Who decides what’s cool? Certain kids in certain places–and only the coolhunters know who they are.
Baysie Wightman met DeeDee Gordon, appropriately enough, on a coolhunt. It was 1992. Baysie was a big shot for Converse, and DeeDee, who was barely twenty-one, was running a very cool boutique called Placid Planet, on Newbury Street in Boston. Baysie came in with a camera crew-one she often used when she was coolhunting-and said, “I’ve been watching your store, I’ve seen you, I’ve heard you know what’s up,” because it was Baysie’s job at Converse to find people who knew what was up and she thought DeeDee was one of those people. DeeDee says that she responded with reserve-that “I was like, ‘Whatever’ “-but Baysie said that if DeeDee ever wanted to come and work at Converse she should just call, and nine months later DeeDee called. This was about the time the cool kids had decided they didn’t want the hundred-and-twenty- five-dollar basketball sneaker with seventeen different kinds of high-technology materials and colors and air-cushioned heels anymore. They wanted simplicity and authenticity, and Baysie picked up on that. She brought back the Converse One Star, which was a vulcanized, suède, low-top classic old-school sneaker from the nineteen-seventies, and, sure enough, the One Star quickly became the signature shoe of the retro era. Remember what Kurt Cobain was wearing in the famous picture of him lying dead on the ground after committing suicide? Black Converse One Stars. DeeDee’s big score was calling the sandal craze. She had been out in Los Angeles and had kept seeing the white teen-age girls dressing up like cholos, Mexican gangsters, in tight white tank tops known as “wife beaters,” with a bra strap hanging out, and long shorts and tube socks and shower sandals. DeeDee recalls, “I’m like, ‘I’m telling you, Baysie, this is going to hit. There are just too many people wearing it. We have to make a shower sandal.’ ” So Baysie, DeeDee, and a designer came up with the idea of making a retro sneaker-sandal, cutting the back off the One Star and putting a thick outsole on it. It was huge, and, amazingly, it’s still huge.
Today, Baysie works for Reebok as general-merchandise manager-part of the team trying to return Reebok to the position it enjoyed in the mid-nineteen-eighties as the country’s hottest sneaker company. DeeDee works for an advertising agency in Del Mar called Lambesis, where she puts out a quarterly tip sheet called the L Report on what the cool kids in major American cities are thinking and doing and buying. Baysie and DeeDee are best friends. They talk on the phone all the time. They get together whenever Baysie is in L.A. (DeeDee: “It’s, like, how many times can you drive past O. J. Simpson’s house?”), and between them they can talk for hours about the art of the coolhunt. They’re the Lewis and Clark of cool.
What they have is what everybody seems to want these days, which is a window on the world of the street. Once, when fashion trends were set by the big couture houses-when cool was trickle- down-that wasn’t important. But sometime in the past few decades things got turned over, and fashion became trickle-up. It’s now about chase and flight-designers and retailers and the mass consumer giving chase to the elusive prey of street cool-and the rise of coolhunting as a profession shows how serious the chase has become. The sneakers of Nike and Reebok used to come out yearly. Now a new style comes out every season. Apparel designers used to have an eighteen-month lead time between concept and sale. Now they’re reducing that to a year, or even six months, in order to react faster to new ideas from the street. The paradox, of course, is that the better coolhunters become at bringing the mainstream close to the cutting edge, the more elusive the cutting edge becomes. This is the first rule of the cool: The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight. The act of discovering what’s cool is what causes cool to move on, which explains the triumphant circularity of coolhunting: because we have coolhunters like DeeDee and Baysie, cool changes more quickly, and because cool changes more quickly, we need coolhunters like DeeDee and Baysie.
DeeDee is tall and glamorous, with short hair she has dyed so often that she claims to have forgotten her real color. She drives a yellow 1977 Trans Am with a burgundy stripe down the center and a 1973 Mercedes 450 SL, and lives in a spare, Japanese-style cabin in Laurel Canyon. She uses words like “rad” and “totally,” and offers non-stop, deadpan pronouncements on pop culture, as in “It’s all about Pee-wee Herman.” She sounds at first like a teen, like the same teens who, at Lambesis, it is her job to follow. But teen speech-particularly girl-teen speech, with its fixation on reported speech (“so she goes,” “and I’m like,” “and he goes”) and its stock vocabulary of accompanying grimaces and gestures-is about using language less to communicate than to fit in. DeeDee uses teen speech to set herself apart, and the result is, for lack of a better word, really cool. She doesn’t do the teen thing of climbing half an octave at the end of every sentence. Instead, she drags out her vowels for emphasis, so that if she mildly disagreed with something I’d said she would say “Maalcolm” and if she strongly disagreed with what I’d said she would say “Maaalcolm.”
