how a gay hookup app became a force for fashion and social change
When (and why) did Grindr go from anonymous chiseled ab selfies to live streamed runway shows and voting initiatives?
When users of Grindr — an app popularly known as a digital meat market for gay men — logged in on January 10, 2016, they saw more than headless, chiseled torsos on their screens. High-cheekboned young men strutted past in androgynous couture like snail-embroidered fur, kitten-patterned silks, and long, oversized cardigans. It was a live-stream of J.W. Anderson's runway show at men's fashion week in London.
"It was so out of blue for people. There was a ton of curiosity. And for people who love fashion, it was like the golden ticket from Willy Wonka," reflected Landis Smithers, the vice president of marketing at Grindr, on the user reception to the app's digital event. A clip uploaded to the brand's Instagram account generated enthusiastic reactions from followers, including "beyond," "awesome," a bullseye emoji, and even praise from the RuPaul's Drag Race star Detox. "It's been almost 10 months now," Smithers added, "and it's still one of everyone's favorite topics of conversation."
The event certainly made a splash. A global audience of about 50,000 watched the show live; the video had 100,000 views within its first week. It was covered by The New York Times and The Guardian. The fashion world had taken notice - and many wondered what Grindr would do next.
Smithers - an advertising guru whose resume includes Dove's Real Beauty and Pepsi's World Cup campaigns, as well as companies ranging from Playboy to Old Navy - is the brains behind the Anderson live-stream, which he described as a "fun experiment" that paid off, as well as the architect of the brand's future fashion endeavors. He was brought on to Grindr last September to help evolve the brand and creatively engage its global audience of around 6 million active monthly users. Released in 2009, Grindr is the first and largest geosocial networking application targeted to gay and bi men. Like Tinder, it allows these users to find nearby romantic partners through geolocation in their smart phones. But Grindr wants to expand its offerings to more than just sex.
"We have an opportunity to give them more, to kind of unlock the world a bit more for them," executives told Smithers at the time of his hiring. "What would you do to experiment?"
The offer was itself a golden ticket for Smithers, who values a company that gives the freedom to experiment and free rein to "go do what you do." For him, fashion was the clear answer. "For a certain segment of our users, [it] is almost a sport," he said. "It's competitive. You've got teams. You've got your favorites year round, and it's fun to watch."
Underwear would have been the obvious partnership for Grindr, whose link to sex — and gay sex, in particular — has spurred resistance from what Smithers calls "the fashion establishment." But Smithers had his sights set higher.
"We carry what's called a heavy load of preconceptions around with us," said Smithers, who cited to the "gay stigma" that can deter some brands. "However, that transgression also has drawn the very high-level collaborators too."
These collaborators include "it" brands like Baja East, which gave away cashmere sweatpants in a contest as part of Grindr's seventh anniversary celebration. Since the Anderson show, the app has also partnered with stylist and editor Andrew Richardson for a t-shirt collaboration as well as Print All Over Me, which designed athletic wear prior to the Summer Olympics. Proceeds from this clothing line, The Varsity Collection, benefitted Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ group that fights homophobia in sports. For these designers, "transgression" is a selling point.
"I've always been drawn to provocation because I feel it is an expression of commitment, individuality and identity," Richardson praised upon his line's release.
Helping facilitate these partnerships is PR Consulting, a high-fashion public relations company with clients like Hood by Air and Calvin Klein. PR Consulting's decision to take on Grindr in December 2015 raised eyebrows in the fashion world. But the company, speaking to WWD after the move, also saw Grindr's potential as an influencer.
"It would be foolish to think that the fashion, lifestyle, beauty and luxury industries would not view this as an incredible platform to reach an influential, potential consumer," said co-founders Pierre Rougier and Sylvie Picquet-Damesme.
Designers weren't the only creatives to be drawn to Grindr's power. Paper magazine approached Grindr this year with a concept, in which photographer Steven Klein would work with models found from Grindr in New York. The over-20-page resulting spread, titled "Zero Feet Away," would become one of the most high-profile cases of a tactic queer artists and designers have been quietly doing for some time: using Grindr as a casting tool. Gypsy Sport cast this digital net for the runway of its 2017 collection in order to find a diverse set of models. In the film world, King Cobra, a steamy new drama about the gay porn industry starring Christian Slater and James Franco, also employed Grindr to find extras for a sex scene.
"It's becoming a thing for people to hop on the grid and actually find talent," Smithers confirmed. "Part of that is subversion, but part of that truly is — looking at the cast that Steven found — it's a fantastic mix of men. It's not as one-note I think as everyone perceives. And you do truly find some amazing personalities that you probably wouldn't get if you were just using a casting agency."
