LONG BEACH, CALIF. — How does one define streetwear in 2018?
As WWD reported at last year’s ComplexCon, the category has broadened and diversified, making the definition harder to pin down. But Jeff Staple, founder of Staple Pigeon, which he’s operated for more than two decades, offered his own answer: “Streetwear is independent creators doing something that they want without the notion of investment and financial gain. It’s passion first and money will follow. Most other apparel businesses are about how do we make money and now let’s come up with a brand name and concept that supports that. With streetwear it’s, ‘I want to do my craft and make money later.'”
If ComplexCon is any indication, corporate brands are doing whatever they can to harness the passion emanating from streetwear and connect with youth culture. The two-day event, which took place at the Long Beach Convention Center this past weekend, merged shopping with celebrity appearances, musical performances and panel discussions. McDonald’s had a sizable booth, as did Cadillac, Hennessy, and networks including HBO and Showtime set up activations. MGM Studios built a boxing ring to promote the November release of “Creed II” starring Michael B. Jordan, who made an appearance.
“There’s definitely a lot of bigger brands representing, which turns it into something different than the first year. I feel like the first year it felt more authentically streetwear because authentic streetwear is about up-and-coming brands,” said Beth Gibbs, who owns the women’s streetwear line Bephie and runs Union with her husband, Chris Gibbs. “I feel like Cadillac and McDonald’s have made it more of an amusement park. They have more money to make the interactive part more of an experience. I haven’t been to those booths so I don’t know what they’re offering, but they obviously have money to offer something that smaller brands can’t, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just different.”
Chris Gibbs believes corporate involvement is fine as long as the companies are connecting with the customer in an authentic way.
“I’m not sure what they’re doing from an activation level, but you have to engage with the customer properly,” said Gibbs. “Some brands get it, whether it’s the smallest streetwear brand or a really big corporate brand, and some brands don’t. But if they are engaging properly then why not be involved?”
Corporate involvement shows how big and financially viable the category has become. But this type of growth typically leads to questions about when the bubble will burst, which most exhibitors and designers thought was a silly notion.
“When I hear the bubble is going to burst, I hear it from older people. But streetwear is not the same thing as it was in the Nineties,” said Steven Harrington, an artist and skater who resonates with the streetwear community and collaborated with Aape on a capsule collection for ComplexCon. “Today it’s a big mashup of stuff. The younger folks are creating a new path and streetwear is the pulse of culture. Where is that going?”
Attendance across the two-day event was 60,000, up from 50,000 a year ago, according to ComplexCon event director Neil Wright. Attendees paid $300 for a VIP weekend pass or $100 for a two-day general admission wristband.
Last year, vendors closed in on sales of $20 million to $25 million. Wright, on Monday, declined to discuss how much this year’s event generated, saying it was too early to call before adding, “Having the diverse mix of experiential and transactional, it may have brought that [figure] down. But definitely anyone who was on the show floor was extremely busy and toward midday a lot of brands were sold out of products so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was comparable to [last year].”
Some vendors made efforts to quell last year’s frenzy of consumers pushing one another and running to get to drops. Ebay, which previously worked with Stadium Goods at ComplexCon and allowed attendees to sell sneakers on site from its platform, switched things up this year by partnering with artist Joshua Vides on an experiential booth that was less about selling and more about creating and giving back.
Adidas, Extra Butter and the ComplexCon gift shop were among vendors that utilized app-based ordering systems that allowed for purchasing through the app for later shipping or pick-up elsewhere in the convention center.
Still, these changes didn’t stop The Diamond Supply Co. x Nike SB Diamond Dunk release from being shut down on Saturday minutes after general admission holders began trickling in. Sunday brought more security and metal line dividers, but the crowd still couldn’t be contained and sales were once again shut down.
“There is a lot of frenzy here. But I think the kids love this energy,” said Staple. “I don’t think it’s the most conducive way to shop, but whoever can find a medium between the energy of ComplexCon and the more subdued nature of Hypefest is going to be the winner. There are pros and cons to both, but I think anyone who is born after 1980 can only handle a couple of hours here.”
