STREETWEAR IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

23 Apr 2020

Disclaimer: As it turns out, the scary and unsettling byproducts of pandemics aren’t just limited to unstoppable viruses and contagions. The movies conveniently leave out the parts about not being able to hug your grandparents or anti-Asian racism or that glaring bit about half the population losing their job, their purpose, and identities. Maybe these side effects just don’t compare to the umbra of grisly death, but portions of this feel like a living hell. So, let me preface this essay by remarking that Life and health are most valuable and worth fighting for. After that, the economy (which, is also a public health issue) must be salvaged and redefined. When human beings are being trampled by a merciless disease, streetwear is inconsequential. Yet, for many of us, streetwear is inextricable from life itself. It’s our livelihood and recreation. It’s our people and point of view. And so, the conversation must be had. How does streetwear continue and prosper in a pandemic?

—X—

Earlier this morning, we released a collaboration with Animaniacs, the irreverent ‘90s Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s looking like this will be the most successful drop in the 17-year history of our company, but we aren’t surprised for a couple reasons. For one, we’ve been down this road before. If you read my book, you’ll remember that we worked with Animaniacs on a smaller collection in the fall of 2017. The anecdote puts a bow on a series of trials The Hundreds survived as we re-established ourselves amongst a new generation of customers and competitors. And, like many businesses at the time, we were pivoting harder into our online sales over physical retail.

The afternoon of that first Animaniacs release, we broke the news to our San Francisco staff that we’d be closing our Union Square flagship after a decade. Mere hours later, Ben and I sat at the hotel bar and tugged at the Shopify app, refreshing the escalating Online Shop sales as The Hundreds X Animaniacs unleashed to the world. While one chapter was closing, another was unfurling into an open frontier. By ending my memoir with this story, I was not only memorializing a turning point for the brand but documenting what that digital segue meant for greater streetwear, the fashion marketplace, and the global economy. However, I was still convinced that while e-commerce would continue to eat up the majority of transactions, actual stores were necessary for introducing one’s product to niche markets, providing a face to the brand, and designating a grounds for culture to flourish. I refused to envision a world where retailers were absent (especially with the community-powered streetwear that I championed).

By February of 2020, I didn’t have to use my imagination. On the 17th, I half-jokingly tweeted: “If streetwear really dies this year, it’ll be because of the coronavirus.” Many businesses, like ours, who rely on overseas manufacturers, had already been dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19 since the New Year. With production stalled in Chinese factories and travel restrictions clamping down, there were brows furrowing across the industry. Would our Summer collections arrive on time? Can we get to Fashion Week? What most of us failed to foresee were the ensuing stay-at-home lockdowns, how they would shutter wholesale accounts worldwide and chill future seasonal bookings. Soon those questions unraveled into, “Will people ever shop in stores again? By the time there’s an appetite for it, which retailers will have survived?”

I’ve been sitting on this essay for weeks, waiting for the ground to stop shaking before I give an assessment on how streetwear best fits into the new normal. But, the tremors are relentless, the new normal is yet to be normalized, and it will be years – if not decades – before we have clarity and see this thing for what it is. Therefore, I’ll begin by addressing what streetwear was, then perhaps we can get to a place of what it is, before I make an attempt to hypothesize what it might be.

—X—

For the last couple decades, streetwear captured the imagination of youth culture, larger fashion, and the entrepreneurial generation for three reasons: authenticity, roots in community, and artistry. Streetwear’s recent, mainstream appeal foamed as a Veblen good – where scarcity and scrappiness collide with image and luxury. But, as I like to say, “Streetwear without culture is just fashion.” The special distinction – that X-factor – that separates Streetwear from anything else out there is the personalities involved. There’s a heritage to heed. An attitude to traffic in. It can’t be explained, it can hardly be earned. But these are the social nuances we picked up by hanging out at stores.

Although the digital forum has amplified streetwear, most of us can trace our formative beginnings to a specific shop (or shops). Even if we didn’t have access to a streetwear store, we were well versed in the language and politics of these underground spaces. Ben and I learned much of streetwear’s ins and outs by hanging out in the smoky backrooms of SSUR in New York or Brooklyn Projects on Melrose. We read A-ron’s GLOB on the aNYthing site. The generation prior to ours can tell you tales about Behind the Post Office in San Diego, Animal Farm in Miami, or Union NY. Kids today can speak on watching the Round Two show on YouTube or lining up at Supreme on Fairfax.

