“Wholesale is in trouble,” is what people usually hear when wondering about our current retail environment. Direct to consumer is a beast of a competitor for traditional retail to deal with, but this is due to large companies lack of adaptation to changes. There are plenty of stores that have made correct decisions, and still provide a necessary function in the apparel world, especially streetwear. Successful stores serve as more than just a place to buy products though. They also provide a sense of community to those around them, and a sense of authenticity to the brands they carry, if done right.
Brands “relied heavily on wholesale distribution for sales and marketing. The only way to reach people in markets was by selling clothes to the right shops in their neighborhoods.” Bobby Hundreds wrote this in his book about the time before direct to consumer websites. Despite the new competition the “right shops” still remain relevant due to their notoriety and reputation. Shops like Union, Social Status and Bodega have the ability to make or break a brand’s success by deciding to carry it or not.
While direct to consumer(D2C) will now always be the obvious first step for most brands starting off, doing wholesale business with the right shop is what gives brands the ability to grow and develop new fans. “Their’s a lot more reliance on wholesale than people would like to admit….You can’t just be a 30 million dollar direct to consumer [streetwear) brand in year one, two or three,” says Jason Stein of Steins Co. He goes on to state that a lot of the cost and inventory risk with building an audience through D2C sales, can be helped through wholesale business.* Therefore brands still do support wholesale retailers, but brands are more meticulous about where they are sold than previously before.
This sense of curation also helps stores retain customers as well, since this gives customers the ability to trust that a store is knowledgeable in what is popular and highly wanted. The same thoughts that lead to brands deciding which stores to do business with are similar to customers’ thoughts about buying a new brand that is next to Off-White in a physical store. “We wrote down the fifty best boutiques around the world, focusing on those that not only understood our genre of streetwear but stocked the names which we wanted to sit alongside,” said Bobby Hundreds.** Brands do this, because they know that what you’re next to will lend some influence to how customers perceive you. People don’t usually make broad changes in their wardrobe decisions, but shopping in well stocked stores gives people the ability to expand their brand repertoire while still being comfortable in their style.
*Another good quote from Stein about wholesale in the modern age includes, “In the ideal world every brand sets out and wants to be direct to consumer only, and that’s the end game for most all of them, but in the reality world it’s a heavier reliance on wholesale, whether it’s 40% or 70% or 90%, that’s a huge piece of building any direct to consumer business today.”
**Bobby Hundreds books also features a chapter about The Hundreds’ decision to finally be featured in malls that delves heavily into this, and is a great read for any fan of streetwear or apparel as a whole.
Joe FreshGoods recently tweeted, “Funny and cool to see retail shifting in Chicago with more and more boutiques here having workshops and talks. When we opened Fat Tiger 6 years ago we knew we had to do more than just sell clothes to keep the doors active, we were right.” This isn’t just a trend in Chicago though. It is an action being taken by creative boutiques around the world to build their audience outside of the usual customers coming in to buy goods.
Streetwear as a subculture was always focused on community whether it be through online forums like HYPEBEAST, or through stores with clubhouse style groups. This would only grow as the scene grew into an industry. Lineups for exclusive releases and meet-ups for trading or selling goods fostered friendships between people in the community, and those events evolved from those focused on goods to those focused on knowledge. Stores became the perfect venue for panels on entrepreneurship, meet and greets with brand runners, and the occasional brand pop-up. Not only are customers able to learn about their interests more in depth, but brands are able to build communities without having to own and operate their own storefront.
With all that said, those are the reason why well run stores are able to thrive in a market on the downturn. Unfortunately, these traits are things that developed naturally in the streetwear community, and would otherwise be difficult to replicate in the larger mainstream world of apparel. Some chains are incorporating methods from streetwear, but it comes off disingenuous most times. Therefore I don’t know how to fix that world, but I do know that as long as a catastrophic economic disaster doesn’t happen, Streetwear boutiques and their importance will remain in the culture.