The meteoric rise of streetwear over the past few years has been so pronounced that even designers from establishment French fashion houses now think of it as part of high-fashion. So it was only a matter of time before this internet-hyped world of limited-edition “drops”, collaborations and influencers got an irl festival.
Hypefest came to Brooklyn, New York’s coolest borough last weekend, bringing with it maxed-out millennial hipness – courtesy of Kevin Ma, founder of the web publication Hypebeast.
Spread across several acres of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, Hypefest could be described as a festival of brands and branding. There were stages for DJs and hip-hop acts, but these were relatively peripheral; the main action was in two warehouses filled with stalls – known here as activations – where brands showed off their latest, exclusive collaborations, to the nearly 10,000 visitors who attended over two days. On day one, the queue to get in stretched two blocks down Flushing Avenue, mirroring scenes at similar events in cities around the world.
“My feeling is that brands are the new bands and the kids want to see the stars behind the brands,” mused the streetwear impresario Harry Bernstein, commonly known as Harry Bee, who was milling around outside the Nike space.
Hypefest and its ethos is derived from Hong Kong-based Hypebeast, which Ma started in 2005 as a forum for trainer enthusiasts. In this environment, the only assurance of cool is exclusivity. This is internet style – a collage of brands and internet cultures, mapped on to physical place.
At The Conveni, a pop-up collaboration with Ma’s fellow festival curator, “cultural DJ” and streetwear consultant Hiroshi Fujiwara, visitors entered a deli to browse glass-fronted fridge-freezers holding hoodies and sweatshirts that came packaged as soda bottles or giant packets of crisps.
“It’s like a music festival and they’re using music to bring brands,” says Marina, a 26-year-old graphic designer from Tokyo.
Adjacent, the Japanese T-shirt and sweatshirt brand AMFC showcased garments imprinted with floral graphics, staged against the backdrop of a florist. Buy a hoodie (shipped later) and get a bouquet to take home. This turned out to be a delightful exchange.
Nearby, a dentist’s office offered facemasks and limited edition T-shirts and hoodies by Marc Jacobs and Instragram artist Reilly ($195). Before long the value will likely jump on resale sites such as Goat (one of the fair sponsors).
The major brand temples, those of Nike and Adidas, filled with millennial browsers, had their own buildings, including a booth for trainer customisation artist Jack the Ripper and one for trainers with a custom, 3D-printed midsole. Participating brands included cult names Ambush, Bape, Heron Prestonand Girls Don’t Cry, whose limited-edition collections regularly sell out and resell for twice the price.
Get it right, like Supreme has done for decades through timely collaborations and limited product releases that generate sufficient hype to create that symbol of cultural exchange and approval, the queue, and you have a billion-dollar company (50% owned by The Carlyle Group).
That imprimatur of street cool, and the promise of the commercial application, has brought the world’s wealthiest purveyors of luxury seeking curators. These include Ma, Fujiwara, and their fellow curator Sarah Andelman, of the now-shuttered cult Parisian concept store Colette, who are perceived to have their ears to the ground (or street, as it may be).
With streetwear as fetishised as luxury fashion (Dior Men’s designer Kim Jones, the architect of a 2017 Louis Vuitton and Supreme hookup and the owner of 500 pairs of sneakers, recently told Highsnobiety that the term was redundant because the two are so intertwined), it would be reasonable to think that curators such as Ma might feel a touch encroached upon.
“We never wanted to keep it just for ourselves,” he said. “I just happened to like this stuff and started sharing it out on our blog as a gateway for learning about creativity.” Through sneakers, he learned about street art, gallery art, streetwear, high fashion, music, film and animation.
Ma’s emphasis on learning and community goes some way to relieving the scene’s relentless emphasis on the acquisition of products. But lest there is any doubt, Hypebeast is emphatically not about counter-culture. “This is not about being different. It’s about having what you have, but having a more exclusive version of it,’” Bee explained.
In the 13 years since it was founded, Ma’s company has acquired 6m followers on Instagram, many of them fashion-conscious millennials who are highly desirable to advertisers. Last year, it launched its own “bespoke creative agency”.
Hypefest, the latest incarnation of the hype family, should, according to Ma, be seen as a platform, an accumulation of everything its curators had learned and a celebration of everything they love.
“We just want to bring our curation to life. We’re not trying to change the system or anything like that. The interesting thing about this festival is that it is not only about fashion, it is about all the things that we love, and that includes animation or Pokémon.”
Certainly, the limited-edition products created for the festival gave it a reason for being. Pokémon Go collaborated with Fujiwara on a 32-piece conglomerate of hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts and caps with Pokémon graphics, while Virgil Abloh’s label Off-White re-launched a white roller suitcase in collaboration with Rimowa. Courtney Love launched a capsule collection printed with images from her book Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love. “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just God when he’s drunk,” reads one slogan, taken from Tom Waits.
By and large, visitors seemed happy. “An immersive cultural experience,” said Matt Barash, 41, who had spotted Gucci Mane in the groovy melee. “The product was unique, the fashion was ahead and you’ve got tons of influencers walking around.”
Some wondered if coolness can be packaged up this way. Some said the organisers got halfway there. “Some of the activations could have been better,” said graphic designer Jason Greene, 28. “They had the right idea, but maybe next year the product will be better.”
Hypefest comes just as the aforementioned queue, the most tangible display of the hype machine, is being challenged by one of streetwear’s main protagonists. Two weeks ago, Kanye West launched an online-only, mass-market edition of his wildly popular Triple White colourway Yeezy trainer collaboration with Nike, retailing at a relatively accessible $220. Matt Cohen, vice-president at online trainer marketplace Goat, said this could backfire. “If it’s no longer an aspirational brand and everyone can have it, how much actual demand is there?” Ma shared doubts: “I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” he says. “Sure, it’s good to make sneakers for everyone, but will people want it?”
The jury may be out, but one Hypefest attendee, Blake Toussaint, 19 – who was wearing a pair of spotless Triple Whites – thought it was cool: “A lot of people are mad about it, but I don’t see a problem. The more Yeezys, the better, and at least people [are] wearing the real ones,” he said.
Ma does not forsee an end to the queue any time soon: “You get to meet different people, learn about different brands.” But, he said, with the growth of the resale market there has been a shift in the mentality: “I don’t queue any more – but a queue is still a community.”
The longest queue at Hypefest, according to Barash, was at the stand for the collaboration between Nike Air Force 1 High and menswear label ALYX Studio. This was no ordinary line: here people waited to buy a hoodie, which then entered them into a raffle – the only way to get their hands on much-lusted-after ALYX x Nike trainers.
“So, you’ve got the kids queuing to spend all this money to maybe win a pair of shoes,” he said, calculating the exclusivity quotient of it all. “I’m sure they’re going to be expensive online … ”