LONG BEACH, CALIF. — “Walk, don’t run,” security barked. Too late.
Long Beach Convention Center staff on Saturday let flow a steady trickle of people for Day One of ComplexCon, hoping to control the crowds that rushed the entrance earlier in the morning — first at 10 a.m. when doors opened for VIP ticket holders, and then again an hour later for general admission. The frenzy to get in line for exclusive merchandise dropping nearly every hour across the two-day event was coupled with celebrity appearances, music performances from N.E.R.D. and Gucci Mane among others, skate demonstrations, raffles and panel discussions. It was as much about culture as it was a lesson in where streetwear and retail are headed.
“As someone who comes out of 25 years of this business, this is not a normal scenario that [brands are] playing as cooperatively, and I think that’s the most exciting thing about this: the acknowledgement of the consumer base and serving them rather than this competitive nature,” said ComplexCon creator Marc Eckō. “I respect allegiance to the brand, but allegiance to the audience? That’s what’s powerful about [ComplexCon].”
If lines out the door for exclusive product weren’t proof enough of the demand, the numbers can’t be argued. Passes to the event — weekend ($400) and one-day tickets ($75 to $100) — were sold out. Attendance across both days was estimated to be around 50,000 as of Monday afternoon, which is up from 35,000 last year. Some $20 million to $25 million dollars worth of product was sold on the show floor.
“The category is no longer emerging. It’s mainstream,” said Justin Leonard, who exhibited Raised, his basketball apparel line that’s just been picked up by Foot Locker. “And its success is predicated on everyone’s ability to put good ideas out there. There’s no ceiling to it.”
Growth within the streetwear category has usually been tricky, and companies have had to balance scaling the business with keeping a firm grip on distribution to avoid “selling out.” But ComplexCon depicted the breadth of the industry and the customer, who might most relate to the entrepreneurial spirit of VaynerMedia’s Gary Vaynerchuk, who was at the K-Swiss booth Sunday afternoon to promote his sneaker tie-up with the brand, or the creative zeal of Virgil Abloh, who toggled between screen printing T-shirts at his Off-White activation and giving talks and Master Classes at Nike’s.
“I feel weird naming brands [I like] because then it makes it official that that’s my favorite,” said Jessi Joplin, who came to ComplexCon for the first time with friend Alaska Mangialetto. “I like the independents who are now showing at these types of trade shows that we wouldn’t really see otherwise. They’re just starting out.”
“There’s an art element, too, which I would put the gold star on because that was my pull [to attend],” added Mangialetto, who said she shops online and, like Joplin, prefers smaller brands and items made by her friends.
“The category is becoming more dynamic,” said Steve Aoki, who is a case study in dynamism, what with his own line and record label, Dim Mak, his investment in Vision Streetwear and his recent deal with Asics. “There is room for everyone. There will always be your consistent anchor brands like Supreme, but people want to see new ideas and hear a message they can connect with.”
Larger brands such as Nike, Adidas and Puma had a big presence, but they didn’t swallow up smaller companies including Bodega, Union, Ripndip and Pintrill that were very thoughtful about the build-outs, activations and product releases, which drew large crowds as well.
What this event means for the rest of the industry is still to be determined, but retailers and brands have taken notice. In October Barneys New York partnered with Highsnobiety on Thedrop@barneys, a two-day event with exclusive releases, designer appearances and panel discussions.
“I think people will copy this format. I think they’ve already started to. I think people are going to start going more consumer-facing in an effort to sustain frankly,” Eckō said. “I don’t know that this could be sustainable for a year-round business per se. I think to bring this level of energy at this scale the way that the brands activate, you have to go continent by continent. I don’t know that the next ComplexCon could happen in America.”
Eckō went on to say it’s possible the next iteration could very well be in London, Amsterdam or Barcelona, although he tempered the thought saying it’s too early to confirm anything.
Here, WWD highlights the key themes that came up throughout the event.
Streetwear’s Pathways to Growth: Retail Stores and Private Label
Colette cofounder Sarah Andelman, who sat on the committee of advisors this year per a request from Pharrell Williams, brought her Parisian concept shop to the weekend festival.
Ever the merchant, tidying up displays while fielding questions, Andelman said that while ComplexCon reflects where retail is, it’s what’s happening in combination with good product.
“We did this 20 years ago. We had music. It’s what we have always done, so maybe shops realize ‘I have to do more than just products on a rack,’” Andelman said. “But now I go to a shop and I see someone cooking cakes and I find it a bit ridiculous that they force it. So long as you have good products. This is the first thing: having a good, curated selection.”
While Andelman and her mother Colette Roussaux are shutting down their landmark Paris to focus on consulting — she said there are no plans to develop another bricks-and-mortar concept — retail in the streetwear and sneaker sector is proliferating and companies are taking regional concepts to different cities.
“In our world, retail is not dead,” said Julie Hogg, managing director of Wish Atlanta, a streetwear boutique in Atlanta. “We can’t compare ourselves to normal retail because our turnaround is so quick. We had a fantastic year.”
Wish is adding on to its store with a gallery and performance space and building up its in-house line. Union, a men’s store based in Los Angeles, is launching its private label this year and opening a store in Tokyo, while Bodega, a sneaker and streetwear store out of Boston, will make its way to Los Angeles before the year is over. Sneakersnstuff, the Swedish sneaker retailer that’s been in business for almost two decades and had a booth at ComplexCon, is entering the U.S. with a New York store that’s slated to open in December and a Los Angeles store in the works for next year, as reported.
