” says Sofia Prantera, the Italian-born Slam City Skates alumna and co-founder of London streetwear label Aries.
But what’s perceived as coveted today will have changed by tomorrow, with buyers expecting clothing to be designed, produced, and delivered at the electric speed of Instagram. Streetwear’s business model, rooted in easily churned-out T-shirts, hoodies, and accessories made in limited quantities and distributed through weekly drops, lends itself well to these fluctuations in desirability. For those wanting to keep up with their customers, it's vital to create products responsively.
In 2011, H&M-owned fast-fashion retailer Weekday launched Zeitgeist, a project in which T-shirts and tote bags were screen-printed in its stores. The designs reflected current affairs and spoke directly to the retailer’s Gen Z and millennial audience. Examples included “Love Wins Deutschland,” celebrating Germany becoming the 23rd country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage; “Fight Like a Girl,” in support of the Women’s March against President Trump; and “Make London Europe Again” against Brexit.
But one size doesn’t fit all. Ideally, working with collaborators should be localized to speak to specific regions. Most of all, expansion into new fields shouldn’t be forced on consumers, and brands shouldn’t forget the products that made them authentic in the first place. Think Supreme skate decks, BAPE full-zip hoodies, or visvim’s FBT shoes.
“Someone like Palace has grown very fast but it has also grown organically,” says Prantera. “They’ve retained independence and I think it shows with their output, because some of their releases aren’t necessarily commercially friendly.” In other words, it feels real.
The element of surprise can’t be overlooked either. Collaborations are often used as a tool. Although unsustainable, not only is continuously replenished (collaborative) product good for business and brand marketing, unexpected products are a clever way for fashion brands to see how their community responds to products put out in real time. It’s a way to test how far a brand can push before it strays too far from its authentic core.
Speak through, not to your audience
Relevant product alone, however, won’t be enough to engage today’s fragmented buyer. Today, being culturally relevant means one must know when, where, and how to speak to your audience. For years, traditional messaging has remained the same and, as the use of social media in the fashion industry became oversaturated, consumers have become immune to homogenous, disengaging content.
What differentiates a label is its attitude, tone, and brand activity. Only by having a distinctive voice can a brand generate shareable content that resonates. Companies can no longer put out content for the sake of it and let engagement metrics overshadow narrative-driven marketing.
Problems occur when brands see their communication channels strictly as additional ways to push out new product. This approach is wrong because brands are essentially telling their followers that unless they’re consuming, they can’t fully take part in the dialogue.
Instead, fashion houses should see social media as a tool to inspire, to expand their universe with content that digs deeper into the company’s backstory, product, and community, while acting as a forum for discussion among followers.
“Don’t only speak to your community, speak through and with them,” says Leila Fataar, founder of Platform13, a London-based brand consultancy that specializes in creating and maintaining cultural relevance for companies through on-brand activations and by connecting them with influential industry insiders. Its roster of clients includes adidas, Under Armour, and Beats by Dre.
Getting the mix right are labels such as Nike, The North Face, and Stüssy, as well as 1017 ALYX 9SM, JJJJound, and BODE. All strike the right ratio and speed when it comes to novelty, product, and honest, value-driven storytelling. It allows followers to become part of the brand's direction.
“Patagonia is also a good example,” says American industry veteran and creative business consultant Julie Gilhart, who has worked with everyone from Amazon, Prada, and Jil Sander to Goyard and Mulberry. “They have really good communication. They don’t really do anything without talking about it first. If they don’t, their customers are going to talk about it and [the company] is going to do something about it. Your community is sort of like your family.”
Embrace cultural voices
It’s true. Brands should treat their community with love and respect. Fostering a community that sticks, however, is a challenge. A strong community means relinquishing some measure of control to the consumer. This is a scary thought for many companies, but it's something that gives a brand meaning beyond product alone.
“Sometimes I say no to nice brands because I feel there isn’t enough energy or attitude to bring them into the market,” says Slam Jam founder Luca Benini. “Immediately after I see the product, I check who’s behind the brand and what their approach is. In the long term, this makes the difference.”
Stavros Karelis, founder of multi-brand retailer Machine-A, explains, “There’s a very big turn in our industry, from bigger is better to being more specific to a core audience, not satisfying every single demand. That way you grow steadily in a safe manner.”
Karelis has proven to be an expert in scouting brands with staying power early on. He names Kiko Kostadinov, Grace Wales Bonner, 1017 ALYX 9SM, and Cav Empt as prime examples of labels that have all-encompassing visions of their clientele and brand.
“Someone like Matthew Williams [of ALYX] kept his brand very specific for the first few years," Karelis says. "There were no shows, no presentations. He communicated his message through specific retailers and through campaigns. It shows that he waited for the right time to build community and educate everyone before it exploded.”
While social media has connected those who are like-minded in their niche interests, it has also meant the death of underground subcultures at the local level, once the foundation of fashion communities, with everything becoming more accessible.
“Growing organically while maintaining your original customer is a challenge,” admits Prantera. Community, she says, is something very difficult to establish and something you can’t manufacture. “You either have it or you don’t.”
Indeed, brands only become authentic by supporting culture, not by hijacking it. At the same time, they need to focus on being anything other than a faceless corporation. And that's easier said than done.
So how can brands, new or established, build, foster, and then leverage their community to grow a culturally credible brand?
“It’s not rocket science,” laughs Fataar, explaining how brands need to focus on people with similar mindsets rather than the same demographics. “They also need to have conversations with the community they’re trying to be part of and see what they can do to add value to that community instead of just talking to them for a PR story. That’s when brands do well and, to me, that’s what creates cultural relevance.”
