Late at night, men would stare into the dimly lit vastness of the Internet, feverishly typing URLs that led them to the kind of sites where they could see the sort of things they lusted after in secret.
Written by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)
Some even did it in the workplace, hiding behind anonymous names and figuring out ways to outsmart the I.T. department—clearing caches and deleting web histories. These were the type of guys who were not yet ready to let the world know that deep down, they really, really liked clothing.
Well before the days of menswear blogging, there was already a thriving community of men who discussed the minutest clothing details at length. Since the early 2000s, Internet forums like Ask Andy About Clothes and StyleForum provided older men with a predilection for bespoke suits and Goodyear-welted, shell cordovan footwear an outlet to talk about their mutual interests with other like-minded men. And then something happened. A younger crop of sneakerheads and streetwear aficionados began using similar fora, and inadvertently birthed a digital subculture.
Next to World Star, NikeTalk is probably the site I check the most. - Bobby Hundreds, The Hundreds
Unlike modern forms of social media, message boards thrive on longform conversation. It’s not about simply throwing 140 characters out into the ether and hoping for a retweet. While today’s media diet of shortened links, status updates, and endless aggregation is akin to small bites, gleaning useful information from a forum is like a five-course meal to be savored, not just skimmed through.
Besides being a resource of information on clothing, these forums also facilitated the buying and selling of these cult brands. Before Kiya Babzani opened his San Francisco denim store, Self Edge, in 2006, there was hardly a place in the United States where people could buy artisan Japanese denim brands like Iron Heart, Momotaro, and The Flat Head.
Of all the multiple forums that would comprise this niche culture of Internet sneaker and clothing nerds, undoubtedly the two that had the most clout were NikeTalk and Superfuture. Both sites began in 1999, and both sought to bridge the same information gap: helping men spend money on cool shit. For NikeTalk founder Nelson Cabral, that meant anything and everything Air Jordan.
PART ONE: Enter NikeTalk
“NikeTalk was born out of my obsession for all things Air Jordan,” wrote Nelson Cabral in a 2009 e-mail to Complex Sneaker Editor Russ Bengtson. Cabral, 35, launched the site when he was 22. “This started thanks to my dad, who thought a good shoe might prevent me from spraining my ankles so much. Back before the Internet age, shoe release information was basically non-existent, especially for me in Canada. Every few months you'd go to your local sneaker store and cross your fingers they'd have your size, or you'd go a size bigger just to be able to get a pair. Just seeing them before they came out was a huge deal.”
Cabral’s obsession with Jordan sneakers was exacerbated by a series of ads featuring the Spike Lee character Mars Blackmon, which fueled his desire to cop a pair of Black/Cement Jordan IVs. Unfortunately for him, by the time he got to a store, it had been three days since the shoes had dropped, and they were long sold out.
That’s when he decided to start NikeTalk. A recent college graduate, Cabral was spending his days fine-tuning his resume, but when night fell he often found himself trapped in an Internet k-hole of shoe information, scouring NikeTalk predecessors like 23 JumpmanSt and NikePark for whatever dirt he could find.
“It's one of the reasons that NikeTalk's background is black—it's so much easier to read at 3 a.m.,” he said. “My first objective for NikeTalk was to create a place one could go to freely exchange ideas, opinions, and of course, release dates in a comfortable, serious environment with that was being run with the community's best interests in mind.”
Unlike modern forms of social media, message boards thrive on longform conversation. It’s not about simply throwing 140 characters out into the ether and hoping for a retweet.
Cabral had spent time on message boards before, based around cars and toys, and he thought the same system of community moderators and e-mail-based registration would translate well to a sneaker board. NikePark’s unmoderated discussion and no-registration-required posting system meant any information posted had to be taken with a grain of salt. He sought to build a self-policing community that sneaker heads could trust, so Cabral and his team went to work.