Regardless of generation and geography, streetwear stores are a breeding grounds for creative youth to gather and share ideas. They are clubhouses but also laboratories. If you’re a disaffected square-peg, it’s hard to dwell in these rooms without daydreaming about your own future brand. If the biggest labels and shops are architected by unpolished artists (not savvy businessmen), then “I can do it too.” Thus, shops are also incubators. Just some of the relevant figures who used to work in – or hang out at – our stores: Dillon Francis, designer Danielle Guizio, Luka Sabbat, artist Matt McCormick and Odd Future. Some went on to build their own brands like Quinn from The Good Company and Joshua Vides. Even if they weren’t associated with our brand, the shops gave the kids somewhere to go: to skate, to smoke, to make friends and make lives.

Streetwear was also founded on airtight branding principles. I can’t pinpoint where exactly this stems from, but perhaps it has to do with New York coolguy elitism, streetwear’s love affair with luxury, or Japan’s self-restraint. Regardless, the name of the game has forever been longevity. Discipline over dollars. Forsaking immediate gratitude for the promise and potential of a lasting legacy. We learned a lot by watching brands like Supreme and A Bathing Ape. They were meticulous about treating run-of-the-mill T-shirts as art pieces instead of disposable goods. This shit was meant to last forever. The distribution models reflected this degree of control and care. Limited wholesale, if any. Even tighter runs on production.

—X—

As soon as LA locked its doors in March, we went on sale. Most small businesses are sitting on enough cash reserves to last them a month or two (for restaurants, it’s half that). The Hundreds has no investors – it’s still just Ben and I – so there’s no pillow to catch our fall. We were already watching our European pre-books for The Hundreds’ end-of-the-year collections stutter and knew the worst wouldn’t hit us until this Fall or Winter. We had to shore up immediately, downshifting to conserve fuel anywhere we could in the business while making money to buy the most important commodity of all: time. The restrictions were changing as fast as developments around the virus. With the goalposts moving every morning, we knew the window of opportunity was shrinking. The staff started working from home, our sewers began making masks, and the warehouse moved at a glacial pace by following safety protocol. But at any moment, COVID-19 could shut us down entirely and so we went from planning for tomorrow to focusing on today.

Streetwear is all about brand-building, and brand-building is all about maintenance and endurance. But, what if you don’t have 50 years anymore – you have 50 days? You are suddenly unfettered by the usual creative restraints. You now have the latitude to say Yes without the fear of long-term repercussions. You can go on Sale, you can make the edition unlimited. And go ahead, lean into that guilty pleasure. This is a time of no judgment. Nobody is watching. Everyone is more concerned with shoveling water out of their own boat than laughing at your leak. So, take advantage of this rare moment to experiment, think freely, and stretch the limits of brand and business. How would you play your favorite game if you could re-write the rules in your favor? You now have the permission to do that.

Amongst business experts, there is one word that sits on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Survive. If you can tough it out, if you can be here this time next year, you will win by virtue of attrition. Even if it means making compromises or unnatural moves with the business. Nothing is natural anymore, relatively little makes sense. When you’re trying to outrun a tsunami, you’re not self-conscious of style points. You’ll dance once you’re on higher ground.

—X—

I have no idea what business will look like in a month, let alone a year. But, like every self-appointed expert these days, I can doodle some guesses. One thing is for certain: if you weren’t a DTC (direct-to-consumer) brand already, you are now. Perhaps we would’ve transitioned all commerce online at some point in the next five to ten years, but the coronavirus expedited this shift to a Ready Player One virtual existence literally overnight. ESPN is broadcasting e-sports, classes are held in grids onscreen, and live DJ battles are experienced together on our phones. Even if this isn’t a permanent change, we are getting a hard glimpse into what the future could be. And for many – like companies who are finding success with WFH and parents who see the fruits of homeschooling – this could be an awakening.