Baysie is older, just past forty (although you would never guess that), and went to Exeter and Middlebury and had two grandfathers who went to Harvard (although you wouldn’t guess that, either). She has curly brown hair and big green eyes and long legs and so much energy that it is hard to imagine her asleep, or resting, or even standing still for longer than thirty seconds. The hunt for cool is an obsession with her, and DeeDee is the same way. DeeDee used to sit on the corner of West Broadway and Prince in SoHo-back when SoHo was cool-and take pictures of everyone who walked by for an entire hour. Baysie can tell you precisely where she goes on her Reebok coolhunts to find the really cool alternative white kids (“I’d maybe go to Portland and hang out where the skateboarders hang out near that bridge”) or which snowboarding mountain has cooler kids-Stratton, in Vermont, or Summit County, in Colorado. (Summit, definitely.) DeeDee can tell you on the basis of the L Report’s research exactly how far Dallas is behind New York in coolness (from six to eight months). Baysie is convinced that Los Angeles is not happening right now: “In the early nineteen-nineties a lot more was coming from L.A. They had a big trend with the whole Melrose Avenue look-the stupid goatees, the shorter hair. It was cleaned-up aftergrunge. There were a lot of places you could go to buy vinyl records. It was a strong place to go for looks. Then it went back to being horrible.” DeeDee is convinced that Japan is happening: “I linked onto this future-technology thing two years ago. Now look at it, it’s huge. It’s the whole resurgence of Nike-Nike being larger than life. I went to Japan and saw the kids just bailing the most technologically advanced Nikes with their little dresses and little outfits and I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is trippy!’ It’s performance mixed with fashion. It’s really superheavy.” Baysie has a theory that Liverpool is cool right now because it’s the birthplace of the whole “lad” look, which involves soccer blokes in the pubs going superdressy and wearing Dolce & Gabbana and Polo Sport and Reebok Classics on their feet. But when I asked DeeDee about that, she just rolled her eyes: “Sometimes Baysie goes off on these tangents. Man, I love that woman!”
I used to think that if I talked to Baysie and DeeDee long enough I could write a coolhunting manual, an encyclopedia of cool. But then I realized that the manual would have so many footnotes and caveats that it would be unreadable. Coolhunting is not about the articulation of a coherent philosophy of cool. It’s just a collection of spontaneous observations and predictions that differ from one moment to the next and from one coolhunter to the next. Ask a coolhunter where the baggy-jeans look came from, for example, and you might get any number of answers: urban black kids mimicking the jailhouse look, skateboarders looking for room to move, snowboarders trying not to look like skiers, or, alternatively, all three at once, in some grand concordance.
Or take the question of exactly how Tommy Hilfiger-a forty- five-year-old white guy from Greenwich, Connecticut, doing all- American preppy clothes-came to be the designer of choice for urban black America. Some say it was all about the early and visible endorsement given Hilfiger by the hip-hop auteur Grand Puba, who wore a dark-green-and-blue Tommy jacket over a white Tommy T-shirt as he leaned on his black Lamborghini on the cover of the hugely influential “Grand Puba 2000″ CD, and whose love for Hilfiger soon spread to other rappers. (Who could forget the rhymes of Mobb Deep? “Tommy was my nigga /And couldn’t figure /How me and Hilfiger / used to move through with vigor.”) Then I had lunch with one of Hilfiger’s designers, a twenty-six-year-old named Ulrich (Ubi) Simpson, who has a Puerto Rican mother and a Dutch-Venezuelan father, plays lacrosse, snowboards, surfs the long board, goes to hip-hop concerts, listens to Jungle, Edith Piaf, opera, rap, and Metallica, and has working with him on his design team a twenty-seven-year-old black guy from Montclair with dreadlocks, a twenty-two-year-old Asian-American who lives on the Lower East Side, a twenty-five-year-old South Asian guy from Fiji, and a twenty-one-year-old white graffiti artist from Queens. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe the reason Tommy Hilfiger can make white culture cool to black culture is that he has people working for him who are cool in both cultures simultaneously. Then again, maybe it was all Grand Puba. Who knows?
