13 June 2018

Streetwear’s rapid rise (and what comes next)

Courier visits the company in Berlin that saw it all coming to talk about the big business of making anything cool.

From afar it was easy to mistake it for just another high-end auction. Looking closely, however, those in attendance were not suited and bespectacled but young and urban, plenty still with braces on their teeth, and plenty more in baseball caps and hoodies.

Staged at a gilded mansion just off the Champs-Élysées in May, this was no typical auction. Titled C.R.E.A.M – after Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 single ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’ – what was later billed as ‘the first street culture sale’ had made news around the world. The cult skate and clothing brand Supreme had stormed the auction house as well as Paris, the home of couture fashion, and the collectibility of streetwear’s first billion-dollar company showed no sign of slowing down.

Supreme’s logo – a simple red rectangle inscribed with its name in white text – has become one of the most coveted symbols not just in streetwear but in fashion. At the auction, it was there on the t-shirt that went for £1,402; it was there on the punching bag that fetched over £17,997; it was there on the biggest-ticket item, a Louis Vuitton x Supreme trunk, that was snapped up for £78,600. All in, sales totalled £742,117 – over $1m – doubling pre-sale expectations.

‘Streetwear has its moment’ ran the headline in Bloomberg the next day. In fact, streetwear has had many moments in the past few months. But just when everyone thinks it can’t get any bigger, somehow it does.

Louis Vuitton x Supreme trunk.

What started as a bunch of young guys obsessing over cult skateboarding and clothing brands that no one else had heard of has evolved into an international style phenomenon. The baggy t-shirts and tracksuits typically loved by teenagers have fought a path onto the runway. Luxury fashion has been forced to concede and join forces with brands that ignore their rules.

Streetwear has many definitions, but most people agree the industry is sustained by hype and crazy resale prices, with customers queuing around the block for hours in anticipation of the latest product ‘drop’ and, sometimes, later selling on whatever limited-edition sneaker or hoodie they’ve bought for vastly greater amounts online.

Fame, though, holds many challenges. How will streetwear’s leaders cope with the pressure of their businesses going global? And how can an industry built on the allure of exclusivity and authenticity stay cool when it’s become so visibly profitable?

Mr Streetwear

David Fischer is one of most powerful and longest-serving players in streetwear today. Yet not even he predicted its startling transformation. In 2005 he founded a blog about sneakers, Highsnobiety, which has since grown into a publishing giant and lifestyle brand that has become the go-to source of information about the latest streetwear and product launches. But Fischer, who still runs the company, wouldn’t necessarily refer to it as the global media brand many have come to recognise it as; he thinks of Highsnobiety more as a ‘space’.

‘Because we do so many things these days, I don’t think of us as one thing over another,’ he says, fresh-faced and wearing a camo overshirt, jeans and baseball hat. His circular, wire-framed glasses are the only non-streetwear item he adorns. ‘From the beginning,’ he continues, ‘I never thought Highsnobiety could become a viable business. It started as an obsession.’

Today, with around nine million unique visitors a month, Highsnobiety publishes more news than is possibly healthy about forthcoming trends in fashion and popular culture.

The Highsnobiety team also curates an online shopping tool, What Drops Now, and two years ago launched a creative production agency called Highsnobiety Plus, with clients ranging from Nike to Mercedes-Benz. Then there’s the podcast, a bi-annual magazine and Taps, its new video feature similar to the stories format made popular by Snapchat and Instagram. The list goes on.

The company’s main office is in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district and is modestly sized for an organisation that has disrupted fashion media. Boxes of rare sneakers and limited edition tees are piled up on the floor. Framed photos of rappers and influencers the company has collaborated with hang on the walls.

Highsnobiety’s logo – a black wax seal with a white, crown-shaped emblem in the middle – greets visitors and perhaps nods to the company’s view of itself as the lofty older brother of content producers that cover all-things-streetwear. Although its main rival, Hypebeast, might disagree; it, too, having grown from a sneaker blog into a loud and unignorable voice in culture media at around the same pace.