On December 10, 1999 NikeTalk went live. The date was chosen to predate the release of the White/Black-Fire Red Jordan V retros on January 5, 2000. Within days, the site accrued over 200 members. Today, it boasts thousands, with numerous unregistered “lurkers”—guests who simply read the site’s content without contributing—visiting daily. The Hundreds co-founder Bobby Hundreds has been a member since 2001.
“Next to World Star, [NikeTalk is] probably the site I check the most,” Hundreds says. “When NikeTalk came around, the obvious commonality was collecting sneakers and the streetwear that would complement those type of shoes,” he says. At the time, brighter colorways started making their way onto sought-after kicks like the Nike Dunk, and the big trend was matching your clothing to your sneakers. Although much of the The Hundreds’ gear ended up coordinating well with numerous colorways, the designer insists this was pure coincidence.
“I wasn’t intentionally trying to lock up the color combos with the shoes, but it just so happened that a lot of it worked out because I had a lot of the same inspiration and influence in my design as the guy designing the Dunks at the time,” he says.
In the mid-2000s, Hundreds’ interest in the sneaker game dwindled, but NikeTalk had become useful for reasons beyond gathering information on the latest kicks. “I kind of stopped collecting sneakers for whatever reason, but I stayed on NikeTalk for the community,” he explains. “There was a subforum on NikeTalk called ‘General Forum.’ In there, you don’t talk about shoes at all. You just talk about everything outside of sneakers. That’s where I fit in; I don’t visit anywhere else.” To Hundreds, the forum had superseded its original purpose of connecting him with the latest info about drops, and become a way to keep his finger on the pulse of pop culture in general, as filtered through the unique lens of the sneaker head community.
"That’s the beauty of NikeTalk. There are so many community members involved that it’s just constantly updated. I get all my news from there; it’s more active than Twitter for me. I don’t follow a lot of people on Twitter because I find them annoying. I go on NikeTalk to find out celebrity deaths. NikeTalk is just where it happens first.” In addition to being a resource of information, Hundreds also uses the forum as a way to gauge the interests of streetwear’s most fickle consumers: high schoolers. “It’s kind of like hanging at a high school every day, seeing how kids are thinking. If it wasn’t for NikeTalk, I don’t know how else I would be tapped into that community. I can kind of get engaged in what the kids are into.” To this day, NikeTalk serves as an important hub for Hundreds to stay connected to his demographic, his customers, and the world at large.
“This is still my little underground club and you can’t forget that. The Internet is everywhere, but there’s only so many websites you can check in a day,” he says. While NikeTalk is arguably the most popular community based around sneaker culture, streetwear and clothing still played second fiddle to coveted sneaker drop dates. In that realm, another forum would soon establish itself as the go-to destination.
PART TWO: The Future Is Super
In 1998, Australian designer Wayne Berkowitz set up a crude private bulletin board to keep in touch with friends and family around the globe. The board quickly grew to a community of about 300. Conversation tended towards jet setting and store recommendations around the world, giving Berkowitz the idea for a travel website with a focus on design, retail and shopping. He shut down the forum in lieu of creating this new venture, and on September 1, 1999 he launched Superfuture, which sells PDF shopping guides for cities like Tokyo, Paris, and New York. Not until 2003 would he revisit the idea of a community message board with Supertalk, of which Bobby Hundreds was an early member. Supertalk was initially meant as a way to cultivate a community of “Supershoppers,” discerning consumers with extremely high taste levels.
“Superfuture really did give a lot of brands and designers a big step up in that kind of community,” says Hundreds. “I was on Supertalk; I’m probably still registered. I think I was the 13th person to ever register on their message board.” Hundreds wasn’t the only style-minded guy who stumbled upon the site. Billy Fischer, Art Director for menswear e-commerce site Boylston Trading Co., discovered Supertalk by chance.
