'Disconnecting ourselves from hype': Inside Alec Leach's debut book

In his book ‘The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes’, Alec explains why we need to re-think limited edition, collab and drop culture.

by Alec Leach
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18 July 2022, 1:16pm

This article is a short extract from Alec Leach’s debut book ‘The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes’ and originally appeared in i-D’s The Earthrise Issue, no. 368, Summer 2022. Order your copy of the magazine here and the full book from alecleach.com.

You don’t need me to tell you that fashion is bad for the planet. Thanks to the tireless work of activists, journalists and non-profits we’re more aware than ever just how destructive our shopping habits are. Fashion clogs landfills, obliterates the environment and spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But despite all we know about the industry’s terrible impact on the planet, we can’t stop shopping. Why?

It’s complicated. Consumerism casts such a long shadow over our lives that you can’t sum it all up in one sentence. There are a lot of reasons we love to shop so much, but here I’ll be looking at just one: hype.

Hype is a cultural phenomenon where marketing tricks make mass- produced objects seem much more important than they really are. In fashion, it’s the relentless churn of limited edition products, collaborations and drops. The combination of those three things is why fashion is in such a hysterical place right now; there are no new ideas yet every news cycle spits out something that’s supposedly groundbreaking. It’s also why shopping is made to seem so irresistible, despite all we know about what fashion does to the world.

When we talk about hype, it’s easy to point the finger at Instagram, or the kids queuing up outside Supreme, but the truth is that it’s a problem that’s infected the entire fashion industry. If we want to cultivate a better relationship with fashion, if we want our shopping habits to be less wasteful and more intentional, then we need to disconnect ourselves from hype and unlearn some of the things it’s taught us.

Limited Edition

It’s basic economics. Make supply less than demand, and the value of something goes up. It’s limited edition, so it must be better, right? Just ask the sneakerheads. What might seem like a community of nerdy enthusiasts is really a Petri dish example of what artificial scarcity does to consumer psychology, and how it can be exploited by smart marketers.

Sneakerhead history is littered with stories of the crazy things people do to get their hands on hyped shoes: there’s the Air Jordan XI 'Concord', which caused riots in malls when it was released in 2011. When the Air Foamposite 'Galaxy' broke the internet in 2012, it reached bids of $70,000 on eBay, and one diehard Nike fan even offered up his car, a ’96 Chevy Cavalier, for trade in an attempt to get them. The release of Nike’s collab with Supreme was shut down by the NYPD in 2014, who cited public safety concerns as the horde of sneakerheads spilled out onto the busy SoHo streets. Recently, a prominent Nike executive stepped down after 25 years at the company after Bloomberg Businessweek reported that her son was bringing in $200,000 a month from reselling Nikes.

This is all pretty common knowledge for anyone with a passing interest in contemporary fashion, but what’s not so well known is how sneaker culture has been expertly cultivated by Nike, which for years held a near-monopoly on the sneakerhead market. That’s not to say it’s just Nike who’s doing it, but really, the sneakerhead game begins and ends with the Swoosh.

“This is the sneaker industry’s The Devil Wears Prada moment. Those Dunks on your feet? They were chosen for you by Nike executives.”

Nike has nurtured the sneakerhead demographic for decades, teasing them with ultra-rare shoes and re-releasing nostalgic fan favourites, because it gives the brand what’s known in marketing terminology as a halo effect. Meaning that the dedication of these diehard consumers and all the noise they make gives more cultural power to the plain Air Force 1s that you can buy anywhere. The scarcity at the top of the sneaker hype pyramid helps Nike sell more of the regular shoes at the bottom. People don’t start riots over Filas, do they?

Nike strategically plays with supply and demand in a way that means it’s always causing a stir on the resell scene, without making everything so rare that it leaves too much money off the table. For every ultra-rare release (say, the bizarre 'Chunky Dunky' collab with Ben & Jerry’s), there’s a somewhat-rare release that gives everyone a shot at playing sneakerhead (like Nike x Undercover, Sacai or Stüssy).

At the same time, the brand rotates shoe designs in and out of mainstream stores. Take the Dunk, a shoe that debuted in 1985 but was withdrawn from circulation for a while, until it started popping up on the feet of Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner in 2018. Nike followed up with an ultra-rare collaboration with Scott, alongside Supreme, Off-White and the Grateful Dead, which unsurprisingly caused pandemonium in Sneakerland. For the older heads, Nike reissued nostalgic Dunks from back in the shoe’s 80s and 90s glory days.

The noise around these shoes trickled all the way down the hype pyramid, so that even the general-release Dunks hitting retailers in the hundreds of thousands felt special. This is the sneaker industry’s The Devil Wears Prada moment. Those Dunks on your feet? They were chosen for you by Nike executives.

