Lessons from ComplexCon 2018: A desire for belonging motivates today’s streetwear culture, but keeping up with the Kardashians comes with a price 💁🏽‍♀️

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As a communications strategist, understanding human behavior helps me map strategies for how to communicate about what and when, and with whom. But human behavior is complicated, and in my quest to understand what leads us to do the things we do, I often find myself asking, “But, why?” Follow along as I explore what motivates us and how we can use those interests to inspire collective action toward good. 🔍

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this human is my baby sister, j. she’s 15 and into all the trends.

this human is my baby sister, j. she’s 15 and into all the trends.

As a communications strategist, understanding human behavior helps me map strategies for how to communicate about what and when, and with whom—as well as how to motivate people to take action on important issues. Given how fragmented the word is right now, I’m deepening my understanding of what motivates people to join movements and participate in cultural experiences. To research what strategies today’s brands use to build a sense of belonging among their followers, I went to ComplexCon, a weekend-long festival and exhibition showcasing achievements of hip-hop, fashion, food, celebrities, and culture in Long Beach, California.

We all want to belong because belonging is an intrinsic survival strategy that kept us from being ostracized or killed in primitive societies. How we dress is one way we demonstrate belonging, and whether we like it or not, how we dress and what brands we associate with signal to other people the group in society we belong to or want to belong to. We see this most distinctively in organizations like the military, whose uniforms demonstrate an allegiance to the nation; among expert groups like medical professionals, whose white coat is universally understood as a symbol of specialization; and among gangs and political parties, who don red or blue, among other colors, to signify what side they’re on—and therefore, what they value. We also see it among the wealthy elite, the poor, and everyone in between. In many ways, what we wear determines how we are treated.

“Shopping and spending behaviors often come from internal motivations such as emotions, experiences, and culture," says Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. "You look at shopping or storing behaviors, even putting together outfits, and people think of it as fluff. But any behavior is rooted in something deeper.”

Belonging, which can be thought of as being an accepted member of a group, is most authentic when it is established and reinforced by shared experiences and values. For example, Black people, who over the years have been rejected by mainstream society, created subversive subcultures like hip-hop, which we demonstrate through fashion, music, and lifestyle. When you’re a kid, especially a kid whose family doesn’t have a lot of money or influence, fashion and cultural status symbols become a kind of currency–whether you can afford it or not.

“…when you don’t have much ownership over where you can land in society, your financial situation, your educational situation, the one thing you can control is the way you look,” said Sacha Jenkins, director of Fresh Dressed, a 2015 hip-hop fashion documentary.

Maybe it’s because of new competition from popular streetwear festivals like Hypefest, but ComplexCon felt different from the sneaker clubs of my youth, in which belonging was motivated by the shared experiences of marginalized Black people. Here, the people trafficking in these exclusive wares were predominantly white kids—or well-to-do kids of color—who measure their belonging not by kinship but by how much access one has to exclusive brands. Belonging then becomes something you can pay for and negotiate, instead of something born out of struggle and resilience.

“Rarity equals praise, and praise hushes—if only for a while—that inner voice screaming that you don't fit in. It boils down to the same age-old teenage insecurities: the need to be noticed and accepted. Wear one of these brands and you're part of the club, even if you feel a million miles away from it,” Louise Donovon writes for VICE.  

The wares, textiles, and styles exhibited at the conference revealed the streetwear fashion renaissance of the 80s and 90s: fanny packs, primary colors, snapback hats, and pullover windbreakers. And sneakers—lots of sneakers. As a Los Angeleno and a child of that era, I was nostalgic and inspired by the way innovation in design and technology have impacted culture—and how some cultural references and brands have permeated several generations, creating an unlikely commonality, like Jordan’s cult following. My senses were stimulated by loud music and the smell of food from the First We Feast festival, but I was rapt with how what I once experienced as the joy of artistic expression and counterculture had been consumed, appropriated, and fashioned into a cog for fast fashion, capitalism, and overconsumption. Damn.

“Sure, streetwear might have a distinct and unique approach to clothes and the clothes do spawn their own rituals, but that’s a business model, not a culture,” writes Aleks Eror for HighSnobiety.“Streetwear might have a distinctive visual identity and have intimate ties to hip-hop, but that doesn’t make it a subculture because streetwear doesn’t stand for anything aside from brand and product. Take those two away and what are you left with?”

