Collage by Douglas Greenwood

What happens to IYKYK fashion when everyone knows?

Margiela Tabis, vintage Rick Owens and the like were once for in-the-know fashionistas. Now, they're everywhere from Calabasas to (Emily in) Paris.

by José Criales-Unzueta
14 February 2022, 4:26pm

Collage by Douglas Greenwood

Tabi boots — Maison Margiela’s Japanese-inspired split-toe shoe introduced at the very first show of the house in 1988 — are inarguably the end all and be all of cult fashion-people footwear; ciphers for a tribal urge to distinguish oneself from ordinary, predictable and conventional taste. Part of their appeal comes from their dichotomy: they’re credibly chic and objectively ugly, plus they have been ridiculed repeatedly over the years for their cloven hoof-like aspect — most recently when Nick Jonas wore a pair of Reebok Tabis to the Fashion Awards in December. However, in the last few years, something shifted; Tabis started to become popular, almost mainstream. They went from being a best-kept secret and extremely esoteric to the subject matter of viral TikToks, until one day, in late 2020, they were spotted in an episode of Emily in Paris, worn by none other than Emily “ringarde” herself. The mainstream-ification of Tabi boots was complete. Now that everyone knows them, are Tabi boots still cool? As fashion fanaticism spreads further than ever before, what happens when insiders’ best-kept secrets become known to most? What happens to if you know, you know (IYKYK) fashion when everyone knows?

Over the last couple of years, avant-garde brands like Maison Margiela, Comme des Garçons and Rick Owens have become well known to a consumer base way beyond the IYKYK loyalists — courtesy of unexpected celebrity endorsements, hype culture and mass-market collaborations. Much of the appeal behind these brands is rooted in the fact that they’re not known by everyone — they’re best-kept secrets, gatekept little treasures. If fashion has become increasingly inclusive, true luxury has always been exclusively elusive — and perhaps more so now than ever before.

That’s because the culture and conversations around fashion have changed over the last couple of years. The marketable cross-pollination of fashion with other industries, such as entertainment and technology, have helped turn this once-underground subculture into a spectator sport with fanaticism rivalling that of actual sports or pop music. As a result, once niche and subversive designers who flew under the radar — such as Y/Project’s Glenn Martens, Ann Demeulemeester and Raf Simons — have started to gain die-hard fans, on and offline. Not only do we now know what these designers look like, but we can collectively analyse and archive their work as we do with our favourite musicians. And while the cult of superstar designers is not new — think of Tom Ford or Marc Jacobs in the early aughts, or Karl Lagerfeld turning his own image into fluffy accessories — the Internet has provided a level of access that has turned casual fans into die-hard stans. Similarly to music, however, no one wants to be late to the party.

The late Virgil Abloh had a design philosophy that grappled with this paradox. His ‘Tourist and Purist’ philosophy was a central tenet to both his work for Off-White and Louis Vuitton, and it illustrates the polarity of experimenting fashion today. The tourist is the bright-eyed, eager-to-learn person who simply wants to know more — consider these the new fashion fanatics today, like Netflix’s Emily. Purists, on the other hand, are the experts, the sometimes-snobby connoisseurs who have laboriously invested time and money into esoteric labels — think of day-one fans of designers like Raf or Rick, those more likely to tell a tourist that they “don’t get it.” Netflix’s Sylvie, in other words.

When Phoebe Philo joined Celine almost a decade ago, she ushered in a new wave of discrete anti-logomania luxury, the ultimate expression of IYKYK fashion. To wear Phoebe’s Celine was a secret code, those who knew understood the flex that it was. Then Kim Kardashian started wearing Phoebe’s ‘Luggage’ totes — the rest of her family soon followed, snapping up every colour — and, as a result, it became one of the most sought-after it bags of the last decade. For Philo purists, this might have seem paradoxical considering what Celine represented at the time, but the bottom line is that fashion is an industry, a business, and part of Phoebe’s success at Celine was her top-performing bags, which allowed her to create her niche-leaning ready-to-wear collections. Designers are ultimately happy when their product performs well in the market. The days of high-fashion being available to a select few, or customers being turned away from luxury boutiques — a la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman — are, thankfully, long gone.

This is fashion’s age-old pyramid business model. Selling accessories at an almost mass-appeal to enable steady growth and uninhibited creative freedom is no different than designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo having successful commercial diffusion lines while continuing to nurture their esoteric work. Yohji has had Y-3 with Adidas since 2003, and Rei started Comme Des Garçons Play in 2002 — and neither of them have had to sacrifice their creative vision on the catwalk. If anything, one could argue that their creative vision continues to freely exist because of the mass appeal and success of those diffusion lines. Think also of Dior and Chanel haute couture, arguable for the 0.01 per cent, but the fantasy of which ultimately sells department store lipsticks and fragrances to millions of aspiring women. The dream sells the reality, and these products nurture mainstream fanbases by giving them an accessible entryway into a world they can dream of.

