When I arrived at the Long Beach Convention Center Saturday morning to a hundreds-deep line of mostly 20-somethings in their best gear (So. Much. Adidas.), I was met with a row of food trucks offering up a menagerie of street food to the sound of a steady bumping base from the arena’s Pigeons and Planes stage. The first session of the morning at ComplexCon was "The Future of Our Schools: An Urgency for Change," an impassioned panel discussion presented by XQ Project, an initiative to innovate and elevate K-12 education in the U.S. I was beginning to understand ComplexCon’s vibe: It was like Coachella with a conscience, set to a hip-hop beat.
Art, pop culture, social activism, style and music converged at the weekend-long conference. The event — equal parts hip-hop music festival, cultural panel discussion and streetwear and sneaker exhibition — was put on by Complex Media and its host committee, including Complex founder and Ecko Unltd. designer Marc Eckō, Pharrell Williams, and artist Takashi Murakami.
Before this weekend, it was hard to pin down exactly what to expect from what organizers billed as the "first ever cultural World’s Fair." There were musical acts, including Kid Cudi (in his first performance since leaving rehab for depression), Travis Scott, Skrillex, and headliner and LBC native Snoop Dogg. Panelists were as varied as Pharrell, actor and activist Jesse Williams, The Hundreds designer Bobby Hundreds, 17-year-old sneaker dealer Benjamin Kickz, rappers Wale, The Game, and Wiz Khalifa, and education executive and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs. And hundreds of exhibitors promised pop-up shops featuring art, streetwear and sneakers.
At the “Thread Trajectory: Where Is Streetwear Going?” session, Hundreds, Union Los Angeles store owner Chris Gibbs, designer Rob Garcia, Staple Design founder Jeff Staple, DJ Vashtie Kola and Complex’s Karizza Sanchez discussed the proliferation of streetwear. Staple pulled the biggest laugh of the session when noting how high-fashion tries to lift street looks when he said, "You ain't street culture!"
“Sneaker of the Year: A Debate” was equally lively, pulling together sneakerheads Wale, Kickz, Complex’s Russ Bengtson, artist DJ Clark Kent, designer Jon Buscemi and Complex’s Joe LaPuma to (unsuccessfully) crown the best kicks of 2016. Wale was emphatic that while Nike used to dominate, since Yeezys came on the scene, "Adidas has been killing everybody." Kent agreed regarding the impact of Kanye West’s revolutionary sneaker, adding, "What [West] did to the sneaker game is the most important thing; more important than Run D.M.C. [with 1986's 'My Adidas']. He made a company that made shoes for athletes make shoes for a performer." The group couldn’t pick the year’s perfect shoe, but unsurprisingly, the Adidas Yeezy 350 Boost V2 was in the top three.
While the exhibition space featured vendors selling everything from spirits to art to limited-edition streetwear (Pharrell also dramatically unveiled Elwood X25, his first collection for G-Star RAW since becoming a co-owner — or as the label calls him, its "Head of Imagination" — earlier this year), sneakers were the hottest merch on the floor. The longest lines I spied were at the PacSun booth, where favorites included FOG x Vans sneakers. One of the conference’s golden tickets was the raffle winner for the ComplexCon Nike x Anti Social Social Club Air Force 1 giveaway.
The conference shed light on more than streetwear and sneakers. Pharrell gave members of North Dakota’s MHA Nation a platform to speak about the current protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and its path through the legendary Standing Rock territory. "The Dakota Access Pipeline goes through sacred sites," he said during the discussion. "We're talking about their burial sites."
"I'm seeing my own culture go through something similar right now in the streets," Pharrell continued. "I don't want you to feel sorry for them, because they don't feel sorry for themselves. There's so much beauty there, but it's a really complex place."
With California poised to legalize adult recreational marijuana on Tuesday, it felt fitting when Snoop took the stage to close out the conference on Sunday night. And if, as was emphasized throughout the conference, Complex is a media platform for youth culture, it also felt fitting that as fun, enriching, and, well, complex, as the weekend had been, I was headed home.