B is for... Basics
I have spent many years explaining the difference between fashion and style: as a fashion student, a fashion lecturer, in-house at Nike and a brand consultant after that. I’ve put the work in, huh? In my mind, fashion is fleeting and somewhat shared, while style is timeless and often personal. Argue as you wish, but I’ve done enough research with enough brilliant minds to know that the key figures in fashion and streetwear tend to agree with me, so here we are…
Importantly, basics don’t tend to be ‘fashionable’. Instead, they are products and pieces that become ‘essential foundation pieces’, a ‘starting point’, an item that is ‘fundamental’. Essentially, basics escape the heavy tread of time and can often become akin to ‘icons’ or ‘units’, bricks we build the rest of our style upon. They are dependable, they are unchanging, they are classic.
With trends moving so quickly these days, often without any idea of an actual aesthetic within them, why aren’t more brands building basics? Following fashion is costly, especially if there are no foundational basics to fall back on. In essence, basics are where the perpetual profits are made, profits you can be assured by. Get the basics right - the things people can depend on and lean into - and you have an ongoing pot of profit no trend can taint. It’s also [and I won’t bang on about this] sustainable. There is something inherently eco about making something classic as opposed to ever-changing. As Robin, a streetwear Berliner told us for adidas recently, “Iconic items last a lifetime with you.”
A Nike Air Force One is a Nike Air Force One. Yeah, Virgil had a magnificent, innovative play with them too. Still, the assurance of being able to build an outfit around the classicism of an all-white AF1 hasn’t changed in years. Over-engineering and following fashion too fast can be dangerous [as Levi’s too well knows…].
All of these things have been designed without the fashion consumer in mind. It was about purpose, first and foremost. I think this sense of a thing being cool without it trying to be cool is what makes products like the Air Force One iconic and therefore timeless for me.Nigel, Berlin, Streetwear Don
Take Evian, for example. For years, they only made still water. First bottled in 1826, it refused to do anything ‘fashionable’ or deviate from what it did best. It was dependable, it was seen as a luxury, they didn’t fuck about. Only last year, in 2022, after 15 years of tinkering with the filtration process, Evian finally made sparkling water. Sure they’ve collaborated with Diane von Fürstenberg, Elie Saab, Kenzo and Lacroix over the years in terms of bottle design, but the product inside didn’t change. Having been in the top ten brands for years, selling classic works. Do something well, keep doing it, and protect it at all costs. Too often, brands are in the midst of building an iconic product but flood the market with it, relegating it to the ‘once in fashion’ realm rather than ‘a product to trust for life’ space. Brands get greedy and neglect to protect.
And this idea of protection is paramount. Levi's are iconic as a brand, but they failed to protect their most basic products, leaving consumers unable to rely on what they were getting [or hoping to get]. They fucked about with fashion too fast and didn’t protect their core. Brands need to protect their core products to earn trust, and trust is what a basic boils down to.
The audience can trust a Hanes white tee, an Air Force One, a Dunk, or whatever. Trust is about delivering - and doing so consistently. It is about staying within your expertise and building upon it, not doing something because it’s fashionable for that moment in time. It is about providing product people can rely on and easily return to. It’s about high-quality standards and values that don’t waiver. Essentially, where Gap went wrong, Uniqlo went right.
Notably, there is an absence of meaning with basics. They are not tied to a trend, an influencer or an expensive campaign. You’re not wearing something you stood in line for, something you had to bid for or beat others to, nor something that is heavy with the allure of the Internet, [and you’re definitely not wearing something you’re hoping to resell or keep in a box till the price goes up]. Rather, you’re wearing something that time has not and will not tarnish. A product you can enjoy.
We once interviewed 478 kids for Converse across the States. None of them had any idea who Chuck Taylor was. Yeah, a miss for Converse, you might think, but in marketing terms, this ‘absence’ created a huge space for a personal narrative to be built instead and, therefore, some true lifetime loyalty.
From the work, we heard story after incredible, personal story about the role the shoes had played in their lives. Not brand stories but their stories. They loved Chuck Taylors and Converse because the products reflected their own narrative back at them, not a brand narrative. First pair, first gigs, first love. Kids don’t throw Converse away simply because it’s like throwing a part of themselves away. The lack of marketing and meaning around the shoe meant that consumers were able to build their own stories into the product. And it works. The consumer narrative, over the brand narrative, wins.
Most people don’t know the history of a Hanes plain tee, a black leather jacket, a Ray-Ban or even, arguably, a Dunk or AF1. Yeah, they know the stories and athletes relating to their Jordans, but outside of the sneaker set, few are going to be name-checking Bruce Kilgore when it comes to chatting classics. This absence of meaning also brings the idea of basics back to style; they’re not heavily imbued with anything obvious, leaving space for the wearer to work it their way, in their style.
In essence: basics don’t shout, they leave space for the person to get personal.
When we live in a world where brands want to scream on your behalf about how much money you made or which raffle you won, classic basics say little. They just nod knowingly and will continue to nod over time. Conspicuous consumption and classicism don’t mix, which is why a Rolex doesn’t make the classic cut, but an old Land Rover Defender does. Humble, honest and hard-working, the classic stands the test of time. So, have fun with fashion, but create classics. Give your consumers products they can trust and build from there. Timeless is forever. Make time.
Photo Credit: Ruby Pseudo