“I actually came across Supertalk by mistake, trying to find information on Levi’s Shrink to Fit jeans,” he says. “I lurked for like two months before finally joining in January ’05, but that's kind of where I found my online home.” What separated Supertalk from its contemporaries was that it allowed members to interact freely and form their own subculture. Whereas NikeTalk’s focus on sneakers, drop dates, and streetwear set a distinct tone for the forum’s tastes, Supertalk’s flexible subject matter allowed the forum to be defined by its community.
None of what's currently going on in terms fashion media, especially as it relates to menswear, would be happening if it wasn't for forums. - Jose Mejia, Superfuture
Jose Mejia, who served as Superfuture’s Editorial Director from 2007–2009, is a stout Dominican man with a penchant for Japanese brands like Post O’Alls. No, he’s not the kind of corpulent you’d associate with a mouse-wielding World of Warcraft-playing stereotypical nerd, but he does wear glasses and has a unique sense of humor, which he shares with other Superfuture denizens. Like them, Mejia is also much louder on the Internet than in real life.
“Even as early as 2006, there was a totally unique set of inside jokes with multiple layers that you could sort of trace back to specific groups of like-minded posters,” he says. “I noticed it was something like our own little universe.” That online camaraderie helped establish the unique identity of Supertalk, Mejia says, which embraced a wide swath of style tribes. “What always set the forum apart was that the sneaker fiends, denimheads, goth ninjas, and every other clique you could think of, interacted on a level beyond style. I didn't see that on any other forum,” he observes. “Superfuture was in some ways a haven for all the outcasts from other sites.”
Mejia compares the whole “forum ecosystem” to the social dynamics of high school. Except here, the nerds were the ones calling the shots, and while some came off as nebbishy or extremely introverted when not cloaked by a username and avatar, many members were quick to eviscerate the uninitiated who tried to jump in on their conversations without doing their homework—namely, reading the forum and picking up its nuances for weeks or months prior to deciding that they finally had something worthwhile to say. This was especially true of Supertalk’s subforum, Supertrash—a place where the topic was everything and nothing, akin to NikeTalk’s “General Forum.”
While there was definitely talk of streetwear brands like Supreme, Stussy, and FUCT—along with occasional references to designer labels ranging from Rick Owens to Band of Outsiders—what really became popular on the boards was raw, selvedge denim. When the Americana movement began to gain steam in the mid-2000s, more and more guys started to embrace the idea of breaking in a pair of unwashed jeans, but these picky customers needed something much better than the Swedish company Nudie or French label A.P.C.—two popular denim brands that signaled the movement towards raw jeans—rather, Superfuture’s clientele sought out obscure Japanese brands like Eternal, Samurai, and Skull. These artisan labels offered far superior denim, construction, and were much, much harder to obtain—which made them all that much cooler.
These newly-born denimheads sought to learn as much as they could about the fabric—which mills produced the best denim, dying processes, types of stitching, down to the significance of the embroidery on the back pockets. There was really no other place where all this assorted information was archived, except in a plethora of posts on Supertalk from guys who were just learning about it all themselves, and couldn’t wait to share their newfound knowledge—as well as old vintage heads who had geeked over this kind of stuff for decades.
In terms of sheer information and knowledge, forums still trumped these fledgling menswear blogs. Forums also offered a thriving secondhand market.
“I can pinpoint a laundry list of trends that bubbled out of Supertalk's threads. Part of that came from the fact that our active member base was thoroughly international in scope and the crossover of ideas was high, but the other major component was simply that the taste level ran off the charts regarding the forum’s eclectic brand predilection,” says Mejia.
Members like Kiya Babzani established Supertalk as a mecca of denim knowledge in the mid-2000s.
“I got into Japanese denim brands in the mid-Nineties on some trips to Hong Kong, where I realized that the Japanese are making reproductions of vintage American garments,” says Babzani, whose first forum experience had to do with yo-yos.
“On yo-yo forums, I realized you can harness the power of the community you're already in to support a business if you truly are and were a fan,” he says. “When Supertalk came around it was the same game, just a different scene.”
