On December 10, in a Complex News special, reporter Emily Oberg interviewed several of the hundreds of people waiting outside the Supreme store, a New York-based clothing and accessories brand, for their fall/winter release. The line was about four blocks long, with many customers dozing off in chairs; they all wore articles of clothing from past Supreme releases. When Oberg asked one of the customers what he was going to get, he said, “I think the brand is so [freaking] powerful it’s making me buy a [freaking] crowbar.”
“So you’ve been waiting ten hours to buy a crowbar that says Supreme?” Oberg responded.
“Oh I didn’t even know it said Supreme. I just wanted the [freaking] crowbar.”
The Supreme store attracts almost the same crowd every few months. Hundreds wait hours to buy simple Hanes T-shirts with a boxed logo for sixty dollars and cotton hoodies for almost two hundred dollars. They always sell out.
Supreme was one of the first brands to exploit hype culture, the idea that rarity and brand name could allow them to not only sell their merchandise way above market value, but also create huge resale markets, something that Nike helped create back in the 80s with their Jordan line. So began a new era in fashion, better known as “streetwear,” an era during which product availability and name trumped quality and design, an era fueled by young adults who have fallen victim to hype culture.
Hype culture is similar to attending an Ivy League school; while there may be some differences in the quality of education compared to other universities, it is the right to say “I attended Princeton” or “I attended Harvard” that drives many people to apply. Brands like Off-white, Pyrex Vision, and Hood by Air can charge customers two hundred to three hundred dollars for a simple printed tee, a tee that can be bought at department stores for about twenty dollars. It’s basic economics: the rarer a product is and the more popular the brand, the greater demand there is for the product. In fact, the majority of “hypebeasts”—Swarthmore College Daily Gazette defines “hypebeasts” as people “decked in urban wear solely for the purposes of impressing others”—never touch any of their wares. Instead, they help fund the multi-million resale market. They wait diligently in line, buy their shoes for retail price, and then sell immediately for sometimes triple or quadruple the original price. One infamous example is the Nike Air Yeezy Red October, which had a retail price of two hundred dollars. The average price to buy one is now about two thousand dollars.
So why don’t all limited releases have that high of a resale price, or even sell out? Recently, musicians and non-athletic celebrities have played a massive role in sneaker marketing. Brands like New Balance, Asics, even Adidas, brands that a decade ago could never match Nike’s control of the market, have been gaining massive amounts of publicity from their association with rappers. The most notorious example is Kanye West, who recently started working with Adidas to create his new Yeezy line. Nike first used Kanye’s influence to sell their Air Yeezy line, but only sneakerheads really knew that much about the release. Now, every single Adidas Yeezy release garners hundreds of thousands of diehard Kanye followers and even people who have never thought of spending two hundred or more on a sneaker. When Kanye wore the flyknit trainers, a general release shoe that was on clearance, thousands of avid fans instantly bought the sneakers: the price jumped to about six hundred and now floats between three and five hundred. Artists like Kanye, Drake, and A$AP Rocky help these companies appeal to fans who normally would not be interested in sneakers; they make big name corporations even bigger by attaching a persona behind the product, a culture to the shoe. Diehard fans want to emulate their idols and will even go so far as buying all the clothes their idols wear. Young designers like Gianni Mora and Virgil Abloh broke into the fashion scene when rappers such as Chief Keef, Wiz Khalifa, and A$AP Rocky wore their merchandise. Virgil now charges almost three hundred for a hoodie and Gianni Mora sells basic hats for sixty dollars.
Most would now think hype culture is just a circle of following and exploitation, a community of consumers blindly imitating celebrities, trying to be “hip” and avant-garde. But hype culture has allowed the younger generation, the common people, to be a part of the once exclusive fashion scene. Retail stores like H&M and Urban Outfitters make lower quality versions of sought-after and overpriced merchandise for the general public to buy. Smaller brands take inspiration from popular merchandise and produce new designs. This pattern of copy and create not only leads to the emergence of startups and artists, but also mistakes that help progress the understanding of fashion. Much of Raf Simon’s designs gained major recognition throughout the streetwear community, with brands like Cav Empt and even Uniqlo taking inspiration from them.
Like all innovations, hype culture has built upon the pre-existing fashion world by linking it to the Kanye fan, the Peter Saville expert, and the average skater. Even though it suffers from mindless consumerism, it is ultimately a reflection of the progressive world, a world in which everyone and everything is connected.