(Top photo: two kids wearing lots of Supreme)
It's 11AM on a Saturday morning and roughly 200 people are lined up outside London's Dover Street Market. One guy, Colin, has been here since 3AM. He jumped on a train in the middle of the night and waited eight hours for a very specific reason: Gosha Rubchinskiy.
"Gosha is one of my favourite designers," he says, referring to the 32-year-old behind fashion's current obsession with post-Soviet style. Born in Moscow, the designer takes inspiration from, and documents, Russia's youth culture. "I've always loved sport, and Gosha's designs cater to that," continues Colin. "He mixes the skate scene, streetwear and high fashion together."
It's also probably worth mentioning at this point that Colin is 14. Four years off being legally allowed to vote in this country, he's dressed in a two-toned Supreme velour tracksuit (retail: £380/€440) and is alarmingly articulate about his fashion likes and, notably, dislikes. "I don't rate [British skate label] Palace any more," he says matter-of-factly. "The designs are cool but they're a bit repetitive."
Next is Ed. I don't know Ed's surname because he runs off halfway through our chat, but he's 13 and has just managed to get his hands on one of last year's most sought-after releases: the Adidas NMD "OG" trainers (the ones with the red and blue panels). They were re-released at Dover Street Market the same day Rubchinskiy's new collection dropped in-store. "I was meant to wake up at three in the morning but overslept, so I only got here at about eight," he says. As a result he had to buy the trainers from a reseller outside, coughing up an extra £70. But it's all worth it, in his opinion. "If you're walking around Soho and you've got something on other people don't have, you feel so good," he explains. "People just look at you like… rah. It's next level."
Then there's 16-year-old Michelle, last seen in the queue for Palace before her mum dragged her home. "I'd been there for eight hours," she grins, "so my mum came down to Soho and shouted at me in front of everyone." Today she's wearing tracksuit bottoms from Georgian/Parisian label Vetements. They retail at just under £500/€580.
These kids are dressed in head-to-toe designer, with wardrobes rivalling people twice their age. How did we get to this point? Why is Ed dropping €600 on a second-hand Supreme x Stone Island anorak without batting an eyelid? How did 14-year-old wunderkind Leo "Gully Guy" Mandela pick up over 120,000 Instagram followers just by posting photos of himself in the most hyped streetwear on the market?
The kids of yesteryear sloped about in Slipknot hoodies and studded Low Life belts, hoping their teenage years would whirl by with zero to little fuss. Now? Supreme; Palace; Gosha; Off-White; vintage Gucci are all styled to gram-worthy perfection. And this shit costs. We're talking €200 and upwards for anything that's deemed mildly exclusive. So who are these apparently very wealthy children, and where did their fascination with fashion come from?
Unsurprisingly, most of the kids I spoke to agreed Instagram was hugely influential. When you've "copped" a new item – especially if that item is rare – there's a need to show it off. "I wasn't serious on my gram game," explains Colin, "but six months ago I thought: 'Everyone else is doing it, so I might as well get on it properly.'" If you see your peers posting – and racking up 500-plus likes in the process – you can see how a part of you might want in.
For the big dogs it takes commitment: Mandela posts, on average, every couple of days in a totally new outfit, often in different cities. He's admitted to spending between €9,000 to €10,000 on clothes in the past two years alone, but it's all part of the same game: the hunt for something no one else will own. Rarity equals praise, and praise hushes – if only for a while – that inner voice screaming that you don't fit in. It boils down to the same age–old teenage insecurities: the need to be noticed and accepted. Wear one of these brands and you're part of the club, even if you feel a million miles away from it.
But unless you've got extremely rich parents, a criticism frequently flung at these kids in Instagram comments, keeping up with the latest drops is a job in itself. If teenagers get a bad rap for being vain – a generation too obsessed with social media and the Jenner sisters to care about anything else – the world they've created within that bubble is impressive. Many of these kids legally can't work, so they hustle for their money. Colin's parents bought him a pair of Raf Simons Ozweego trainers for his birthday, which, second-hand, cost £150 (retail price is £235/€275). A couple of months later he saw a Supreme work jacket he wanted, so sold the trainers and used that money to buy the jacket. As Ed explains, "Over time you end up making more and more money because resale value for hyped items is more than retail value, even if it's worn." Colin is at pains to point out his parents didn't "give him any money" for Christmas last year because he's earned enough of his own through reselling and is becoming "too materialistic".
Does he think he's becoming too materialistic? He pauses for a second. "No, because clothes are my version of iPads, iPhones and Xboxes that other kids buy. And anyway, you look great."
This micro-economy is ubiquitous, and most kids are at it. Whacking up your old, ultra rare box logo tee onto Grailed (a high-end eBay) doesn't make you a "reseller" – people who buy hype items purely to sell them on for maximum profit – it simply means you can go on funding your obsession without having to rely on the bank of mum and dad. Some, like 16-year-old Sophie Scott from Croydon, are actively against the idea. "I spent over a month looking for my Supreme x Playboy tracksuit bottoms. Why would I sell them? It takes away the fun. I buy clothes because I want to wear them, not to make profit." (Sophie works in a chip shop every Saturday and says she pays for her "own shit.")
But what with all the obvious hype, are these kids genuinely into the clothes? Or fashion generally? The word hypebeast gets thrown about a lot: people who've jumped onto exclusive streetwear in the last year because it's a Cool Thing To Do. They'd all have you believe it's a legitimate interest: Sophie doesn't care if she gets called a hypebeast, while Colin's already got his fashion hierarchy instilled: "Girls my age – no offence, but they shop in Primark." Ask about where their love of streetwear originated from and it's an altogether sweeter story. Colin first discovered Supreme after hanging out with older kids at his local skate park. "And even though I'm crap at skating, everyone who wore the clothes looked so cool. I wanted to be just like them."
The same goes for Sophie. She might be obsessed with clothes, but it also runs a little deeper than that. "A few years ago, before I started getting into streetwear, I had quite low self-esteem," she says. "Eventually I started wearing bits, like Palace, just to see what happened, and people reacted in a good way. But it was scary. Just last week I bought a pair of white Supreme overalls and wore them to college a few days afterwards. I felt nervous [on that first day], but when people say to you, 'These are really nice,' you feel good about yourself. It's really helped my confidence."
Vetements stylist Lotta Volkova recently told the Business of Fashion that there are no subcultures any more. That teenagers today don't even have the knowledge of what a subculture is. And, sure, we now live in a world where people are more interested in constructing an online self than outwardly showing what they're interested in. But one look at these kids and you know they're part of the same tribe. For a start, they look identical. Emos, punks, goths – they've been replaced with a visual identity that marries Supreme and Sports Direct. If we're used to subcultures being built on and around music, streetwear is the art of looking good, adopting an air of arrogant nonchalance and pretending you haven't spent six hours looking for the perfect place to take a photo. The kids taking part might be too young to understand the symbolism of Gosha's Communist hammer and sickle logos, or the irony of worshiping a brand that defines itself by its rejection of consumerism, but does it really matter? They've created something of their own, something they feel a part of, and for that they should be admired.
So is this a lifelong thing? Will they be 30 years old, still hunting down a hoodie for three times its original price? Colin doesn't think so: "Nah. I want to get into suits." Sophie, like many I've spoken to, isn't so sure. "Fashion isn't everything, obviously, but these clothes have almost become a part of me," she says. "I don't feel like I could ever stop because it's helped me create the person I want to be."
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