Fischer’s memories echo this sentiment, recalling a time when forum members geeked out over a pair of jeans: “When someone took the plunge and ordered a pair of Eternal 811s from Japan, it felt really exciting. We were all waiting for it to arrive. Pics would get posted, sizing advice could be shared first-hand from a fellow fucking nerd, and not from some dude trying to force a sale.”
PART THREE: You Are SO Getting Negrepped For This
On Supertalk, cultural currency was measured in the form of “rep.” Members could rate each other positively or negatively—the latter was a practice known as “negrepping.” Out of all the forums, Supertalk was the only one to utilize this process where members actually review each other’s contributions to the forum. As founder Wayne Berkowitz explains: "In theory, rep helps the community police itself, though it can be easily manipulated by members. We didn't treat it as seriously as some of the members did. The members on Supertalk exploited it and turned it into as rampant popularity system and we really lost control of it."
On eBay, sellers and buyers rely on feedback to vet whether or not a business is legitimate, or if a potential buyer has a history of not paying. Supertalk’s rep system served the same purpose, but evolved into something a little more nitpicky.
“The rep system was just a way of putting a really crude game-like layer on top of the entire forum experience,” explains Mejia. “It also served to facilitate interaction between members in the Supermarket section, so you knew the used Supreme you just bought wasn't fake.”
Community members used rep as a way to call out people who didn’t know what they were talking about. An incorrect or ignorant post about jeans, rap, or anything really, was fair grounds for negrepping, while detailed, informative posts on jeans, fit details on obscure Japanese brands, and reviews of recently opened stores could net members positive rep. On the forum, rep was visualized in the form of a bar under each member’s name, which was colored in either a red gradient (mostly negative rep) or a green gradient (mostly positive rep). People with no rep had no bar at all.
If someone wants to spend 3 days camping out to flip a pair of sneaks and make $300, go for it. I always thought there were more productive ways to make, in essence, $4 an hour. - Eric Heins, Corter Leather
According to Fischer, positive or negative rep did play a part in how many grains of salt one should take prior to reading any given member’s post, but seniority was also a factor. “Join date and rep gave you a quick reference on how serious you should take this person’s bullshit you're about to read. I thought it was fair because there was no restriction on what posts you were allowed to rep.”
Eric Heins, founder of Corter Leather, definitely looked at rep when considering making a purchase from a stranger on the forum, but not so much when it came to taking advice. “I learned just as much from people with low rep as with high rep” he says. “I'd just research the low rep people a bit more if I bought something from them.” Heins’ company remains a one-man operation. He makes a variety of leather goods by hand: belts, wallets, bracelets, key hooks—accoutrements with a patina you have to earn. What separated his business from others is that Heins’ orders would come from fellow members of Supertalk.
In fact, Heins decided to start making his own leather wallets because he couldn’t afford many of the goods championed by the forum’s other members. Being a design major, he picked up the basics from online tutorials.
“I honestly didn't realize I had started a business until people outside of the forums started writing about what I was up to,” he says. “It was just a cool way to pay for art school supplies and have a bit of beer money.” But people didn’t just use Supertalk to order custom, handmade goods. Plenty of members also wanted to score a deal on secondhand designer gear—people like Ryan Willms.
With his meticulously-groomed sidepart, he looks like every other menswear blogger of today. Willms is decked out in a navy blazer, chambray shirt, and flannel bowtie. He is turning various ways in front of the camera for director Jake Davis, adjusting the artfully-rolled cuffs on his indigo-dyed selvedge jeans, a pop of fair isle socks separating them from a pair of burnished brogues. The video was uploaded on January 27, 2010. It was the first in Davis’ “Test Shots” series—short vignettes focusing on stylish men and how they dress themselves.
“It was a more intimate option than eBay, and the selection of goods was much more focused,” says Willms of Superfuture's market forum, Supermarket. One of the earlier menswear blogs, Willms launched h(y)r collective in the spring of 2008 as a way of highlighting certain items he liked. At the time, sites like A Continuous Lean and Valet were barely a year old. In terms of sheer information and knowledge, forums still trumped these fledgling menswear blogs. Forums also offered a thriving secondhand market.