One day last month, Baysie took me on a coolhunt to the Bronx and Harlem, lugging a big black canvas bag with twenty-four different shoes that Reebok is about to bring out, and as we drove down Fordham Road, she had her head out the window like a little kid, checking out what everyone on the street was wearing. We went to Dr. Jay’s, which is the cool place to buy sneakers in the Bronx, and Baysie crouched down on the floor and started pulling the shoes out of her bag one by one, soliciting opinions from customers who gathered around and asking one question after another, in rapid sequence. One guy she listened closely to was maybe eighteen or nineteen, with a diamond stud in his ear and a thin beard. He was wearing a Polo baseball cap, a brown leather jacket, and the big, oversized leather boots that are everywhere uptown right now. Baysie would hand him a shoe and he would hold it, look at the top, and move it up and down and flip it over. The first one he didn’t like: “Oh-kay.” The second one he hated: he made a growling sound in his throat even before Baysie could give it to him, as if to say, “Put it back in the bag-now!” But when she handed him a new DMX RXT-a low-cut run/walk shoe in white and blue and mesh with a translucent “ice” sole, which retails for a hundred and ten dollars-he looked at it long and hard and shook his head in pure admiration and just said two words, dragging each of them out: “No doubt.”
Baysie was interested in what he was saying, because the DMX RXT she had was a girls’ shoe that actually hadn’t been doing all that well. Later, she explained to me that the fact that the boys loved the shoe was critical news, because it suggested that Reebok had a potential hit if it just switched the shoe to the men’s section. How she managed to distill this piece of information from the crowd of teenagers around her, how she made any sense of the two dozen shoes in her bag, most of which (to my eyes, anyway) looked pretty much the same, and how she knew which of the teens to really focus on was a mystery. Baysie is a Wasp from New England, and she crouched on the floor in Dr. Jay’s for almost an hour, talking and joking with the homeboys without a trace of condescension or self-consciousness.
Near the end of her visit, a young boy walked up and sat down on the bench next to her. He was wearing a black woollen cap with white stripes pulled low, a blue North Face pleated down jacket, a pair of baggy Guess jeans, and, on his feet, Nike Air Jordans. He couldn’t have been more than thirteen. But when he started talking you could see Baysie’s eyes light up, because somehow she knew the kid was the real thing.
“How many pairs of shoes do you buy a month?” Baysie asked.
“Two,” the kid answered. “And if at the end I find one more I like I get to buy that, too.”
Baysie was onto him. “Does your mother spoil you?”
The kid blushed, but a friend next to him was laughing. “Whatever he wants, he gets.”
Baysie laughed, too. She had the DMX RXT in his size. He tried them on. He rocked back and forth, testing them. He looked back at Baysie. He was dead serious now: “Make sure these come out.”
Baysie handed him the new “Rush” Emmitt Smith shoe due out in the fall. One of the boys had already pronounced it “phat,” and another had looked through the marbleized-foam cradle in the heel and cried out in delight, “This is bug!” But this kid was the acid test, because this kid knew cool. He paused. He looked at it hard. “Reebok,” he said, soberly and carefully, “is trying to get butter.”
In the car on the way back to Manhattan, Baysie repeated it twice. “Not better. Butter! That kid could totally tell you what he thinks.” Baysie had spent an hour coolhunting in a shoe store and found out that Reebok’s efforts were winning the highest of hip-hop praise. “He was so fucking smart.”
If you want to understand how trends work, and why coolhunters like Baysie and DeeDee have become so important, a good place to start is with what’s known as diffusion research, which is the study of how ideas and innovations spread. Diffusion researchers do things like spending five years studying the adoption of irrigation techniques in a Colombian mountain village, or developing complex matrices to map the spread of new math in the Pittsburgh school system. What they do may seem like a far cry from, say, how the Tommy Hilfiger thing spread from Harlem to every suburban mall in the country, but it really isn’t: both are about how new ideas spread from one person to the next.
