How Tumblr and Instagram are fuelling a new generation of online-only streetwear upstarts
As you read this, a young entrepreneur is starting a clothing brand online. He just signed up for a free Big Cartel page, mocked up a few designs and will now direct hordes of Tumblr and Instagram followers to make a purchase. For a £20 t-shirt, that can only be found on their website, why not?
“Brands align themselves with an online community that they feel a part of,” says Jonny Williams, the creator of Exit Left Apparel, an online brand that collaborates with a variety of artists Williams meets through Twitter. “Then they boom.” Take Cornelia Van Rijswijk, the Internet mastermind behind In Real Life London, who already had a distinct online presence when she decided to make and sell clothes. Van Rijswijk was big on the Witch House and Seapunk scenes, and has had so many Tumblrs that she struggles to remember their names. She began to capitalise on this fame with digital art pieces. When those started selling out, Van Rijswijk expanded to clothes. “It’s like a virus, isn’t it? You post one thing and then it’s out of your control,” she says. Van Rijswijk is now one of the online entrepreneurs profiting from millions of online followers around the world. She and the new generation of self-made brand ambassadors have built lifestyles and aesthetics through social media, and are now profiting from their taste. “There’s a lot more freedom [online]” Williams of ELA says. “It means that we can carry as much stock as we want and it doesn’t matter where it’s kept. We can have an unlimited amount of designs without having to worry about space and how many we get printed.”
That freedom also extends to online shoppers. As the creative individuals build lifestyles through social media, followers can now find the clothes to match their Internet dreams. URL designs are shipped in the mail to be worn IRL just weeks later. “That’s the thing with fashion – it should be about rebellion, but more than that it should be about choice,” Williams says. “This is your brand and it represents whatever the hell you want it to represent.” Unlike the intoxicating mystique that made the original streetwear brands like Supreme and Stüssy sought-after, online brands are by and for the people. “I want to be accessible to everyone who likes it,” Jessica Horwell of Hardware LDN says. “Obviously you’ve got to have a certain allure of the brand, but if you’re doing things like Instagram, you are exposing yourself.” Horwell’s designs range from “Whoreware” bras made of gold chains and leather gloves, to the classic logo tee, attracting both a niche market and a wider audience. Plus, her longtime friend and girl of the moment Cara Delevingne has been spotted wearing Hardware hats, instantly creating both hype and allure.
“I only make like maximum five of each item and I don’t introduce them back because I want the customer to have something that’s unique,” Van Rijswijk explains, on keeping the mystique alive. She thinks most internet products feel mass produced by nature but, “it’s all kind of a façade” she says. In actuality, her products, like those of Hardware LDN, are streetwear couture in that it's made to order. ELA even numbers their shirts by issue and batch so you know just how rare it is.
“I do this online because I want the people that really appreciate where it’s made and who it’s made by. That’s how I think I’m different,” says Van Rijswijk. “If there’s only five unique pieces, it makes it a lot more special. Unlike something that you can buy in any shop.”
Now remember the dude who started a company about 600 words ago? He just posted a picture of his first design and is already getting orders.