Collaborations

Like so many things these days, collabs started in the streetwear scene, before the world’s biggest brands caught on. For Big Fashion, collabs are rarely about the product themselves – they tend to be insignificant in numbers and revenue, thought up by marketing teams rather than designers, really they’re just a way for brands to cut through. Brands aren’t just fighting each other for our attention these days – they’re up against our DMs, emails, Instagram notifications and anything else that’s buzzing around in our pockets. But because algorithms prioritise the sensational over the mundane, making great clothes isn’t enough anymore. Just releasing a collection twice a year doesn’t cut it either – you need to be always on.

A breaking news story with an x between two names helps brands grab us through our iPhone screens and guide us towards the webshop. They’ll never cut through – or at least it won’t be as easy – with simply the perfect pair of trousers or a long-lasting pair of shoes. But, with the right collab, they might.

Because collabs draw connections between interesting things, there’s plenty of symbolism to chew over. 'What does all this mean?' ponder the Twitter critics as the latest tie-up hits the news. Most of the time, not much: marketing teams have targets to hit, that’s all. For the hardcore minority of shoppers who buy all this stuff, a collaboration’s cultural significance makes the products seem much more important than they might be on their own. Does anybody need a Gucci x The North Face tent? Of course not, but it seems a lot more appealing if everyone’s talking about how groundbreaking the partnership is.

We’re back at that halo effect. The thinking goes that by flexing their cultural muscles, brands will add more shine to the everyday pieces they sell to the masses. And it works – if you’ve gone straight to Nike for running shoes, forgetting that New Balance and Asics make them too, then the halo effect is probably why. Collaboration gets the laziest and cynical when it’s an opportunity to manufacture yet more newness, as if the never-ending cycle of trends and seasons wasn’t enough already. The internet spins so fast these days that really dedicated shoppers – the ones spending the most cash – have seen (and bought) it all. Collaboration can be a desperate attempt to lure them back in, even if their closets are overflowing already.

“Brands aren’t just fighting each other for our attention these days – they’re up against our DMs, emails, Instagram notifications and anything else that’s buzzing around in our pockets.”

Yet the true power of collaboration is hidden between the lines. By wearing one, you’re showing the world that not only do you know which brands are hot, but also that you’re down with the right art, food, musicians, films, record labels and whatever else is lurking on the other side of that x. It’s about flexing your cultural knowledge, having – in the words of A$AP Rocky – “elevated taste value.”

That’s all innocent enough, but when it’s blown up to the scale it’s at today, where every possible aspect of culture is an opportunity for merchandise, then it becomes toxic. Because instead of shopping being about finding clothes that we’ll love, we’re led to believe that it’s a cultural activity in and of itself. If limited edition releases turn shopping into a game that we need to win, then collaboration turns it into culture – something that we need to constantly practice in order to live interesting and fulfilling lives.

The thing is, collaborations can be great. When it’s a genuine partnership, a meeting of minds, the results speak for themselves. Collaboration can bring underrepresented perspectives into the conversation – like Levi’s x Denim Tears, which is simultaneously an examination of cotton’s historic connection to slavery and a great pair of jeans.

And it can give small brands the opportunity to create products they’d never be able to do otherwise: someone like GmbH or Soulland can make sneakers, a really challenging product to make on your own. Then there is the chance to experiment with new ways of making things, like P.A.M x ADISH, which took unsold pieces from P.A.M’s archive and reworked them with artisans from non-profit organisations in Israel and Palestine.

It can be a celebration of pure creativity; Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby’s years- long bromance resulted in clothes that were just indescribably great. Or they can be the chance for creatives to birth something batshit-crazy, like ASICS’ collab with Kiko Kostadinov and Brain Dead, where the designers each worked on one shoe to create a mismatched pair of sneakers. But so much of the time it’s just more stuff – but this time, stuff with an x between two names.

Drops

Here’s how clothes used to be sold back in the olden days: you’d design a collection, and it might be big — really big — both in ideas and sheer volume. You’d get it all made, put it in the shops, and then cross your fingers, hope you sell it all, and start again the next season. Whatever was leftover would get discounted, sold to outlets or, shockingly, destroyed. You’d need armies of PRs, producers, sales agents and creatives just to make it all work. But that’s basically how it went.

That was before a little thing called streetwear happened. Streetwear originated with people who were a) largely uninterested in what they were supposed to do, and b) didn’t have the resources of giant corporations. So, instead of playing that massive game of risk, they just made a bit of stuff, put it out there, and then made a bit more. And in the process, brands like BAPE, Neighborhood and Supreme pioneered the art of the drop – releasing a small batch of product at a specific time and place.

Drops kept streetwear brands agile, but also made things fun for shoppers. For early streetwear customers who, much like the brands themselves, paid little attention to the mainstream, that was just fine. Rather than a bunch of regular old stuff sitting in a shop for months at a time, a steady stream of drops kept things interesting.