Here are highlights of the key themes at the event.
Collaborations, Strategies Evolve
In order for corporate brands to connect with this community, they need a vehicle to do so, and younger brands and designers no longer seemed too worried about lending their influence to multiple bigger companies at the same time as a means to scale.
Pin line Pintrill, for example, partnered with 25 different brands at ComplexCon including Guess, Reebok, Daily Paper and Urban Decay and also ran their own booth. Artist Joshua Vides worked with eBay and Herschel. Chinatown Market, a streetwear brand based in Los Angeles that was fresh from a partnership and activation with Original Penguin in London, had tie-ins with at least 10 brands including Timex, Howlin’ Rays, Foot Locker, The Hundreds and Puma.
“People might think it’s a lot, but I just think it’s fun to do,” said Chinatown Market founder Mike Cherman, who came to ComplexCon last year with one employee and now has a team of 16. “But each of these partnerships has a different voice. With Original Penguin it was taking something not cool in the market and making it cool for a regular guy. I’m not always designing for the Chinatown Market customer or the fashion customer.”
When asked what his growth plans were for 2019, Staple said he wants to remain consistent.
“I take a really long view. I just want to remain consistent and evolve ever so slightly around that,” said Staple. “With Chinatown Market, they are trying to be as many things to as many people in the shortest time possible. And that’s not a knock. He’s just trying to get his, which is dope. But I’m investing in the next decade and I don’t think a lot of streetwear entrepreneurs are thinking in that time frame. They are thinking what am I going to do this summer.”
Joseph Robinson of Joe Freshgoods designed T-shirts for Urban Outfitters, McDonald’s and the ComplexCon gift shop. He didn’t buy a booth at the event, but he did open a pop-up that was within walking distance of the Long Beach Convention Center. Robinson compared young streetwear designers to high school and college basketball players and the bigger brands to recruiters or sports agents.
“This year I worked with a lot of people to show my range, but I’m starting to be more selective about who I work with now,” said Robinson. “Walking through ComplexCon is like walking through the Internet and people pitching you in real life. I should have just set up a booth that didn’t sell anything but said, ‘Hey, Joe, Let’s collab.'”
Robinson, who has avoided wholesale, said he’s ensuring brands understand his value by not agreeing to one-off projects, only committing to exclusive partnerships for short periods of time, and trying to partner in ways that benefit him and his community in Chicago.
The power these designers hold has meant corporate brands are relinquishing more control.
“They have no choice,” said Tracey Mills, who used to work for Kanye West, Von Dutch and Ed Hardy and now has his own line, Visitor on Earth. “Unlike my generation, this generation has social media and these kids know their worth. If they want to appeal to our demographic now, the partnerships have to be more 50-50.”
Mills debuted his collection with PacSun, Not of this Earth, at the event. PacSun also sold exclusive pieces from Jerry Lorenzo’s Essentials collection that included a pair of Converse sneakers — Lorenzo recently jumped from Vans to Nike and has been able to maintain the same footwear distribution at PacSun. Heron Preston and Jabari “Jacuzzi” Furry also introduced their new PacSun line Basketball Skateboards. Each of these designers has a foot in the luxury world. Mills’ Visitor on Earth, for example, is carried at Barneys New York.
Companies looking to align themselves with influencers also see the model evolving.
“It’ll shift. In the last few years, it’s been about influencers doing collaborations and limited drops,” said K-Swiss global marketing director Patrick Buchanan. “That model will have to evolve and change. There’s only so much you can continue to drip feed people.”
And just as brands are being strategic when it comes to collaborations, the same mentality is being applied to distribution to avoid brand dilution.
“There’s a great medium where you can be huge and massive,” said Ripndip’s Ryan O’Connor. “Our in-line stuff, those are sold everywhere around the world, but then you drop in special capsules throughout the year that are super limited to keep the core fans happy.”
Ripndip’s ice cream truck carries pieces exclusive to the vehicle. That’s another way, O’Connor said, to be smart and not diminish the value of the brand.
