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Supremely cool capitalism

A couple of years ago I got up at an ungodly hour to spend my morning watching the sun rise in a smelly, graffiti adorned alley. As morning turned to afternoon, I slowly approached a black shop-front. To my front and rear were some of the most extravagantly dressed people I have ever come across – think the Tweenies crossed with Willy Wonka.

To the untrained eye these people would be considered little more than London streetwear dandies, but not to mine. Whilst queueing for the Supreme Soho store, I came to realise that these people were so much more, that the wonderful force of consumer capitalism had transformed them into savvy 21st century arbitrage traders, adorning themselves with the waviest of garms and simultaneously lining their pockets with a tonne of money.

This new class of financial trader does not operate from a glistening tower block, but from pretty much anywhere they can get internet on their mobile phones. What was striking about the queue into Supreme’s London store was not that it was full of dull, apathetic teens, dragging their mothers by the cuff to fork out on designer streetwear as is typically supposed. On the contrary, it was a buzzing hive of activity, akin to a Wall Street trading floor.

The unique business model of Supreme (a New York streetwear brand founded in 1994) pioneered the ‘drop’, a technique that has been emulated by many ‘hype beast’ fashion brands since. Instead of releasing all the season’s clothing and accessories at once, as most high street brands tend to, Supreme releases them incrementally, in a drop, with much hype and speculation around each release. Many Facebook groups, blogs, websites and Twitter accounts are used to speculate on not only what will be released in the forthcoming drop, but also how much each item will sell for, and further, what it’s resale price is predicted to be. The sense of scarcity created by each drop – typically featuring hundreds lining up outside stores before they open, buying up almost all stock in hours – creates a huge resale market. When I visited I bought a hoodie from the store for £120 – now, were I to choose to sell the same hoodie second hand, I could command £450 for it.

To avoid cheeky individuals buying up the whole store to resell it, Supreme have limited each customer to buying a maximum of two products at each drop. This has led to resellers paying others to stand in the queue for them, ordered to buy specific items once in the store so that they receive a cut of what the resellers make from their ability to buy more Supreme goods. Proxy sellers were in the queue as well. These people would take photos of goods through the shop window, send it to others, who would then message them to buy a specific item in the photograph taken – for less than the resell price but for more than the in-store price.

Speaking to someone in the queue, I discovered that this entrepreneurial spirit did not end once the ‘hype beasts’ were home. I heard advice of how if you find an undervalued item on a website such as Ebay or Depop (typically used to resell these kinds of goods), you should, using the same photos as the original listing, put the same item on another website to resell for a higher price. When someone chooses to buy the item that you have relisted, you should buy it off of the original listing and have it sent to the buyer that bought it from the site that you listed it on. It turns out these kids are making money selling things that they never owned or used!

Thus, it appears that the clothing market is beginning to look a lot like financial markets. Prices are determined by supply and demand rather than by fixed prices. By strictly controlling supply, big brands can charge high prices for goods with low production costs, such as with H&M and Moschino, John Lewis and Jasper Conran, or GAP and Valentino. As social media blurs the line between the ownership and marketing of consumer goods, I cannot help but feel that this trend will only continue.

I love my Supreme hoodie, and though it was expensive, I often wear it with pride. It reminds me of the uncanny ability of capitalism to not just bring out the inner entrepreneur in all of us; but also, its ability to foster cooperation, direct scarce resources to where they are most valued, and most of all, its ability to produce some pretty sweet looking hoodies.

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