One of the most famous diffusion studies is Bruce Ryan and Neal Gross’s analysis of the spread of hybrid seed corn in Greene County, Iowa, in the nineteen-thirties. The new seed corn was introduced there in about 1928, and it was superior in every respect to the seed that had been used by farmers for decades. But it wasn’t adopted all at once. Of two hundred and fifty-nine farmers studied by Ryan and Gross, only a handful had started planting the new seed by 1933. In 1934, sixteen took the plunge. In 1935, twenty-one more followed; the next year, there were thirty-six, and the year after that a whopping sixty-one. The succeeding figures were then forty-six, thirty-six, fourteen, and three, until, by 1941, all but two of the two hundred and fifty-nine farmers studied were using the new seed. In the language of diffusion research, the handful of farmers who started trying hybrid seed corn at the very beginning of the thirties were the “innovators,” the adventurous ones. The slightly larger group that followed them was the “early adopters.” They were the opinion leaders in the community, the respected, thoughtful people who watched and analyzed what those wild innovators were doing and then did it themselves. Then came the big bulge of farmers in 1936, 1937, and 1938-the “early majority” and the “late majority,” which is to say the deliberate and the skeptical masses, who would never try anything until the most respected farmers had tried it. Only after they had been converted did the “laggards,” the most traditional of all, follow suit. The critical thing about this sequence is that it is almost entirely interpersonal. According to Ryan and Gross, only the innovators relied to any great extent on radio advertising and farm journals and seed salesmen in making their decision to switch to the hybrid. Everyone else made his decision overwhelmingly because of the example and the opinions of his neighbors and peers.
Isn’t this just how fashion works? A few years ago, the classic brushed-suède Hush Puppies with the lightweight crêpe sole-the moc-toe oxford known as the Duke and the slip-on with the golden buckle known as the Columbia-were selling barely sixty-five thousand pairs a year. The company was trying to walk away from the whole suède casual look entirely. It wanted to do “aspirational” shoes: “active casuals” in smooth leather, like the Mall Walker, with a Comfort Curve technology outsole and a heel stabilizer-the kind of shoes you see in Kinney’s for $39.95. But then something strange started happening. Two Hush Puppies executives-Owen Baxter and Jeff Lewis-were doing a fashion shoot for their Mall Walkers and ran into a creative consultant from Manhattan named Jeffrey Miller, who informed them that the Dukes and the Columbias weren’t dead, they were dead chic. “We were being told,” Baxter recalls, “that there were areas in the Village, in SoHo, where the shoes were selling-in resale shops-and that people were wearing the old Hush Puppies. They were going to the ma-and-pa stores, the little stores that still carried them, and there was this authenticity of being able to say, ‘I am wearing an original pair of Hush Puppies.’ ”
Baxter and Lewis-tall, solid, fair-haired Midwestern guys with thick, shiny wedding bands-are shoe men, first and foremost. Baxter was working the cash register at his father’s shoe store in Mount Prospect, Illinois, at the age of thirteen. Lewis was doing inventory in his father’s shoe store in Pontiac, Michigan, at the age of seven. Baxter was in the National Guard during the 1968 Democratic Convention, in Chicago, and was stationed across the street from the Conrad Hilton downtown, right in the middle of things. Today, the two men work out of Rockford, Michigan (population thirty-eight hundred), where Hush Puppies has been making the Dukes and the Columbias in an old factory down by the Rogue River for almost forty years. They took me to the plant when I was in Rockford. In a crowded, noisy, low-slung building, factory workers stand in long rows, gluing, stapling, and sewing together shoes in dozens of bright colors, and the two executives stopped at each production station and described it in detail. Lewis and Baxter know shoes. But they would be the first to admit that they don’t know cool. “Miller was saying that there is something going on with the shoes-that Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes for his personal use,” Lewis told me. We were seated around the conference table in the Hush Puppies headquarters in Rockford, with the snow and the trees outside and a big water tower behind us. “I think it’s fair to say that at the time we had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.”
By late 1994, things had begun to happen in a rush. First, the designer John Bartlett called. He wanted to use Hush Puppies as accessories in his spring collection. Then Anna Sui called. Miller, the man from Manhattan, flew out to Michigan to give advice on a new line (“Of course, packing my own food and thinking about ‘Fargo’ in the corner of my mind”). A few months later, in Los Angeles, the designer Joel Fitzpatrick put a twenty-five-foot inflatable basset hound on the roof of his store on La Brea Avenue and gutted his adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies department, and even before he opened-while he was still painting and putting up shelves-Pee-wee Herman walked in and asked for a couple of pairs. Pee-wee Herman! “It was total word of mouth. I didn’t even have a sign back then,” Fitzpatrick recalls. In 1995, the company sold four hundred and thirty thousand pairs of the classic Hush Puppies. In 1996, it sold a million six hundred thousand, and that was only scratching the surface, because in Europe and the rest of the world, where Hush Puppies have a huge following-where they might outsell the American market four to one-the revival was just beginning.
