Monday, September 27, 2010

Street Culture in 2010. Taking Stock.

This is a post by Steven Vogel of Black Lodges. If you ask about who? what? huh? Please x out your window now, and please stop reading what I post.

The bold highlighted sections are what stood out for me. Aside from some misspellings and grammatical errors, it isn't too badly written by a German, I believe. Feel free to re-blog/re-post/link to myself.
The past week was, gratefully, spent talking to a few colleagues in this industry, as well as watching some great documentaries on music and youth culture. Most interesting was a long lunch with a friend of mine who works at the very large online / mail order retailer, Frontline, here in Hamburg. I guess you could say he is their main buyer an he has been with the company for nearly as long as they have been around, which will be 25 years next year. What makes these conversations so interesting is that Marc is maybe even more of a music nerd than I, with a great interest in hardcore, straight edge, heavy metal. More so, I genuinely respect him for his insights into youth culture /trends and being able to turn them into a very profitable business.

The documentaries I watched were “hype!” which chronicles the rise of the grunge scene in Seattle from 82 to 96 and more importantly the relationship and impact the scene had with the global press. The other was “American Hardcore” which I am sure most of you know, but if you haven’t seen it, do watch it. I will get back to those later.

Now, Marc and I talked in detail about trends, retailing, buying and youth culture in relationship to these points as well as music. The conversation raised a lot of great points that I will try and share here, even though I fear I won’t be able to reconnect all the dots from Friday. I blame 20 years of street culture for the loss of brain cells.

The first point we talked about is how street wear has not only killed itself off, but additionally failed at becoming the “next big thing” as well as the fact that the corporate re-interpretation of streetwear has not been the big money maker it initially promised itself to be a. Looking back on it, 2002/2003 really saw the emergence of modern streetwear as we know it today. Let’s, for once, forget about the few brands and stores that paved the way in the 80s and 90s because quite frankly, their models, lessons and aesthetics are actually irrelevant to this movement. I can’t be bothered to write down an all inclusive list of brands from that time period but I am sure we all know what and whom I am talking about here.

Initially, it all looked as if the streetwear movement from that time was going to be big, and I not only mean big as a globally influential youth culture movement with it’s own set of moral, cultural and ethical standards but also big in terms of money. Big enough that in 10-20 years time, those people behind the successful companies could retire in the same style as a certain Mr. Stussy did back in the late 90s. I have written about this before, but to paraphrase it, what made any previous youth cultural movement, including clothing, globally successful and relevant were certain amount of interlocking facts. These are: a moral code not to fuck your friends, i.e blood is thicker than water, i.e. not ethically and morally selling out. Secondly, and this was key to the success of previous youth cultural movements commercially, keeping your distribution really tight. That means, supporting the right independent stores, not going into the mainstream retailers, and only making your product available in select outlets. Previous to 2003, this wasn’t a sales strategy but a fact of life that only a select number of people would actually want your niche product and only a select number of retailers and would and could actually sell your gear.

Now, before 2003 it was generally accepted that if you did make anything relevant to a niche, regardless of music, art, clothing etc, chances were you weren’t going to be millionaire. That was fine, that’s the price you paid for being able to do your thing. Freedom reigned supreme over being rich.

For the first couple of years, I would dare say up until 2007 streetwear looked really promising as it’s participants were generally following said guidelines. Distribution was kept tight, and the global community respected & supported each other, creatively and commercially. Then this financial crisis came. Now, in the previous incarnation of this blog a lot of our community members talked at great length about this and I am not going to get into detail about all that now, but rest assured, I think the mental crisis that accompanied the real life financial crisis that hit us all, went into a total different direction than anticipated by us all. The end result and where we are now is, that all principals that made this movement promising went out the window in the last 3 years and have destroyed the foundation of it, and thus, relegated all chances of this movement to be truly successful.

Looking at what Marc said, as a buyer who firmly believed in streetwear and was willing to support it with large amounts of money and integrity, he has all but given up on it, not only on the independent creative results but also on the corporate interpretations of it. Mostly, because independents have sold out, morally, ethically and most importantly, distribution wise. In his words and I agree with them, the streetwear community falsely started believing it’s own hype that it was a global, both terms of it’s definition and in monetary terms, movement. It wasn’t and now it never will be. Greed got the better of all of us and before you knew it, everyone was selling previously hard to get gear and that took the appeal from it. Furthermore, the ethical standards prerequisite to previous movements such as hardcore, straight edge and to a certain degree grunge were totally ignored, not only by us, but also by those corporates trying to emulate and cash in on the movement. What I mean is that community gave up on itself and that all intellectual and genuine integrity was sold off to the highest bidder.

