The End of Cultural Arbitrage: the West


The media is starting to take note that trend cycles are moving more rapidly than before, and the new shorter trend times are forcing the fashion in question to be judged as inconsequential when implicitly compared to culture of the past. We will never equate the six-month hipster media fixation on electroclash with the four-year long grunge movement of 1992-1995.

In the 20th century, fashion life-cycles were long enough to allow products or cultural items to leisurely pass through the hands of innovators, early adopters, and mass consumers — in that order. Each group had enough time to adopt, use, and enjoy the thing in question before rejecting/disposing it for something cooler. In the trickle-across theory of fashion (adapted from Simmel’s class-based 1904 trickle-down theory), the first adopters — “the cultural elite” or trend-setters — abandon the trend once the next hungry group expropriates it in imitation. This presupposes two conditions: 1) the upper echelon has better access to information (i.e., they know what is “cool” faster or are creating the trends themselves) and 2) there is ample time for groups to really adopt fashions before having to abandon them in the never-ending cycle. I believe this theory has successfully explained the flow of trends in the past, but the two previously-stated presuppositions no longer can be assumed in the current environment. A broadly-shared Internet allows both equal and instant access to information, which in turn shortens the time the first group gets to enjoy the trend before the party crashers arrive.

The hipster elite are starting to show annoyance at this development. Former mo wax guru James Lavelle, quoted in Tokion, lamented that it is now impossible to stay “underground.” Lavelle and his kindred folk profit from exploiting cultural arbitrage: taking information from inaccessible sources and cashing in on that unequal access to information. (In general, a lot of people whom you probably think are cooler than you make a bulk of their money from this inequality in information.) No one in the West knew that Bape is a mainstream brand in Japan, and therefore, Lavelle was able to subtly and indirectly create the brand image to his own liking. In the ’70s, stock broker types could earn a living just from real financial arbitrage — profiting through price discrepancies in currency markets. But then came along the internationally-networked computer, which could cut the reporting time on those discrepancies down to microseconds. This generally killed off any attempts to make a career out of this economic game. Now, with the high speed “information superhighway,” profit from cultural arbitrage business looks doubtful in the long run.

Let’s go back to James Lavelle. He upped his cultural ante in the mid-late 1990s by exclusively wearing the Japanese street fashion brand A Bathing Ape. He had connections to Nigo and co. through random jaunts to Japan and connections to the Major Force collective. His support of the ape-emblazoned clothing was a Pavlovian dinner bell to drooling UK hipster circles, but the brand’s virtual unavailability in the West made it impossible for anyone outside of the Mo Wax “posse” (e.g., Futura and Stash in NYC) to get their hands on it. The lack of a direct product and information flow from Japan enabled these guys to figuratively (but probably not literally) “cash in” on their knowledge. No internet —> no information —> underground status —> cooler than thou.

Then in 1999, two know-nothing 19-year old American kids opened the “first unofficial bathing ape website” on the Internet as a way to innocently spread English information about the brand and bow at the altar of international street culture. Little did they know that they were being terrible cultural cockblocks to Stash and Futura and crew: Ape was their thing! and they were not happy that two nobodies were talking about it in public. Suddenly, the New York Times is knocking on the doors of Recon requesting to photograph the Ape shirts (They found the store on a tip from the unofficial ape website). Sensing that the website was peeving the very people it intended to worship, the creators soon shut it down. In this case, the Internet did not end Ape’s popularity or exclusivity in the West, but it is an early example of how angry people get if you crack the old system.

To their credit, Lavelle and co. like(d) Bape on a personal level; they weren’t “fronting”. The trickle-across theory — or almost any traditional theory of fashion — needs the “cool” innovators to honestly enjoy the product of their choice for a somewhat extended period of time, and therefore, the whole process starts to crumble if they are immediately copied. Being imitated in a short amount of adoption time forces a no-win solution: quickly abandoning a style because it’s being copied by “less cool” people also means abandoning something that the fashion leader is supposed to “honestly” think is fashionable.

These days, the media can spot a trend in its infancy, which leads to the following trend-killing responses: 1) People who shouldn’t know about it learn about it just as fast as “cooler” people [“see you at the Warsaw this friday after Finance class. lol“] 2) Those with access to alternate, negative information about the brand can freely spread the word [“Casey Spooner can’t sing.”] and 3) Those who pride themselves on being “in the know” are immediately turned off by learning about a trend from the internet. [“whatever W.I.T. is, I now hate it.“]

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

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