The cool kids who started wearing old Dukes and Columbias from thrift shops were the innovators. Pee-wee Herman, wandering in off the street, was an early adopter. The million six hundred thousand people who bought Hush Puppies last year are the early majority, jumping in because the really cool people have already blazed the trail. Hush Puppies are moving through the country just the way hybrid seed corn moved through Greene County-all of which illustrates what coolhunters can and cannot do. If Jeffrey Miller had been wrong-if cool people hadn’t been digging through the thrift shops for Hush Puppies-and he had arbitrarily decided that Baxter and Lewis should try to convince non-cool people that the shoes were cool, it wouldn’t have worked. You can’t convince the late majority that Hush Puppies are cool, because the late majority makes its coolness decisions on the basis of what the early majority is doing, and you can’t convince the early majority, because the early majority is looking at the early adopters, and you can’t convince the early adopters, because they take their cues from the innovators. The innovators do get their cool ideas from people other than their peers, but the fact is that they are the last people who can be convinced by a marketing campaign that a pair of suède shoes is cool. These are, after all, the people who spent hours sifting through thrift-store bins. And why did they do that? Because their definition of cool is doing something that nobody else is doing. A company can intervene in the cool cycle. It can put its shoes on really cool celebrities and on fashion runways and on MTV. It can accelerate the transition from the innovator to the early adopter and on to the early majority. But it can’t just manufacture cool out of thin air, and that’s the second rule of cool.
At the peak of the Hush Puppies craziness last year, Hush Puppies won the prize for best accessory at the Council of Fashion Designers’ awards dinner, at Lincoln Center. The award was accepted by the Hush Puppies president, Louis Dubrow, who came out wearing a pair of custom-made black patent-leather Hush Puppies and stood there blinking and looking at the assembled crowd as if it were the last scene of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It was a strange moment. There was the president of the Hush Puppies company, of Rockford, Michigan, population thirty-eight hundred, sharing a stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and Isaac Mizrahi-and all because some kids in the East Village began combing through thrift shops for old Dukes. Fashion was at the mercy of those kids, whoever they were, and it was a wonderful thing if the kids picked you, but a scary thing, too, because it meant that cool was something you could not control. You needed someone to find cool and tell you what it was.
When Baysie Wightman went to Dr. Jay’s, she was looking for customer response to the new shoes Reebok had planned for the fourth quarter of 1997 and the first quarter of 1998. This kind of customer testing is critical at Reebok, because the last decade has not been kind to the company. In 1987, it had a third of the American athletic-shoe market, well ahead of Nike. Last year, it had sixteen per cent. “The kid in the store would say, ‘I’d like this shoe if your logo wasn’t on it,’ ” E. Scott Morris, who’s a senior designer for Reebok, told me. “That’s kind of a punch in the mouth. But we’ve all seen it. You go into a shoe store. The kid picks up the shoe and says, ‘Ah, man, this is nice.’ He turns the shoe around and around. He looks at it underneath. He looks at the side and he goes, ‘Ah, this is Reebok,’ and says, ‘I ain’t buying this,’ and puts the shoe down and walks out. And you go, ‘You was just digging it a minute ago. What happened?’ ” Somewhere along the way, the company lost its cool, and Reebok now faces the task not only of rebuilding its image but of making the shoes so cool that the kids in the store can’t put them down.
