Queues for days, sell-out merchandise and thriving digital communities – but what inspires such worship?
A full version of this article appears in Protein’s New Spirituality Report. The report explores the way that, as the rigid categorisations that once defined identity begin to blur, people are seeking new ways to define their sense of self – register here to download your copy.
Devout worship, regular pilgrimage and the occasional bout of unhealthy fanaticism – over centuries these were the hallmarks of religious worship, a uniting range of actions for followers of different sects from different continents. Today, however, they are often the actions of a group of people who have come to be pejoratively or affectionately, known as ‘hypebeasts.’ But rather than temples or churches, their pilgrimages are to retail Meccas such as London’s Dover Street Market or Supreme’s store on Lafayette Street in New York. Devout worship still exists, but despite the beard, long locks and devilish good looks, that’s actually Alex Olson – Supreme skater and designer of Bianca Chandon – that your boyfriend is currently Googling, not Jesus. Welcome to the post-internet world of streetwear and cult brands. But how exactly did we get here?
Not every brand can develop a cult-like following in the manner that Supreme, London’s Palace, or Russian creative polymath Gosha Rubchinskiy has. In fact, these labels are very much an exception to the rule, prospering from a currency of cool that no marketing team or agency could fully recreate. Quite simply, it’s not what they do, but how they do it. Anyone can make a flannel shirt like Supreme do – Uniqlo have a number of fine ones – but you won’t see queues snaking outside their stores for them. More than the garments they sell, it is about attitude: unflinchingly aloof and uncaring of outsider opinions, labels like Supreme make marketing look effortless. This is an ideal that has been passed down from the earliest days of Supreme, where entering their New York store was a daunting experience for the uninitiated which had the effect of making you crave the brand’s approval.
The uniting factor for all these labels and their various marketing strategies is that they come across as ‘authentic’ in what they are perceived to represent. Lev Tanju, founder of Palace, recently admitted that it is himself that writes the irreverent copy for his label’s website. “I sit in front of the TV with a takeaway and type on my iPhone absolute nonsense in bullet points and people find it funny,” he told The Guardian. That sentence in itself perfectly encapsulates the brand. “That’s the pervasive attitude of the whole company,” Fergus Purcell, designer of Palace’s iconic Tri-Ferg logo, says. “Any artworks we talk about, it’s that language of how we talk about stuff and that spirit. That will always prevail, because it’s Lev, and Palace is as endless as he is.”
In the Protein New Spirituality Survey, 71% of people felt overwhelmed by the amount of content online. There is still very much a place for physical retail as an antidote to the deluge of branded content that fills our screens. While much of Palace and Supreme’s hype is due to their unique online presence, it is their brick and mortar stores that cement them as labels with such a cult following. The queues that snake out of their doors on drop day add to their allure. In many ways, it feels like an antidote to the models of fast fashion and click-to-buy that are becoming increasingly prevalent. While queuing for hours may not seem like the most pleasant ‘retail experience,’ it certainly is an experience. The anticipation, the willpower to not up and go home when the cold night begins to bite around 3am, the fellow fanatics that surround you – it’s a shared cause, almost. There is an inherent romanticism in such passion which hasn’t been tempered by the cynicism of the wider world.
“Devout worship still exists, but despite the beard, long locks and devilish good looks, that’s actually Alex Olson – Supreme skater and designer of Bianca Chandon – that your boyfriend is currently Googling, not Jesus”
In many ways, these stores and the snaking queues outside them are not far removed from the sandwich shops favoured by the Italian Paninaro youth tribe of the 80s, or the abandoned warehouses of British ravers in the 90s, acting as hubs where teens can find a sense of belonging. Both of these subcultures also championed a sense of uniformity through style, as well as a set of wider social beliefs. Today, labels are often simply a gateway into something bigger; whether that’s skate culture, a-la-Supreme, or house music championed by their British skate counterparts. To be adorned with a Palace Tri-Ferg logo is not merely a signifier that you’re into Palace, but it often denotes a series of interests across a range of spectrums, acting as a form of cultural shorthand.
