Everyone in fashion seems to be operating in crisis mode right now; supply chains are disrupted, customers are not shopping. Stores (via their websites) are putting merchandise on sale way before the usual deadline and have cancelled or delayed roughly $3 billion worth of orders. June men’s and couture fashion weeks are cancelled or postponed. The bonds for the parent companies of Versace, Michael Kors, and Coach were downgraded to junk, because of the incredible financial hit these brands were taking due to coronavirus.
Hype culture, however, seems to be alive and kicking. In the height of Covid-spurred social distancing, both Supreme and Palace are still doing drops, which increasingly look out of touch with reality. Granted, they were probably conceived before the pandemic hit, and yet these collabs now feel as tone-deaf as the Gal Gadot celebrity sing-along.
What is worth noting is not the fact that consumers stopped shopping for luxury fashion, but the awe-inspiring speed with which they did it. And not being able to go to brick-and-mortar stores isn’t the culprit. It’s as if overnight, we took a collective hard look at our closets and saw just how unnecessary it all is. Nothing like a crisis to make one prioritize canned beans over a twentieth pair of sneakers. Vanessa Friedman, the New York Times fashion critic, reasoned that “shopping during a pandemic seems just the other side of wrong.” (She shopped online anyway.)
Amongst fashion insiders, the coronavirus crisis has also given rise to a lot of soul-searching and prognosticating, ranging from hopeful to preposterous. And, in this time of navel-gazing, it becomes fair to ask whether the coronavirus will — among its many casualties, human and corporate — also kill hype culture. Will people lining up in the wee hours of the morning for a Supreme drop or salivating over another meaningless collab realize just how daft it all is? The short answer is: probably not.
In 2008, the subprime mortgage crisis led to a broad financial crisis — with countless people losing homes and savings. Americans saw $9.8 trillion of wealth erased, consumer confidence crashed, and luxury shopping nosedived. But it wasn’t just your average middle-class woman who could no longer buy her first Louis Vuitton speedy bag because she lost her job who stopped shopping, but also the very rich. Not because they didn’t have the money — the rich always have money — but because they thought that buying a new fancy shirt while the middle class were losing theirs was in poor taste. No millionaire’s wife gave up her spot in the line for the new Birkin bag; it was just stashed away in her closet for a while. Then, as now, prognosticators spelled the demise of luxury shopping, which seemed distasteful in its indulgence.
That sentiment lasted all of two years. What followed was a decade of unbridled consumerism that resulted in a roughly tenfold increase in LVMH’s stock value and a billion-dollar valuation of Supreme, a brand that emblematized the value system of a next kind of luxury. The Western rich came back in force, followed by the rise of the newly minted aspirational consumer from China. It’s also the period when hype culture truly kicked in, fueled by the Instagram-hip-hop industrial complex.
Some say that this time it will be different; that we did not suffer a health crisis that shuttered factories that produce clothes and stores that sell them. I beg to differ, for two simple reasons: people are resilient and their attention spans are short. If they weren’t, people wouldn’t continue to live on the sides of active volcanoes (or in San Francisco).
I exaggerate only to make a point — as a civilization, we are remarkably adept at both rebuilding and closing our eyes to potential disasters. Each and every time humanity gets from under a crisis and the question of satisfying basic needs becomes less immediate, the question of satisfying emotional needs grows in importance. And that’s where fashion, along with hype culture, comes in — it speaks to human emotion, mostly that of satisfying desire or quenching aspirational thirst.
Fashion executives know this. In a recent Business of Fashion survey, two-thirds of them said they are not worried about the long-term impact of the virus. And the sneaker reseller marketplace StockX hasn’t missed a beat.
In my quest to understand why people consume hype, I have yet to see a better theory than one of conspicuous consumption the sociologist Thorstein Veblen offered over 120 years ago. His basic postulate was that people consume in order to signal their status to the rest of society. Fashion executives may be wondering whether to produce anything for next season at all, but there is no shortage of luxury goods out there — according to the Economist, even in a good season, most luxury brands move just over half of their stock at regular price. After a season ends, the unsold stuff gets offloaded to outlets or discount retailers, or it’s burned.
If all of this is making you sick right now, as you watch humanity’s existential struggle and are wondering at the utter pointlessness of your overflowing, futile closet, don’t worry — this feeling will pass, and you may find yourself salivating at the next Sacai x Nike sneaker sooner than you think. We’ve been here before.