Corporate Mergers and Consolidations Are Erasing Culture. Or Are They Actually Fueling It?
JD Sports is buying DTLR Villa. ASOS is buying Topshop. Are there any independents left?
This morning it was announced that JD Sports is acquiring DTLR Villa for $495 million after acquiring Shoe Palace just a few weeks ago. It was also announced that ASOS will acquire Topshop and its subsidiaries, Topman, Miss Selfridge, and HIIT, for somewhere around £295 million. In a world where every single action taken by every single person, brand, and company, is somehow viewed as “news-worthy” because of social media, these will still be some of the biggest news stories of 2021 despite only being one month into the year. Though, with the pandemic still unwilling to fully let go of its grip on society, I suspect this is just the beginning of a long list of consolidations that we will see in the fashion and footwear industries as companies discover life after the pandemic is much different than what it was in the years prior. While I’m consistently an optimist, the amalgamation of major companies in this industry is something that has been concerning for a number of years for me.
With that in mind, I’m going to try and tackle a very sensitive subject: Culture.
Despite the internet’s infatuation with the word and the argument of what it is or what it is not, to me, it is pretty simple to define. Culture is something that comes from individuals that unintentionally decide what the trends for others are. This can be something as big as music that spreads around the globe, or as small as a particular shoe style that defines the neighborhood you’re from. You’re probably already relating your own experiences to that concept but a few examples for me that have had long-lasting influences on my life include music, cars, sports, and sneakers. Each of these things, brought me so much joy through my teenage years as I was learning who I was, that they’ve continued to be a huge part of who I am today. Although when I was a kid, I absolutely hated that my family was constantly moving to new places (I attended 13 schools during my kindergarten through 12th-grade education), it also allowed me to become friends with new people in every neighborhood along the way and introduced me to a variety of cultures that most people are not lucky enough to experience. The key point to me is that it is never a thought for the people doing it, it’s the pure passion, enjoyment, and fulfillment those individuals feel from whatever the culture-defining action is that they are taking.
In the many years that I’ve worked in the sneaker business, countless people have talked down on the sneaker culture. I’ve seen people write about how sneaker culture isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and how sneaker culture is too nerdy, hate on resellers, hate on product quality, and I’ve even talked with “influencers” of the old guard of [don’t call them sneakerheads] sneakerheads that seem to think that sneaker culture doesn’t exist at all. While I don’t agree with them, everyone is free to have their own opinions but I wonder at what point people should choose to look for other things to talk about if the culture is something they seem to despise. The mentality of being involved in a culture you do more complaining about than not is no different than the employee that has worked for the same company for years, and every day wakes up dreading the thought of going to work. That type of employee is not only hurting themselves but they’re also bad for business.
As a longtime fan of the Reebok brand, when adidas bought the company in 2005, my concern was that the company would become a ghost in the shell of what it once was. Generally speaking, my concerns have become validated with only a few glimmers of hope outside of the last two years, which I think they’ve done better. Most of my personal sneaker collection is Reebok. I’d say about 65% at this point, many of them are either Allen Iverson’s Reebok Question or the Reebok Pump Fury. As I wrote a couple of months back, Reebok once had the keys to the future of the sneaker business with a combination of some of the world’s most influential hip hop artists, athletes, and artists, but as most companies tend to do, they overlook the few individuals that are busy living outside of the box, and default to doing things the way the leadership wants. Reebok has a tremendously rich heritage, an almost infinite catalog of quality products, and they’ve been at the center of subcultures globally at every corner. Yet, instead of embracing the few within the company that are aware of and connected to the culture, the company falls into the comfort zone of the majority that are simply trying to avoid conflict with their superiors. As an example, the Reebok Question is great, like my favorite sneaker of all time, but it is not the only story that Reebok has yet consistently is the retro they choose to over-produce. This is the result of big business, layered upon big business, layered upon big business. It’s the Office Space-ing of corporations that inevitably results from mergers and consolidations.
