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Courier Weekly Friday 25 September 2020

Courier Weekly Friday 25 September 2020

We dig into the future of hype, fitness, fashion, media and a whole lot more with Chris Black from Done to Death Projects and brand consultancy Public Announcement. 

DANNY GIAOCOPELLI: Hey guys, welcome back to the Weekly. I'm Danny Giacopelli, Courier's editorial director. This week on the show I caught up with Chris Black, the man behind fashion consulting business Done to Death Projects, where he works with the likes of Thom Browne, Stüssy, and Public Announcement, his brand consultancy that he runs with his friend and business partner James Ellis. One thing I wanted to talk to Chris about today is if and how fashion companies are reckoning with their shaky supply chains, shaky ethics and unsustainable business models in light of Covid-19. Tons of people have pointed out that more sustainable brands might emerge from the crisis, which would be fantastic if true, but Chris is sceptical. Also ahead, how writers are creating micro economies for themselves with paid newsletters, Chris' views on Peloton, and if the era of hype has come to an end. Here's Chris.

CHRIS BLACK: I've been in LA from July on. I haven't really been in New York in months. But from what I hear, the anarchic jurisdiction is popping. All the reports are very positive, but I think it's positive if you like to party, because it's kind of lawless. 

DANNY: Yeah, it's like Mad Max.

CHRIS: It's like the nineties. Rent is cheap, you can do drugs on the street. It's a different animal than it used to be. But again, I've had a lot of friends visit here, and they've said that the darkness feels lifted a little bit, but as we go into winter, who knows what will happen?

DANNY: Why are you in LA right now? You're living in a hotel in LA. 

CHRIS: Why not? Jason [Stewart] and I started our podcast, How Long Gone in March, and it has just been steamrolling, it's going really well. I thought it would be good for him and I to be in the same place even if we're not recording together every day. I feel like the synergy is better, not to mention all my friends live here and you can play tennis every day. It's been a good combo. I think the lifestyle and the weather are perfect to get me in the right mindset to ride this thing out.

DANNY: I've been following you on Twitter for a long time. We actually only really connected quite recently, right? You have a great Twitter account, you have lots of people who follow you. What do you do, Chris? What's Public Announcement? Tell the audience.

CHRIS: I have two businesses. Done to Death Projects is me, and that's mostly fashion consulting. I'm working with brands like Thom Browne and Stüssy, Veilance, Corridor, Museum of Peace & Quiet and a few others. Then Public Announcement is an agency I started with my longtime friend and business partner James Ellis. It's more of a traditional agency model. We work with all kinds of different brands, less fashion, more just other stuff. We did a podcast for a long time, we also have a destination homepage that we created, which is a wild edit of the world wide web that we do together, as well as a daily newsletter Monday through Friday.

DANNY: What's your take on how fashion brands are adapting to this insane environment right now? You work with a lot of them. First of all: sustainability – is that the future of fashion brands, or is that all bullshit now and it's been proven to be a bit of a hollow thing?

CHRIS: I don't know if it's bullshit, but I don't think customers actually care. I think it's one of those things where if I see something I like, I'm going to buy it and if it happens to be sustainable, or environmentally friendly, that's a bonus. I'm not going to buy something I like less because it's sustainable. It's not a sexy talking point; I think leading with it as a brand is just a little bit boring. I also think it's a dire situation, in some ways, as far as the actual environment and global warming. It's a tough balance between not boring your customer with a bunch of fucking knowledge they don't really care about, and also trying to do the right thing as a business and try to keep us on Earth a little bit longer.

DANNY: If you were to paint a picture of the fashion industry right now from a macro sense, what would that look like?

CHRIS: I think the big guys are really scrambling to figure out what the world looks like, with no shows and all the trappings that they're used to. The smaller brands who have a few wholesale accounts are selling directly. All the people I know are thriving – people are doing very, very well in a certain arena. If you had a lot of employees, a bloated overhead, multiple offices and multiple stores, this probably hit you really hard. If you were pretty nimble and pretty small and your customers come to you directly, you're likely doing better than you were before.

DANNY: What kind of brands are we talking about?

