Fashion

Inside the fast-paced, secretive world of competitive shopping

Stylist explores why limited edition, sell-out items make us want them even more  

Sitting on a deck chair, Hannah Alkindi, just 16, prepared to spend a night of her half-term break on Peter Street in London’s Soho. A bunch of guys were setting up a tent on the pavement next to her group’s spot. It was 22 April 2015 and the street had been filling up with a young, stylish crowd since 7pm – some her age, most older. If it rained, those who had arrived in cars would offer shelter to those left outside.

“My grandma wasn’t happy,” she laughs, “but these were my friends, I knew I was safe.”

They were all waiting for the same thing: the chance to spend hundreds of pounds on clothing. Streetwear brand Supreme was rumoured to be releasing its latest collaboration, this time with American outdoors brand The North Face. Items up for grabs included a denim version of The North Face’s Dot Shot parka with the Supreme logo stamped on its arm, a denim bucket hat and a duffle bag.

Alkindi was about to compete in a game she’d been preparing to win for days, even though nobody in the queue could be sure about the details of this latest drop. Nothing had been confirmed by the company. Because here’s the thing about Supreme: every move it makes is shrouded in secrecy and its products are deliberately scarce. (It was impossible to even track down a PR contact for the brand when writing this story.)

Shoppers queuing outside the Supreme store in Soho, London
Shoppers queuing outside the Supreme store in Soho, London

Undersupplying, of both items and information, has become a marketing tactic. Supreme and other streetwear brands have led the pack by strategically limiting supply and not meeting customer demand, but it’s gaining traction among luxury brands too. Balenciaga, Burberry and Gucci have all toyed with the limit-and-hype model over the past few years, making it harder than ever to buy coveted items each season.

To know about Supreme’s new launches and collaborations you have to be deeply embedded in its world. There are Instagram, Twitter and Facebook fan accounts dedicated to deciphering what is “dropping” – streetwear parlance for a one-time, limited release – and when and where. Leaks begin to trickle into these groups in the weeks running up to a big launch, usually from employees. “Supreme don’t do anything about it because it benefits them,” Alkindi explains. 

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Besides special collaborations, new products drop into stores and online at 11am every Thursday and sell out immediately. Two years ago Supreme introduced a raffle ticket system with time slots to maintain order during the drops.

In 2015, Alkindi had been part of Supreme’s world for about a year, particularly the London- based streetwear community The Basement (back then it was a Facebook group, now it’s a full-blown media company with 273,000 Instagram followers). It was exciting. “We’d talk about the items we thought were going to be the most hyped pieces and decide what we wanted to buy, either to wear or resell.”

The Louis Vuitton x Supreme collection

The long wait, the endless chatter on social media and the possibility of walking away with nothing is all part of the love affair with the brand. But where did this clever retail strategy come from?

“The Supreme model of releasing items in drops originated in Japan,” explains Jian DeLeon, editorial director at streetwear culture brand Highsnobiety. “Items are replenished in stores every Saturday, whether that’s at Supreme or Barneys. It’s a novel way of getting people to shop because their market is not e-commerce driven. It’s a tactile retail environment.”

Supreme took the concept of the Japanese Saturday drop and expanded it: the products were still fresh discoveries, but you wouldn’t always be able to get what you wanted. It made the brand – once a small New York skate shop – into a billion-dollar business. In 2017, it sold a 50% stake in the company to the Carlyle Group for a reported $500million. The same year, it collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a collection that included ready-to- wear, luggage and a skateboard – each item stamped with both brands’ iconic logos. 

Lex Showumni, whose company 3S Partnerships managed the security for the Supreme X Louis Vuitton launch in London, remembers it as one of the most intense events his team has taken on.

“We were involved six weeks prior,” he says. “This was a very high-risk event. We walked out of our first meeting knowing that there had been stabbings at Supreme drops [in New York] before. People had been robbed of their items on leaving the store, and things could get crazy.”

Showumni deployed a team of 28 guards to line the queue of about 600 people, and 22 more to patrol the store at night.The partnership boosted the profits of LVMH, the holding company Louis Vuitton belongs to, by 23% in that quarter of the financial year. 

Louis Vuitton x Supreme bag at Paris Fashion Week
Louis Vuitton x Supreme bag

Worth the hype?

It is no surprise, then, that the rest of the fashion industry has woken up to the lucrative world of drops. Last year, preppy, all-American Ralph Lauren collaborated with streetwear giant Palace on a collection of sweatshirts, puffer jackets and plaid trousers. The drop was teased in the weeks preceding it, with dramatic photographs of models riding horses in the deserted mountains dressed in the collection on both brands’ social media. They were captioned ‘November 9th, 11.00am’. When the date rolled around, it sold out in minutes.

Burberry, Gucci, Nike, Adidas, Louis Vuitton and Opening Ceremony have also dipped their toes in the model in the past year. All this hype means that it’s harder than ever to buy the pieces you want each season. The Balenciaga Triple S trainer was a case in point. The shoe first appeared on their a/w 2017 menswear runway in January 2017, paired with slouchy, velvet trousers and cool bomber jackets. Soon, the likes of Rihanna and Bella Hadid were wearing the clunky, pre-scruffed trainer. It was the shoe. When it dropped that September, it retailed at £645 and was next to impossible to purchase.

