In this op-ed, veteran fashion writer and critic Eugene Rabkin tells us how he really feels. Namely, streetwear has become too democratized for its own good, and its time for some aspiration-alists to face the music.
During my last visit to my barber, he told me about a new line of business he was getting into. He bought a T-shirt graphic printer, becoming a de-facto manufacturer for those of you who want to try your luck in streetwear. If you want, I can connect you, though Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn may not strike you as a cultural center where great fashion ideas are born. My point is that, driven by omnipresence of streetwear, even in this neck of the woods young enterprising men think they can strike gold by making the right T-shirt.
Everywhere you look today, our culture brims with the spirit of enterprise. Kids who a generation ago were dreaming about being in a band now dream of having a streetwear brand. The lust for fame and for striking it rich has been kicked into hyper-gear by the seeming ease of it all. After all, if you look at people who are rich and famous — or at least look rich and famous — on your Instagram feed, it's natural to wonder why you shouldn't be next.
Two major phenomena are responsible for this state of affairs — the rise of a type of celebrity who possesses no discernible skills (thanks to reality TV and social media), and a democratization of the means of production that has allowed for unprecedented amateur cultural output.
I’ll start with the latter, because it’s more fascinating and less understood. It may come as a surprise to you that a decent and growing swath of the ultra-capitalist America circa 2021 actually lives in a Marxist dream. Karl Marx, the godfather of communism, posited that in order to free itself from the capitalist yoke, the proletariat would have to seize the means of production the capitalist class owned. Little could he foresee that the means of production would be willingly given to it by the capitalists, often free of charge. A friend of mine founded a successful creative agency in 1999 on the back of a website he built with a free trial of Dreamweaver, the website-building software. Justin Bieber was discovered after he uploaded a few videos on YouTube. And the wild success of rappers who started on SoundCloud has been the cultural event of the past five years. David Fischer, the founder of this publication, started Highsnobiety as a sneaker blog on Blogspot, the free blogging platform from Google.
As the years go by, more and more means of production are democratized thanks to the Internet, and it has ushered in the cultural and economic shift from hardware to software. A slew of people — YouTubers, Tik-Tokers, Instagram influencers — now make a living using the tools at everyone’s disposal. Their success lies in the same philosophy of democratization of everything. They are successful because they are relatable. They do the things you do and they look like you do, and the only difference is that they do and look just a bit better than you — though of course, if you watch enough of their videos and buy enough of the products they hawk, it makes you feel that you, too, can be just like them.
Concurrently, fashion was attracting rich housewives and celebrities alike. It offered glamour, and it was easy to fake since it was other people who were actually doing the designing behind the scenes. All that was required of you was to take the bow at the end of the show and do other glamorous things. Everyone from Michael Dell’s wife (of the Dell computer fortune) to the Olsen twins and Justin Timberlake got in on the game. The launches of their lines were loud and their subsequent failures were quiet, as is the unspoken rule of the fashion press. Few will remember Elizabeth and James (the Olsen twins), Phi (Susan Dell), William Rast (Justin Timberlake), or L.A.M.B. (Gwen Stefani). The most prominent fiasco of the 2000s was the quick hiring and firing of Lindsay Lohan to “design” for the Italian label Ungaro.
This did not stop famous people from battering the gates of fashion. Elevation of streetwear to the level of fashion made it especially easy, because (in terms of design) streetwear is less demanding. The dizzying success of Supreme seemed like a relatively easy blueprint to copy. The product mattered less than the customer base. The audience was either already built in because of the celebrity factor, or was acquired through having a convincing narrative. That’s how on the one hand we got October’s Very Own, Drake’s brand, and Palace Skateboards on the other. And of course, Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Justin Bieber, and so on all cashed in on their existing audience or a celebrity connection.
Weirdly enough, these prominent figures with extensive connections, money, and influence, have been cheered on as some kinds of rebels upending the fashion system. In her article for this publication, titled “The Reign of the Great Fashion Amateur,” Ana Anjelic praised the likes of Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston for infusing fresh blood into the staid fashion world. While this premise is arguable but not pernicious, her insistence on calling these figures “amateurs” is more so. Why? Because it gives that very familiar honeypot called the Great American Story of Success Without Having Any Particular Skill a new false ring. Let’s get one thing straight — neither Virgil Abloh nor Heron Preston nor Kanye West are amateurs, not in the original sense of the word. They may have been new to fashion, but they got into the industry not because of their hard work, but via being a celebrity or having established celebrity connections, or hiring the right PR, or creating networks within the right people in the fashion industry. Calling these people amateurs gives false hopes to kids who think they can strike it big by putting box logos on hoodies.
Throughout my career as a fashion editor, I’ve lost count of how many “I can do this too” brands have approached me for a feature. I know store owners who, for every customer who walked into their shops to buy something, also had a kid coming in with a lookbook trying to get his foot in the door. As soon as the kid left, the lookbook made its way into a trash bin. For my part, I always ask would-be designers the same question: What makes you different? Why should I (the hypothetical I) buy your logo T-shirt and not one from Supreme, or Palace, or Bape?
These are the questions you should be asking yourself before you get into the game. Does the world need another streetwear brand? Do you have something to contribute to the streetwear or fashion narrative? Do you have a story to tell, and if you do, will people care? Do you have the right network that will help you spread the word?
If the above has made you indignant because you feel that anyone is entitled to at least try to establish a brand, good. I don’t want you to fail. But remember: for every story of success you read, you are not reading the ten(fold) stories of failure. That’s how fashion journalism works — it's disingenuous and unbalanced, silent in error and vocal in spotlight. The final question you should ask yourself is, are you prepared to sink your life savings into a project that will fail more likely than not? Because chances are, you aren’t gonna make it.