Smoke 'em if you got 'em (or if you can find 'em)...

"'Until recently, if you could afford it, it was cool,' Jason Farrer, fashion director of Spin magazine, said. 'Now, if you can find it, it's cool.'" (Chaplin, 1999, p.1) Add to this syllogism Malcolm Gladwell's "first rule of cool: The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight." (1997, p.79)[7] [8] Put that all in our current context, when we're preparing to "usher in an interactive future in which every individual. . . can be personally 'hit' with their very own message" (Vanderbilt, 1994, p.147), and you're staring down the barrel of modern coolness's biggest weapon: sellable scarcity.

For coolness on the big and small scales--among the stragglers as well as among the early adopters and trendsetters--scarcity is the spice of life. Scarcity is itself becoming a commodity, something contrived or manufactured, with a discrete value attached to it. "Like other forms of novelty, the newness of fashion is consumed over time," writes Howard Besser (1988), which helps explain the increasingly short lead times and numerous seasons of clothing manufacturers. (Gladwell, 1997, p. 79) It also explains the infinitely renewable process by which things become cool and are subsequently replaced by other, newer, cooler things.

Let's go back to that club in Amsterdam, and that mysterious t-shirt from A Bathing Ape. The one-room store in Tokyo which sells their products has no signage, offers only a few items per week, and always has a line outside. A Bathing Ape goods are in high demand and deliberately limited quantities, making for a feverish popularity that its shadowy producers maintain most scrupulously. A Bathing Ape crops up here and there online, as well as in the international press, but you will never see A Bathing Ape ads in any publication or medium. Julia Chaplin, writing for the New York Times, relates an incident in which a Times photographer attempted to take a picture of one of the signature t-shirts and was denied the privilege of doing so. "Apparently, a picture in The Times would make the label seem mainstream. When the photographer tried to buy a shirt, he was refused," and was in fact asked to leave the store. (Chaplin, 1999, p. 1) [9] The camouflage motif common to many of their products is thus metonymically fitting; the camo pattern is generally made up of distorted ape-head images, and the label's products are limited in number and sold only through a few obscure retail outlets. The motto "Ape shall never kill ape," taken like the label's other ape-head images from the Planet of the Apes movies, proliferates on their clothing, but usually in acronymic form (ASNKA). Every attempt is made to prolong the label's obscurity, and with that, its coolness; however, they are clearly serving as trendsetters in the fashion world. Designer Paul Smith, after a visit to the Tokyo storefront when a few dozen striped sweaters were the item of the week, picked up on the key idea behind A Bathing Ape. Within a few weeks, he had released his own limited-edition t-shirt, available to internet shoppers only. (Blanchard, 1999, p. 41) [10]

The A Bathing Ape label was founded by a Japanese recording artist known as Cornelius; his real name is Keigo Oyamada, and he's been compared to both Beck (for his musical character as a "restlessly creative introvert. . . recording rickety, innovative songs from a channel surfer's point of view" (Strauss, 1998, p. 3)) and the Beastie Boys (who were among the first to cross the border from music into fashion, with their label X-Large). A profile of Oyamada in the New York Times was entitled "Eclecticism Personified," and it focused on him as a quirky, wacky trendsetter-savant. "I had to create my own genres," Oyamada says of his early musical influences. "I remember listening only to orange-colored records, and I'd group them into my orange record series and just listen to them as orange records. Or if there was skull imagery in the album artwork, I'd think of them as the skull bands. I just created my own genres and understandings of them, and that influences what I do and maybe makes it different." Oyamada's record label, Trattoria, has released recordings on equally flimsy premises; having a name with "monkey" or "ape" in it can make an album big in Japan, and Oyamada claims to have put out a record by Olympic track medalist Linford Christie because "it cracked me up so much I had to release it." (Strauss, 1998, p. 3)

On the big scale, major manufacturers take advantage of the tastes of the few to cater to the many. They pursue the rising trends, trying to capitalize on them at the moment they hit big; if they're unsure of how far something may go, they take the tack of a legitimately small venture and keep quantities limited. This can not only guarantee a sold-out run on a new product, but creates future buzz about the next small batch. According to Craig Zenon, of Nike, artificially limited quantities of some products are "a way to show the consumer that we're still willing to do something outside of the mainstream. . . the consumer today wants to feel individual, and they want to have something that not everyone else has, so the limited-edition helps lay the foundation for the rest of the business." (Chaplin, 1999, p. 1) This is cynical, yes; it admittedly capitalizes on product loyalty, brand identification, and the consumer's sad urge to be different, like everyone else. But is it more cynical than a small company that deliberately keeps itself small? Maybe not--at least the big company is giving the scarcity away to all comers, creating the paradoxical sense that there's enough exclusivity for everyone.

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