Every few months, then, the company’s coolhunters go out into the field with prototypes of the upcoming shoes to find out what kids really like, and come back to recommend the necessary changes. The prototype of one recent Emmitt Smith shoe, for example, had a piece of molded rubber on the end of the tongue as a design element; it was supposed to give the shoe a certain “richness,” but the kids said they thought it looked overbuilt. Then Reebok gave the shoes to the Boston College football team for wear-testing, and when they got the shoes back they found out that all the football players had cut out the rubber component with scissors. As messages go, this was hard to miss. The tongue piece wasn’t cool, and on the final version of the shoe it was gone. The rule of thumb at Reebok is that if the kids in Chicago, New York, and Detroit all like a shoe, it’s a guaranteed hit. More than likely, though, the coolhunt is going to turn up subtle differences from city to city, so that once the coolhunters come back the designers have to find out some way to synthesize what was heard, and pick out just those things that all the kids seemed to agree on. In New York, for example, kids in Harlem are more sophisticated and fashion-forward than kids in the Bronx, who like things a little more colorful and glitzy. Brooklyn, meanwhile, is conservative and preppy, more like Washington, D.C. For reasons no one really knows, Reeboks are coolest in Philadelphia. In Philly, in fact, the Reebok Classics are so huge they are known simply as National Anthems, as in “I’ll have a pair of blue Anthems in nine and a half.” Philadelphia is Reebok’s innovator town. From there trends move along the East Coast, trickling all the way to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Reebok has its headquarters in Stoughton, Massachusetts, outside Boston-in a modern corporate park right off Route 24. There are basketball and tennis courts next to the building, and a health club on the ground floor that you can look directly into from the parking lot. The front lobby is adorned with shrines for all of Reebok’s most prominent athletes-shrines complete with dramatic action photographs, their sports jerseys, and a pair of their signature shoes-and the halls are filled with so many young, determinedly athletic people that when I visited Reebok headquarters I suddenly wished I’d packed my gym clothes in case someone challenged me to wind sprints. At Stoughton, I met with a handful of the company’s top designers and marketing executives in a long conference room on the third floor. In the course of two hours, they put one pair of shoes after another on the table in front of me, talking excitedly about each sneaker’s prospects, because the feeling at Reebok is that things are finally turning around. The basketball shoe that Reebok brought out last winter for Allen Iverson, the star rookie guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, for example, is one of the hottest shoes in the country. Dr. Jay’s sold out of Iversons in two days, compared with the week it took the store to sell out of Nike’s new Air Jordans. Iverson himself is brash and charismatic and faster from foul line to foul line than anyone else in the league. He’s the equivalent of those kids in the East Village who began wearing Hush Puppies way back when. He’s an innovator, and the hope at Reebok is that if he gets big enough the whole company can ride back to coolness on his coattails, the way Nike rode to coolness on the coattails of Michael Jordan. That’s why Baysie was so excited when the kid said Reebok was trying to get butter when he looked at the Rush and the DMX RXT: it was a sign, albeit a small one, that the indefinable, abstract thing called cool was coming back.
When Baysie comes back from a coolhunt, she sits down with marketing experts and sales representatives and designers, and reconnects them to the street, making sure they have the right shoes going to the right places at the right price. When she got back from the Bronx, for example, the first thing she did was tell all these people they had to get a new men’s DMX RXT out, fast, because the kids on the street loved the women’s version. “It’s hotter than we realized,” she told them. The coolhunter’s job in this instance is very specific. What DeeDee does, on the other hand, is a little more ambitious. With the L Report, she tries to construct a kind of grand matrix of cool, comprising not just shoes but everything kids like, and not just kids of certain East Coast urban markets but kids all over. DeeDee and her staff put it out four times a year, in six different versions-for New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin-Dallas, Seattle, and Chicago-and then sell it to manufacturers, retailers, and ad agencies (among others) for twenty thousand dollars a year. They go to each city and find the coolest bars and clubs, and ask the coolest kids to fill out questionnaires. The information is then divided into six categories-You Saw It Here First, Entertainment and Leisure, Clothing and Accessories, Personal and Individual, Aspirations, and Food and Beverages-which are, in turn, broken up into dozens of subcategories, so that Personal and Individual, for example, includes Cool Date, Cool Evening, Free Time, Favorite Possession, and on and on. The information in those subcategories is subdivided again by sex and by age bracket (14-18, 19-24, 25-30), and then, as a control, the L Report gives you the corresponding set of preferences for “mainstream” kids.
Few coolhunters bother to analyze trends with this degree of specificity. DeeDee’s biggest competitor, for example, is something called the Hot Sheet, out of Manhattan. It uses a panel of three thousand kids a year from across the country and divides up their answers by sex and age, but it doesn’t distinguish between regions, or between trendsetting and mainstream respondents. So what you’re really getting is what all kids think is cool-not what cool kids think is cool, which is a considerably different piece of information. Janine Misdom and Joanne DeLuca, who run the Sputnik coolhunting group out of the garment district in Manhattan, meanwhile, favor an entirely impressionistic approach, sending out coolhunters with video cameras to talk to kids on the ground that it’s too difficult to get cool kids to fill out questionnaires. Once, when I was visiting the Sputnik girls-as Misdom and DeLuca are known on the street, because they look alike and their first names are so similar and both have the same awesome New York accents-they showed me a video of the girl they believe was the patient zero of the whole eighties revival going on right now. It was back in September of 1993. Joanne and Janine were on Seventh Avenue, outside the Fashion Institute of Technology, doing random street interviews for a major jeans company, and, quite by accident, they ran into this nineteen-year- old raver. She had close-cropped hair, which was green at the top, and at the temples was shaved even closer and dyed pink. She had rings and studs all over her face, and a thick collection of silver tribal jewelry around her neck, and vintage jeans. She looked into the camera and said, “The sixties came in and then the seventies came in and I think it’s ready to come back to the eighties. It’s totally eighties: the eye makeup, the clothes. It’s totally going back to that.” Immediately, Joanne and Janine started asking around. “We talked to a few kids on the Lower East Side who said they were feeling the need to start breaking out their old Michael Jackson jackets,” Joanne said. “They were joking about it. They weren’t doing it yet. But they were going to, you know? They were saying, ‘We’re getting the urge to break out our Members Only jackets.’ ” That was right when Joanne and Janine were just starting up; calling the eighties revival was their first big break, and now they put out a full-blown videotaped report twice a year which is a collection of clips of interviews with extremely progressive people.
