The Invisibility Effect: How Large Celebrities Destroy Small Brands
In the constantly evolving landscape of the fashion industry, one method of marketing has managed to garner the attention of the masses for centuries. The celebrity endorsement is as old as celebrities are, and for good reason. When looking back on historic brands, famous faces are almost impossible to separate from the house they represented. Audrey Hepburn debuted her first outfit by Hubert de Givenchy over 60 years ago and still conjures an instant connection to the brand. Decades after the controversial Calvin Klein ad involving an underage Brooke Shields, her face still remains inseparable from the fashion line. However, in a modern landscape (especially the streetwear industry), fewer and fewer luminaries are consistently styled by the Haute Couture lords in Paris. As style has evolved, streetwear designers have replaced the classic high fashion houses to become the dominant form of dressing in mainstream American pop culture.
With the shift to smaller, less established houses, the impact of celebrity endorsements found itself undergoing a radical change. Suddenly, small brands that had a single garment worn by public figures found themselves losing sales revenue and less popular rather than experiencing expansion. Even small brands that had a consistent following before a public figure adopted their styling found that their core audience began to lose interest in their garments.
Enter: The Invisibility Effect. This phenomenon is best explained as the loss of relevance and sales following the celebrity endorsement of a single item or season of a smaller brand. For non-established fashion houses such as clothing start-ups or street-wear brands, having a celebrity in the public eye wear your clothes serves as an incredible boost to both exposure and sales. Artists such as A$AP Rocky put brands like BLVCK SCVLE on the map through wearing the label’s clothing in his debut music video “Get High”. After the meteoric rise of his debut mixtape transformed him into a cultural icon, BLVCK SCVLE truly believed that they had struck gold. Releasing a capsule collaboration collection with A$AP, BLVCK SCVLE was poised to catapult itself into becoming a major player in the streetwear industry.
These aspirations of changing the streetwear game were instead dashed apart as fast as they were concocted. BLVCK SCVLE went from the latest edgy street style brand to being sold in Zumiez right in-between Huf weed socks and Obey beanies in a matter of months. Rocky did not suffer any public scandals and wasn’t embroiled in any PR nightmares; he simply stopped wearing the brand. Sales for BLVCK SCVLE plummeted following Lord Flacko’s migration to established houses such as Maison Martin Margiela and, most famously, Raf Simons.
As a celebrity moves from small brand to small brand, the pieces that they wear are almost guaranteed to sell out. If the icon is big enough or the designs offered by the clothier are similar enough to the piece in question, maybe an entire season will sell out. What doesn’t happen, however, is generation of lasting attention to future releases from the brand. The reasons for this are two-fold. When a celebrity wears an item from a boutique brand, “streetwear influencers” on Instagram and hypebeasts flock in droves to whoever released the garment to try and get their hands (and likes) on the same vestments as their icon. This creates a massive amount of hype towards a specific item, but not towards the actual story behind a brand.
The other, and often underlooked, impact that a star has when wearing a piece of clothing from an unestablished brand is the contrarian pushback from long term fans of the brand. Large influxes of hype and attention towards smaller, underground brands can invoke the ire of the original supporters of the brand, channeling the hipster mentality of “It was cool before it got big”. As the masses flock to a certain item, hardcore supporters historically have separated themselves from a brand to appear more genuine in their tastes in clothing. These two elements when combined serve to spell brand death to smaller labels once the initial buzz has worn off. Even long after an icon and their legions of fan-boys have moved on, the initial supporters still will feel resentment that their boutique brand was trampled on for the sake of clout. In this day and age, with thousands of streetwear startups and clothing boutiques to choose from, having resentment towards one brand is the last thing a designer desires.
Surprisingly, The Invisibility Effect can also extend to more established brands who haven’t experienced mainstream success in recent years. Earlier this year, Frank Ocean wore a The Hundreds shirt with the words “Maintain the Mystery” embroidered across the chest. While the shirt, as expected, sold out on all websites within an hour of being identified, the pushback in the streetwear community was noticeable. I reached out to some core fans (Apparently there are some still) of The Hundreds and asked them about their views in regards to the sudden spike of attention given to the brand. These fans viewed the selling out of the one shirt and nothing else as “disingenuous” and “artificial hype”. They believed that the influx of people who bought the shirt had no respect for this history of the label or its story and were merely trying “to cash in on Frank Ocean’s success”. On a larger level, the legendary comments from the editor of Thrasher Jake Phelps readily come to mind when thinking about pushback from brand loyalists in response to the hype. While not many fans would publically go on record calling Justin Beiber and Rihanna “Fucking clowns”, the sentiment that sudden mainstream attention ruins smaller brands is echoed across message boards and forum posts.
The one brand that has consistently shown that they could escape The Invisibility Effect is none other than Neek Lurk’s pastel depression brainchild, Anti-Social Social Club. In the span of a month, Kanye West, Rihanna, and Kim Kardashian were all photographed wearing hoodies from this clothier. As expected, the items worn by the holy trinity of streetwear trendsetters sold out instantly as well as the rest of the available season. Taking notice of this, Neek chose to make all future seasons of ASSC the exact same design reprinted in different colors. While this move earned him the ire of the streetwear community, this move more importantly allowed the average clothing consumer to capture the same styles of Lord Ye or RiRi season after season. By keeping the designs 90% similar to the items that put his brand on the map, Neek prevented The Invisibility Effect from plummeting the sales of his brand. The item that became the du jour hoodie of the summer instead became a staple of the ASSC offerings, allowing his customers to capture a slice of the style and power of some of the most important social media influencers.
As the streetwear industry evolves from large companies to grassroot labels, the ways in which the impact of celebrities wearing single items and short-term endorsements of a brand are changing rapidly. No longer are the days when a style icon can popularize a boutique brand by of wearing a single item and never wearing it again. In this day and age, the only way an influencer can truly build a brand is if a consistent and varied set of garments are styled over the span of months. By showing the versatility and offering of a brand instead of a single hype piece, followers of the artist are significantly more inclined to explore the offerings and history of a brand, which also reduces the alienation of the core fans as they feel that their favorite brand is achieving success due to designs and story, not just pure hype.