Fataar highlights Gucci’s partnership with Harlem couturier Dapper Dan as a sincere case study. “How long did that take to do? But look how much it has done for the brand,” she says.
Where fashion brands often fall down, she adds, is when they identify the wrong people to spread the message, often prioritizing popular online influencers new to the scene over those with true influence.
“You’re not a cultural voice just because you have loads of followers," Fataar says. "A cultural voice is someone who’s earned their stripes and not just told a story. They’re the ones who have been part of the change and have helped shape the culture. Some of those people don’t even have social feeds, but they’re the ones making stuff happen. If you want to talk to a community of people, you get these cultural voices in to do it. Hopefully, your brand values are the same and you can come up with something that’s important and relevant.”
For Angelo Baque, founder of Awake NY and former brand director of Supreme, building a community means looking inward first. “Instead of putting all this energy into thinking about how to make a million dollars, I’m thinking about how I can incubate and mentor new photographers and find new talent to contribute to the brand, like I did at Supreme,” he says. “You have to think about the long game. With Supreme, people tend to not understand that it’s been around for 25 years.”
Without values, you stand for nothing
One of the best examples of a brand growing its cultural relevance for more than 50 years is outdoor giant The North Face.
“When our brand was born, there was little competition, so making good product was sufficient," says The North Face's global general manager of urban exploration and mountain lifestyle Tim Bantle, whose team has been responsible for collaborations with Supreme, sacai, and Junya Watanabe. "Then the industry evolved, and then we were great at creating unique content to support the product through photography and stories of incredible expeditions. For a long time that was sufficient.”
But the environment changed in the last decade, says Bantle, who now believes product and storytelling are only half of the work that needs to be put in. “Once you layer in additional values as a brand, that’s when you start getting a complete package,” he says. “You really can’t be the brand you want to be without addressing these [external] dimensions.”
Whether it’s Nike supporting former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Gucci and Levi’s speaking out against gun violence, Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing making genuine strides in hiring refugees, or The North Face’s “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” campaign, which took shots at President Trump’s call to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, the brands of the future will be driven by purpose as much as profit. The days of surface-level consumerism are over.
Gilhart argues that, in today’s environment, by not standing for something, you’re at risk of losing the cultural cred you’ve built up with your community. “You may disappoint a few, but it’s worth it,” she says.
Antonio Achille, senior partner and global head of luxury at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company agrees. “Projecting a brand image needs to be based on a very authentic set of values. If there's a disconnect, it’s a boomerang in your face,” he says.
Bantle adds, “The big institutions that people have historically relied on for a sense of identity and belonging simply aren’t as effective as they used to be. People’s choices of where their dollars go need to go to companies that reflect their values and something bigger than themselves.
“We’ve really turned up the dial on the values component in the last couple of years because it’s the right thing to do. It helps us connect to our audience in a way we feel proud of and can stand by at the end of the day, and it will only become more important as we grow.”
Make sustainability and transparency the norm
Values shouldn’t be limited to external messaging. Those wanting to stay relevant need to be transparent about the way they operate, from how a company treats its employees to sustainable sourcing, production, and distribution.
Research by Boston Consulting Group shows that 73 percent of the world’s clothing eventually ends up in landfills. Meanwhile, 75 percent of consumers surveyed by the group view sustainability as extremely or very important. And consumers have the power to make businesses accountable. According to the report, 50 percent of consumers say they plan to switch brands in the future if another brand does more to protect the environment and help society than their preferred one.
From Burberry burning clothing worth millions (a practice it says it has discontinued) to H&M sitting on $4.3 billion of unsold stock, companies will have to radically rethink their approach to the “end” of a product’s lifecycle.
“If you want to be in it for the long haul, not starting a business in an environmentally and socially responsible way is a risk,” says Gilhart, who adds that future investors might be scared off by consumers potentially calling out a brand’s unsustainable practices. “It’s the number one thing. You don’t want to start something that’s unsustainable when you have as much information as we have now. We’re on borrowed time.”
Companies such as Everlane, Allbirds, and Noah understand this. In May, Noah explained to its Instagram followers in great detail why the prices of some of its sweatshirts and rugby shirts had gone up, guiding users through its supply chain with images of its factories and workers, and breaking down the costs of each individual item.
Noah was founded by former Supreme creative director Brendon Babenzien and has become known for its value-driven approach to fashion, raising money and awareness for causes including the Black Lives Matter movement, ocean clean-up, and programs that support LGBT+ communities.
While it has maintained that it's “not a sustainable company,” Noah’s willingness to work toward solutions and put integrity above trends, working exclusively with suppliers and manufacturers that treat workers fairly, has created a template for a modern and culturally credible fashion brand.
“The new consumer is very sensitive about increased transparency,” says McKinsey’s Achille. “Before, the primary source for consumers to get your brand identity was through in-store experiences and customer service. Next came marketing. Now it’s not just about the frontline anymore, but it’s a much more holistic equity that you need to build in terms of brand identity.”
Prantera of Aries agrees. “The more vertical your business is, the better it will do. It might not be the most financially friendly solution, but it’s for sure the purest,” she says. “The way people are paid, where you manufacture, how you treat your suppliers, it’s all about how your business appears. It’s not just about design and PR anymore.”
Altogether, what defines cultural credibility probably can’t be encapsulated in one simple formula, but the fundamentals are detailed above.
“Nobody knows how long it takes to build a successful brand. Some brands happen overnight and some take years,” says Gilhart. “But if you start to build a good foundation, which [includes] sustainability, community-building from the get-go, being direct-to-consumer, knowing what you stand for, and being consistent with it, it’s very good. It doesn’t matter who you are, you just have to be transparent and authentic.”