Protests around the unjust killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department reached a fever pitch this weekend. Tensions mounted between protesters demonstrating peacefully and armored cops looking for an excuse to engage them (and in many cases, seemingly manufacturing those excuses). While righteously indignant activists clashed with militarized law enforcement, rage turned into an inferno across the country.
Like any fire, collateral damage was to be expected. But in cities like Chicago, Richmond, Virginia, and Los Angeles, an unexpected group of small business owners were left asking “why us?” as the dust settled after an evening of fierce confrontations, burnt police vehicles, and looted stores: owners of streetwear and sneaker boutiques. Round Two, Flight Club, Undefeated, UNION, RSVP Gallery, The Hundreds, Fat Tiger Workshop, Rif, and several other shops around the country were hit, sometimes completely cleaned out.
To some, like Virgil Abloh, the initial reaction was a sense of betrayal from a community they felt were aligned with their interests. Abloh expressed his disappointment by commenting on an IG post by Round Two co-founder Sean Wotherspoon.
“This disgusts me. To the kids that ransacked [Round Two] and RSVP DTLA, and all stores in our scene just know, that product staring at you in your home/apartment right now is tainted and a reminder of a person I hope you aren’t. We’re a part of a culture together. Is this what you want?”
To a certain extent, Abloh’s nostalgia for the streetwear of the past speaks to a time before Instagram, and more importantly, a time before reselling became rampant. In its purer form, streetwear remixed and reinterpreted fashion for an audience it otherwise didn’t give a fuck about. From Dapper Dan’s Fendi tracksuits and Louis Vuitton monogram puffy-shouldered, couture-level bomber jackets to Shawn Stüssy flipping Chanel’s crossed-C logo, it bridged the gap between a language high fashion wasn’t willing to learn and the designer codes aspiring youth knew all too well.
From the way it sampled subcultures like punk, reggae, and hip-hop and garments like Carhartt jackets, baggy hoodies, and slouchy tees, black culture informed streetwear from the start. It was built on a foundation of similar ideas and ideals. Later in his Instagram Stories, Abloh doubled down on a previous statement he made sounding the death knell of streetwear. He made a differentiation point between the streetwear of his younger years — a tight-knit community of “If You Know, You Know” brands and their clientele — and “streetwear,” which he dismissed as a commodity.
Chris Gibbs, current owner of UNION Los Angeles, certainly remembers those early days of streetwear, working under the store’s original founders Mary Ann Fusco and James Jebbia, who of course went on to establish Supreme. It’s a conflicting thing for him to process. On the one hand he’s aware the movement has been about expression and being so vocal about your values that you were willing to wear them on a T-shirt or hoodie. On the other, he’s aware that 30 years later it has become an inadvertent industry, and with more money comes more problems.
“Unfortunately, as streetwear has evolved, it’s become commodified, and that commodification is taking over the culture,” says Gibbs. “I hope we can first and foremost talk about justice, but also take some steps back to making streetwear more about the culture and less about commodification.”
In a world where a pair of Michael Jordan’s game-worn signature sneakers sell for a record-breaking $560,000, a charitable Supreme T-shirt goes for 900% of its retail price, and aspirational shopping exists as much on Melrose Avenue as it does on Rodeo Drive, this weekend’s lootings feel like the logical endpoint for the gentrification of street culture.
Earlier this year The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica aptly described buying Supreme as “an online game in which winners win garments and also the right to profit off those garments by selling them to those who are bad at the game.” Resale consignment stores like Rif, Round Two, and Flight Club further reinforce the financial value of hyped items over their cultural significance.
“We’ve indoctrinated young people to think that the only things of value are associated with particular brands. We’ve convinced them that they need things they really don’t,” says Bobby Hundreds, whose Fairfax Avenue flagship store was vandalized. “And now we’re shocked that they would take it if it was free?”
The same can be said for media publications like this one, which is certainly culpable for helping define a new idea of luxury — where a Dior Jordan shoe represents a $2,500 Italian-made version of a $160 sneaker that can already cost much more on the aftermarket. How much longer can the snake keep nibbling away at the last vestiges of its body before it swallows itself whole?
StockX is the self-proclaimed “stock market of things,” where UNION Jordan 1s, KAWS Medicom Companion figures, and 1999 1st edition Pokémon trading cards can be sent, authenticated, and turned into PayPal funds. The ease and anonymity of the whole process also makes it the ideal fence. Reselling has become a $6 billion dollar industry unto itself, and is thriving even in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. While StockX and other platforms like GOAT have both issued statements about taking extra precautions to stop the sale of stolen items, it’s unclear how either plans to verify the provenance of suspicious goods. Unlike watches, smartphones, and computers, sneakers and Bearbricks don’t have individual serial numbers. Further, the LA Times reports that most of the contraband will likely be sold in peer-to-peer transactions anyway.
Looting may be an undesirable side effect of violent protest, but it’s not the focus of these demonstrations. Justice for George Floyd and the countless other black lives lost to police brutality is. The eventual arrest and filing of formal charges against the four police officers involved in Floyd’s murder is evidence that protest works. James Whitner, founder of The Whitaker Grp and several other stores in the country, pointed out that while he can certainly insure his stores for damage and loss, he can’t insure against racism. It’s a sentiment shared by many sneaker and streetwear shops, including Round Two.
No hoodie or sneaker can ever be more valuable than a human life, which is a ridiculous sentence to type. Yet it represents the dissonance between streetwear — the movement built on a spirit of rebellion, dissent, and doing the most with the least — and “streetwear” the hype-over-substance machine built on a system of mindless consumption. We’re witnessing the two identities having to reconcile with becoming a product of its own accidental success.
“I just feel like this is the penance that we pay,” says Bobby Hundreds. “You want to play the streetwear game? You gotta pay the toll.”
Whitner describes what happened to seven of his stores as being “victims of circumstance.” Even Don Crawley and Virgil Abloh shared similar sentiments while reflecting on the aftermath of what happened to both RSVP Gallery locations in LA and Chicago.
“I understand people are hurt, so if stealing merch will ease the pain I can sacrifice that,” wrote Crawley over an image of an empty Travis Scott x Nike Air Max 270 shoebox. Abloh later echoed his sentiment, writing “if it heals your pain, you can have it” in a caption overlaid on a smashed-through glass door.
But for Chris Gibbs, this is a real turning point in what he’s going to do with the influence he has. The day after the protests, he got on a call with several business owners affected by the weekend’s events — most had their stores looted, but that was the last thing they talked about. Instead, the conversation shifted into how streetwear has ironically been forced to confront the social conditions and progressive politics that made it a relevant subculture for disenfranchised kids.
A term you hear a lot in the streetwear world is “we all we got,” emphasizing the importance of supporting your own. And in the wake of continued lack of police reform and accountability from all forms of government to ensure the safety of all citizens, it really does fall back on the community to take care of each other in a real way.
“If looting is the residue of a protest that will finally bring about change, then I’m okay,” says Gibbs. “It’s a full distraction in every way when all we’re talking about is looting, and we’re not talking about the systemic racism and police brutality in this country.”