What NFTs Can Learn from Streetwear

11 Oct 2021

Like I say in my book, it’s impossible to define a point in time when “streetwear” was born. No matter where you begin the streetwear story, you start in the middle. There was always an act of resistance that preceded it, an artistic defiance of a system. “Streetwear” is also understood as different things to different people by generation and geography. It can be the New York hip-hop brands of the ‘80s, it might mean Stüssy beach culture or Diamond skate luxury. Streetwear can be Nike or secondhand shops like Round Two. I’ve even seen athleisure brands co-opt the title. But, the larger mainstream now classifies streetwear as casual sportswear/workwear aligned with a scarcity mindset, elitist attitude, and “hype” marketing vis-à-vis Veblen goods. Much of the appeal comes by way of heightened social status. Streetwear is a subcultural badge, a coolguy co-sign, a blue-check on a lapel.

For the last decade, streetwear brands – most notably New York-based Supreme – set the tone for how a brand could stay culturally relevant, artistic and innovative, and still be a capitalist machine. The frenzied line-ups, the collaborations, and the celebrity endorsements galvanized an entire generation of entrepreneurs to be the Supremes of their own industry, whether it was fashion or food or farming. Business startups that were not only motivated by money, but by Cool and Clout, took pages out of the streetwear book: make the product in limited editions, do “drops” that immediately sell out to rouse froth and FOMO, and play into the resale market (without acknowledging it exists). Of course, streetwear learned much of this from high fashion and niche collectibles, but its twist was that it made it “cool,” youthful, and accessible on a street level. Like rap music, pop culture glommed onto streetwear and now, social hierarchy isn’t defined solely by money or class, but access to the underground and the validation of teenaged gatekeepers*.

*This probably has a lot to do with how social media corralled us all into the same room when it comes to the right music to listen to, the most up-to-date slang, and the right brands to endorse. Can you think of any other time in history when grown adults cared so much about keeping pace with a teenager?

In fact, crypto might be one of the most significant cultural trends of the last ten years that isn’t influenced by adolescents at all. NFTs appear to be of little interest to many teenagers. The stocks/trading features might be unappetizing (most young people live for the moment and aren’t champing at the bit to invest), the collectibles side of it can only be appreciated by men and women who are old enough to be nostalgic about hording something. But, there is the art and status element that has tractor-beamed a younger generation in. And so, it only follows that they’ll desire – if not expect – their favorite streetwear brands to follow.

The longer I play in crypto, it’s hard to ignore NFTs’ parallels with – if not direct inspiration from – streetwear on both the design and social fronts. Scott Sasso, pioneering founder of 10Deep, agrees. “It all looks and feels like 2005, 2006 streetwear. All these start-ups of dorky, cartoon-themed PFPs and building a community around those things.” As a status symbol, NFTs are metaverse fashion identifiers. OG sneakerhead Franalations says, “Early on, camping out and stuff, you’d see this box logo or this Neighborhood collab and that to me was a badge, showing you were there, at that place at that time, you knew about that release then. And that’s pretty much what NFTs are designed to do and show.” Steven Vasilev, co-founder of RTFKT, goes further, “NFTs are bigger than just streetwear. For the past 200 years, people have been buying physical items to show their status and now you can have a (Crypto)Punk which is a digital Lamborghini.”

Although streetwear can learn much from the decentralization and technological capabilities afforded by NFTs, this essay is to suggest that NFTs can learn from the success and travails that streetwear’s experienced along its journey. The overarching message is that Culture and Community must outweigh the transactional aspects of the game. Although quick flips and trading are essential to collectibles culture, they cannot become the only thing that drives a project. Once that happens – and there are signals that this is already a rampant attitude in the NFT space – the players will move on to the next soulless gadget. Sneakers, art, watches, BMWs and vintage T-shirts, I get it. In 2021, everyone is now an investor. But, do we want all things fun, creative, and tradeable to feel and emote as stocks? In their current iteration, NFTs can only hold the world’s attention for so long before they’re distracted by the next shiny object. That is, unless, the NFT is grounded in something irreplicable and irreplaceable: long-standing rewards and enduring benefits that are human and meaningful. Much more than a generic financial gain.

One of my concerns (of a few!) with NFTs is that even before they’ve gone mainstream, many newcomers are already looking to them as investment pieces first and art pieces or cultural artifacts second (community membership third?). When thousands of ordinary people are becoming overnight millionaires by selling cartoon jpegs, spun through the amplification and acceleration of social media, it’s no surprise that the dollar signs in eyeballs obstruct the deeper intent and purpose of blockchain art.

