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When Tracksmith dropped its new ad last month, it sent the direct-to-consumer world in a minor frenzy. Tracksmith is a running brand, founded seven years ago around a particular aesthetic of 1970s long distance runners. More than that, Tracksmith is created in honor of the Amateur Spirit.
In its own words, the brand champions the Running Class, “the non-professional yet competitive runners dedicated to the pursuit of personal excellence.” Transport the sentiment to streetwear, watches, luxury fashion or any form of collaboration between them, and one would be hard pressed to miss an amateur changing the rules of the game. Teddy Santis, Dapper Dan, Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Raf Simons or Hedi Slimane are all fashion amateurs. Simons studied furniture and industrial design. Lotta Volkova, largely credited for Vetements and Balenciaga’s look, is a fashion stylist. West’s background is in music. Self-taught artist Helen Downie, a.k.a. The Unskilled Worker, is synonymous with a good part of Gucci’s aesthetic. Downie, as her Instagram moniker suggests, is an amateur.
Modern amateurs have nothing to do with the anachronistic meaning of the word. They are not dilettantes or laypersons. They are not aspiring professionals either.
Amateurs are taste machines.
Thanks to their passion bordering on nerdiness, they keep brands alive and move the culture forward. The proto-amateur, Jean-Michel Basquiat began as a street artist. Andy Warhol trained as a commercial illustrator, but this didn’t stop him from working in sculpture, films, silk screenings and paintings that are today one of the most coveted and expensive works of art.
Japanese otakus, once referring to hardcore anime fans, frequently featured in William Gibson novels as trendsetting cultural obsessives. With a good reason: Tokyo emerged as a global cultural lab during the economic boom of the Japanese late 80’s bubble economy. Famously, stores of Bape, Undercover and Pinkhouse dubbed as gathering spots for street artists, DJs, city pop clubbers, skaters, zine makers. The brands themselves were the forerunners of future trends thanks to their mix of global influences through their niche perspective.
Rewind a decade back, and New York City’s It Girls of the 1970s, like Anya Phillips, were amateurs of that era: they were stylists, photographers, muses and avant-garde movie actors, all at once. Phillips didn’t have the patience for academic education at Parsons, where she was admitted. She honed her skill among trendsetters and artists of the downtown scene.
The Flex of Interpretation
Amateurs play a central role in the modern aspirational economy. They create brand value through the process of interpretation. Amateurs’ goal is not to create anything new, but to interpret existing ideas, trends, styles and looks by making them slightly different than before. Amateurs put things out in the world to be questioned, commented on and criticized: their MO is to experiment by collective trial.
Through their interpretation, amateurs save brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Air Jordans from being outdated. Gucci Ghost’s tagging gave Gucci a fresh economic context and enhanced its value. It's also regarded as something less calculating and utilitarian, and more sincere and counter-cultural, than if it came from a fashion professional.
Interpretation is a powerful cultural engine. Amateurs’ genius is to reactivate the past in a way that is simultaneously surprising and familiar: Gucci bags live in many interpretations, depending who the collaborator is. Chrome Hearts, Off-White™, Heron Preston, Suicoke or A-Cold-Wall* all make their mark by combining the recognizable and the slightly different. Like jazz or streetwear, it’s a repetition in many forms.
Fandom Meets Creativity
Amateurs are free to endlessly interpret culture, heritage and brands because they're not bound by tradition, education, training or an established way of doing things. They comfortably reside in the domain of their own geekiness and play with things for fun and their own pleasure and status in their community. Theirs is the liminal territory between the “real jobs” and a hobby. Fashion stylists, who are today one of the biggest Hollywood power players, weren't considered as practising an actual job until the 1990s.
Japanese denim otakus know more about denim stitching, washes, cuts and materials than most fashion editors or even denim-making brands. A denim amateur is the real expert in their encyclopaedic know-how of trends and styles because they simultaneously appreciate denim and consume it. Like hypebeasts and sneakerheads, they're the prime example of knowledge in practice. They create, apply and influence cultural taste because they invest their time into finding the inspiration, often in their own social network.
This combination of knowledge and community places amateurs at the intersection of the fan and the creator. As fans, amateurs follow. White Claw fans bond over Etsy cowboy hats and ugly holiday sweaters, continuing the tradition of fan fiction and fan art. Media scholar Henry Jenkins wrote in “Textual Poachers,” his ethnographic account on fandom, that amateurs’ output “is a source of creativity and expression for those who would otherwise be excluded from the commercial sector.”
