What high fashion can learn from street

A lot of people wonder when Vetements’ bubble is going to burst. Arguably, among the plugged-in fashion connoisseurs, it already has — but for others, the “luxe-street” obsession has only just began.

For someone who hails from the Eastern Bloc (and presumably for a good number of others), Vetements represents the pinnacle of cultural reductionism. It’s all aesthetics, no meaning: Buy a $1,265 hoodie, and you can look like you just smashed the Berlin Wall.

The flattening out of a niche culture for commercial purposes is not new — think back to Carven’s appropriation of katakana or, more recently, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s use of cyrillic. Cultural niches offer an easy source of inspiration because of their social mythology, which is often culturally deep and visually specific.

Streetwear is a fertile territory for luxury fashion, which has recently become culturally isolated despite its rich history, vast repository of narratives and important social commentary. After many years, luxury fashion has found itself lacking influence.

Disregarding the discerning eye roll that faux-street brands elicit among the fashion-savvy, there is much that streetwear can teach luxury brands about their organizations and the way to do business:

Create a community of hobbyists.
My friend Sophie can tell you right off the bat what kind of patterns you can expect to see on Bottega Venetta men’s slippers. Sophie works in digital marketing, and she buys luxury fashion as a hobby. Today’s fashion connoisseurs are less conspicuous consumers mindlessly chasing logos and more informed obsessives of street ilk. They are repositories of fashion knowledge, ready to travel across the world to obtain a coveted item or passionately talk about their latest acquisitions. Just ask Buscemi fans.

Master the language of reference.
Like Helmut Lang in his heyday, Rick Owens wouldn’t even have to show his clothes for fans to covet his brand. Its mix of references from art, theater, music, film, design and architecture have turned his brand into a cultural curator and appreciator of all forms of creativity. Connecting to just one of those references can make us feel that we are among those who “get it.” It can signal that we belong to an exclusive community of like-minded others drawn to an aesthetic instinct, taste and identity.

Master the art of cultural commentary.
Legendary street brands are the epicenters of their respective niche cultures. They are built by filtering global creativity through a niche perspective. They then use this niche sensibility to re-enter the global dialogue. Their shops are places where creative minds mingle with skaters, street artists, DJs, zine makers and club-goers. In these spots, brand culture is simultaneously created and shared, with fans acting as both source material for brands and their beta testers. This is where social, individual and gender identities are formed and confirmed, and where everyone gets to feel a bit “underground.”

Ride on the high of the hunt.
The internet’s power to both build anticipation and tease is incomparable among media. We’ve all fallen victim to the Web’s rabbit holes of content and products, where the best items are often found only after pleasurable-slash-obsessive browsing sessions that involve following the most obscure trails. Street brands know that we appreciate something more if we have to hunt and/or wait for it, and are good in dropping hints about new releases. High-fashion brands should know that in the vortex of speed and newness, it’s good to keep your fans close: Reward them with subtle hints, but delay gratification through timed releases and unpredictable drops.

Prioritize found over targeted audiences.
The audience that finds a fashion brand through its own aesthetic instinct is more valuable than the audience that a brand buys at the start of a season. Brands with found audiences — like Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester and WTAPS — offer an identity, a sensibility and an intriguing story. These are different from brands that use traditional luxury advertising, where aesthetics are defined by a brand manager or a celebrity photographer, and put out in the world for everyone to consume and eventually get bored with. More effective than this seasonal imagery is the ongoing cultural commentary shown through a brand’s lens: a constant stream of brand references that move at the speed of a social feed.

Streetwear’s strategy can infuse a much-needed nimbleness and versatility into high-end brands, and teach them about modern influence and cultural status — but to fully capitalize on this opportunity, luxury fashion first needs to distinguish between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. The latter is the domain of identity, the former merely a question of aesthetics.

This article was originally featured in Glossy, on January 17, 2017

Strategy Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Forbes’ one of The World’s Most Influential CMOs.