Streetwear has long relied on a scarcity and exclusivity model, with surprise drops, limited releases, special collaborations, and playful riffs creating a landscape for consumers that is familiar enough to navigate but still peppered with enough surprises to hold their attention. The voracity and enthusiasm with which streetwear’s consumer base purchases their wares have given notice to seemingly unrelated industries that this model is incredibly successful in generating not only sales but name recognition and the holy grail for all marketers: organic social media growth.
Lately, fast food companies have adopted this model — and it’s working. It makes sense: fast food is based on basic, consistent options, and if you think about it, so is streetwear. Often the only difference between the kinds of products offered by fast-food restaurants and streetwear labels is the logo on the box. And similar to streetwear, there’s a wild amount of brand loyalty in the fast-food world.
Remember that guy who would wear BAPE and try and fight Supreme kids? There are definitely people in this universe that will fight you over which chicken nugget you prefer. Have you ever told a Wendy’s spicy nug devotee that sometimes, because there’s a McDonald’s on your way home from work, you get a six-piece from them and it’s fine? DON’T.
One time I told a friend that In-N-Out might be a tad overrated, and I got a fifteen-minute presentation on their secret menu and all the hidden gems I was overlooking. Which is no different than the other time I was like: “I don’t get VETEMENTS. Naming a clothing brand ‘CLOTHING’ doesn't seem that transgressive or interesting to me,” and I got a fucking lecture on “high fashion” and was informed that “you have to really pay attention to get it.”
VETEMENTS is definitely the Shake Shack of this world because Shake Shack just makes fancier versions of the butter burgers from Culver’s (a decidedly midwestern fast food joint), and VETEMENTS makes fancier versions of the weird-ass clothes midwestern Juggalo-adjacent kids wear, but switches up the font and sizing and then charges seventeen times more and is all: “Yeah, it’s supposed to be pedestrian, duh.” They also just held a fashion show inside a literal McDonald’s in Paris, which is precisely where wannabe mall goths would hang out, chain smoke American Spirits, and talk about The Matrix.
Fast food chains also love a collab. Doritos linked up with Taco Bell for the “Doritos Locos” taco, which may be an abomination, but people are hyped on it. KFC had a collaboration with NIGO’s Human Made label. Who do you think is the KFC of streetwear? It’s KITH—and not just because they both start with the letter K.”
KITH — despite its success on the streetwear scene — still seems like an insular company, covertly developing sneakers and apparel as if Ronnie Fieg knows The Colonel’s secret ingredients. And despite having a solid recipe for success, they both are constantly rolling out new product categories. KITH even has its KITH Treats cereal bar and ice cream stand, which is like the Lafayette Street version of those combination KFC/Pizza Huts. Born x Raised might be the In-N-Out of streetwear, as it’s a west coast staple that white people from the midwest and east coast constantly brag about enjoying.
Fast food and streetwear brands both love a limited release. The McRib, the Shamrock Shake, Taco Bell’s Nacho Fries — they’re the gastrointestinal torture equivalent of the drop model used by brands like Supreme. You gotta get the McRib when it’s out, or else you’re gonna be stuck with a number two with mac sauce again, just like you always have to settle for the yellow ‘Preme T-shirt on Thursdays because your boss put a firewall on the company Wi-Fi to keep you from shopping at work.
Trends are omnipresent in any industry, but streetwear and fast food seem to move through them at lightning speed — about the same pace that fast food moves from mouth to butt. Everyone in the fast-food industry is trying to sell Impossible Burgers on their menu, but every time I’ve tried to order one, I’m told they’re sold out. That’s exactly what happens when I try to buy literally anything from Supreme.
Logomania is pretty big in streetwear right now, and if there’s an industry that embraces a strong graphic identity, it’s fast food. I can’t name a single element using the symbols on the periodic table, but I know every logo in the fast-food world by heart. There’s also a ton of toxic masculinity, homophobia, and sexism in both industries. Name a streetwear brand that hasn’t had one of their tees or crewnecks modeled by a woman wearing Jordans and nothing else. You know the shot where the oversized shirt hangs just below the model’s butt? That’s like the fuccboi version of those weird, sexualized burger commercials Carl’s Jr. makes.
But it’s not just the brands, even the mechanics of buying are becoming increasingly similar. I went to ComplexCon and you could order clothes straight off a menu — like, they were passing out line sheets so people waiting could plan what to buy. I personally prefer this approach, and cannot wait until I can walk into UNION Los Angeles and be like: “Let me get uhhhhhhh… a 20 dollar tote bag because I can’t afford anything else.”
Line-ups are a common sight outside of places like Supreme, and at ComplexCon in Chicago, Jerry Lorenzo caused a stampede by surprise releasing a sneaker. We need to look no further than the sheer pandemonium raised by the chicken sandwich Popeye’s just dropped to see a clear and obvious parallel. If Popeye’s keeps talking about the lines and online response to their sandwiches ten years from now, they’re for sure the Jeff Staple of the fast-food world — also both legendary freak-outs involving products centered around birds.
Maybe this whole piece is a stretch, or maybe the singularity is upon us. Maybe in a few weeks there’s gonna be a camp collar shirt emblazoned all over with Hot Cheetos [Editor’s Note: Cheetos is hosting a fashion show called the “Cheetos House of Flamin’ Haute” at New York Fashion Week]. Maybe White Castle will hire Virgil Abloh to design the boxes of their Impossible Burger with air quotes around the word “HAMBURGER” [Editor’s Note: Supreme also released a White Castle collab for Spring/Summer 2015].
Regardless, streetwear and fast food will always go hand-in-hand — because what the fuck else are you going to eat after spending an ungodly amount of money on one pair of sneakers and a T-shirt you kind of wanted, but also kind of settled for because the one you actually wanted sold out?