What DeeDee argues, though, is that cool is too subtle and too variegated to be captured with these kind of broad strokes. Cool is a set of dialects, not a language. The L Report can tell you, for example, that nineteen-to-twenty-four-year-old male trendsetters in Seattle would most like to meet, among others, King Solomon and Dr. Seuss, and that nineteen-to-twenty-four-year- old female trendsetters in San Francisco have turned their backs on Calvin Klein, Nintendo Gameboy, and sex. What’s cool right now? Among male New York trendsetters: North Face jackets, rubber and latex, khakis, and the rock band Kiss. Among female trendsetters: ska music, old-lady clothing, and cyber tech. In Chicago, snowboarding is huge among trendsetters of both sexes and all ages. Women over nineteen are into short hair, while those in their teens have embraced mod culture, rock climbing, tag watches, and bootleg pants. In Austin-Dallas, meanwhile, twenty-five-to- thirty-year-old women trendsetters are into hats, heroin, computers, cigars, Adidas, and velvet, while men in their twenties are into video games and hemp. In all, the typical L Report runs over one hundred pages. But with that flood of data comes an obsolescence disclaimer: “The fluctuating nature of the trendsetting market makes keeping up with trends a difficult task.” By the spring, in other words, everything may have changed.
The key to coolhunting, then, is to look for cool people first and cool things later, and not the other way around. Since cool things are always changing, you can’t look for them, because the very fact they are cool means you have no idea what to look for. What you would be doing is thinking back on what was cool before and extrapolating, which is about as useful as presuming that because the Dow rose ten points yesterday it will rise another ten points today. Cool people, on the other hand, are a constant.
When I was in California, I met Salvador Barbier, who had been described to me by a coolhunter as “the Michael Jordan of skateboarding.” He was tall and lean and languid, with a cowboy’s insouciance, and we drove through the streets of Long Beach at fifteen miles an hour in a white late-model Ford Mustang, a car he had bought as a kind of ironic status gesture (“It would look good if I had a Polo jacket or maybe Nautica,” he said) to go with his ’62 Econoline van and his ’64 T-bird. Sal told me that he and his friends, who are all in their mid-twenties, recently took to dressing up as if they were in eighth grade again and gathering together-having a “rally”-on old BMX bicycles in front of their local 7-Eleven. “I’d wear muscle shirts, like Def Leppard or Foghat or some old heavy-metal band, and tight, tight tapered Levi’s, and Vans on my feet-big, like, checkered Vans or striped Vans or camouflage Vans-and then wristbands and gloves with the fingers cut off. It was total eighties fashion. You had to look like that to participate in the rally. We had those denim jackets with patches on the back and combs that hung out the back pocket. We went without I.D.s, because we’d have to have someone else buy us beers.” At this point, Sal laughed. He was driving really slowly and staring straight ahead and talking in a low drawl-the coolhunter’s dream. “We’d ride to this bar and I’d have to carry my bike inside, because we have really expensive bikes, and when we got inside people would freak out. They’d say, ‘Omigod,’ and I was asking them if they wanted to go for a ride on the handlebars. They were like, ‘What is wrong with you. My boyfriend used to dress like that in the eighth grade!’ And I was like, ‘He was probably a lot cooler then, too.’ ”
This is just the kind of person DeeDee wants. “I’m looking for somebody who is an individual, who has definitely set himself apart from everybody else, who doesn’t look like his peers. I’ve run into trendsetters who look completely Joe Regular Guy. I can see Joe Regular Guy at a club listening to some totally hardcore band playing, and I say to myself ‘Omigod, what’s that guy doing here?’ and that totally intrigues me, and I have to walk up to him and say, ‘Hey, you’re really into this band. What’s up?’ You know what I mean? I look at everything. If I see Joe Regular Guy sitting in a coffee shop and everyone around him has blue hair, I’m going to gravitate toward him, because, hey, what’s Joe Regular Guy doing in a coffee shop with people with blue hair?”