“It’s about the hype,” said Ryan O’Connor, founder and designer of men’s line Ripndip, when asked why the store is still important for his brand. “Being an online store and throwing events was cool, but we wanted to offer more of an experience than just retail.”
Ripndip is currently operating a New York pop-up and took out a six-month lease for a shop in Los Angeles on Fairfax, which O’Connor has extended. For 2018 he will tour Asia with a series of activations.
The Cycle of Collaborations, Drops and Reselling
“The line has turned into the club,” said Chris Gibbs, the owner of Union, while speaking on the Drop Science panel that was held on Saturday and featured Jerry Lorenzo from Fear of God, Kevin Le from A Bathing Ape, Deon Point from Concepts and Racks Hogan, a vocal reseller.
Gibbs had unsuccessfully attempted to thwart lines outside of his booth at ComplexCon by utilizing the Frenzy app, a product from Shopify that’s aimed at helping retailers and brands with drops and the challenges that come with long lines, which have become a gift and a curse for all parties involved. Brands are utilizing everything from ticketing systems to raffles to scavenger hunts to solve the problem, but it hasn’t been figured out entirely.
“Business has been good this past year, but not great,” said Gibbs. “Of course Jordans are going to sell out, but what are we selling tomorrow when you don’t have the limited-edition capsule? I just want to sell a nice pair of chinos and that’s a hard business right now.”
For brands, these collaborations and drops are a lot to keep up with, but they’re fueling the business. Mikey Trapstar, the creative director of streetwear brand Trapstar London, said sales spiked this year and he credited that to the small capsules he released almost every week.
Benjamin Jacobs, the managing partner of Fools Gold, a record label and clothing line founded by deejays and producers Alain Macklovitch, better known as A-Trak, and Nick Catchdubs, said event-based drops change a customer’s perception of the product.
“We can have the same product in the store and there won’t be lines, but as soon as we connect product to an event or a pop-up, they line up,” said Jacobs. “People want stuff that signifies a moment in time.”
Another beneficiary of the increased drops is the resale market, which was out in full force during the festival. Ebay and Stockx, a platform for buying and selling sneakers and streetwear, both hosted spaces. Ebay was even helping some attendees shoot pictures of products they had just bought to then post for sale on the site. Independent resellers, the ones who actually stand in line to procure items, were also walking the show floor.
The overall consensus among brands and retailers was that the resale market is just a part of the business — Le from A Bathing Ape said it helps inform what the brand should do more or less of — and there isn’t much they can do about it. Hogan, who told an audience he once flipped a product that retailed for $35 for $1,900, had his own solutions for the madness around drops.
“I like first come first serve. I think that’s the fairest,” he told the crowd. “If you want my opinion about this raffle or ticket system and you having to know Congress or get a pardon from Obama type s— to get clothes, I don’t like that s—. I get it’s about safety, but I also look at it from the standpoint that stores and companies control how they release their product. I’m totally for putting out more of the product, but I’m also for making it easier to access. If you are going to put it out on Saturday, save a little more to put out on Wednesday.”
The Supreme Effect
Supreme did not take out a booth at ComplexCon, but the brand’s logo was everywhere and its recent deal with the Carlyle Group, which spent $500 million dollars for a 50 percent stake in the business, was top of mind for the industry.
O’Connor’s Ripndip was one of the brand’s industry sources highlighted as a contender for investment post the Supreme deal, and O’Connor, who has no outside help, said he would be open to it.
“I would love more help with the logistical stuff,” said O’Connor. “I have been designing clothes for 10 years and I want to evolve the brand. I want to do a festival or a carnival. I’m ready to not have to deal with the operations.”
Eckō is familiar with these types of deals. In 2009, his streetwear line Eckō Unlimited generated over $1 billion on global revenue and that same year Iconix Brand Group paid $109 million for a 51 percent stake in the company. It acquired full ownership in May 2013.
“I don’t know what their business plan is,” Eckō said when asked whether the Supreme deal could spark greater interest in outside businesses looking to be in on the streetwear business. “I experienced it with my business back in the day which was pre-TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] and pre-the financial crisis when you could leverage, with a lot of bank leverage and inventory financing, you could grow. You can’t really play those games anymore post-2008. For Supreme, [which] wants to scale and do more, I think it’s just a natural order of things and I think luxury is being reorganized.”
Whether lifestyle brands, such as those in streetwear, can grow to be $500 million or $1 billion brands in the days prior to the Great Recession, remains to be seen, but Eckō questioned if that’s even the point for many of these founders and their brands.
“I think the point might be the longtail and the IP value — sustaining longtail IP value and healthy growth,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s about revving up and playing the markets like that. I don’t know what Carlyle and Supreme’s strategy is. Perhaps they’re looking at it as a great EBITDA business with a little more muscularity around retail. They’ve proven any time they’ve invested in retail they get a good ROI, so even if they grew just 30 percent on their retail stores, it’s still a very small, modest but perhaps strong business.”
Gibbs, who used to work for Supreme, said he was surprised by the deal: he never thought James Jebbia, who founded the brand, would have sold any of it. And he’s not sure the impact it will have on the streetwear landscape.
“I honestly have no idea if that deal will affect me in any way down the line. I run my business the way I want to run it. I don’t really have a very big peripheral view of what someone else is doing per se,” he said. “With that said, a lot of my associates think it will be good for our industry because they think that people that are into Supreme might feel like they sold out and will go to look for the peripheral brands, or it brings more eyes to our whole kind of marketplace. So either way they think it’s a good thing.”