“It was a great place to get items I couldn't buy locally for a reasonable price, often slightly worn,” says Willms. “It still is probably the best place to buy something from a brand like Visvim, since most people can't afford to buy it at retail.” Even forums like NikeTalk and StyleForum had kids peddling gear from Supreme and The Hundreds alongside cult Japanese labels, foreshadowing the “buy it then flip it” culture of enterprising hypebeasts today.
“The flipping thing on fashion forums was a bit crazy when Dunks were huge,” recalls Heins. “If someone wants to spend 3 days camping out to flip a pair of sneaks and make $300, go for it. I always thought there were more productive ways to make, in essence, $4 an hour.”
“It just changed the notion a little bit of what is really exclusive,” says Bobby Hundreds. “When I was a kid I saved money to fly to New York to go to Supreme, and ALIFE when it was on Orchard. I couldn’t buy those clothes anywhere else. That doesn’t exist anymore. You can buy anything, anywhere now. That kind of ruined it, but what are you going to do, fight the Internet?”
I think the Internet sped up the trend process... and the forum subcultures were a part of this. - Ryan Willms, Inventory Magazine
By this time, graphic tees and limited-edition sneakers were starting to get overlooked in favor of hard-wearing jeans and sought-after cult brands like Nom de Guerre, Engineered Garments, and Yuketen. Men like Willms regularly looked at Supertalk and StyleForum for lookbooks, interviews and product shots. Willms was not, however, logging in for style advice.
“It could be a valuable source of information,” he says, “but if you go in there blind, you could end up taking advice from somebody who knows less than you. I do feel that for the most part, there were a lot of uneducated folks passing themselves off as an authority.”
In 2009, Willms met Fashion Director Simon Roe, and the two decided that h(y)r collective needed to be rebranded. They also decided to go into print. In October 2009, the first issue of Inventory magazine was released. Printed on high quality paper, its first two covers were of Yuketen’s Yuki Matsuda, and Christophe Loiron of Mister Freedom. Inside the pages, brands like Engineered Garments, Nom de Guerre, and Duluth Pack were given shine in a way they had never before seen in North America. Yet, these were the sorts of cult brands that had been buzzed about on forums already for months.
“I think the Internet sped up the trend process and the reach,” says Willms, “and the forum subcultures were a part of this.”
“Superfuture—and forums in general—are usually the first place you see trends emerge,” says Babzani. “So you hear about these brands before they've blown up. Some guy in San Francisco, London, or Tokyo goes and discovers some random brand like Band of Outsiders or Rick Owens and posts a photo online. Now, the guy in Austin or wherever knows about this brand. It had nothing to do with advertising or a blogger or a magazine.”
Willms begs to differ. “I think that people can get sucked into the forum world a little too much sometimes,” he says. “In the big picture, it is still a very small portion of consumers in the global market. It is interesting because it didn't exist 5-10 years ago as it does now, and it does have a certain amount of buying power and influence on some retailers. However, I don't think its dictating trends or changing the market as a whole.”
Mejia believes that forums’ effect on trends is bigger than many people realize. “I honestly consider forum culture the springboard for almost everything going on in menswear today,” he asserts. “None of what's currently going on in terms fashion media, especially as it relates to menswear, would be happening if it wasn't for forums. Superfuture, Hypebeast, and all the others are where the community-at-large of hyper-attentive consumers came to hone its sense of ever-shifting identity and thirst for all things new. A lot of folks claim they never checked forums in their heyday like it's some sort of badge of honor to them, but really: we all know you're lying.”
PART FOUR: What Are You Wearing Today?
Kevin Ma, founder of Hypebeast, started his blog in 2005 but didn’t implement a message board until a year later. While the term “hypebeast” has become something of a pejorative towards streetwear’s primary consumers, it remains one of the most popular lifestyle websites for men’s products. During its seven years in existence, Hypebeast has stayed relevant by broadening its scope without losing its filter. It claims to garner about 20 million pageviews a month.
