PFPs are the New Streetwear
Oct 04, 2021
Last updated on Oct 04, 2021
Coveted items. Identity-forming images. Online drops that sell out instantly. And massive secondary markets.
We’re not talking about NFTs — we’re talking about streetwear.
Actually, let’s talk about both.
The recent surge in pfps, or NFT profile pictures, is taking the NFT space to new heights. The launch of the now prolific Bored Ape Yacht Club, which occurred on April 30, already feels like it was ages ago. Picking up an Ape now will run you at least 40 ETH, or $131,000, at the time of writing. While they weren’t the first, they were a huge catalyst for pfp adoption. Crypto Twitter is now filled with profile pictures of animated animals, robots, astronauts, aaand more animals. This is so common that it’s almost strange to see someone in the crypto space use an actual photo of themselves as their profile picture.
This is not a tale of the metaverse, or virtual reality characters, or even digital fashion. Although, all of those things are awesome. Instead, this is a much simpler story. It is about the human desire to belong.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
In 2017, creative technologists Matt Hall and John Watkinson released 10,000 pixel art avatars onto the Ethereum blockchain. With an aesthetic based off of the 70s British punk scene, CryptoPunks were a nod to the anti-establishment mindset. Their combination of retro computer aesthetic and rebellious nature proved to be a perfect fit for the budding blockchain community.
CryptoPunks were free to mint, and the transaction cost was only about $0.11. They didn’t even sell out right away. But after a Mashable article covered CryptoPunks shortly after the drop, the Ethereum community quickly bought up the remaining avatars.
Fast forward to today and CryptoPunks are the quintessential pfps. They have become synonymous with the blockchain community, with early Ethereum adopters and blockchain thought leaders being the primary owners. You’re not too late to get in on the action, but if you want one today you’ll have to put down almost half a million dollars at the very least.
The incredible success of CryptoPunks is partly due to their first-mover advantage and scarcity, but that only tells part of the story. Simply being first or having a low supply doesn’t inherently make something valuable - you need demand. And in the case of CryptoPunks, that demand comes from the desire to be part of the group.
Digital Membership Cards
In the same way sporting a dyed mohawk and Doc Martens signaled you were part of the 70s punk movement, having a CryptoPunk pfp signals that you are part of the blockchain movement. Matt and John did not create the CryptoPunk audience — they tapped into it. They were already part of the community and understood its values, its essence, and its vibe. Then, they distilled all of that down into a visual representation that the community would connect with.
CryptoPunks became the membership cards for an internet subculture.
While their digital nature is new, the core of what CryptoPunks truly are is not. They are a new iteration of streetwear.
In 2021, streetwear is as pervasive as it is difficult to define. Not only has it seeped into the entire fashion industry, it has transformed it. Streetwear used to be defined by skate and surf style clothing with a punk-bordering-on-militant edge, and some hip-hop influence thrown in for good measure. And while these roots can still be seen today, streetwear has grown into something much larger.
To give us some common ground here we’ll define streetwear as a style of clothing based in the cultures of skateboarding, hip-hop, punk, and the communities built around them. For lack of a better word, streetwear has become the visual representation of cool.
I promise we’ll make our way back to pfps, but first, let’s take a detour through New York.
We can’t talk about streetwear without talking about Supreme.
In 1994, Supreme opened its first store in downtown Manhattan. The brand that would grow into an international icon was headed by James Jebbia, a fashion designer who had previously worked alongside streetwear godfather, Shawn Stussy.
Jebbia started Supreme to cater to the growing community of New York City skaters, artists, and street kids. From the earliest shirt designs to the store’s staff, Jebbia grounded every aspect of Supreme in the city’s skate scene. This was a new cultural movement with its own language, aesthetic, and vibe, but it lacked the symbols to rally around.
Supreme provided exactly that.
It’s Not About Clothes, It’s About Identity
Just like we saw with Matt and John of CryptoPunks, Jebbia understood the Supreme audience intimately. He didn’t create something new and attempt to convince the masses that they wanted it. Instead, he took an existing community and translated their culture into designs and images that he knew they would resonate with. He kept his ear to the street and allowed the community that Supreme was grounded in to lead the way. The brand was created by the community just as much as it was created for the community.
Naturally, Supreme became the symbol for this new subculture.