CHRIS: Are you familiar with Dime? Dime is a big skate brand from Montreal that's crossed over into fashion. Their store has been closed the whole time and they're thriving. I work with a brand called Museum of Peace & Quiet and they've been doing very, very well, selling out of everything they make. Stüssy that I work with, their collaborations are selling out and doing very well. If you have the customer locked in at the right price point, you're doing okay. Retail is a different animal, but if you're able to sell directly online and through Instagram or whatever it may be, I think you're doing fine. 

DANNY: We had Dan Frommer on the podcast the other day and he was saying that he foresaw the end of multi-brand e-commerce websites and marketplaces. What do you think about that?

CHRIS: I love and respect Dan, but I would have to disagree. What I've been saying the whole time is that the old guard fashion has not gone. Those people that want shows and want multi-brand stores are still in charge and still writing the cheque, so those things are going to continue to exist. It's not like the pandemic has put 26-year-olds in charge who want to flip the system on its head. 

That's not what's happened. A lot of them will go away, and that's fine because there's five multi-brand stores in the world that matter anyway. You want to be in DSM [Dover Street Market], you want to be in Mr Porter, you want to be in SSENSE. There's only a handful of them. Those can survive.

DANNY: What are some of the other brands that have caught your radar recently and that you think are gonna do well out of this whole crisis?

CHRIS: A guy who I am friends with has a brand I really like called District Vision. It's a running brand that started with glasses. Those guys are moving their operation to LA, and they're expanding into more technical clothing. The price points are really good and as people continue to exercise outside, and running is obviously the most democratic form of exercise, I think that they will thrive if they can keep the price point where it is because it's very, very competitive. Something like that is an interesting case study. It feels modern, yet it's also affordable and cool and that's a rare trifecta to find.

DANNY: It seems like everybody's obsessed with Tracksmith these days. 

CHRIS: My partner and I actually worked with Tracksmith for around a year and a half. Matt, the founder is a genius. He's brilliant, I really like him and we worked with Lee who handles all the in-house communications there. From a brand standpoint, it's very strong. It's interesting because it doesn't speak to me at all. I'm like a Nike, District Vision guy, which is the opposite aesthetically. But the way they have been able to stick to it, it's so clear and directional what they have, that's a very powerful thing as a brand.

DANNY: District Vision is quite poppy colours, right? Really bright.

CHRIS: Tracksmith is just super traditional. It's rooted in endemic running and a certain era of north-eastern preppiness. I think Matt's approach is really smart. Personally, I like District Vision and Nike's approach, the way they look appeals to me more, but Tracksmith is incredibly functional and really durable, and you can't really beat it for the price.

DANNY: You mentioned that something that really interested you recently is writers creating newsletters, and paid newsletters, getting money for it, having a really committed community around them and generating a micro economy. 

CHRIS: We've talked about this a lot on How Long Gone with a few different guests. It's because I'm already exhausted by it now, I feel like we're already hitting a fatigue point.

DANNY: Everybody has a Substack.

CHRIS: We want to pay for what we want to read. Comparing subscribing to a single-person newsletter to the New York Times, or something of that calibre is insane and I've seen a little bit of that happening. I do think that we just want to directly support the people that we like, and that speaks to where we are as a society. It's probably a good thing as an action overall, but it's tough for me to find voices that I care about that much and want to hear from every day. It's not about the money, it's actually very affordable and it's a way to support someone. The community and support is more what it's about than the actual content itself. 

DANNY: How do you think that'll affect the media industry? All these superstar writers and columnists are leaving to start their own thing and bringing their followers with them.

CHRIS: It's an interesting time because if you can build up a following on Twitter and a Substack, do you still need to contribute to these publications to get your name out? For me, as a 38-year-old man, I want my bylines in places that I respect and on the pages that I grew up reading. That's more important to me than making $1,000 a month on a Substack, but I also have other income streams. If I was trying to be a writer, I don't know what would be better for me. The reality is you should do all of it. Understand which things go to the newsletter, which things go to Twitter and which things go to a more classic publication. I think that is still something that people will have to figure out how to navigate in the near future.

DANNY: Another thing you said that had caught your eye was the return of the QR code.

CHRIS: Yeah, dude, I've made fun of QR codes. It's the stupidest shit since I had a BlackBerry. 

DANNY: I still think that but now everybody needs it to read a menu in a restaurant.