With many conversations around fashion today happening online, it’s worth wondering if URL fan communities are also helping push brands onto the mainstream or if they’re helping them maintain their purity. Rick Owens has one of the most devoted fan bases in fashion, including cult-like internet-based communities on platforms like Reddit and Discord. Unlike Instagram, where you can stumble onto anything on an explore page, platforms like Discord are more secretive and therefore help preserve the essence of niche brands like Rick. As Sam Hopkins, a moderator and owner of the popular Rick-dedicated Discord “Rick Owens cesspool of trash” — great name, we know — and r/Rickowens subreddit, says “you still need to know what you’re looking for in order to find us.”

About Rick, Sam argues that while the brand has definitely “exploded in popularity over the past couple of years,” it is still “far from mainstream,” as its price point and niche designs make it challenging for an average consumer to casually get behind. Ryan Seminara, a designer-patternmaker and avid Glenn Martens appreciator, feels a similar way about the Belgian designer. He doubts he’ll ever go “full mainstream,” despite his recent spike in popularity after taking over Diesel and a hit couture show at Jean Paul Gaultier. In fact, Ryan mentions that even though he’s seen more people wear Y/Project and post and repost their favourite looks, this still very much happens within an insular bubble of fashion folk. This is where internet optics come into play — Sam mentions that when he’s online he “sees Rick everywhere,” but when he’s out and about it is still “a very rare occurrence to see another person wearing Rick.” Just because Rick’s heeled platform boots are clogging your algorithm, it does not mean it is as omnipresent IRL.

The newfound hype and a few tourists don’t seem to turn die-hard fans off. If anything, even though there are some purists (read: gatekeepers) out there, most fans will appreciate their favourite designers getting some recognition. “When [Glenn’s] work is gaining popularity, as a long time appreciator, I see it as somewhat overdue,” Ryan says. And while Sam cites resale prices hiking up as one of his frustrations — as they make the brand less attainable for “Rick-nerds” — he says he still likes Rick for what it is and that’s not going to change.

“There is of course the added benefit of being able to sell pieces for inflated prices, especially if they were seen on a celebrity or artist,” he adds, though this may not always be a benefit for loyalists. While it does sound nice to be able to make some extra pounds by flipping it-items, the constant cycle of resale often devalues products over time. It also depends on what you’re selling. You’re most likely not selling a one-of-a-kind runway piece, as keeping it for years adds to its value, but you probably will sell a cult item that has gone mainstream like Bottega Veneta puddle boots, an Off-White belt (although you’d be crazy to sell that now) or a Telfar bag – tourist traps, if you may.

Unfortunately, with mainstream success, brands always risk diluting their original messages. Sam mentions that it seems as if a lot of knowledge of Rick Owens has been lost and that the scene has changed over the years, one can assume through hypebeasts, one-off celebrity associations and collaborations (the the case of Rick: Converse or Adidas). As for Glenn taking over a mass-market brand like Diesel, Ryan says that he vacillates “between wondering if the magic can be lost in the mass market translation of his aesthetic, or if it's a healthy dose of sweetness in introducing Martens' whimsy to their customer.” It can go both ways, but if this new visibility is played right, “it’s a healthy introduction to his world, you get your feet wet via Diesel and when you’re ready to take the plunge, let’s see you in a scrunched-up posed-wire hoodie or asymmetric draped coat.”

Glenn is also part of a new generation of designers — along with Demna and Jonathan Anderson — who are no longer interested in speaking only to fashion elites or creating exclusive products. They are upending the definition of luxury fashion by focusing on the mass aspect of their work — mass appeal, or mass reach. Just like Demna is now working with Ye and the GAP, Glenn is expanding his reach through Diesel. But the reality is that the core of these designers’ work will always be niche. Even Comme Des Garçons had an H&M collaboration, but that doesn’t make Rei Kawakubo’s runway pieces any less specific, nor does it turn off her purists from the work they love her for. True die-hard fans only become more loyal when their favorite designers go mainstream, they become hardcore purists who try to assert their claim on them and prove they were there since day one, and that they always got it.

The popular conception of Rick might be limited to popular items from his more accessible DRKSHDW line, which often retails for under $1000 — inexpensive for Rick — like his cap-toe high-top Ramones and best-selling Detroit jeans. Sam and his fellow moderators seem to agree that Playboi Carti is to blame for this, as he’s been wearing Rick for a few years now and has helped bring items like these to the mainstream imagination — but the core of his aesthetic and work is still idiosyncratic enough to never go fully mainstream. You still have to “get” it — and in the case of more extreme pieces, wear it. You can buy Rick sneakers, but the leap — and commitment — from tourist to purist who buys complex runway pieces is a big one. As Sam puts it: “Trends die; Rick Owens is huge right now but surely the bubble will burst, the community will shrink, long-time fans will stick, resale prices will go down and we will remember these days.” Anyway, cool things won’t stop being cool just because more people know about them, so fear not — you can still wear your Tabi boots.

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