The Intangible Value Proposition

Like most fashion brands, streetwear brands are selling a lifestyle. Streetwear brands in particular signify a specific subculture attitude.

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Supreme’s attitude has been based in its origin as a skater brand, providing autonomy and the counter-culture spirit. Supreme used to be a tool for self-expression within the skate community. Like skate culture, the company positioned itself as rejecting consumption. It started out as critical commentary on capitalism. This is why the brand’s logo has adapted - to some it feels more like ‘abused’ - the visual aesthetic of artist Barbara Kruger.

But why do we, as consumers, need to ‘buy’ a lifestyle after all?

Selling lifestyle targets the core human needs of forming our identity and of belonging to a community. As humans, we all seek to belong to our groups, we need human connection. Fashion is a way for people to connect within their group. It helps consumers facilitate human connections within this group.

In subcultures people connect with their group, by “getting what it is about”, in particular when the mainstream is not aware of what the brand really stands for. This helps differentiate the member of the subculture group from the mainstream and the copycats.

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Clothes and products have always provided the identification with music culture, skateboard culture and club culture among other cultural forms. Clothes provide consumers with an opportunity to tell others a story about their identity and about the group they belong to. Just think of concert t-shirts that include the dates of the b(r)and’s whole tour. These dates are a story to be told, they are shared memories embedded into a piece of garment. The more mature the band band, the longer back these memories reach. What the guy with the 1991 Tour T-shirt really is trying to say, is “let me pass through kid, I’ve been with them before you even got your first iPod.”

In his book “This is not a T-Shirt, Bobby Hundreds, founder of the streetwear brand and media platform ‘The Hundreds’, writes about how the tools for connection have evolved over time while the value proposition has stayed the same: “When I was a teenager, we photocopied zines, writing and editing and collaging material in order to communicate our worldview to strangers. When we started The Hundreds, zines were digitalized into blogs. And since the late 2000s, social media has been the primary tool. The answer isn’t the tool itself (VR and AR technology aren’t going to miraculously solve your growth problems). The solution lies in facilitating human connection.”

He describes that The Hundreds “has come to represent chapters in young people’s lives.” And the closer a product is associated with a particular activity or community, the more true this is for the products that we have bought earlier in our lives.

For my generation, even though the brand has lost its original spirit, Airwalk still is a synonym for Skateboarding. I never forgave my mother for throwing away my Airwalks because they were ‘run down’. Being ‘run down’ is what made them cool in the first place. How could she fail to see that also the state of a product can be part of its identity.

For others, Super Mario might ring a bell. The there are the tv shows everybody talked about during a certain period. If you know what a ‘close-talker’ is, then you probably have seen Seinfeld.

The cult notebook business Moleskine is in a similar business. It has been selling “a book yet to be written”. The book becomes a cultural tool that helps consumers become the authors of their filled notebooks. Thanks to the Moleskine heritage, such a consumer-author can then align him- or herself with the greats, such as Hemmingway, Chatwin and Picasso. In that way the brand is selling a means to our self-expression and individuality.