In retail reality this meant that both the indies and the majors started selling to everyone as the fear of losing money and facing the reality that we are a niche group, started threatening our imaginary empires. This resulted in a lot of genuine first time supporters in retail going broke, as well as a lot of the genuine large retailers loosing faith in the scene. We all lost in the end.

We lost creativity because we sold out. We lost the community because we were greedy. We lost our claim to be influential by selling to everyone in the hope of making a quick buck.

That’s the reality of it. Anyone still clinging onto the notion that streetwear and hence street culture is important on a grand scale really needs to wake up, or more importantly I think, start to realize that it is a niche sub culture, one that can be really fulfilling IF, and only if, you start to accept the fact that you will never be the next Jay-Z or Mark Ecko. Once we realize that there is a genuine positivity that stems out of a community built on respect, hard work, good ethics and creativity we might just all start to have fun again. Because as I see it now, no one in this subculture is having fun.

So what next?

With all this somewhat philosophical talk of utopia the harsh economic reality needs to be addressed nonetheless. My first point is, if you want to stay in this niche culture don’t expect to make a lot of money. Ever. If you do want to work in fashion, go and work in fashion, for one of the big players: Nike, Adidas if you are into sportswear, or the VF group if you are into action sports / denim fashion. If you are good enough and willing to accept the corporate cultures then you can have a go at making a living in this world. Otherwise, flat out forget it. No one in independent streetwear will ever become rich. That’s a fact.

Secondly, after speaking to Marc whose job it is to identify the next big thing to make money of, my opinion was and is that there never again will be a global trend that you can make real money off. Coming back to the documentaries I watched this week, Grunge, was the last, serious global youth culture movement from which people made REAL money. Not Techno/House Music, no one gave a shit about that outside of Europe. Not Brit Pop, again, outside of England and Scandinavia, no one really cared. Skateboarding to a certain degree but that was there way before Grunge, and also, there are more grunge fans in the Middle East then there are skateboarding fans. Still to this day. Now, Grunge got sold out, but cleverly so, by Sub Pop and their control of the then influential Melody Maker and more importantly MTV. MTV in 1991 was the only global youth culture source. More importantly, and unlike today, it’s content was not user generated. Nirvana had a GLOBAL average air time of 8 videos an hour, 7 days a week for over 2 years with a global audience of fuck knows how many people. Think about that.

And if you think this newish trend of vintage menswear is big, you’re fooled. Truly, take a walk around with open eyes and critically asses what the general public out there wears and then compare it to what you see on the blogs. And then think back to 1992 and try and remember how many Nirvana T-Shirts, nay, Flannels you saw, because of Grunge.

The web 2.0 has destroyed any hope of ever again creating a truly global trend, especially in commercial terms. In essence, what the web 2.0 has done is given every niche an equal right of existence. Democracy at it’s finest. Unfortunately, that system does not work with the old way of making money. Now, it might well be that the old way of generating income in a trend based industry is no longer valid, and that’s an interesting point all together, but the economic reality of it is, it’s still there and it’s getting hammered by this. By given every niche an equal chance at exposure, the market share subsequently is getting divided by many more people. What most brands and marketeters don’t realize is that, even though the internet promises you an unlimited amount of potential buyers, in reality it doesn’t. The same amount of buyers exist now, then they have 20 years ago. The difference is, through the democratization of the internet, you now have 100 people/brands/blogs/ideas fighting for the same buyer.
Which, in a romanticized world is great, because it gives everyone a pop, however, the stark reality is that we are all losing out, this time economically. More choice also equals less money for everyone. That means, and I am sure you can all agree with this, we all have to work a lot harder just to stay in the same spot. I now, for example, work twice as many hours a week than my father did, for half the money. That has nothing to do with inflation by the way. Fact is, because of choice, we all loose out. Even the big wigs have to fight harder, and as the last crisis has shown us, our jobs in this industry are by no means safe.

Concluding, there will never again be a global trend to cash in on.Positive or negative, I don’t know. We need to learn to accept the fact that street culture and hence street wear is a niche movement. Furthermore, in order to repair the damage no one but ourselves has done, we need to go back and come up with a set of ethical & moral guidelines acceptable to us all and live by them. When we started selling out to the next big whig for a few grand, we destroyed everything. Now, I am not saying, don’t do this and don’t work for that guy, that’s a personal decision everyone has to make for themselves, but how about we start thinking before selling out. Does Pepsi really need a cool street artist? Does Gillette need advertising on the Complex Media Network? How does McDonalds fit into all this? I don’t think they have a place in our culture at all. Taking the long road is often harder, but if unified it’s easier. If we all accept the fact that what we put into this sub culture, is what we get out, maybe we can all start having fun again.

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