The New York Times columnist Jon Caramanica wrote about his eight-month mission to buy a pair last year. He first saw them in the window of Balenciaga’s Madison Avenue store in the month of their release and went back a couple of weeks later to buy them. He was told “with a blend of exuberance and pity… no, the shoes were just for show”. Dangling the product in front of consumers and then snatching it away inevitably makes them want it more. By the time Caramanica was finally holding his own pair of Triple S trainers, he’d gone through several fakes, countless calls to stores and been told “no” more times than any ego should take.

Balenciaga Triple S trainers

Sending consumers on a wild goose chase is a central piece of the hype puzzle. When Nike first launched its SNKRS app back in 2015, it was a way to share news of releases and make purchasing shoes quick and easy: your address, card details and size were all stored.

In 2017, it expanded this concept, creating IRL scavenger hunts for shoppers. To buy limited-edition trainers, customers queued digitally before Nike invited them to a space such as a park or street corner using geolocation to search for the product. On arrival, participants were met by a crowd of like-minded shoe-hunters. 

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“It’s about fostering a sense of community and not so much about buying product any more,” explains DeLeon.

Similarly, Gucci’s new concept store in New York’s SoHo is designed to feel like a community space. “They don’t call their sales associates sales associates,” says DeLeon. “They call them connectors because it’s not just their job to connect people to the product but also the larger world of the brand.” Hype has been part of Gucci’s message since Alessandro Michele took over in 2015, amping up its use of the double G logo and building a new following of fans. Last year, it released a £290 printed swimsuit that couldn’t actually be used for swimming: it sold out everywhere.

Gucci store New York
Gucci's concept store in New York

Under the influence

Burberry has upped its hype game, too. When Riccardo Tisci, formerly of Givenchy, was tasked with breathing new life into the heritage brand last March, he launched B Series. On the 17th of every month, Burberry releases a new product, which is available to buy for 24 hours on its Instagram, WeChat, LINE and Kakao platforms. This strategy allows brands to drip-feed collections and keep interest piqued. These monthly drops have doubled Burberry’s young and new customers, according to Bloomberg.

Stylist’s fashion news editor, Billie Bhatia, is the first to admit that hype is a powerful form of marketing, quoting it as the driver of her shoe habit. “I enter competitions just to win a chance to buy trainers,” she says. “I set alarms to get in virtual queues. I have even considered buying a bot to wait in queues for me. Last year, I missed three London Fashion Week shows to try to secure a pair of Yeezys.” 

But what is it about rarity that makes us behave in this way? “Hype items are the golden tickets of the fashion world,” says Bhatia. “Get your hands on a pair and your status, your mood and your wardrobe is elevated. But we risk the same fate as Augustus Gloop – it’s a slippery slope, because the golden ticket, or the brand new buy, alone is never enough.”

Consumer psychologist Patrick Fagan says that wanting a limited-edition product is as primal as our desire to find somewhere warm to sleep. “The main principle at work is scarcity effect,” he explains. “From an evolutionary point of view, during the winter we’ve had to put effort into obtaining and protecting food. In one study looking into this, two groups were given a cookie from different jars and asked how much they liked it. In the group where the cookie was the last one, people said it tasted better even though the cookies were identical.” 

Yeezy trainers
Yeezy trainers

There is also a hit of hormones involved. “There will be a dopamine reward if you manage to get the product, especially if you’ve beaten people to it. It becomes addictive in the same way slot machines are,” says Fagan.

Jess Lawrence, a streetwear influencer with 21,000 followers on Instagram (@jessylaw), understands this. She has a similar story about the shoes she is wearing today: the Adidas Yung 1 in red and blue.

“I signed up to apps like The Sole and Sneaker Releases to receive notifications and set my alarm on a Saturday morning to buy them from Offspring, which had them an hour earlier than other stores. I wore them for a month then got bored. Today is their first outing in six months,” she says. “It was a hype shoe but now it’s over. I wonder sometimes if I actually like them.” But does it matter? Her followers expect to see her in hard-to-get items. She informs how they shop.

This is down to something Fagan calls celebrity contagion. “If you know Nicki Minaj has worn a T-shirt, for instance, you will value it more because it allows you to psychologically take on the attributes of Nicki Minaj and the same goes for an influencer you respect. We’re social, herd animals, hardwired to follow what we see other people doing. It’s not rational, it’s an emotional gut feeling,” he says. 

It was 8am when Alkindi opened her eyes on the day of the Supreme X The North Face drop. Office workers were weaving their way through their temporary campsite. “I felt horrible,” she recalls. “You’ve had a few hours sleep, you’re getting weird looks. You just want to go in, get your pieces and go home.”

Plus, the atmosphere became more competitive. “People’s game faces come out,” she says. “It’s like, hang on, we were friends last night and now we’re enemies? People realise their place in the queue. You get nervous.”

Four years later, Alkindi struggles to recall what she bought that morning. But it didn’t actually matter. Eventually, the pack mentality turned Alkindi off the brand. “I felt everyone was starting to look the same and my time was worth more than standing for hours in a queue,” she says. She names similarly covetable brands like Needles, Misbhv and Stüssy as favourites now. In the end, the sense of belonging, of being inside an exclusive world, became a cage.

When Alkindi decided to sell every Supreme piece she owned last year (she estimates she had 50), she found that so much of her identity was tied up with the label. “Selling my Supreme X Playboy joggers was heartbreaking, I got the last pair just as they were turning people away, so they were sentimental,” she says. “But I also felt it was necessary.”

Why couldn’t she keep them as a memento? “I felt if I could detach from them, I could detach from it all,” she sighs. “When they were gone, I was free. I wasn’t the Supreme girl any more.”

Images: Getty Images, Alamy, Eyevine/The New York Times

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