When selling cool wasn’t easy

Nothing about Highsnobiety was planned in advance, its success a coincidence of hard work and good timing. When it began 13 years ago, newly-graduated Fischer was working full time for a design firm that specialised in corporate packaging.

It was ‘pretty boring,’ according to Fischer, who was then living in Geneva, Switzerland, with his parents, ‘but at least it was easy. I could continue posting on my blog before work, during lunch breaks and also in the evenings.’

He didn’t stick around in the job for long, leaving to go full-time on the blog. ‘I gave myself two years to make it a success,’ he says.

David Fischer of Highsnobiety.

Working relentlessly – single-handedly posting news about the streetwear industry up to 30 times a day – he quickly started earning a couple of hundred dollars a month as advertising trickled in, often from the companies he was writing about. ‘I’d begin at 11am and wouldn’t stop until 5am the next day. Seven. Days. A. Week!’ he says. ‘It was fun discovering things other people hadn’t understood to be cool yet. At the end of every day, I was sad to go to bed.’

(He was sometimes sad to go on holiday, too: ‘I’m not the kind of guy who loves sitting on the beach. Except for my honeymoon, I’ve never been on a vacation where I haven’t worked every day.’)

Two years on, Highsnobiety was growing but not quickly enough for Fischer to fully believe it could become a big business. The site was receiving one or two thousand hits on a good day and making no more than £1,500 a month. ‘People weren’t into streetwear in a widespread way back then,’ he says. ‘Nobody recognised what it could be.’

Streetwear culture was much bigger in the US and Japan. Today you can trace a straight line back from global labels such as A Bathing Ape in Tokyo and Palace in London to streetwear culture in California through to one man: Shawn Stüssy, who founded one of the earliest labels in the 1980s, catering to the subcultures of surfing, skate and punk.

Other brands followed, and as hip hop evolved from an underground music scene to a chart-topping genre, with stars worth millions appearing on stage decked out in attention-grabbing tracksuits and trainers, streetwear’s casual aesthetic was thrown into the spotlight.

By and large, though, streetwear remained relatively under the radar. Most luxury brands weren’t interested in the aesthetic. When Supreme launched a skateboard with Louis Vuitton’s logo slapped on it in 2000, the luxury French fashion house issued a cease-and-desist letter.

But that dynamic began to change around a decade ago, when the streetwear look started being seen on catwalks and in collections of designers such as Givenchy and Raf Simons. Even so, streetwear only truly became mainstream in the past few years.

‘It was a completely different world when I started Highsnobiety,’ says Fischer. ‘Men’s fashion was generally considered ridiculous. When people found out you worked in that industry they were like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” My parents thought I was crazy, too.’

One evening at dinner with a group of friends in Geneva, Fischer realised he was the only person at the table who didn’t work in private banking. ‘They wore shirts and Tod’s. I was in similar clothes to the ones I’m in today. But nobody got this style back then,’ he recalls. ‘I had to get out of Geneva. It made sense to take Highsnobiety someplace else.’

Time to grow up

Until Highsnobiety moved to Berlin in 2009, Fischer had no business plan. In fact, he had no business plan until a few months ago.

It’s a remarkable state of affairs for a company with revenue growing 100% year-on-year for the past three years; with offices in Berlin, London and New York; with well over a million euros sitting in the bank doing nothing – ‘I manage with quite a cushion, otherwise things fuck up,’ says Fischer, giving an insight into his laid-back attitude to business.

He always wanted the company to grow but that was pretty much the extent of his thinking. ‘That’s all changed now,’ he says breaking into a smile. ‘We want world domination. No, not really – but as of recently we always have to have a plan.’

He is referring to Highsnobiety’s first round of external funding: in January, Felix, a UK-based venture capital firm, invested £6.4m in the company. When asked if great wealth comes with great responsibility, Fischer replies: ‘We have a great working relationship with Felix but yes, for sure. We’ve had to do a bit of growing up.’

