Takashi MurakamiComplexCon 2019 Long Beach

Try as they might to fight it, there’s a bit of ennui permeating streetwear right now.

Maybe it was the corporate sponsorships and ubiquitous partnerships, or maybe it’s the $400 “vintage” windbreakers and $120 canvas totes, but diminished enthusiasm was apparent at Complex Media’s fourth annual ComplexCon in Long Beach, Calif., this year. Essentially a fancy flea market for hypebeasts, albeit one that does in the low tens of millions of dollars in product sales, many owners of brands that paid to be at this year’s event openly wondered about the future of the subculture-turned-industry, and how meaningful a presence at such an event is. Especially when larger, corporate brands are now taking up much of the space in hopes of not necessarily generating sales, but simply being seen by a younger male shopper they’re desperate to appeal to.

“These things are best when the true authentic brands are here,” Mike Cherman, founder of Chinatown Market, said. While he admitted that some huge brands have the authentic strain he’s talking about, like Nike and Puma (which he partnered with this year and in previous years), plenty of others participating do not. 

“It gets lost in the sauce,” he added. “The corporate guys come in, the big money comes in, and it dilutes it all.”

The consumer has changed, too. “Inherently, the first people to get in here are the kids selling s–t, they’re just spending to make money,” Cherman said. But even among those that aren’t lining up simply to buy all they can and resell at a profit, they’ve changed, too, in only a few years. 

“A lot of kids these days are buying stuff to fit in,” he added. “Before, I guess it wasn’t like that. It was truly simple, just like, I do my thing, this is me. It’s a follower thing now. I see it with our brand, many things we’re doing, where kids wanna have that shirt, the thing that will represent me as that guy. And you know, that’s kinda what it is nowadays.”

Cherman is in full support of any brand doing big business, but it seems maintaining a purity around the underground cool-factor that breaks out any streetwear brand is impossible in today’s market.

“It’s become mainstream culture,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that the next step is the mainstream. A lot of people have trouble dealing with that because they think ‘How do I stay authentic?’ ‘How do I stay cool?’ But there’s authenticity in your thing becoming big.” 

The big money was certainly apparent at ComplexCon this year, with some smaller brands noting the event has become just as much about networking with corporations for future partnerships and consulting work as it is about getting some face time with shoppers.

Amex was a first-time partner, offering exclusive “perks” for card-holders; Call of Duty, the interactive war simulation game from gaming giant Activision, was another sponsor and was offering game play in a huge space; Old Spice was a sponsor, too, as was Canon. The only apparel sponsor of the event was Puma, which launched a reissue of its Eighties’ jogger the Rider, along with an updated version of the same shoe. Its booth was also very large and had carnival games alongside a customization area operated by Chinatown Market, and among the sponsors it was by far the busiest all day.

But overall, everyone WWD spoke with noted how this year’s event was significantly less busy than last year or the year before, and the few booths operated by artists were essentially empty all weekend.

“I think it’s been a little bit toned down,” Bijan Sosnowski, a buyer for Ubiq, noted. “The consumer has changed even within the four years [ComplexCon has been happening].”

But a weekend of booming sales isn’t everyone’s goal, at least not among the larger corporate brands. Even with the apparent business happening in the main Puma booth, Bob Philion, the brand’s president of North America, said retail is only one part of what the brand is looking for.

“It’s also about lighting that brand fire,” Philion said. “When you come to ComplexCon, you want to leave with some social currency.”

As for partnering with a company like Chinatown Market, he said there’s “absolutely a coolness factor” Puma is tapping into, but also getting in front of a new consumer who isn’t into the brand or isn’t aware of its heritage, styles from which Puma will be working into its lineup more and more.

Whitney Parks, who leads integrated marketing in the U.S. for Reebok said the brand’s booth this year, its second, saw people stay for an average of 12 minutes. Reebok had high-profile collaborations this year with Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, and celebrities like Pharrell Williams, Allen Iverson and Usher stopped at the booth.

“It’s about sales and presence,” Parks said. “What we learned [earlier this year at ComplexCon] Chicago was that we want to have a fun consumer engagement piece to bring consumers in and let them have fun.”

Silvio Leonardi, a senior vice president of Timex, expressed similar sentiment.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to get in touch with the consumers that most of the time are not even wearing a watch,” Leonardi said. “The most important thing is not how many units we’ve sold or having the booth crowded. The most important thing for us is to talk with these people and understand what they are thinking about it, even if they have ideas or suggestions.”

Nevertheless, Timex was present in four booths, including watch product with Pac-Man, Greats and The Good Company, all of which sold out over the weekend, according to Leonardi.   

However, the young men (and it was pretty much only men in their late teens to early 30s running around) at ComplexCon almost exclusively queued up to only a few booths: Billionaire Boys Club, cofounded by Pharrell Williams; Atmos; Chinatown Market; Rhude; PacSun’s multibrand booth, including Fear of God; Sneaker Room and its Nike collaboration on a Kyrie 5 sneaker; and both booths offering Takashi Murakami product, his own Kaikai Kiki gallery and then Los Angeles-themed Complex merch.

At the start of the first day, Murakami — flanked by four cartoon mascots and himself wearing a gigantic stuffed hat, having just flown in from a show of his work in Sydney, Australia, and in the middle of fasting — mentioned how much of his own work now, from art to commercial product, is actually dictated by youth culture.  

“Communication, social media, the data, it’s in everything,” Murakami, also the artistic director of ComplexCon for the past few years, said. “If social stops, I can’t do anything.”

Murakami had left ComplexCon by the early afternoon, when lines for his cardboard Brillo boxes, posters and Swarovski crystal-encrusted skate decks grew hundreds of people deep.

There were several smaller brands at ComplexCon for the first time this year who were grateful for the exposure, even if they were not fortunate enough to be doing Murakami-level business.

Quinn Arneson, cofounder of New York’s The Good Company, sees ComplexCon as a growth opportunity.

“We come from a very independent standpoint,” Arneson said. “We’re trying to open up, not be so closed off to these kinds of spaces.”

Brenda Equihua, founder of her eponymous line of jackets and hoodies in a blanket-style fabric and one of the few women-led brands at ComplexCon this year, admitted that “it’s a very male-dominated event.” But she was still “excited” to be at ComplexCon, if only to help “pave the way for other female artists and designers.”

Despite getting a lot of influence from Mexican-style street art in and around Los Angeles, Equihua flat out refuses to define her brand as streetwear.

“I don’t like to be labeled as anything,” she explained. “I want to be able to create whatever I like.”

Uzumaki Cepeda, who brought her colorful faux fur pieces this year, her third at ComplexCon, said simply: “People buy whatever is hype.”

That sentiment of “streetwear” becoming almost taboo seems to get at the heart of what others in the industry are feeling about what once was the “new thing” in fashion — it’s becoming the old thing. It’s too commercial, too focused on T-shirts and hype, that a young designer doesn’t even want to be associated with it.

Matthew Henson, a stylist for the likes of A$AP Rocky, didn’t mince words during a panel discussion over the weekend. Even though he said there are still some “bright spots” among new brands, overall, he noted a lack of originality, the outright copying of ideas, as streetwear’s biggest problem.

“We should be respecting one another’s ideas. That will bring back a different energy to our industry that’s been missing for such a long time,” Henson said. “It’s so homogenized and it’s so commercial. There used to be a real energy in streetwear and men’s wear and it’s changed. It’s a little boring.”

For More, See:

Nike Coming Back (Sort of) for ComplexCon Long Beach 2019

Luxury Brands Seek Streetwear Fountain of Youth in China

Streetwear Losing Steam as Tailored Makes a Comeback

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