Understanding "The Drop": How a Streetwear Staple Has Shifted Buying and Selling
Understanding "The Drop": How a Streetwear Staple Has Shifted Buying and Selling
- Words Isabel Flower
- Date April 12, 2018
Anyone who knows downtown New York knows the line: a trail of youngish men winding around the corner of Lafayette and Prince in SoHo every Thursday. This is the day that new inventory becomes available at the Supreme flagship store’s weekly drop. Though the store doesn’t open until 11am, hopeful patrons arrive much earlier. Depending on the temptations of the particular release and whether it marks a collection debut, some may have even waited overnight. Some are buying to wear, some are buying to sell and others are being paid just to queue. To manage the crowds and their intrusion into public space, Supreme has tried issuing timed tickets for individual customers to show up and shop, not unlike those for a popular exhibition at the MoMA or the Whitney. But these also stoke the frenzy. Two years ago, Supreme circulated a ticket sign-up location via email for customers interested in the drop of a hoodie with their signature “box logo”; the meet up at James J. Walker Park in the West Village was terminated by the NYPD when a group of hysterical shoppers-to-be went ballistic and hurled themselves through the line. Footage of the event flooded Instagram, with captions like: “This shit look like people evacuating a zombie infested island, fuck that.”
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In No Logo—her manifesto on culture and global capitalism published the last month of 1999—Naomi Klein wrote that the real work of companies was no longer manufacturing, but marketing. In this prescient early commentary, Klein pointed out what is now a truism of 21st century retail. Almost two decades later, shopping—and life under neoliberalism more generally—is dominated by the drop: a marketing strategy as dramatic and sudden as its moniker suggests. Not by coincidence, the drop is historically synonymous with the rise of streetwear, and pairs the promise of rarity with the fanatical brand allegiances that have come to define conspicuous consumption over the past 30 years. Now that the entire fashion industry is studying the logistics and the ethos of streetwear’s extraordinary ascension, limited production runs, spontaneous releases and “one-chance-to-buy” mania are staple sales strategies. Luxury retailers from Barneys, to Colette, to Dover Street Market are using the drop to generate urgency and specificity. Young high-end fashion labels with distinctly athleisure aesthetics such as Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy are taking cues from small, downtown retailers and massive multinational companies with vast global distribution networks—such as Nike and adidas—are retooling their supply chains to mimic the drop model (beyond their respective exclusive celeb partnerships with properties like Jordan Brand and Yeezy). Investors are on it too. Notorious luxury conglomerate LVMH is now backing SoHo sneaker emporium Stadium Goods and in October, Supreme confirmed sale of a minority stake to private equity firm The Carlyle Group, after being valued at $1B. This past July (in a feat of crossover marketing that would have seemed inconceivable a decade ago) Supreme released a collaboration with Louis Vuitton (from whom they had received a cease and desist 20 years earlier for too closely imitating the LV logo on a skateboard deck). In November, Off White designer Virgil Abloh partnered with Nike on his very-limited rendition of 10 classic sneaker styles from the Jordan 1 to the Presto. Complex called it the most talked about release of the year. Forget streetwear—even Kylie Jenner sells her makeup kits via drops (heavily promoted on Instagram) and tweens will cross state lines for a “Naughty vs. Nice” palette from one of her mall pop-ups.
The alchemy of value in streetwear is elusive and transient, like that of any bubble. How does something mass-produced become rare or luxurious? Manipulating the supply chain by carefully discharging restricted quantities helps brands disguise the fact that it is now actually very easy and cheap to make things. A comparable economic structure is that of the industry of art. Both markets depend on limited runs, opaque and subjective pricing, a highly liquid secondary market and, of course, drops of objects in small supply. Counter to the logic of supply and demand, artificial scarcity creates artificial value. The entire market ends up functioning as a proxy for currency—one that is able to produce more “money” without additional cash being exchanged or injected into the process. Yet, as signifiers, sneakers and streetwear resist conventional markers of taste, class and access, while also sidestepping the barrier to entry characteristic of most luxury markets. Simply put, certain streetwear is able to bear the perception of exclusivity and status provided by pricey luxury maisons at a fraction of the cost. And unlike in the case of reselling art, any individual can be an actor in a secondary streetwear market that (lines aside) is—at least in principle—curiously egalitarian and even inclusive.