(Seemingly without stifling creativity. At an editorial meeting during Courier’s visit, a large penis drawn in black marker pen was proudly displayed on a flipchart, alongside other more traditional ideas for a new company logo.)

As Highsnobiety rapidly expands and grows up, or at least tries to – after all, the majority of its employees are in their early twenties and some still in their teens, mirroring the demographic of its readers – the rest of the streetwear industry seems to be following suit.

Last year, Stadium Goods, the US streetwear and sneaker resale store and e-commerce site, secured nearly £3.4m in new equity funding from Forerunner Ventures (who also back Warby Parker) and the Chernin Group.

Then, in February, the European luxury group LVMH bought a minority stake for an undisclosed amount. No wonder the company, and its physical store in lower Manhattan, where wall-mounted, cellophane-wrapped Nikes can go for upwards of $30,000, has been described as ‘Tiffany’s for sneakerheads’ by the New York Times.

More recently, Canadian online retailer Ssense, which pioneered selling luxury streetwear to millennials, opened its first physical shop in Montréal: a vast, five-floor structure designed by the British architect David Chipperfield. The company’s next aim is to become a billion-dollar global business.

But perhaps the biggest streetwear moment of all came late last year when Supreme sold a 50% stake in its business to the Carlyle Group – and became a billion-dollar company.

From sneakers to spaghetti

The vast amount of venture capital currently being pumped into the industry makes it inevitable that many streetwear brands are set to become a lot bigger.

Companies such as Carlyle, Felix Capital and LVMH don’t have time to waste investing in cool brands that want to remain cult forever. And yet the kind of global growth and universal availability they demand runs counter to streetwear’s ethos: mining what is considered niche and hyping commodities with a limited supply.

According to a venture capitalist who has invested in big streetwear brands, this isn’t a problem. ‘Streetwear remains largely untarnished because it has genuine credibility. Many of these companies have successfully built up their brand over years and years, for long periods out of the mainstream spotlight. Now, because these brands are so authentic, they have the flexibility to move into different markets. [As an investor] I don’t care if they stick to clothing or go off and do something different entirely.’

Mizuno x Highsnobiety collaboration.

Perhaps, then, a more interesting question to focus on is not whether streetwear is about to sell out, but what will it evolve into next?

Considering some of the left-field projects Highsnobiety is working on, it remains anyone’s guess. ‘Recently, we’ve been working on projects involving gummy bears and spaghetti,’ Fischer explains. ‘I had a meeting with a spaghetti brand which wants to collaborate with us on a launch.

‘We were coming up with ridiculous plans: one included making videos of rappers cooking pasta with their mothers; another to launch a clothing line with spaghetti camouflage. Anything can be made cool, really. And there will always be a creative class putting out the next cool product that comes to us for support.’

Of course, there are other, less offbeat markets still to explore fully. Speaking recently to the Financial Times about the future of high fashion, Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, said, ‘The emphasis has gone from quality and craftsmanship into the uniqueness of the product.’ Which goes some way to explaining why high fashion is so keen to appropriate streetwear.

‘Luxury is a lot more inclusive these days,’ says Jeff Carvalho, the managing director of Highsnobiety. ‘And the market for us to expand into is bigger than ever. We were probably the first people to put Louis Vuitton and a sneaker on the same page. Today, the circle is complete.’

Highsnobiety’s sometimes dizzying future plans include: significantly expanding its e-commerce offering; a deep-dive into Asia, initially with the launch of its Japanese-language site and social channels; releasing more longform video; and, most ambitiously, regularly creating its own Highsnobiety-branded clothing and products.

‘Only recently,’ says Fischer, typically upbeat for someone at the centre of an industry that thrives on hype, ‘has it dawned on me that maybe the potential for companies like mine and streetwear in general is limitless.’

He pauses, adjusting his cap.

‘We’re making stuff we’re proud of but not taking anything for granted. I mean, last month my former boss in Geneva got in touch out of the blue. The first thing she said was, “David, I can’t believe you’re still doing this!”’

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