There will be lesser stores in the future and even fewer of those being streetwear boutiques. In many ways, the American economy never fully recovered from the 2008 recession and any veteran physical retailer can attest to that. So, the ones who do bloom post-pandemic will need to prove themselves as marketing vehicles above all else, which in itself will make leases a luxury for larger companies. Once shoppers and shopkeepers are accustomed to the convenience of buying specialty pieces online, it will be hard to unring that bell. It’ll be an uphill battle to motivate customers to IRL shop again, so shops must be re-imagined as communal spaces, art galleries, or lounges. Just like how restaurants have transformed into grocery stores (with some making more money selling produce than they did serving dinner), maybe clothing stores will also be where you dry clean your clothes, source the materials to produce your own, or re-sell them. Sometimes, we are so tunnel-visioned as to product and purpose. We allow a brand to be classified as one thing or a store to sell one type of way. What if it we didn’t look at it as a streetwear store, but as a black box theater? A gaming café? A workspace or day care center? What if it were all those things?

This is where streetwear excels, because for most streetwear boutiques, it was always about the culture over the clothing. Looping around to a point I made earlier, these stores were essentially clubhouses, so why not take it literally? Shops can survive by turning into social houses with memberships. Once you’re admitted, you have access to workstations to print shirts for your own brand, attend speaking events, or skate the ramp out back. Oh, and maybe you’ll be inclined to buy a shirt or two while you’re there.

Or not. Why relegate streetwear to, well, streetwear? Streetwear’s advantage is that the lifestyle comes first, so you can sell any genre of product against it. The kids just need somewhere to go and something to congregate around. For all of those headscratchers wondering why a high-schooler would sleep on the sidewalk to re-sell some sneakers, they don’t see the relational bonds that come from that experience or the social badges that come from being a player in the game. It can be Nikes or hoodies but streetwear can also be bananas and computer parts. Streetwear is the most adaptive and responsive industry out there. Yes, we sell T-shirts, but we can also sell you a brick.

And we can sell it to you online, over Twitch, through our app, or a text. Direct-to-consumer doesn’t just stop with sales. It encompasses marketing, cultivating trust, and most importantly, community building. Lockdowns may not last forever but society may be hesitant to re-enter the outside world anytime soon. That means designers and brands will have to meet their customers through technology, and I’m not just talking about an intrusive IG Live or a 40-minute Zoom session. Travis Scott is doing a live performance on Fortnite as I write this. Faze Clan is ruling YouTube, e-sports, and NTWRK drops. For those of you who have been texting my personal number (323) 310-2844 since December, you may have noticed more personalities telling you to save their contact. The next generation of SMS marketing is being beta-tested by a few different apps and will change the social conversation by the end of 2020. It’s the anti-algorithm – less mass and more personalized. Ideal for a generation exhausted by targeted ads and disingenuous influencers.

—X—

If you recall from the start of my essay, I was saying that we weren’t surprised by the success of our Animaniacs collab for two reasons. The second reason we expected this project to sell through is that outside of wholesale stoppage, our online business has been weathering the storm. At first, we thought it was a fluke. Maybe buying patterns would change once customers lost jobs. Yet, they continue to hold steady. It reminds me once more of the 2008 recession and how our business was largely insulated from the crash. In fact, it wasn’t until 2-3 years later that we saw sales slump (and I’m not sure if that had as much to do with the economy as it did with brand fatigue). At the time, we assumed that if it weren’t for the economic downturn, we could have gotten even bigger (but in hindsight, we were peaking at our max, with or without a recession). My theory remains, whether back then or a decade later, that our young clientele are generally unrattled by world events in comparison to their parents, and their shopping patterns are evidence. Not that they’re sociopathic or ignorant. They just see the problem from a different angle.

The first couple weeks of stay-at-home in Los Angeles, I was texting my followers about how they felt regarding the coronavirus. I have thousands of contacts but only a handful expressed alarm over the virus ravaging Italy at the time. I’m not sure if it’s because they considered it (errantly) an “old person’s disease” or because of lack of awareness, but most of my fans were instead fixated on when the Blue the Great collaboration was dropping or if I could critique their brand. This didn’t sync up with what I was experiencing in my immediate world as the news spun out of control and my neighbors drew their curtains shut. It was another two weeks before I saw a rise in texts on the subject matter of COVID-19, but even then, the dialogue was less distressed as it was with my peers.