Palace – perhaps one of the few that could rival Supreme in terms of fervent devotees – are decidedly less standoffish than their New York counterparts. They engage with their followers in a distinctly London tone of voice and in a manner that seemingly contradicts every single guideline on how a brand should conduct themselves online. In response to one complaint on Instagram of “yall (sic) suck, I got my tee shirt and there were holes in it,” Palace responded: “put your arms through them.” Their online product descriptions follow similar lines, giving little actual information on the garments themselves. For one recent reversible jacket, the description read:
IF YOU CLICK AND BUY THIS SHIT
IT CAN BE QUITE THERAPEUTIC
YOU SHOULD TRY IT
IF YOU DON’T FEEL ANY BETTER
AT LEAST THERE IS THE BONUS OF YOU SORTING YOUR TRIFE CURRENT GARMENT SITUATION
THIS SEASON I NEARLY CHANGED THE COMPANY NAME
TO REVERSIBLE BAD MAN JACKETS R US
Such descriptions have not only created a level of engagement with each product that other retailers could only dream of, but they also illustrate that the typical Palace customer doesn’t really care what grade of Thinsulate has been used in the jacket – it’s about something much more. For many, it’s an extension of their identity, underlining their credentials as somebody in the know when it comes to the finer nuances of youth culture’s current zeitgeist. “Most people in general need to be associated with something other than just themselves to feel whole,” says Tremaine Emory, a cultural arbiter who counts Virgil Abloh among his close friends and works for Stüssy. “Whether it’s family, a gang, a sports team or a brand, it has been this way forever, humans are pack animals.” In this instance, however, brands have replaced the youth tribes of past generations that formed organically, Emory continues: “There is no subculture anymore really due to the internet, so the pull is the references of the designer and the culture the clothing is representing.”
It would be fair to assume, based off the type of brands mentioned thus far that only streetwear labels hold the kind of cultural cache that can attract loyal cult followings, but that isn’t quite the case. There are few labels who could boast of more ardent fanatics than, for example, Comme des Garçons. Similarly, Belgium’s Raf Simons – currently the muse of streetwear’s newest wave of designers and aficionados – has built a small empire off the back of his ardent followers, with a burgeoning resell market for some of his more classic pieces. (Earlier this year, three of his parkas conceived in collaboration with British graphic artist Peter Saville were listed for $20,000 on U.S. fashion reseller site Grailed).
Away from the sprawling metropolises of London and New York, however, the internet still acts as the jump-off point for future fanatics and cult addicts of niche labels – this is certainly not new. Long before Facebook groups dedicated to rare Supreme items or Bianca Chandon decks, forums were a breeding ground for sartorial fanaticism and connecting with those on the other side of the world with niche interests. One such example was 5thDimension forum, which served as an online hub for streetwear connoisseurs of labels such as A Bathing Ape, WTaps and, of course, Supreme. Those humble fans of yesterday are also some of the industry’s most innovative creators of today, with forum members including Errolson Hugh of Acronym, British stylist Stephen Mann and renowned artist Futura. Similarly, FoundNYC was another online nirvana for fans of Stone Island in the mid-2000s, as the intricacies of Massimo Osti’s (Italian garment engineer who invented unique dyeing techniques and materials) designs were documented and discussed, as well as the label’s subcultural connotations.
“Cult brands occur because they represent something greater – an ideal or a subculture – but also because they know how to communicate that message without it feeling contrived”
In 2016, online hubs such as The Basement or Facebook’s Gosha Rubchinskiy Talk operate in much the same way, serving as a conduit for the discussion of a wider culture associated with certain brands. The allure of someone like Gosha Rubchinskiy lies in the totality of his vision – it’s not just clothing, his label envelops photography, zines and filmmaking. In a few short years, the Russian designer has translated the spirit of relatively localised scene of Russian teenagers – largely skaters – into something much more universal through a variety of mediums. Consequently, his movement is one that kids want to be a part of – often the t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with Cyrillic slogans are merely a way in. Rubchinskiy himself has been known to use Instagram to scout models for his shows and co-sign up and coming photographers who follow a similar aesthetic. One such example was London teenage photographer Tom Emmerson, who the Russian designer tapped to walk in his AW16 show. Not only has the designer created an attractive world of post-Soviet skate culture, he has also fostered a creative community that young people want to buy into.
While the term ‘lifestyle brand’ is all too readily thrown around in the contemporary fashion market, there are few who seem capable of executing it properly. It’s not about simply designing some clothes and a chair, but creating a brand with a genuine, identifiable opinion. But for those who do get it, the rewards are not just monetary, they engender a kind of devotion that no clever marketing campaign or influencer gifting could ever replicate. Cult brands occur because they represent something greater – an ideal or a subculture – but also because they know how to communicate that message without it feeling contrived or try-hard. Any label can collaborate with an artist or put together a skate video, but without authenticity, it is pointless. Like any good cult or religion, people need something they can believe in.