The genesis of the drop is inseparable from sneakers and sneaker culture. In the mid-1980s, Nike’s Jordan Brand used drops (also later typical of Nike SB) but, in the ‘90s through the early-2000s, this strategy was associated with nascent street and skatewear labels like Supreme, Stussy and FUCT, as well as New York brick-and-mortar retailers such as Training Camp, Bobbito’s Footwork, Classic Kicks, Atmos, Flight Club, Bodega, Alife and, later, contemporary sneaker boutiques such as Kith. Before New York, in the early ‘90s, Tokyo’s streetwear movement fostered extremely influential independent brands from the now “godfather of streetwear” Hiroshi Fujiwara, as well as Jun Takahashi and Nigo (the latter two opened the iconic Nowhere boutique in Tokyo’s Urahara neighborhood), among others. Whether in New York, LA, or Tokyo, the success of these retailers was inextricable from the international elevation of youth culture, and the contiguous pop-cultural ascents of creative outputs and activities now globally perceived as fundamentally American—from skateboarding and surfing, to graffiti, breakdancing and hip-hop. Each of these one-time subcultures emphasized singularity, originality and style and retailers caught on. From Nike to the most esoteric, grassroots clothing lines and obscure boutiques, brands began to situate themselves as decidedly political, progressive and culturally specific. Because what rails against “the man” better than the logo flip? What rallies against the convention of seasonal, department-store-ready collections quite like a one-time, “gone in 60 seconds” drop?
The drop and the secondary market are also inextricable from one another, and this symbiosis was made possible by the internet and the radical expansion of ecommerce. The hyper-inflated turnover of sneakers, graphic T-shirts and fanny packs (or as Supreme’s online shop denotes, “waist bags”) on resale platforms from eBay to Grailed generates the speculative value that drives primary sales. However, the role of secondary markets is often underestimated—or simply misunderstood—because brands do not directly profit, ignoring pivotal feedback loops that even companies themselves do not publicly acknowledge. It’s these secondary markets (not the primary, brand-to-buyer market) that drive prices. Thanks to exclusive releases and hard-to-obtain materials, the original brand may (unwittingly) set the stage for higher prices that far exceed the intended MSRP once its destined for resale markets.
According to Arianna Maya, founder of the activist group-cum-streetwear-brand Brujas, the effect of the secondary market is actually two-fold. Beyond a feedback loop that gives hype to products, the revenue generated by these transactions also provides the income necessary for these same customers to shop from brands directly. “Applying fictitious value in the absence of any real changes in the way things are produced allows for secondary market [revenue] to indirectly pay people, so that they can keep consuming,” Maya explained to Dry Clean Only. In other words, the resale market does not create trickle down in the means of production, but, while someone’s real income may not afford a $140 Supreme hoodie, one could buy two at the drop (knowing this is a one-time release) and sell one on the secondary market for as much as 10 times the sticker price. Now the sweater has paid for itself, even if bought “at a loss.” (On Grailed, box logo hoodies routinely sell for upwards of $1000.) In that sense, these articles of clothing are investment pieces of another kind—not items you expect to have forever, but items you can cash out.