Streetwear, conversely, had a good decade of runway to build the artistic appreciation and cultural foundation before re-selling stole the narrative. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, a sneaker messageboard called Niketalk was the precursor to the crypto Discords of today (the difference would now be that every Niketalk member can set up their own Niketalks for their personalized audiences. This is as overwhelming as it sounds!). Although flipping sneakers was an active and vital part of the culture, we didn’t have the infrastructure to facilitate the volume of transactions you see in 2021. eBay, Craigslist, and Yahoo Japan were the only online marketplaces to buy and sell other people’s shoes, but most collectors were wary of scams and sharing their identity and credit card information over the Internet (sound familiar, NFTers?). Niketalk, therefore, was a forum to share news on releases at concrete retailers, discuss the art and product design, and socialize with other likeminded collectors. In fact, most of the action took place in the General Forum, which barely touched on the topics of sneakers at all. The rare Nike retros brought the people together, but their real lives intertwined around more mundane conversations. And instead of only focusing on re-selling, it was habit for Niketalk members to don and crease their shoes in the “What Did You Wear Today?” thread. The status came not in the money profited off the item, but that you were informed about – and could locate and access – the sneakers in the first place. If you had done the homework to find the right retailer, waited in line, and ponied up the retail price for the Nikes, stomping around in SB Dunks or Wovens were as good as a fancy PFP today.

Because we had this window of time to lay the roots of sneaker culture, even as it’s become a billion-dollar industry boosted by re-sellers and secondary marketplaces like StockX, the shoe game sustains because it is moored to a legitimate history and lore. Even if you never break the box open before you ship shoes out to the next flipper, it’s taught that Tinker Hatfield or Hiroshi Fujiwara left their mark on the leather, and that their opinions and repertoire offer meaning to sneakers as art. What happens when the brands fail to tout the value of artist-led design and cultural energy? This morning, Complex reported that a Nike internal meeting worried that their core customers were leaving for smaller, independent brands because of a lack of emotional connection. “We’re gonna shape the marketplace to reflect the community we serve… so that we actually show and we actually give equity and inclusion to the communities that have been gentrified out and alienated by the resale market.” Nike acknowledges the critical function of culture in upholding sales and growth. “High heat, hype is ‘killing the culture’.” Vasilev of RTFKT emphasizes this point as a driving reason for their NFTs’ success: “One of the key points is culture. That’s why everything we do, we introduce new artists.” Earlier this year, RTFKT collaborated with NFT wunderkind FEWOCiOUS on a $3 million drop, selling out their virtual sneaker editions at $3,000, $5,000, and $10,000.

Speaking of which, the most glaring void in NFTs is the lack of collaborations. Meanwhile, streetwear understands all too well that collaborations not only fuel hype but lend cohesion to a stable marketplace. The reason being that collaborations build trust. And brand-building is all about cultivating faith with the customers*. Streetwear, in its early days, was devoid of any type of fraternity outside of its neighborhood cells, and so, the good secret stayed relatively secret. Okay, fine, streetwear was much cooler before outsiders could access it, let alone learn about it. But, once brands reached across the Internet to find each other (think The Hundreds meets Mighty Healthy and Married to the Mob over cold emails) and work together, we built a taller stage to perform. Collaborations not only served our wallets, but it bridged our worlds and unified our customers. Most importantly, it dispelled suspicion and forged trust with curious shoppers. “If these two names believe in each other/streetwear, then I believe in them/it too.”

*Brand-building is also about cultivating faith between the customers. It’s a social contract where everyone miraculously agrees that a made-up brand is, like, an actual, valuable thing now.

NFTs are still in the dark ages, quite figuratively. Crypto anonymity adds a thicker layer of apprehension and anxiety. With higher stakes at play, the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) is very real. Like early streetwear, many NFT collectors and leaders hide behind pseudonyms (on Niketalk: Dirtylicious, Swoshmn) and most NFT artists and brands are isolated in tribes (one of streetwear’s first brands was Tribal from San Diego). The New York Times columnist David Brooks defines tribalism as the antithesis of community and in the case of NFTs, this is accurate if you look at the space between Discords and the gaps within crypto society. That is why many collectors get so excited when celebrities, brands, and even institutions thumbs-up NFTs. These are warm, entrusted, and recognizable faces that say, “It’s okay. I’m here in the dark with you.” I’m not saying founders need to reveal their identities (it was several years before Ben and I published a photograph of ourselves. Some streetwear designers like Zac FTP still hide their faces), but the NFT world must continue to work on building trust not only with their own communities, but between. Collaborations between brands, projects, and designers can be the tissue that binds.

