Hypebeasts and narcissism: binding humanity to an endless market

I recently had the chance to read an article on Highsnobiety called “Is Streetwear a Machine That Turns Insecurity Into Money?” After the read, I realized that something was lacking in the narrative. Let’s say it seemed to be a situation similar to that of the tobacco business: Smoke kills. So Philip Morris, knowing the business repercussions of people’s health awareness, started funding anti-tobacco campaigns, and lately promoting new “less harmful” products that will give you the joy of nicotine without pain. 

In the case of Highsnobiety, it is pretty much the same situation, but with hype brands. Still, denouncing the logic of the activity from which you profit won’t make you less guilty of it.

Please bear in mind that the following article is not an author’s attempt to sit on the throne and judge society, but rather to try to understand the logic of this new culture.

Hypebeast culture take-off can be retraced to the early 2000s, even though the origins go back to the 1980s. During that period, the streetwear culture rose in opposition to traditional fashion, which was deemed too artificial and accessible to high class people only. It was conceived as a new wave that sought to dismiss the traditional canons of appearance, where normal people could rewrite the standards of fashion. Was it an effect of the pop culture of that time? Possibly. The influences of 1970s artists such as Basquiat and Haring enhanced the development of street culture during the following decades. But the development of the streetwear urban culture now takes a stance that is far detached from the original purpose.

If streetwear aimed to rewrite those standards — making them less fancy, more accessible but still stylish — we could now argue that those values are no longer inherent in the current culture. As a matter of fact, it has produced a new blend of post-pop culture and late capitalism. If, in the past, streetwear aimed at handing back fashion to “normal” people, now the narrative is way different. The effort to give new life to auto determinism and eccentrism (which has to be seen as positive, as it is a characteristic that all of us share) has now annihilated the original purpose by regrouping people and their personalities under a particular set of brands.

How did we get there, though? Simplistic reasoning can be found with the brutal entry of social media into our lives, which, for a good number of us, represented a chance to put life inside a showcase. Something that in today’s slang would be defined as “flex.” Flexing a new cloth or accessory not only represents the joy of possessing material goods, but most of all puts the “flexer” in a position of superiority, wealth and exclusivity. So, are there now any differences with standard fashion of the early 2000s? I guess not.

Nevertheless, it would be too easy to blame it on social media, as we all decided to opt into those services. No one is forced to join, at least not directly. If everyone around your network jumps into an activity, you can decide to either join or be alienated. Do we like to be discriminated against or to have to stand alone? Absolutely not, which is fairly reasonable. That is our point of major interest: human logic. Determining that will permit us to look more closely at our evolution over the last 20 years.

Comic Hasan Misaj sharply defined hype culture in 2018 as:

Without objects that make me stand out, what am I? Then I just have to be myself, and that’s terrifying, because I am insecure and I need things to make me feel better about myself […] hype is big excitement with emptiness at its core.”

If still alive, Brouwer and Nietzsche would link this phenomenon to the herd logic. Brouwer especially would criticize this logic, organizing his thinking instead around the concept of life as a will to potency. Without getting into deep philosophy, it is possible to say that members of the herd feel stronger and more comfortable in a group than when alone, being able to better identify themselves.

Humans act like herds, and hype culture is clear evidence. The lack of self awareness is often driven by personal insecurity and the need for gratification from others. This mechanism can eventually result in narcissism. In our era, personal gratification can be easily reached through shortcuts that unfortunately rend it ephemeral. Think again about social media. Instagram and TikTok are quick solutions to these needs and can lead you eventually to fame. This condition of fame can be translated into today’s word “viral.” Becoming “viral” on the internet means that a piece of news, an image or a video has become incredibly popular in just a matter of hours or days, shared by thousands or millions of people over social media. But being viral lasts for only a short period, as a new “character” will soon replace your viral fame. Just to recall the aforementioned artist Keith Haring:

“In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”

Still, the need for consideration and gratification may well make you feel that this mechanism is worth a shot. If so, you’ll then be required to be narcissistic, and to learn how to bask in your material possessions, hiding the lack of self determination. 

An eccentrism that once would have allowed you to express your individuality and character has now taken the path of standardization and fake eccentrism. The idea that someone might judge you from your clothes, accessories or the personal goods you possess, will nowadays make most people reroute their appearance and standardize it to the preferences of the herd.

The ability to express yourself is now being mined. Most of the time, you are thought to stand for a cause not as the result of an independent decision and effective act, but instead because you possess a good that expresses your support for that cause, or that includes a particular message. Brands that publicly stand for a particular cause are more likely to be purchased by people who are moved by the same cause. But if I don’t visibly demonstrate that I’m affiliated with a certain cause, how will the world know where I stand? That’s the scary point.

The whole phenomenon is affecting today’s youth, even if Gen Z seems to be more able to detach from it as compared with Millenials. But still, youth is in danger and their ability of individual freedom to critique is at stake.

So yes, hype brands will not die out any time soon, and their existence depends mostly on the narcissism and insecurity of the younger generations. Sadly, this business can still count on a bright economic future.

Insecurity seems to a dominant of the youngest generations. As documented by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, the rate of individuals reporting symptoms of depression increased by 52% in adolescents between 2005 and 2017, from 8.7% to 13.2%. There was also an increase of 63% among young adults aged 18-25 years between 2009 and 2017, from 8.1% to 13.2%. And there was also an increase of 71% of young adults who complained of high stress, and 43% in the rate of young people who said they were thinking about suicide. Underlying this trend can be cultural conditioning, such as technological abuse and the resulting lack of sleep, which can have devastating effects on the developing brains of teenagers. Mental disorders can result from the brain’s inability to adapt to the speed of change imposed by technological development and new cultural trends. All of this contributes to making young people vulnerable to the draw of hype brands.

So, unfortunately, data tells a story — if we’re willing to listen. It is possible to understand why the hype culture won’t die anytime soon. But we can reshape and resize it by developing a new self awareness — one that will allow us to defend our personal commitments in a way that’s truly original, rather than standardized.

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