“Though our content has evolved over the years, our mission remains the same—to continuously discover the latest in cool stuff,” said Ma. Before, Hypebeast was the website people would come to and find out about releases from brands like A Bathing Ape, The Hundreds, FUCT, and Supreme. Today, they continue to cover those brands—alongside designers like Givenchy and Alexander Wang, as well as cult Japanese labels like Visvim and White Mountaineering, but he doesn’t believe that it’s solely forum culture that dictates trends.
“Musicians and cultural icons speed up the process as well,” he says. “Celebrities have a strong reach because of their fame and media attention and when they do something bold, it easily leaves an impression.”
But forums did have their own celebrities—whether button-pushers like wEstsIdE or knowledgeable sources like Kiya on Supertalk, or Ben Baller and future Complex Sneakers Editor Russ Bengtson on NikeTalk. Still, the most popular faces tended to be the ones you could actually see, and most of that action took place on street style’s precursor: the What Are You Wearing Today? (WAYWT) and What I Wore Today (WIWT) threads.
Nowadays, WAYWT forum threads have evolved into websites like Lookbook.nu but the phenomenon definitely has its roots in the forums. - Kevin Ma, Hypebeast
“WAYWT kicked off on Superfuture in 2005 or so, and I'm down to fight to defend the fact that we were the first fashion forum with a heavy skew towards male members that had a highly active WAYWT thread,” claims Mejia. “I definitely didn't anticipate that it would grow into a huge phenomenon. If anything, I thought it was something that only appealed to the typical Supertalk member.”
“It takes a certain kind of personality to post their own outfits on the forums—people can be quite harsh, and it takes courage to withstand the criticism and still stay true to your own style. I admire people who do that and contribute to the fashion community,” Ma notes. “Nowadays, WIWT/WAYWT forum threads have evolved into websites like Lookbook.nu but the phenomenon definitely has its roots in the forums.”
Much like Reddit’s Male Fashion Advice subreddit, brave guys (and a small number of girls) post photos of their outfits, effectively throwing themselves to the wolves. Sometimes it was a way for men in remote locations with a big bank account to stunt—dressed in head-to-toe designer gear. Other times it was merely clueless guys just wondering if their outfit matched.
“Everything from WAYWT photos turning into popular Tumblr posts to people tweeting photos of their new purchases the second they show up at the door. These were things that started on forums,” says Babzani.
“I always thought this was an online extension of the way magazines would document street fashion,” says Berkowitz. “This goes all the way back to the ‘80s with magazines like I-D and all the Japanese street fashion magazines.”
Supertalk’s WAYWT threads got more attention when photographer Sidney Lo, an avid Supertalk contributor, decided to spend three years documenting some of the thread’s inhabitants for a self-published book: Taking Pictures of People Who Take Pictures of Themselves.
“Somehow that became the first ‘hit’ for Superfuture—‘What Are You Wearing Today?” says Lo. “Before it was actually a pretty small group of people. They were definitely a lot older streetwear heads who were familiar with the NYC street scene.”
Everything from WAYWT photos turning into popular Tumblr posts to people tweeting photos of their new purchases the second they show up at the door. These were things that started on forums. - Kiya Babzani, Self Edge
One of the book’s subjects, clad in skin-tight zebra-print pants, electric blue Nike Blazers, and a sea foam graphic T-shirt from Cassette Playa, was an infamous poster known as “wEstsIdE.”
“He was a big fucking troll,” recalls Lo. “But he was a really intelligent person. He was doing it thoughtfully.”
Fischer remembers him dearly: “wEstsIdE is a legend. He changed the way half of the forum typed, and the way I speak to this very day.”
Much of the forum slang and vernacular spilled over into the world of blogging and tumblr. Fischer says wEstsIdE helped popularize terms such as “cop,” meaning impulsively buying, and “jawns,” which usually referred to clothing.