CHRIS: Exactly. I started seeing it on menus and restaurants. There was an article in Vogue Business today about how fashion is going to use them. For the menu purpose, it's actually really useful and I was shocked at how seamless it was. So it's funny to see a technology that I thought was completely archaic and done and silly from the get-go become necessary in our Covid society.

DANNY: How is fashion going to use it? I didn't read the story yet. 

CHRIS: I imagine it's probably a little more silly. The menu thing, the reason it works is because it's the only option. If fashion tries to get too creative with it, I think people will just be exhausted. I'm personally exhausted with AI and all this bullshit people are talking about because we can't get together in real life. I'd much rather see a beautiful photo or a video than a fucking composite robot wearing clothes that just doesn't interest me. People are going to do it and be creative with it, hiring these insane technologists to make this stuff happen, but that has never appealed to me. I don't think that appeals to me any more now that we have less options to do things in real life.

DANNY: What else is overrated?

CHRIS: Everything dude, what do you mean? No, I'm kidding. I get a lot of flack for speaking my mind and saying that things are bad. I get equally excited about things that I like, it's just not as fun to talk about. That's just what it is. I'm not alone in that. We talked about this yesterday on our podcast with Sam Hockley-Smith, who's a writer and a longtime music journalist and critic, and people are so anti-criticism now. And what does that mean? Why is it not OK for me to say Frank Ocean is boring? Why does that offend you so much? Why do we hold onto these things? If somebody wants to come up to me and say that the Lemonheads suck, which is my Frank Ocean, I'm OK with you not liking that. Fandom has become completely insane. You see it online, people getting doxxed for giving Taylor Swift an 8.0 on Pitchfork. We can compartmentalise it into BTS fans, but the reality is we're all kind of like that. If I go on Twitter right now and say Lana Del Rey sucks, my day's ruined. Obviously, I could give a more nuanced take that would maybe incite a reasonable debate versus just a binary response, but that's where we are. It's so tribal and so dedicated.

DANNY: One of the more interesting casualties of Covid – it's probably the least important of all the casualties – is restaurant criticism. Who wants to rip apart a restaurant when the industry is on its last legs? One of the biggest restaurant critics in London has said that they won’t be writing negative reviews ever again.

CHRIS: That's insane to me, then you should probably find a new job, because what's the point? Everything can't be good. It just can't. That's just where we are. Obviously, things are taste-based to an extent, but we give these people room to do this for a myriad of reasons, namely they have gained our trust. We have to let these people do their jobs. It's interesting to hear both sides and I always have. For me, music is probably the most common because that's my background and those are the people that I spend time with. Fashion is the same thing. We can talk about Telfar, I think the clothes are completely unwearable but that doesn't matter because it's important from a bigger standpoint, it's more than clothes. I understand that. I understand that it's a bigger thing for representation and diversity, and all of the things that are really important right now. That doesn't mean I'm going to go out and buy a bag or wear the clothes, and that's OK. I understand its value goes far, far beyond a garment. That's where we need to see things and where their value stems. 

DANNY: What kind of big opportunities do you see coming from the fashion world as a response to Covid? We've been talking about this for the past half year: more transparent supply chains, more focused on slow, blah, blah, blah. What's your take?

CHRIS: I don't think anybody cares about any of that. I think the industry likes to talk about that. The customer wants hot shit they can buy and get and wear. I don't think we've seen any real change yet, nor will we for a while. 

DANNY: If you go on Highsnobiety or HYPEBEAST, it's like the end of the hype era. Streetwear is over. There's all these apocalyptic warnings that people are going to stop buying trendy shit.

CHRIS: Yeah, no, that trend will just change. People won't stop buying trendy shit.

DANNY: Then why are people saying that? I fail to understand all these doomsayers who are saying this is all gonna happen.

CHRIS: Because that's the temperature of society right now. In a logical state, it would make sense for these things to end, but I walk outside and all that shit is the same. I still see people wearing it. I know the shit is selling. All these fucking sneakers that are coming out are going for thousands of dollars on StockX. If you're writing about this business, then you have to take swings and I understand that swing seeming logical, but to me, whether it's a T-shirt with a logo on it or something sustainable, if people are buying it, it's selling out, then it's still 'hype', right? It doesn't matter what the product is. To me, ‘hype’ actually means a lot of people wearing it, a lot of people talking about it and a lot of people buying it. It doesn't have to be streetwear. I will say that, stylistically, I think people want to return to real clothing.