The internet has enabled these unregulated micro-economies to grow and flourish and now smartphones and social media offer unprecedented immediacy. Instagram fuels a constant stream of drop announcements and the continuous need for new content may even be influencing the rate at which products hit shelves. Likewise, feeds and comments sections are surrogates for shops and queues, teeming with chatter, opinions, intel, even conflict. Apps such as Frenzy (which was created by Shopify and has teamed with hype retailers like Kith), Nike’s SNKRS and adidas’s Confirmed have made it possible to shop drops via your phone. These apps have changed the emphasis on community and the in-person drop experience—lines, camping out and the energy, excitement and inevitable tension that for decades have all but defined streetwear. Frenzy has stated that its goal is to “reduce friction.”
That very “friction” has been one of the most controversial elements of the drop cycle. New releases of Jordans, for example, are notorious for inciting violence and such feuds have raised questions about the ethics of the drop and the rapacious nature of hype itself, as well as the sensitive exchange of influence between brand and consumer. Still, an app’s effort to supposedly reduce friction might seem at odds with the fundamental qualities of the drop, as its success is predicated on spontaneity and undersupply. The drop feeds on FOMO—with desire tied to the difficulty of acquiring the item and the satisfaction of hard-won success, it seems unlikely that the items for sale could maintain their charge without it.
The success of the drop (and of streetwear) has always depended on community, as well as the relationship between community and identity. Getting dressed—and the way one chooses to engage with or disengage from self-styling and branding—is often the most consistent aesthetic act that a person participates in, whether or not they claim an interest in fashion. Yet fashion is often under-considered as a form of social and cultural participation worthy of careful examination, neglecting the fraught power play between individuals (often youth), small brands and multinational corporations alike and visual culture.
Eliciting insight and expertise directly from customers is actually the cornerstone of how sneakers and streetwear have aligned themselves with broader social shifts. As a category of dress, “streetwear” was built at the intersection of merchandise and what advertising executives now cryptically call “culture,” in reference to information and behavioral patterns mined from real communities and marketed to simulate these precise social phenomena. Describing his fieldwork during the formative years of Jordan, brand architect Erin O. Patton recalled in his 2009 book Under the Influence, “We would go uptown to Harlem to 125th Street and spend time at retailers like Dr. Jays and Jimmy Jazz. We’d normally hit the store around 3 pm to catch the ‘sneakerologists’ as we called them. The customers were the kids who could tell you more about the sneaker than the product marketer.” Patton went on, “Many times I would act as a secret shopper and ask the sneakerologists what they liked about the Jordan product they were buying. It was unbelievable how premeditated the purchase was. Kids would walk into Dr. Jays, head up the stairs and go straight to the sales associate without even looking at the shoe wall. In fact, the only question they asked about the product was if their size was available.” Already, drops drew shoppers who wanted something special and specific, including those who possessed an unusual understanding of the valence of the item they were about to buy.
Today, the popularity of the drop—increasingly corporatized and standardized—is just one response to enormous manufacturing spikes made possible by a globalized workforce. The decreasing cost of making things means more and more stuff, but the vast majority of workers still can’t afford to buy it. Carefully conjured illusions of scarcity and high value camouflage this fundamental contradiction of global capitalism—one that the fashion industry makes particularly clear. And, as it so happens, the fashion industry is in the midst of seismic shifts.
As a distribution method, the drop reflects the era of just-in-time production, when technological advancements in manufacturing have rendered a multi-month, seasonal factory cycle irrelevant and made vertical integration increasingly attractive. As garments can be produced faster and faster, design decisions can also be reactive, responding directly to consumption patterns as well as broader cultural shifts. This exact kind of supply chain management has been the key to the behemoth known as Zara, for example, which manufactures only a small fraction of its styles in advance and is constantly reassessing, editing and adjusting product midseason. But in order to do this, its team cannot rely exclusively on the cheap, outsourced labor typical for advanced lead-time and they have instead turned to higher tech, small batch and often localized production. New inventory arrives in stores twice each week. Though Zara doesn’t market this as a drop, for all intents and purposes, it is. In this sense, the drop is not just an artificial mechanism for producing a frenzy. It is part and parcel of the entire future of the commodity: how products will be conceived, created and delivered to customers.