One of my customers Terrence confided, “I lost my job today, so to make myself feel better, I bought some clothes.”

“Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that man,” I texted back. “I appreciate your support, but you need to take care of yourself right now.”

“Thanks Bobby, I understand where you’re coming from. But, this is how I take care of myself. I love The Hundreds.”

I was reminded of how old I am and how I’d lost sight of what it means to be 19, spirited, and invincible. Although COVID-19 can infect anyone’s health, regardless of age, it really can be an “old person’s disease” when it comes to mindset. As I get older, I’m more attuned to my body’s aches and pains. I am constantly fretting about my children’s well-being. I stress about the news like Kevin’s dad at the breakfast table in The Wonder Years, except I do it all day long. And I compare notes and anxieties with other responsible grown-ups. All of these serve as daily reminders of mortality and finiteness. Terrence, meanwhile, is infinite.

The reason why streetwear will prevail is because its fate is in the hands of young survivors. This generation was born in the fire, and so this new chaos is another puzzle to solve. So far, these kids have outlasted the recession, school shootings, devastating climate change, and a polarized nation. Now they are ripped from their schools and friendships in the most formative years. They are watching their grandparents die from afar. Yet, this generation is also the bravest, the most inspired and impassioned, because they know nothing else but disillusionment and struggle. While my childhood was wrapped in Happy Meals and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, these kids were born on 9/11. Streetwear is their playground, their blank canvas to throw paint at. Streetwear isn’t inconsequential, but for them, the problems associated with it are. They’ll be the first ones to get back in line to support the retailers. They’ll build brands ABOUT this. Like I said in my last essay, the Streetwear generation is about regeneration. Pivoting and adaptation are what we do.

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Finally, what about design? After the last recession, streetwear toned down its flamboyance. There was a short hiccup where Americana menswear took center stage in streetwear retailers. Basic chambrays and selvedge denim silenced heavy logos and fleece. We couldn’t sell a graphic T-shirt for the life of us. It was all about neutrals, blanks, and miminalism. I’ll argue, however, that you won’t see the same trends emerge this time around because the same gatekeepers aren’t dictating what’s getting made.

In the early 2010s, e-commerce and DTC were still not commonplace and so brands were dependent on retailers to carry their goods. Store buyers ultimately – and confusingly – called the shots on what got designed and produced in the marketplace. Since they theoretically knew their customer best, they bought according to their insight and the brands either catered to that or forewent the dollars. So when the recession struck, shop owners transferred that fear onto the brands. They declared that It wasn’t the appropriate time to experiment with design. The buyers played it safe by curating conservative stock. The designers tempered their artistic expression with universally appealing collections.

In the new world, the consumers are in control. There is no middleman who determines what’s best for the brand or the customer. As long as the customer feels adventurous, adventurous design will be supported. Likewise, if the customer gets scared, design will play it safe. For the time being – and I can only speak for today – the customer is still active and engaged. How that sustains is contingent on how this virus manifests and how the leaders in charge respond.

But, we’ll take it for now.

—X—

That’s the overarching thesis here. Nobody knows what’s happening now, let alone where this is headed next. Most experts didn’t see a pandemic coming. They are just as speculative as to where it’s going. Accordingly, my essay might be moot if a vaccine is discovered tomorrow or COVID-19 is found to be most transmissible through Jordans or a meteor hits our planet. All I do know is that until now, we managed our best to live under the illusion of structure and predictability when life has proven to be anything but. This time, it’s just different because we all got up-ended by the same thing at the same time. But life was never a straight line – there are car crashes and heartbreaks and bad sushi that can upset our night, our months, our entire lives. Yet, somehow, we adapt to the circumstances, say goodbye to yesterday and accept the morning. Every single day.

It’s funny. In some ways, streetwear is a virus in itself. It’s novel and innovative. It needs a receptive host to share it with a community. It’s infectious and resilient and mutates over generations. And although it comes and goes in waves, no matter what the world throws at it, it’s almost impossible to extinguish. It survives.

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