DANNY: What do you mean by that?

CHRIS: I've been in LA for three months. I've barely worn pants. I've been wearing shorts all time, because it's 100 degrees. Yesterday, we had Thom Browne's shoot here, and I put on my full uniform: a suit, brogues, the whole thing. I hadn't done that in six months and it felt amazing.

DANNY: Oh, yeah, I saw your tweet, you said you felt like the fanciest guy in LA.

CHRIS: Dude, I was killing it. I thought people were just going to hand me money when I walked outside, you know what I mean? But the idea of dressing for even minor occasions I think is going to happen for anyone who likes clothes, or anyone who just wants to feel good. That's why shopping has been so popular during this time, whether it's clothing or garbage on Amazon you don't need. The reality is we want dopamine, we want to feel something and we're not getting that with human interaction so we're going to get it with buying. We can't be seen by friends now so we're gonna have to post on Instagram. There's still ways to get that same high feeling, it might be a little less, but there's still ways to do it, and that goes back to buying clothing and talking about clothing.

DANNY: Your friends in the fashion industry who are designers or founders of companies, are they changing much of what they do? Or are they, as you just said, assuming that people will keep buying stuff, and that the world will continue spinning?

CHRIS: I think I'm in a position where I can say that, but I don't think anybody that's actually doing this for a living from a design or brand ownership standpoint can be as brazen. They have to think about it a little more critically than I do. People are definitely making some changes here and there but the bottom line is we have to go on. These businesses, for them to survive, they have to keep making stuff and they have to keep selling stuff and they have to keep promoting. There are definitely changes happening, I think shows are going to condense, which makes sense from a buyer's perspective and it also helps with the carbon footprint. Some of it will happen, but a lot of it is speculation.

DANNY: What about Peloton?

CHRIS: Dude, I'm still sitting in my workout clothes. I finished peloton at 8:03 and you called me at 8:15am.

DANNY: What do you reckon? The one thing that's really interesting in the last couple weeks is Apple launching their fitness product line division, they're gonna take over the world. Is it now a two-horse race? Is it Peloton versus Apple forever?

CHRIS: I made fun of Peloton since it first came out. I used to say it was just a workout for fat rich guys, and then I tweaked my ankle running. There's a Peloton here at Villa Carlotta where I'm staying and I got on it and now I totally understand why people love it so much. Until my ankle gets back, I'm planning to use it three or four times a week. They just introduced a bunch of new bootcamp classes and band workouts. A lot of us will want to return to the gym. If you live in New York, working out at home is not really an option but I do think the Peloton bike is going to succeed. They’ve also just come out with a higher-priced bike and a lower-priced treadmill. Peloton is the leader, no one can really touch them. 

I didn't look into the Apple stuff deeply, but it seemed like the response was pretty tepid. But it's fucking Apple. They can do whatever they want. I think that with Peloton, at least for all of my friends that have bought one, the service is incredible. They come in, they set it up for you, and in that sense, I'm sold. I was very very sceptical, so if I'm sold, I can only imagine what someone who's open to the idea will think about all of the different product offerings, especially if you're investing in a proper home gym.

DANNY: As you said at the beginning, you have a brand consultancy, you have two things that you do. How do guys like you survive tough times like this? Has it been a goldmine as people rush to ask what to do and how to stand out from the crowd? Or has work dried right up?

CHRIS: No, work is good. Exactly what you said, people are looking for solutions and strategy and communications help and just outside brains to guide brands through whatever we're going through. I think it's valuable. After three or four months, people realised that the world is gonna go on, we have to do things to make money and continue to feel relevant. Guys like me probably benefited from that. I've had a lot of serious conversations with clients in the last six months and I think that we've come out on the other side for the most part. For some people, it's been more difficult than others, but everybody needs to figure out what the next move is. 

DANNY: And that's it this week. And as always, if you've got any questions or comments, you can reach me at daniel@couriermedia.co. The Courier Weekly is back again next Friday. Thanks for listening.