Take Allen Iverson as an example. While I’m a fan of Michael Jordan and admire the success of Jordan Brand, I think the actual cultural influence of Allen Iverson was more impactful. It’s the nature of the truly influential to rebel against the flow of the mainstream. So while, yes, Michael Jordan changed sneaker culture forever, and Iverson was his biggest fan, Iverson brought together basketball culture and hip hop culture in a way that also changed all the things that surround sneaker culture. We can get into the nuances of that conversation another time but my point is that one doesn’t diminish the importance of another, because culture naturally divides itself into subcultures and countercultures as trends begin to grow. Besides, nobody that truly creates, shifts, or defines culture, will ever be talking about it. It’s the actions they take, like MJ taking sneakers mainstream, or AI forcing the NBA to acknowledge the bond between hip hop and basketball.
In the sneaker world, the last 5 years or so have been primarily driven by the brand’s narrative, and ultimately that’s not authentic. Even though some brands have hired incredibly talented people from within the sneaker culture, those people and their voices are no longer as authentic as they once were. That’s not a jab at those people, in most cases, it’s my friends that are now working at these big companies. I commend them for doing something they love for a living. However, the businesses themselves are anti-culture no matter who they hire and no matter who they collaborate with. The bigger the business, the further removed from the culture they are. That’s not to say they don’t bring value to the culture at times. Companies provide the financial resources for creators to do the things they love, whether that’s in a full-time position at a brand, a contracted short-term opportunity, or even a part-time gig in another industry that the creator earns money to fuel their passions. Business and culture have to work together, whether we’re aware of it or not.
The problem with the brands controlling the narrative is not just a twisted sense of authenticity that is rooted in profits, but the rinse and repeat nature that comes with it. As a business looks to make more money, the solution is always the same for those doing the work. Take what you did today to hit your numbers and do it tomorrow in a more efficient way, thus making more money for the company. Profits always increase as you streamline. Authenticity always diminishes. If you’ve ever had a job before, you’ve been asked to do more with fewer resources. The footwear industry is no different and we’ve seen this in a lot of what’s “popular” on the internet when it comes to footwear.
To be clear, I don’t think that something that is massively popular is inherently bad. I think there are plenty of things, whether it’s consumer goods, food, sports, or entertainment, that have achieved mainstream popularity that are still great for the world. In all honesty, I truly believe that if everyone loved burritos the way I do, the world would be a better place. I just don’t think those massively popular things are capable of defining the culture. It’s like saying that Starbucks defines coffee culture. We all know that’s not true or even possible.
So, while we are living in extremely volatile times that are causing unbelievably challenging situations for businesses, the consolidating of brands like JD Sports and DTLR Villa, or ASOS and Topshop, are more than just a massive merger forced to happen sooner rather than later because of the pandemic. The joining of forces on that scale has a much bigger impact on the ability of small businesses to be successful and it will inevitably mean a reduction in the number of local sneaker, streetwear, or skate shops. These shops, much like San Francisco’s FTC Skateboarding in the ‘90s, New York City’s Supreme in their early days, or The Hundreds, and the countless others that were a part of the energy of the Fairfax District in Los Angeles 10-15 years ago, were not just a shop but a connecting point for the culture. Big businesses simply do not provide that connection point, no matter how much they wish they did.
As I discussed with Russ Bengtson on a recent episode of the Sneaker History Podcast, much like culture, the importance of what individuals do in their sneakers that makes them special, not what was done in the past and represented to consumers as important. That might sound contradictory to someone who runs a site called Sneaker History, but I think we’ve gotten to a point where the brands are looked at as the culture definers by the mainstream consumer, especially when it comes to sneakers and fashion. That’s a sign that somewhere, a small group of people is wearing sneakers that you don’t see on Instagram, or in a different way than what we’re used to, and they are beginning a new turning point in what sneaker culture is and will be. It’s a sign that big change is on its way. That’s something I am fucking excited about.
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