“Adidas and Nike, they do a great job at keeping themselves relevant with small artists and brands to keep the hype going. But you can also get Nikes anywhere. You can walk out your door and get Nikes or Adidas, but you see people looking at this screen,” O’Connor said from the ComplexCon floor, pointing to one of several Adidas augmented reality stations that facilitated product drops, “because they know there’s only 1,000 pairs made.”
Luxury and the Street’s Mainstreaming
Although luxury brands have embraced streetwear, they’ve yet to participate in ComplexCon in full force. Officials earlier this year confirmed Dior to the show floor and later retracted the news after learning they were duped by an organization they were led to believe was working on behalf of the luxury house.
The prospects and acceptance, if that news had been true, would have continued the conversation around luxury and the broader fashion industry’s tourism into what was once a sub-culture and now begs the question of who needs whom more in the crossover of two seemingly different worlds.
When partnering is done correctly, no one’s really using the other, some would posit.
“It’s a win-win for both collaborators,” said Tommy Hilfiger. “Supreme-Louis Vuitton, in a sense, was great for both. I think the Kith-Tommy collaboration was epic for us, but it was also a win for Kith. They sold out within a few hours. We did a collaboration with Vetements that was incredibly successful. Every time we do these collaborations, we evolve the brand more and make the brand more relevant with the youth culture.”
Hilfiger, who gave a talk with his brother Andy on Saturday about his brand’s alignment with hip-hop, said ComplexCon was a good study for him on the younger consumer.
“For me, it’s learning more about the culture and understanding the brands that most of the Generation Z and Millennials are attracted to, how they shop, where they shop and why they shop,” Hilfiger said. “It’s a great learning experience on many different levels for me.”
Certainly, from endemic brands’ perspectives, luxury opens the doors to much larger platforms on which their art or other work can be seen.
The brand 4Hunnid, with headquarters in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, will for the first time be sold at Barneys beginning Friday. The company, started by rapper YG (né Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson), showed for the first time at ComplexCon this year with a swap meet-inspired buildout in a nod to the team’s days in the South Central swap meet. No one’s looking to forget the past, even when larger brands come knocking, pointed out 4Hunnid creative director Gavin Mathieu.
“It’s about what the brand represents and what it is all about before we collaborate with anyone. For us, we’ll be at Barneys on Friday, so we can go to Barneys and we can play their game, or we can bring our game to Barneys.”
They’re going the latter route and they also cling to collaborations with their contemporaries, such as Pro Club, which Mathieu called an authentic streetwear brand and a partnering that in some ways holds greater weight than going outside the well.
“I mean, partnering with Louis Vuitton, all right — it’s another person trying to get that cosign.”
Artist Trevor Andrew, also known as Gucci Ghost, has done deals with Gucci, Reebok and more recently Live Nation. But he’s quick to point out those are deals struck on his terms.
“I do what I do. So I don’t know what’s on their [luxury’s] agenda and I never have and I never cared,” Andrew said. “People find me for what I do and I appreciate that. We can share. Even with the Gucci stuff, Alessandro [Michele] saw me. I wasn’t like Banksy. I was just me and he understood that. I love working with brands because it gives me a bigger infrastructure to tell people I want to do this. And I can dream as big as I want, but my main condition is don’t tell me what the f–k to do.”
Streetwear and the idea of coming from the streets and its open-door policy have meant the category has been generally open to the fashion establishment that once turned up its nose at it.
Tim Coppens decided to present his made-to-order outerwear capsule designed in collaboration with Woolmark at ComplexCon as opposed to wholesaling the line or showing it at during fashion week. The collection retails from $1,500 to $3,300. At one point, rap artist Vince Staples stopped by to get fitted for a coat. Coppens said he believes this customer is inundated with product and wants real exclusivity — Coppens is only making 10 pieces per style — and real craftsmanship. The company declined to say how many coats were pre-ordered but said they were happy with the event.
“I don’t think it’s relevant to put this collection on a model and have it flash by in five minutes and wholesale doesn’t always give you the ROI,” said Coppens. “I’m not new to what this is about, but it’s interesting to see how it evolves and it raises questions about real exclusivity.”