Eror goes on to explain that members of subcultures like punk, goth, and emo stood for a set of beliefs that placed them in direct conflict with the dominant values of mainstream society. Today’s streetwear culture isn’t politically motivated by a desire to establish power as a subculture, to upend the status quo, or set itself apart for political reasons; it’s just plain old supply and demand.

“Streetwear drives consumption, which is the beating heart of consumer capitalism. As such, streetwear doesn’t contradict prevailing values, it represents them. Realistically, streetwear is actually a market segment rather than a subculture,” Eror assesses.

There is a lot of money in manufacturing belonging. For example, Hypebeast, a digital media, and e-commerce company based in Hong Kong is valued at $270 million. Hypebeast, formerly a derogatory term for a trend chaser, was a creative blog about sneakers founded by Hypefest creator Kevin Ma in 2005 and has transformed into a multi-million-dollar brand that sells merch and is traded on the public stock market. While the debate about what streetwear is and is not roars on, it’s important to remember that in the early days of hip-hop, the wealthy elite in fashion and entertainment wanted little to do with the fringe genre.

“…it wasn’t long ago that hip-hop was warily looked at as an insurgent movement tinged with danger, particularly with the rise of Compton’s N.W.A and the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry, thus making the genre a hard sell for any overlap with luxury brands. During those early years, hip-hop artists weren’t necessarily seeking a place in the luxury fashion world. But image, how one displays himself or herself through style choices, has carried a certain level of social capital in the black community,” writes Max Berlinger for the L.A. Times.

Because of their access to resources, most of today’s consumers can traffic in luxury wares and fast fashion without the threat of violence, although the architects of streetwear culture were poor Black youth. Most of us could not afford the goods we wanted to feel like we belonged. Studies show that financial deprivation impacts our ability to make rational and moral decisions—and in the 90s, a lot of young people died at the hands of other young people in a tussle over exclusive merchandise like STARTER jackets and Jordan tennis shoes. There are problematic omissions of systemic economic racism, and people died. There appears to be less of that today, but young people suffer other repercussions, like low self-worth, in the interminable race to stay relevant.

Streetwear aficionados who used to travel city-to-city to wait in line for a limited pair of Air Jordans have built genuine networks over the years. A Reddit group called Sneakerheads Unite! has 600,000 members, and a documentary released in January 2016 called Sneakerheadz details how some collectors have been chasing the drops of rare shoes for decades. The conference was a combination of those folks and new age Hypebeasts, where the line between genuine belonging and the appropriation of it was irreversibly blurred. If I had to guess, I would say that’s the culture of the future as we barrel toward fast, cheap fashion and curated online experiences.

By appealing to the instinctive human desire to be part of a group and displaying recognizable symbols of belonging like attire uniformity and language, brand capitalists build followings of devotees willing to spend to be part of something unique. Since belonging can be neither bought nor sold, what they’re actually getting is feigning recognition—at a premium.


Pro tip:

To remind myself to be an active participant in how I try to belong or make purchases, I use a nemonic device developed by Patricia Devine: detect, reflect, reject. I remain active and aware of my actions by detecting them. I reflect on why I am doing what I am doing, and I reject anything that isn’t in my integrity.

Pro tip

To learn more about ethical consumption of media, check out Tristan Harris’s TED Talk.

“A handful of people working at a handful of tech companies steer the thoughts of billions of people every day, says design thinker Tristan Harris. From Facebook notifications to Snapstreaks to YouTube autoplays, they're all competing for one thing: your attention. Harris shares how these companies prey on our psychology for their own profit and calls for a design renaissance in which our tech instead encourages us to live out the timeline we want.”

Clips & Links:

You Think This Has Nothing to Do With You (The Devil Wears Prada)

EY explores belonging in the workplace, with new Belonging Barometer study

What is Hypebeast and How Did It Get to an IPO?

Hypebeast Wikipedia

Reddit Sneakerhead group

Sneakerheadz documentary trailer

The Society of the Science of Motivation

The 14-Year-Olds Spending Thousands on Streetwear

The Logic of Stupid Poor People

The environmental costs of fast fashion

Financial Deprivation Selectively Shifts Moral Standards and Compromises Moral Decisions

1990s flashback: When the desire for Starter jackets turned deadly