“My very basic understanding of the word ‘jawn’ is that it’s from Philly. It just means thing, any random thing,” says Lo.
Lo’s travels for the book took him to Singapore, Canada, and all over the West and East Coasts of the United States. By the time Lo had resolved to make his book in 2008, a new website, lookbook.nu, served to further popularize WAYWT? culture. Lo said he had worked with the founders prior to launch.
“Lookbook.nu and other bloggers remind me of the fact that retailers now have to acknowledge the online market as a larger demographic that they’re missing out on. The fashion industry could no longer ignore the online presence of fashion.”
In today’s culture of Instagram and Twitpics, anyone who follows a menswear blogger has seen a pair of cordovan shoes or sought-after Nikes, usually shot from the crotch down. It’s not uncommon for both well-known bloggers and the average consumer to photograph new purchases—a practice referred to as a colloquial “haul photo.” Forums predated this practice, with entire threads dedicated to members’ recent purchases: ranging from mall brand pickups to luxury gear worth thousands of dollars. According to Lo, the main difference between now and then is that it’s never been easier for the average person to take a decent looking photo.
“I would say like a good 90% of people in New York probably have a camera phone. And it just so happens that some of the people who take photos of themselves are wearing insanely expensive stuff,” he laments.
“Back then I set up a tripod every fucking day, pulled out a camera, pointed it at myself, auto-focused, and took a shot,” he says. “That required way more effort than most people would willing to care to try.” When Lo's book finally got printed, about 80 Supertalk members had their portraits taken for it, including Kiya Babzani, Jose Mejia, Billy Fischer, and Josh Kissi of Street Etiquette.
“I don't mean this in any negative way at all, but you can follow Street Etiquette's own style evolution as a guideline to track how the forum tastes evolved—except for the goth ninja set,” says Fischer.
Anyone who’s followed the sartorial tastes of Street Etiquette’s Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs can see how they went from beanies, cardigans and Air Max sneakers to crisply-tailored tweed suits and camouflage button downs. They won’t, however, find any indication of the “street goth” look currently favored by rappers like A$AP Rocky and brands like En Noir.
PART FIVE: Goth Ninjas and the Future of Forums
The term “goth ninja” is another example of slang that originated on forums. It refers to a dark aesthetic that mixes drapey silhouettes with washed lambskin leather jackets and designers like Rick Owens, Boris Bidjan Saberi, and Siki Im. These high-end designers were often talked about on forums like TheFashionSpot and also Superfuture—which is how Eugene Rabkin discovered Supertalk.
"I stumbled upon Superfuture through TheFashionSpot. I think it was on the Dior Homme section of the forum back in 2005 or 2006,” he says. “I was dissatisfied with the way that TheFashionSpot was run. I didn't want to read about models and celebrities. I just wanted to see the clothes and know about the designers and their philosophies. That was all.”
A fan of metal and industrial music, Rabkin credits Nine Inch Nails’ music video for “March Of The Pigs” as inspiring his style. In the video, the band thrashes about in a flesh-like, cavernous setting, dressed in all manner of sleeveless shirts, leather pants, and drapey v-neck shirts. All of it is black.
“I wanted to live in the clothes,” says Rabkin. “I view style as being an outward expression of who we are internally. Those guys spoke to me through their designs.”
And what exactly does dark designer clothing have to say?
“That the world is not this cute, optimistic place,” Rabkin explains. “It’s not a ‘Barbie’ world. There are problems we have to face. The world is not always sunny, but still a beautiful place.”
Rabkin’s forum, StyleZeitgeist, was established in 2006. Its dark aesthetic catered to fans of brands like Julius, Yohji Yamamoto, and Cloak. Carol Christian Poell was revered highly. Whereas Self Edge became the go-to store for a standard Superfuture uniform, StyleZeitgeist’s members patronized Atelier New York. Both forums place an emphasis on craftsmanship, but for the SZ member, the artisan nature of the goods must also be reflected in the aesthetic. Whereas a modern-day menswear enthusiast would love details like functional button holes at the cuff, the average SZ member appreciates clever design nods like asymmetrical zippers and seams that are literally taped together.