Staple believes that when people refer to the streetwear bubble bursting, or sneakers sales plateauing, they are probably referring to the luxury sector.
“The whole idea of people dressing head to toe in the most highest end designer brands like head-to-toe Off White, Balenciaga and Gucci — for that, I think there is a bubble. But for street culture as a whole, no,” said Staple.
Others, such as Diamond Supply founder Nick Tershay, see it in much broader terms.
“I just feel like there needs to be more brands that are popular,” Tershay said. “There should be more brands that people are excited about because people are going to get sick of the brands that are really doing it big right now. There are a lot of independent brands that just haven’t had their time yet and there’s a place for more brands. So I don’t think a bubble’s going to burst for streetwear; I just think it’s going to burst for certain brands.”
Interest around the category will remain hot, said Guess Inc. and Guess Jeans U.S.A. director of brand partnerships Nicolai Marciano as he looked out over a packed booth for the denim brand, which enjoyed steady lines for the company’s collaboration with London brand Places+Faces throughout the weekend.
“I think that now, because of Instagram and social media, what was a niche world, and a special exclusive thing is available to everyone in their phone,” Marciano said. “Now everyone wants to be a part of it. So I don’t see interest plateauing or going anywhere.”
The expansion of streetwear has also meant that food, wellness and beauty brands are forming adjacencies to the category.
“As streetwear grows, it’s also a much bigger economy than it was three years ago. I also think it’s evolving in other ways. We’ve always felt like streetwear wasn’t just about fashion. It’s a culture. So there’s a whole food court that’s just as considered as the apparel that’s in here. There’s art galleries and art here,” said Chris Gibbs. “So it’s evolving and becoming more 360, which I think is a good thing.”
In the food area, Sneakersnstuff worked with restaurant Sweet Chick on merchandise along with a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto Fried Chicken sandwich that was exclusive to ComplexCon. Takashi Murakami teamed with chef Kenji Oya on a Wagyu Flower burger that spurred long lines. Afters Ice Cream sold merchandise that spoofed Anti Anti Social Club and Off White. T-shirts that read “Anti Anti Diet Club” and “Off Diet.”
Sherbinskis, which describes itself as the fastest-growing premium cannabis lifestyle brand, introduced its new streetwear line at ComplexCon, which includes a leather moto jacket, coach jackets, hats and T-shirts, and sold its bespoke Nike Air Force 1 for $160. This spring the company will open a store on Fairfax in Los Angeles next to Supreme. It also plans to release new strains of marijuana in the same way streetwear brands release collections and collaborate with friends of the brand on capsules.
“It makes sense for us to move into the streetwear space, but it probably wouldn’t make sense for them to move in our space,” said Mario Sherbinskis, who cofounded the brand, which is now sold in dispensaries in California. “I think our line has the potential to make millions. We want to be in Barneys.”
Beauty brands had more of a presence this year. Urban Decay sold its Naked Cherry palette and offered attendees free tattoos, Italian streetwear label GCDS debuted its new cosmetics line within Kristen Noel Crawley’s KNC Beauty space, where she also sold her popular lip masks.
Basically, streetwear’s mainstreaming only continued this year, proliferating into an expansion and a full-on social studies project on what comprises the community with the proliferation of food, art and other related avenues at ComplexCon, proving the term is anything but simple.
“It’s really hard to say which direction it’s going,” Murakami said through a translator. “For example, Kanye keeps doing scandalous things and then people say ‘Oh, he’s over. He’s over.’ But then he shows up and has a hit music release once or twice a year.”
He pointed to the pre-Nineties when Japanese fashion was defined by Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and Issey Miyake. Designers at the time had to go to Paris to be heard in the world and speak in fashion’s language. In the early Nineties, the youth seized on screenprints and when Murakami came to New York during that decade, he witnessed the rise of Supreme and the T-shirt.
“That was the landscape of street fashion that I have in my mind,” he said. “Now, the street culture, the street fashion, is a little too complex for me to grasp.”