In 2015, Lawrence Lenihan cofounded Resonance, a venture operating company that invests in early-stage fashion brands and specializes in sustainable, “demand-driven production.” During a recent conversation with Dry Clean Only, Lenihan observed that middleman retailers are becoming less and less important. There is a shift for brands to sell directly and immerse themselves in the culture of their customer-bases via events and experiences. As he put it, “This is a moment of massive supply chain realignment as companies reassess the balance between value added and value taken.” According to Julien Darnell—a Queens-native and streetwear retail veteran who has worked for David Z, Kith and, currently, Extra Butter—“The drop is the major forming factor in this thing we call ‘culture.’ Speaking to Dry Clean Only, he points out, “[The drop cycle] made getting new sneakers (or clothes) an important event rather than just a utilitarian purchase. It made a release a ‘holiday.’ It drove people to seek out their own style, rather than just showing up to a store and buying whatever happened to be available.” Energy and intimacy were, at one time, the unique currency of operations like Supreme. Companies are now asking—how do we replicate this “Supreme effect” at scale? How do we connect with a diffuse and itinerant online generation?
Designers Public School and Alexander Wang have both recently announced that they will no longer participate in New York Fashion Week (joining Rodarte, Proenza Schouler, Thom Browne and Joseph Altuzarra), utilzing direct-to-customer approach that disseminates product via drops instead. Nike and adidas are also making quick moves to hone in on their customers and provide a more personalized, time-sensitive shopping experiences. In October, Nike announced one step in a broader shift aimed at customer proximity, slamming what Nike Brand President Trevor Edwards called “undifferentiated, mediocre retail.” The first move is to cut back their distribution network, as well as the volume and diversity of merchandise. Though Nike reps says they will not completely sever ties with retailers, it will select just forty (from a network of 30,000) with whom it will work closely on exclusive, reactive products and releases. They have also launched a membership program that tempts with first dibs on limited run gear. Meanwhile, adidas is making serious investments in entirely unprecedented innovations in manufacturing. Its new Speedfactory facilities aim to expedite both design and production, dismantling the typical 18-month “industry standard” that charts a shoe’s timeline from concept to arrival in-store. This process would focus on the trends and stylistic sensibilities relevant to local consumers and initial press materials characterized forthcoming releases as “specifically tailored” and “limited run.” Even the largest and most capable companies in the world are mastering the simulation of constraint—realizing that proximity, illusory or otherwise, will be the crux of their survival.
Proximity, after all, is precisely what the drop cycle produces: Close proximity of consumer to brand, and close proximity of consumers to each other. The intimacy of standing in a tightly wound line, shoulder to shoulder with fellow shoppers is not unlike the secret nod of understanding when you see someone else on the train with the same colorway you just secured, after spending your whole Saturday in line. This same camaraderie might be shared between two teens successfully navigating the minefield of bots and code-breakers to secure their favorite Supreme items come Thursday morning.
Though easily spurned as a scam of supply and demand, the drop forces us to think critically about how and why the gathering spaces and social rituals of consumerism can and do engender culture, community and—crucially—belonging. Back in the previous millenium, Klein wrote in No Logo, “In a climate of youth-marketing feeding frenzy, all culture begins to be created with the frenzy in mind.” Indeed, the exchange of information—and of currencies of one kind or another—is always a continuous push and pull between consumers and companies, an ouroburos of give and take, appropriation and cooptation. But, as ever-shifting technologies mediate our experience of closeness and desire, it remains to be seen whether the proliferation of the drop can sustain the alchemy that once made it so effective.
The drop drives the hype that fosters a community around that product or brand, galvanizing not just a desire to spend, but a desire to belong. But as everything seems to be becoming limited, will this distinction lose its meaning entirely? Soon, perhaps, the energy and affinity born of the drop may become as scarce as the ability to actually acquire a box logo hoodie on any given Thursday.