They are the geeks — but the fact of the matter is when these geeks get together and they share in these passions a lot of people listen. - Dan Gill, CEO of Huddler
“Fashion, at its best, is a creative discipline alongside art, music, literature, and architecture,” Rabkin says. Like Inventory before it, StyleZeitgeist recently made the jump into print. Rabkin is no stranger to writing, he’s contributed articles to Vogue Russia and other publications, and held down some teaching gigs at Parsons, where he taught critical and fashion writing. StyleZeitgeist recently dropped its second issue in April, featuring a story about the friendship between noted Antwerp Six designer Ann Demeulemeester and musician P.J. Harvey, photographed by the designer’s husband, Patrick Robyn.
Despite launching the magazine, he still maintains a very active presence on the forum. “Forums will be here forever. They draw people from everywhere.”
According to Kiya Babzani, clothing forums’ influence is behooved by software companies that are helping them become more popular. “Forum culture is thriving and with a company like Huddler behind a lot of the most successful forums, it's not a surprise that more people are turning to forums for information. They're the brains behind some of the top forums in the world.”
Dan Gill, the CEO of Huddler, does not consider himself a style guy in the least. Founded in 2007, Huddler makes software that allows forums to run more smoothly or gives them a much-needed facelift. Huddler’s software made over the front ends of both StyleForum and NikeTalk. Currently, StyleForum nets about 10 million pageviews a month. For NikeTalk, it’s closer to 7. Gill thinks both of these forums exemplify market leaders in their respective fields: clothing and sneakers.
“I do think they are the early adopters,” he says. “They are the geeks—but the fact of the matter is when these geeks get together and they share in these passions a lot of people listen.” One of StyleForum’s most popular threads—The Allen Edmonds Appreciation Thread—might only have one or two thousand responses in it, but can generate over 250,000 pageviews. A lot of that traffic is due to optimal search results, which Huddler helps perfect.
“A lot of people come in from search engines, and a lot of lurkers on the site read this content and are influenced by it, and that’s where we see them to be so powerful in terms of being an opportunity for savvy marketers to build relationships with these communities,” says Gill.
As far as social media is concerned, Gill says forums offer more in-depth conversation than Twitter or Facebook ever could—even more than most popular blogs. “Blogs are still one-to-many communication, whereas forums are many-to-many communication, and I really love that aspect,” he said. Huddler’s strategy to capitalize on the wealth of content stored on StyleForum? Condensing threads like the Allen Edmonds Appreciation Thread into an easily digestible read, curating the truly informative posts, while leaving some of the snarky humor intact. Of course, Gill isn’t going to do this himself, rather, the forum’s members help determine the usefulness of certain posts.
“That’s the great thing about forums: they do self regulate in that way,” he says. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll get sniffed out in that way and pushed out very quickly and I think that’s a good thing in terms of keeping the caliber of opinion high.”
With the advent of Tumblr and Twitter, many of the trends and brands that are currently given shine on blogs and magazines have been seen in forums months, if not years ago. If fashion is cyclical, then the types of people that populate these forums are like a chalk mark at the very beginning of the wheel’s next rotation—fairly close to the ground so it won’t get noticed yet, but ultimately destined to be at the forefront.
“Award Tour, Street Etiquette, all those guys were just kids on forums plugging their shit constantly. Now they're writing and being written about in the feature articles, working with and advising the huge companies because they got such a global, rounded education on these forums,” says Heins.
Mejia has a more aggrandizing outlook: “I think if you've opened a menswear-related business sometime within the last five years, you owe a huge debt to forum culture.”
It would seem that in the increasingly faster-paced world of men’s clothing, your rep just might precede you.