We were sitting outside the Fred Segal store in West Hollywood. I was wearing a very conservative white Brooks Brothers button-down and a pair of Levi’s, and DeeDee looked first at my shirt and then my pants and dissolved into laughter: “I mean, I might even go up to you in a cool place.”
Picking the right person is harder than it sounds, though. Piney Kahn, who works for DeeDee, says, “There are a lot of people in the gray area. You’ve got these kids who dress ultra funky and have their own style. Then you realize they’re just running after their friends.” The trick is not just to be able to tell who is different but to be able to tell when that difference represents something truly cool. It’s a gut thing. You have to somehow just know. DeeDee hired Piney because Piney clearly knows: she is twenty-four and used to work with the Beastie Boys and has the formidable self-possession of someone who is not only cool herself but whose parents were cool. “I mean,” she says, “they named me after a tree.”
Piney and DeeDee said that they once tried to hire someone as a coolhunter who was not, himself, cool, and it was a disaster.
“You can give them the boundaries,” Piney explained. “You can say that if people shop at Banana Republic and listen to Alanis Morissette they’re probably not trendsetters. But then they might go out and assume that everyone who does that is not a trendsetter, and not look at the other things.”
“I mean, I myself might go into Banana Republic and buy a T-shirt,” DeeDee chimed in.
Their non-cool coolhunter just didn’t have that certain instinct, that sense that told him when it was O.K. to deviate from the manual. Because he wasn’t cool, he didn’t know cool, and that’s the essence of the third rule of cool: you have to be one to know one. That’s why Baysie is still on top of this business at forty-one. “It’s easier for me to tell you what kid is cool than to tell you what things are cool,” she says. But that’s all she needs to know. In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes cool to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermeneutic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot even be adequately described to them. Baysie says that she can see a coat on one of her friends and think it’s not cool but then see the same coat on DeeDee and think that it is cool. It is not possible to be cool, in other words, unless you are-in some larger sense-already cool, and so the phenomenon that the uncool cannot see and cannot have described to them is also something that they cannot ever attain, because if they did it would no longer be cool. Coolhunting represents the ascendancy, in the marketplace, of high school.
Once, I was visiting DeeDee at her house in Laurel Canyon when one of her L Report assistants, Jonas Vail, walked in. He’d just come back from Niketown on Wilshire Boulevard, where he’d bought seven hundred dollars’ worth of the latest sneakers to go with the three hundred dollars’ worth of skateboard shoes he’d bought earlier in the afternoon. Jonas is tall and expressionless, with a peacoat, dark jeans, and short-cropped black hair. “Jonas is good,” DeeDee says. “He works with me on everything. That guy knows more pop culture. You know: What was the name of the store Mrs. Garrett owned on ‘The Facts of Life’? He knows all the names of the extras from eighties sitcoms. I can’t believe someone like him exists. He’s fucking unbelievable. Jonas can spot a cool person a mile away.”
Jonas takes the boxes of shoes and starts unpacking them on the couch next to DeeDee. He picks up a pair of the new Nike ACG hiking boots, and says, “All the Japanese in Niketown were really into these.” He hands the shoes to DeeDee.
“Of course they were!” she says. “The Japanese are all into the tech-looking shit. Look how exaggerated it is, how bulbous.” DeeDee has very ambivalent feelings about Nike, because she thinks its marketing has got out of hand. When she was in the New York Niketown with a girlfriend recently, she says, she started getting light-headed and freaked out. “It’s cult, cult, cult. It was like, ‘Hello, are we all drinking the Kool-Aid here?’ ” But this shoe she loves. It’s Dr. Jay’s in the Bronx all over again. DeeDee turns the shoe around and around in the air, tapping the big clear-blue plastic bubble on the side-the visible Air-Sole unit- with one finger. “It’s so fucking rad. It looks like a platypus!” In front of me, there is a pair of Nike’s new shoes for the basketball player Jason Kidd.
I pick it up. “This looks . . . cool,” I venture uncertainly.
DeeDee is on the couch, where she’s surrounded by shoeboxes and sneakers and white tissue paper, and she looks up reprovingly because, of course, I don’t get it. I can’t get it. “Beyooond cool, Maalcolm. Beyooond cool.”