To make sure that they fully participate in the commercial sector, amateurs cultivate a following. Self-promotion that often goes with the creator economy is a necessary narrative vehicle that either celebrates an amateur's style or their own personal story (Kanye is an example of both). The narrative guarantees continuity of the output, but it’s also a savvy business move. It ensures that the work keeps coming in and that price premium is attached to it. Unskilled Worker made a name for herself that today comes with a considerable monetary value.
That’s the genius of an amateur: they play in the loosely integrated cultural space outside the mainstream, all the while enjoying its full market benefits. Anti-professionalism doesn’t equate anti-capitalism. They are beyond a simple economic dichotomy of Romantic bohemians versus utilitarian professionals. They are better described as fans and creators.
This fan, or creator, cycle is endless. Amateurs are fans of trends, brands and styles and also part of the scene they influence and draw inspiration from. Fashion stylists, which didn’t exist 25 years ago, are the creative directors of today. Instagram influencers are taking their place and becoming stylists, and (nearly) anyone can become an Instagram influencer. They all trade in the currency of taste.
The Amateur Economy
In the modern economy, stuff is cheap. Status comes from interpretation of culture and the resulting social capital. The entire streetwear and beauty industries rest on the shoulders of amateurs, who first went to Supreme, Colette, Undercover or Sephora to try out products and experiment with looks and then to showcase them on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok or Twitch, and eventually created their own brands and some have later become celebrity stylists or makeup artists.
There are several implications for brands:
An amateur is their own first and best customer, like Pharrell Williams is with his recently launched Human Race skincare endeavor. No one who's ever been in Williams' company failed to notice his ageless look and serene demeanor. A cross between a cultural player and a Bhudda, Williams has been a dedicated proponent of sustainability, humanity, health and wellbeing. His latest endeavor doesn’t merely reflect Williams’ values. They are his values: “We're creating for humans; we're all born in the same skin and Humanrace celebrates this.” For brands, this starts with the question: would they buy their own products? Would they believe in their own messaging?
An amateur displays enviable creative flexibility. For brands, this means using their visual and verbal handwriting creatively. Gucci Ghost gave himself the creative freedom of changing the font, format, art of Gucci logo. Kapital, the mecca of the Japanese denim aficionados, features things that only exist in their minds (and in the Kapital store): three leg trousers, wrap-around shirt, a denim apron and more are all there. This creative flexibility generates iconic looks and appeals to collectors’ mentality.
Amateur’s production of cultural taste attracts a collective that shares it. For brands, this means putting forward an aesthetic point of view that's attractive to cultural creators and consumers alike. Kanye, Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston, Matthew Williams, and Kim Jones all have a shared style, vocabulary, a way of dressing, music, and taste. For amateurs, a collective is a necessary springboard as it includes mentors, role models and reference points.
Amateurs’ style creates an imprint on their creative community. For brands, this means having a clearly defined world, ruled by the easy-to-understand principles. Abloh’s 3 percent rule provides a framework for his followers: it’s a set of tricks and hacks that lets them practice one’s own creativity and fandom. Or, merch sprang from streetwear and provided a template for everything from cottagecore to Joe Biden paraphernalia to Demna Gvasalia’s collaboration with Apple Music on a merch collection plus a playlist curated by Balenciaga’s community.
The entire modern economy is constructed around the amateur. There are mask-selling amateurs (between April and June 2020, $346 million worth of face masks were sold on Etsy), Chinese fansub amateurs, amateur chefs, interior decoration amateurs. Amateurs propelled themselves to the forefront of singing, dancing, fashion design, home makeover, finding a partner.
For a brand to follow an amateur model means both to adopt its behaviors and to treat its audience as amateurs. Far from being trivial, this is where the modern brand power is: amateurs preserve the best of cultural heritage by interpreting it for the present and by making it relevant to those who’d never heard of it. Like culture guides, they tell us what to pay attention to.
Ana Andjelic's first book, The Business of Aspiration: How Social, Cultural, and Environmental Capital Changes Brands, is out now. Her weekly newsletter, The Sociology of Business, can be followed here.