Since NFTs exploded into the mainstream earlier this year, streetwear has been one segment of the fashion industry to readily embrace the blockchain-backed digital art and collectibles.
Streetwear outlets such as Highsnobiety and Hypebeast have extensively covered the NFT boom, with Highsnobiety running stories such as “The Rise of NFTs and How They’ll Impact Culture” and Hypebeast frequently including NFT news in a weekly round up of business and crypto stories. Bobby Hundreds, founder of Los Angeles streetwear label The Hundreds, has been writing enthusiastically about fashion’s intersection with NFTs and blockchain on the company’s blog.
Some popular NFT creators are embracing streetwear in return. Yuga Labs, whose Bored Ape Yacht Club avatars have popped up across Twitter and brought in $24.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction last week, recently teamed with The Hundreds on physical T-shirts and hoodies. And earlier this year, RTFKT, a digital creative studio that jumped into the spotlight in March by selling the equivalent of $3.1 million with a single collection of NFT sneakers, worked on a set of NFTs with streetwear icon Jeff Staple, founder of the Staple brand and creative agency Reed Art Department. They generally looked like high-tech Nike Air Force 1s pulled straight from a video game and several are now trading for upwards of $40,000.
Much like streetwear, Staple said “the community is super tight knit and they’re using codes and communication channels.
“Whereas from my era it might’ve been like slang and forums [like NikeTalk], now it’s Twitter and Discord and lots of abbreviations and acronyms that nobody understands unless you’re in,” he added.
The affinity between the two spaces is no coincidence. Both thrive on hyped assets, driven by scarcity, that attract high prices on the secondary market and have become status symbols online. Beyond that, NFTs and streetwear in many ways share a similar sense of community — a part of the NFT boom often obscured by the focus on speculative investments in the space. Mainstream fashion companies, which have borrowed liberally from streetwear over the past several years, offering their own takes on sneakers and hoodies while adopting its drop model for releasing products, may find themselves taking some notes from streetwear again.
“There are lessons in the world of street fashion and street culture that are exactly like what’s going on in NFTs,” said Jeff Carvalho, who co-founded Highsnobiety and more recently launched Burrata Corp. with menswear veteran Brian Trunzo to advise brands on emerging technologies such as blockchain. “The flex used to be putting on a pair of Air Jordans that somebody would see IRL walking down the street and they know what it is. The flex today is owning a CryptoPunk and changing your avatar to that punk, to show ownership and be part of that community.”
CryptoPunks, like CryptoKitties, Pudgy Penguins, Bored Apes and now Degenerate Apes are cartoonish NFT avatars that have spread online among those who want to broadcast their insider understanding of the crypto community, or maybe just show off their ability to pay for them. CryptoPunks, being among the oldest NFTs, fetch especially high prices. In June, one sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $11.8 million.
Communities, Not Companies, Build Fandoms
Price tags like that one have contributed to a rush of companies, including fashion brands, trying to create their own NFTs to replicate the success. But Benoit Pagotto, co-founder of RTFKT (pronounced “artifact”), which in May raised $8 million in a funding round led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, said brands are missing the point.
“At the core this is all about community,” he explains.
That community is a loose network of like-minded creators experimenting with NFTs who talk and swap ideas on forums such as Discord. The communal aspect is evident in projects such as “Loot” by Dom Hofmann, co-creator of Vine. Hofmann built a program to randomly generate NFT “bags” filled with text descriptions of items you might find in a fantasy adventure game, things like “Hard Leather Armor” or “Necklace of Enlightenment.” He gave them away for free, though takers had to cover the Ethereum blockchain’s transaction fees — “gas” in crypto speak. The bags, of course, are already reselling for tens of thousands online, but notably, people are starting to create artwork for the items and forming guilds around them. There is still no actual game as yet, but in theory, the community could gradually build it. (Whether it will remains to be seen.)
Staple, by his own admission, isn’t a crypto expert, but one thing he understands is hype. He’s widely known for the 2005 release of his “Pigeon” Nike Dunk in collaboration with the sneaker giant. At the time, it prompted a small riot on New York’s Lower East Side as fans tried to get a pair of the extremely limited shoes, drawing mainstream attention to sneakerheads and their fandom. He saw a parallel in RTFKT’s sneaker drop in March.
“I literally wrote them a DM where I was just like, ‘What you guys are doing in your space really reminds me of when I released the Pigeon Dunk in 2005,” he said.
RTFKT was well aware of Staple’s reputation and immediately invited him to team up — something it hasn’t done for other fashion companies, many of which have gotten in touch, Pagotto said.
“All the ones you can think of, they all called us and either they just wanted to get info because they were super lost, really not understanding anything, or they just wanted to get something done so they can have a press article and say that they innovated,” he said. “It was the main initial reaction. Now I think a lot of them are really trying to go deep or work with agencies.”
There Are More Fashion NFTs to Come
RTFKT’s initial aim, Pagotto said, was to merge streetwear and gaming — a major influence on the look of RTFKT’s work — using NFTs as a medium. He and RTFKT’s other co-founders, Steven Vasilev and Chris Le, all had backgrounds in those arenas. Pagotto’s job as a student was working in Collette, the now-closed but long revered concept store in Paris, and he has since worked advising fashion and luxury companies on how to connect with a gaming audience.
“It was always the goal because we were seeing that these cultures were interacting and becoming one,” he said.
According to Pagotto, companies can’t simply buy their way in. Their involvement has to feel authentic, a word that has also come up often in conversations about brands trying to cash in on streetwear’s rise over the past decade.
The next several months are likely to see numerous fashion companies releasing NFTs of various sorts. A number already have, from Gucci, which created a video NFT inspired by its latest collection, to Rebecca Minkoff, who recently released a set of NFT images based on clothes she showed at New York Fashion Week. But so far these have been more one-off projects, often with proceeds going to charity, than sustained efforts to make use of the technology.
But Staple, who said he has seen a jump in social engagement around his brand since the NFT collaboration, is preparing for his next project with RTFKT. It will likely be tied to the 25th anniversary of his brand, he said. Just this week, he met with one of the RTFKT team. It was their first time meeting in real life.