When Kanye West launched Season 1 of his Yeezy clothing line in 2015, the liberal and purposeful distressing of tops and bottoms alike and their dull colorations spawned many a meme about how Kanye was popularizing the “homeless” look. Furthermore, the high price tags might literally make one broke and homeless. Some have wondered at and ridiculed Kanye’s attempt at high fashion, but there is more to him and the hypebeast culture of which he is at the forefront. Hypebeast culture is the latest and most conspicuous incarnation of a human craving for social status and prestige which the mechanics of the market economy and the Internet make possible.
I have many friends who are “hypebeasts” and their sense of style defies what the broader social perception defines as fashionable—loose-fitted tops, sneakers and hoodies with distinct and now often recognizable logos. Supreme, Anti Social Social Club and Off-White are a few labels which many already know. Many of these brands started off small. Supreme has a characteristic story. James Jebbia desired to create an aesthetic and shopping experience friendly to skaters, a demographic usually stereotyped as social rebels. Opening a store in New York City, Jebbia built the allure of Supreme with “limited runs” of its merchandise. The scarcity of the brand and the appeal of its minimal look—simply a red box inlaid with the word “Supreme” in white—created demand. This is the principle behind the word “hypebeast”.
Americans have been taught since their adolescence the general rules of America’s free market economy. Everyone understands that supply and demand are inversely proportional— as one increases, the other decreases. A hypebeast bases his fashion sense on streetwear clothing that is very difficult to obtain, both due to both its price and the lack of originals in existence. The “hype” of hypebeast comes from the mass advertising and anticipation created by merchandise drops that occur in specified time frames and small product availability. Who doesn’t want to rock a clean pair of sneakers and then be asked, “Where’d you get those?” (rather than the dreaded, “What are those?”), only to respond, perhaps a bit vainly, that there are only 217 other pairs in the world. Furthermore, a friend of mine has an Off-White T-shirt he purchased for over $200. While some will question his sanity (as I did), others would recognize it immediately as a symbol of wealth, coolness and, thus, status.
After World War II, the size of the middle class increased dramatically as America began the focal point of the world economy and American industries boomed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the phrase, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” was coined to characterize the phenomenon of self-sufficient middle class families spending their disposable income on items that would enhance their social status—expensive cars, big homes and tuitions for prestigious universities. This phenomenon has existed for as long as private property as, but was often limited to society’s elites, whether nobility or the folks on Nantucket. Hypebeast culture is the inevitable democratization of this phenomenon. The Internet has made it easier and more convenient to await merchandise drops. It is capitalism for the masses, and despite the desire for individuality and prestige that motivates hypebeasts, the more accessible it is, the less appeal it has. What is “cool” will always be what is scarce.