In November of 2017, ComplexCon hosted its second annual streetwear convention in Long Beach, California. The year prior, ComplexCon was an undeniable success, inviting thousands of young people from around the world to experience their favorite brands in their environments. But, ComplexCon 2 leaned too far into the re-selling side of sneakers and streetwear. Instead of a skate ramp or a gallery, eBay was the centerpiece of the arena as a main sponsor. There was more marketing emphasis placed on exclusive Nike shoe drops than around the designers and artists who made them. And as a result, the attendees were motivated by flipping more than participating in – or supporting – the culture of streetwear. Resellers got into fights, booths were shut down over violence. And the following year, ComplexCon corrected back to a more measured balance between transactional and experiential. Today, streetwear and sneakers are bigger than ever and ComplexCon continues to be the leading world’s fair for all things street culture (in fact, the next show returns November 6-7. Buy your tickets today!).

Of all the similarities between NFTs and streetwear, there are just as many differences. One of the biggest being that the cycles and timelines are expedited by technology and crypto’s volatile nature. Fashion operates on a hyperactive schedule of hills and valleys, but trends can often subsist for years. Meanwhile, NFTs have survived a couple market dips just in the last six months alone and the outfacing trends have thrived and died on the vine. As Scott Sasso referenced earlier, sometimes I look around at all these cartoon profile-picture NFT projects and am struck by the memory of streetwear designs in the early 2000s. In that era, every designer and brand followed each other down the path of colorful characters and illustrated graphics. Once the market had its fill, it only took a few settlers to upset the trend by banding together and responding to the status quo with a contrary aesthetic. The next chapter of streetwear went dark and minimal with graphic designs. If there were pictures on T-shirts and hoodies, they were photography-based, typography driven, and starkly literal. The Americana trend of men’s fashion and then streetwear’s first turns on the Paris runway expunged the graphics entirely. Fifteen years later, cartoony T-shirts have returned to streetwear but only because the audience has expanded so wide, every style and genre can be accommodated. And now, those Adjective Animals as I like to call them (A Bathing Ape, Pink Dolphin, Rare Panther) have reincarnated as NFT collectibles (Bored Apes, Cool Cats, Pudgy Penguins). It makes sense when you remember that the people designing these NFTs also grew up wearing the early streetwear labels.

In my opinion, NFTs in their current aesthetic – not in their utility or purpose – won’t last as the predominant artistic representation of collectibles. I don’t exactly know what this means for existing NFTs when these tokens are burned onto the blockchain forever, but I can foresee a next chapter where the visual assets have to adapt and update to match a contemporary trend in the space. Or maybe they will be used to unlock a 2.0. What we do know already is that photography NFTs (see Dave Krugman, John Knopf) are already gaining traction. And that some projects are experimenting with more video and motion. If we’ve learned anything from NFTs this year, it’s to not be married to the present state and understanding of technology. On October 11, 2021, NFTs are cute Adjective Animal trading cards that are weighed against each other by a third party’s rarity ranking score. They offer very little real-world utility or purpose outside of the potential for trading gains, social identity, and access to a community. But on October 12, 2021? That can all be easily disrupted by new settlers, by an artist waiting in the wings with a brave, opposing idea, or a turn in the technology that allows for futures unimagined.

With our project, Adam Bomb Squad, we’d rather prepare for maps with no roads than a roadmap. Streetwear taught us about the power of community and culture. Streetwear revealed the secret of collaborations. But, the greatest thing we learned from streetwear – that we are applying to our NFTs – is that nothing lasts forever and tomorrow is uncharted. Trends will rock this market. Ethereum will go in and out. The survivors are the ones who improvise through the droughts. The winners know to adapt to the terrain. And the last brands standing are founded on a rock solid core, rich with history and relationships. Fashion and NFTs go out of style, but people never do.

“It’s still cash-grab season, but cash-grab season is gonna end. And people are gonna have to provide the substance,” Scott says in the final minutes of our call. “People think it’s all the same thing, but it’s not gonna be. And the paths forward are gonna be very different.”

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