Nowadays, the drop is the de facto way of releasing contemporary fashion. If you see one out in the wild, you’ll recognise it straight away from the queue of young shoppers snaking down the street. It might be rare Nikes, a weekly dose of Supreme, or the new Kylie Jenner cosmetics, but the principle is the same: a special collection of things, released at a specific time and place, for now and now only.

“The world revolves around snackable content, hot takes and 90-minute Netflix movies. You need to go faster if you want to keep up with the speed of Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.”

Here’s another thing about consumerism in the smartphone age – we don’t have time for big ideas anymore. The world revolves around snackable content, hot takes and 90-minute Netflix movies. You need to go faster if you want to keep up with the speed of Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

The drop is the perfect vehicle for that. The problem is that when everything is more reactive, the whole machine spins faster and faster, spitting out more and more new clothes. We want new things and we want them quickly. But when things are dropping more and more often, we forget them quickly too. Last week’s drop is old news, let alone last season’s. If limited editions turn shopping into a game and collaboration turns it into culture, then drops turn it into a way of life. You have to be buying, selling, and Instagramming non-stop if you want to keep up with it all. Clothes in the hype era aren’t products to own, they’re moments to broadcast, to share on Instagram for 24 hours. They’re here, then they’re not – they are more like memes than products. Except unlike memes, clothes leave a very permanent mark on the planet.

Conclusion

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with limited editions, collabs, and drops in principle. It’s the scale and intensity of it all that’s the problem. If we can’t stand how hyped up fashion is in 2022, then we need to remember that the entire industry is playing the same game, and it’s up to everyone in the industry – and the consumers outside of it – to slow it down.

The hype era won’t last forever, but I’m sceptical of the idea that the pandemic has kickstarted a time of more responsible shopping, that we’ll soon enter what trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort called a “quarantine of consumption.” Lockdown was a time to reconsider the way we live our lives, but the fact is that fashion in its present form just takes up so much real estate in our minds that I don’t think we can so easily walk away from it. That’s why hype has been so important to the consumer machine; it gives brands new ways of occupying our thoughts, crashing out of our smartphones and into our lives.

The answer to hype isn’t minimalism, or stealth wealth, or whatever the next buzzword is – it’s looking at fashion with your own needs in mind. To me, the most appealing ideas these days are the ones that are slower, quieter and more in tune with what clothes are really about: style and versatility, longevity over hype. There are vintage archives and resell apps making old pieces feel new again. Brands like Story mfg. and Bode, looking to the past for slower ways of making things, or Our Legacy, who just make great pieces for people with great taste, pieces you can really own.

Ownership. That’s what’s missing from fashion in the hype era. We think of everything but ownership. The enormous significance of this or that collab. Who wore this or that piece. The buzz of the Instagram notifications. How much something can be resold for. How can anyone love what they wear, when that’s what it all comes down to? Unless we truly re-evaluate what we want from our clothes, we’ll just end up with the same bad habits, but with different stuff spilling out of our closets. Hoarding cashmere and penny loafers, chasing minimalist trends instead of maximalist ones.

What we really need is to reconnect with the reality of clothing – how useful, wearable and long-lasting something is, and most importantly, how good it makes us feel. In other words, it’s about our needs. And what are our needs, exactly? What do we want from our clothes? What do we want the world to see when it sees us? This kind of introspection is necessary if we want to develop a more intentional and less wasteful relationship with fashion.

We should also remember the importance of taking it slow, thinking things through before we let them into our lives. Buying things that really mean something to us, and buying them for life. Being patient, because we’re in it for the long haul. It’s also about being open to new ideas and experiences while accepting that some things are better when they’re admired from afar. As much as I love Rick Owens, I know he’s neither a good fit for my body nor my bank account. It’s good to open up your perspective outside of fashion, too. Maybe you can learn a thing or two from that really well-dressed pensioner in your neighbourhood, or a photo of some punks from the 70s. That’s not to say that we need to become lifelong minimalists, that our tastes should never change. But we need to appreciate things for more than one news cycle, to think of our wardrobes as an investment, not as a moment to broadcast on Instagram. If we do it with intention and purpose, shopping can be something that brings so much more to our lives than a package in the mail and a few likes on Instagram.

By taking ownership over our shopping habits, we can say no to this culture of non-stop newness, the relentless cycle of trends that keeps us buying way more than we really need, the war on our self-esteem that makes us feel like we’re never enough – and all the environmental destruction that comes with it.

By paying much less attention to marketing, and much more to clothes, we can slowly but surely start assembling a collection of things that we truly love. Hunting down that perfect piece, cherishing it for years to come, embracing the flaws it picks up along the way. It’s a win-win situation. Better for the planet, but better for us too.

Alec Leach’s ‘The World Is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes’ is available to buy now from alecleach.com.

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