Today, the fact that Supreme is a clothing company is secondary to its role as a cultural identifier. The logo itself carries a whole world of messages and stories that its wearers hope to attach to themselves. We could spend all day arguing about whether or not Supreme has sold out or been overtaken by hypebeasts, but that doesn’t really matter. The key takeaway here is that Supreme took an entire subculture and distilled it down into a recognizable image.
People see the Supreme logo and think not of a clothing brand, but a lifestyle.
For better or worse, Supreme has set a new standard for streetwear and fashion as a whole. They don’t sell clothes - they sell identity. Millions of people outside of the skate and music scenes now purchase Supreme in an attempt to align themselves with the brand’s cultural web.
It was only a matter of time until this cultural branding made its way to the internet.
Brands Go Digital
If Supreme is the streetwear poster child, The Hundreds is its younger cousin.
The Hundreds is a streetwear brand and storytelling company founded in 2003. But Bobby Kim, the brand’s creative director, didn’t just set out to make clothes. His goal was to create art, tell stories, and build communities. T-shirts and hoodies just happened to be the best medium at the time.
The Hundreds was still very much a streetwear brand, but they had new tools at their disposal. Instead of relying solely on their product to tell the story, The Hundreds turned to the internet. Bobby had an active blog where he documented all aspects of streetwear culture - art, music, photography, sports, fashion, and ofcourse, skateboarding. A YouTube channel filled with short clips of storefront antics, local happenings, and skating popped up shortly after.
This was all before social media really caught on, but The Hundreds understood the potential of these new digital platforms earlier than most. They weren’t using them to push ads, they were using them to display their brand’s culture. Building the brand image and giving their audience something to connect to was always the main goal, and the new opportunities offered by the internet fit perfectly into that plan.
Eighteen years later, The Hundreds is still alive and well. Their continued success is a testament to the power of the community that they have created and the story they have told. By embracing this new wave of technology, The Hundreds have been able to foster a community in a way most other streetwear brands could not.
And that brings us back to pfps.
Bored Ape Yacht Club
At first, BAYC seems to be a repackaging of CryptoPunks. While they are visually very different, both are pfp avatar projects made up of 10,000 NFTs, all with their own unique sets of traits. People buy both and use them as their pfps to show that they are part of Ethereum or, more recently, as signs of wealth, status, and cool not unlike a Rolex or Supreme jacket.
But where BAYC has distinguished itself is in the community building department. Every owner of a Bored Ape is given access to a gated social club along with commercial rights to their pfp, turning the BAYC into less of a brand and more of a decentralized creative project. BAYC owners are free to make and sell their own derivative works or use the Bored Ape brand for whatever they want. These offshoots range from giant paintings to craft beer to neon lights, all under the BAYC umbrella.
Ultimately, all of this contributes to the value of the Bored Ape Yacht Club. That value then makes its way to the many Bored Ape owners. This is brand community building on steroids.
It’s Not About JPEGs, It’s About Community
Supreme created a brand around their community.
The Hundreds created a story with their community.
And now, the Bored Ape Yacht Club is allowing the community to create the brand and write its story.
Purchasing a Bored Ape pfp makes you a co-creator and co-owner of the brand, not just a customer. People will still buy pfps for the same reasons they buy streetwear - to associate themselves with a community - but BAYC is proof that representing a brand is just one piece of the puzzle
Now, brands can harness the power of a community and cut that community in on the deal.
With a market cap of well over one billion dollars, the Bored Ape Yacht Club is something we have never seen before. They have reset the bar for what it means to create a pfp project, what it means to be a brand, and what it means to build alongside your community.
This is a powerful new business model.
From PFPs To Global Brands
There is still a lot of talk and confusion around what the utility of NFTs and pfps actually is. And at least part of this is becoming clear — the utility of a pfp is its ability to organize a community. Tapping into a subculture, bringing individuals together, and incentivizing them to create around a unified image is becoming the name of the game.
Bobby and The Hundreds are once again taking advantage of new tech, releasing their own NFT project featuring their Adam Bomb logo. The NFT collection gives owners early access to drops and exclusive merchandise, as well as the ability to share in the brand’s upside. Oh, and they even partnered with BAYC for an exclusive run of shirts, hoodies, and rugs. These worlds are already colliding, and we have barely begun.
The next Supreme or The Hundreds may very well begin its life as a pfp project, and it might already exist.