The year is 2016. Beyoncé’s lemonade album is playing on repeat on the radio, Deadpool has just hit theatres and Yeezys are – without question – the hottest shoe on the planet. The demand from day one was unstoppable and as such, high-street copycats and fakes were a dime a dozen. StockX, (a popular sneaker resale site) named the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Beluga as that year’s most-counterfeited style, rejecting thousands of fakes their authentication process. The struggle to get your hands on a pair (or two, or three) was real, and Yeezy himself knew it.
Speaking to Ryan Seacrest in 2016 the rapper noted; "You can run up on this kid and take his Yeezys but just be patient because we'll make more Yeezys. Eventually everybody who wants to get Yeezys will get Yeezys. Adidas has promised me that because there's so many kids that have wanted them that couldn't get them and I talked to the heads at Adidas and they said we can make them."
It may have seemed like a vague, no-weight comment at the time from a celebrity whose promises often failed to materialize (from albums to presidencies), but fast-forward five years and the rapper-cum-fashion designer has surprisingly managed to keep his guarantee - and then some. Yeezys are now not released in the exclusive limited-edition runs they used to be, but have gone into mass production, effectively democratizing one of the most iconic cornerstones of the hype-drop sneaker game.
History Of The Hype
Adidas and Kanye West may go down in the history books as one of the most commercially successful celebrity and fashion pairings – as Kanye might say “of all time” - but the three-stripe titans were in fact not the Chicago native’s first choice for a fashion partner. Initially collaborating with Nike, the relationship only lasted four years and they parted ways in 2013 due to conflicts over royalties. "I'm gonna be the first hip-hop [fashion] designer and because of that, I'm gonna be bigger than Wal-Mart," West once told a New York radio show in 2013. Adidas certainly believed in the power of his self-publicity and quickly swooped in (as did Puma, who the rapper rejected) and the new duo signed a deal in 2014. Just 12 months later, the Yeezy Boost 350 was released and Kanye’s industry and consumer credibility as a fashion designer was cemented.
The business model was clear from day one; sneakerheads chase hype, so hype was what they had to manufacture. This was engineered through a bullet-proof formula of mass marketing including celebrity affiliations (Rhianna, LeBron James, Jay-Z), social media tease-and-reveal content and global press coverage, most of which was orchestrated by Kanye himself. Combined, this hype machine created an exponential demand for the brand over the years with 5000+ person waiting lists on resale sites like Sole Supremecy and StockX as standard, and customers queuing up overnight up to 48 hours before a collection even launched.
With demand usually comes supply, but in a move that not only fed into the shoes now elusive appeal, but also spoke to sneakerhead culture specifically, Adidas agreed that Yeezy styles were to be released in limited-edition runs. Fewer products only fueled the appeal of this holy-grail shoe and ended up powering an entire hype-trainer resale ecosystem, “the fervor around [Yeezys] is that [they] could be flipped for multiple times the initial price,” Matt Powell, senior sports industry advisor with The NPD Group Inc. told Footwear News in 2019. Kanye’s cut? A cool $140 million per year from the collaboration (as of 2019) according to Forbes magazine.
The Appeal Of Mainstream Media
While we can all agree generating $140 million a year is no small feat, it’s worth noting that West’s take-home pay is from a total $1.3 billion revenue the Adidas Yeezy line made annually. A significant slice of the pie, yes, but what if the pie itself was bigger? In the last year, Adidas gambled on their hype machine to explore this question, pivoting from the successful limited-drop ecosystem to a more traditional supply-and-demand model in the hopes of fattening up that bottom line. “Yeezy is the Lamborghini of shoes,” West once relayed to Forbes in his 2019 cover story but for the first time, the label took down their own velvet ropes, opened their proverbial showroom and anyone who wanted a pair of Yeezys could simply… buy them.
The results spoke volumes about who the Yeezy customer could be and a 500% increase in sales was reported in the first six months according to Footwear News. The idea that only scarcity drives demand in the sneaker world was quickly rebuked and the efficacy of a limited-drop model was no longer a viable solution in the long term. As many fast, mid and even some designer fashion brands continued to knock off the signature Yeezy shape, Kanye & Adidas may have predicted the end of their own hype train and pivoted their sales strategy in order to not derail the entire operation.
Was this part of Yeezy’s plan all along? It’s questionable as to whether both Kanye and Adidas had the foresight to first create a restricted shopping experience, have requirement skyrocket and then open the floodgates for a tsunami of sales – but potentially, yes. This idea of ‘first the few, then the many’ might have been the underlying goal for both parties since day one. Regardless of the drop size and frequency, in a limited-edition sphere, the smart money says that the Yeezy customer would have eventually evolved and moved on to the next covetable status symbol in the sneaker world. And with their change in loyalty, a change in overall demand would have followed.
Rewriting The Rules
With a change in retail strategy comes a change in marketing narrative. The overarching conversation surrounding holy grail products, especially in the fashion world, has progressed in recent years. From chasing after a trending piece just for the insta brag to shopping for pieces with conscious consumerism, believing in a brand as much as you believe in what they’re selling is part of the new status quo. Sustainability, planet-friendly manufacturing and accessibility for the ‘everyman’ in a historically elitist industry are now the unwritten rules of modern retail.
This shift is due, in part, to a larger cultural conversation about the upper 1%. People are craving authenticity and transparency at every step of their shopping process and want to know that their money is not fueling an old-fashioned system that favours the privileged few. No brand is exempt. Even the perception of a for-the-fans label like Supreme changed when it was revealed private equity firm Carlyle Group had taken shares in the once-underground startup. Now, the idea of ‘Yeezys for all’ speaks to a wider positive conversation around access and privilege.
The Current vs Up-And-Coming Customer
The consumer pressure was real when releases were few and far between but now that Yeezys have hit the mainstream shopping funnel, the brand needs to maintain a solid sales momentum - but what are the consequences? Environmental impact is undoubtedly the cost of this mass production, as the former culture of repair and resale is no longer a crucial part of the customer journey.
This purchasing behavior speaks directly to the evolution of the Yeezy customer. Arguably a Gen Z versus Millennial mindset, the new mass retail model could leave sneakerheads divided. Gen Z traditionally queued, begged, borrowed and pleaded for Yeezys, but now the door is opened and the inner circle abandoned, is there still a strong satisfaction in owning a pair? Oversupply may arguably have kill the ‘cool.’
On the other hand, a millennial audience who may not have initially bought into the status-driven hype may now see the appeal in owning a piece of the brand, especially as their business model reflects the changing attitude to consumerism. West even told Zane Lowe in a 2020 interview that he wants to bring the production of the sneakers from China back to America, creating jobs and having a positive influence on the economy. All of which will be music to the ears of politically and globally engaged millennials keen to put their money in brands that acknowledge the wider impact of the fashion industry.
Even with a wider net cast, prices for the shoes are still in the hundreds of dollars and as such, resale culture will undoubtedly remain part of the story going forward. Last month, Ebay announced their authenticity guarantee specifically for the resale of Yeezys, verified by third-party authenticators, proving that even the resale side of the business has shifted to a mainstream mentality. You no longer have to know about a secret retail website to snap up second-hand or resale pair of limited-edition shoes, you can now just try your luck as the highest bidder.