Clearly, the brand is interested in far more than streaming runway shows. Smithers is also seeking out talent from Grindr's own user base to create "cultural collisions" — collaborations between filmmakers, artists, and designers in which Grindr becomes "an experimental resource." A recent example includes a black-and-white short film, in which a nude porn star, Colby Keller, delivers the "Seven Ages of Man" speech from Shakespeare's As You Like It.
"It's a playground for us, to be honest. A lot can happen," Smithers said.
And while Smithers is certainly interested in "emerging gay designers who have a very unique take on everything from modern street wear to what defines masculinity," one's sexuality need not be a limiting factor in partnering with Grindr.
"You don't have to be gay to play with us in any means," said Smithers, who noted many of Grindr's younger users have already rejected labels in defining their identities. "[The art] should just somehow resonate with our community or be transgressive in its own way and teach us something. There's a lot that we can learn from cross-cultural collaborations, too."
Grindr's users are also helping it evolve. While most are familiar with the profiles images of headless torsos associated with the app — "the first adopters are knees-to-neck," joked Smithers — younger people are "full-faced," using their names in their profiles and linking to other social media accounts. While sex is still an option for these men, many among the new generation use Grindr to meet neighbors or, when travelling, to find recommendations for clubs or restaurants.
"It's becoming a tool for community building," said Smithers, who pointed to how queer men still use it to find one another in less accepting places.
"There's still a huge portion of the world that uses us as much to realize that there are other people out there, and they're not alone, and find people to talk to," Smithers said.
To help assist these communities, the company founded a social responsibility arm, Grindr for Equality, over five years ago. This arm works with local charities and groups around the globe to help provide sexual and mental health services for LGBTQ people. Campaigns have included HIV testing and education of PrEP, a daily treatment that can help prevent HIV. A partnership with the organization Mosaic has even helped guide Syrian refugees to lifesaving resources and safe houses, with directions given through the Grindr app.
This remarkable work has "been done very quietly, very behind the scenes," Smithers said, "and we're starting to amplify it now mainly because our users want to get engaged in health as well."
Smithers expects this amplification to be assisted by the Beijing Kunlun Tech Company, a Chinese gaming company that purchased a majority stake in Grindr earlier this year. The move initially raised eyebrows among some LGBTQ activists, as China still has many legal obstacles for its LGBTQ residents.
"As I remind people, it's not the Chinese government that purchased us, it's a company that happens to have its founder in China," Smithers said. "I know that sounds like a subtle difference, but it's actually not. They purchased us with full support of what the mission [is] … and in that mission is absolute protection of user privacy and protection against and efforts to change the criminalization of being gay."
"They've been very supportive, and I think what they want to do is amplify and grow it internationally. So that's a part of 2017 as well, is take what we're doing and put it on steroids," he added.
Of course, there are also many legal obstacles for LGBTQ people in the United States, where the app was founded. In anticipation of the 2016 election, the app has launched a state-by-state approach to educating its users about the political candidates and their stances. Partnering with Rock the Vote, Grindr also created Grind the Vote, which allowed users to register to vote with "a couple of clicks."
"We've had really good response so far," Smithers said of Grind the Vote. "Our users are definitely engaged, and I think they'll all be getting out to vote."
While Grindr doesn't endorse candidates by name, "let's just say we have a strong leaning," Smithers said, "and it's in this election immensely clear which one is more beneficial to our community."
"But we are a very broad group, and not every gay man is voting for the person you think they would, and we respect that too," he added.
While many in the media still refer to Grindr as a "hookup app," Smithers has his own ways of defining it. One of these is "digital voyeur," a means of "connect you to what's around you and what you should be doing." He also described it as "a map to the gay world, and you choose your adventure, whatever that may be. Whether it's a hookup, a date, a field trip, a meet-up space, there's so much that we can do." And this vision isn't limited to gay men.
"We love the fact that people have chosen families," he said. "So if your chosen family includes your straight girlfriend and your trans best friend and your mother, then I want the app to be the type of thing where all of them can download it, even if they just want to keep up on the latest news. Or they want to get first access to tickets to a concert you're all going to."
"I think that's how you keep something vibrant and alive," Smithers said of those "who want to tag along and get a view into this life," adding, "There's no velvet rope here. We'll give the experience, but just know, there's no doorman stopping you from coming in."
And where does he see Grindr in 10 years?
"World domination," he responded with a laugh, before a thoughtful pause. "Let's go with that: a full world domination."
Text Daniel Reynolds
Imagery courtesy Grindr