YouTube has always been a hub for an often-voyeuristic form of conspicuous consumption, but for the diehard devotees of influential designers like Raf Simons and Helmut Lang, there's now a veritable abundance of channels dedicated to nuanced discussions of niche men's clothing. Though far from being the most-followed men's fashion accounts, these channels have slowly built sizable audiences by geeking out over a set of hyper-specific references familiar to anyone who's put in time lurking on a particularly heated r/streetwear subthread. Unboxings and shopping hauls still abound, but they're complemented by lengthy commentary on, say, the latest Rick Owens collection or a breathless breakdown of a seminal Margiela show from the '90s.
Like the men behind #menswear, the movement birthed on the blogosphere that peaked in popularity in the early 2010s, these YouTube "creators" are often friends IRL, appearing in each other's videos to compare notes on their latest cops or pal around the local flea market looking for covetable vintage finds. More recently, like some of their #menswear predecessors, many of the creators behind these channels are launching their own clothing brands that mimic the cadence of streetwear drops and sell out almost as quickly. These collections go far beyond branded merchandise: They typically debut in small batches at premium price points and are seamlessly marketed across social media to relatively small but highly devoted followings.
Leveraging the spending power of an existing audience to sell product that's sure to be a hit is a symbiosis the fashion industry is already betting big on. There's Danielle Bernstein of WeWoreWhat's multimillion-dollar design partnerships with Nordstrom and Onia; Aimee Song of Song of Style's collection with Revolve; and Arielle Charnas of Something Navy, who is ending her Nordstrom licensing deal this year to kick off her own lifestyle brand after a $10 million investment, valuing her brand at roughly $45 million. Increasingly, these types of relationships look like the future of the industry. Yet for the most part, retailers have yet to tap into influencers in the menswear space. YouTube represents a new frontier.
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In the summer of 2018, Jacob Keller and Cole McBride released the first drop under their Bare Knuckles brand. Keller is a certified YouTube OG: His channel, though now largely inactive, was one of the first to capitalize on the opportunity for menswear-oriented content on the platform, and he's frequently shouted out as a big brother of sorts by other YouTubers. Keller shares an unusually strong connection with his fanbase, many of whom have been interacting with his content since day one. Scroll deep enough through his timeline and you're bound to come across old images of him in full Mishka 'fits, some of which Keller occasionally reposts as a winking nod to his followers.
Bare Knuckles's debut collection featured a medley of washed denims, vintage looking tees and cropped work jackets — an authentic extension of the aesthetic Keller began to hone on YouTube and later made his signature via the 'gram, where he has almost 90K followers. On any given post there's dozens of comments asking where to buy what he's wearing, which today, more often than not, is Bare Knuckles. The collection was a near-instant success, selling out entirely shortly after it released online.
For influencers, profiting off of their online presence is par for the course. Keller and his cohort, however, are pioneering a more creative alternative for a group of guys weaned on a steady diet of conventional fashion content coupled with obscure menswear memes. Many of them cite similar reasons for launching their own lines, as well as a desire to maintain a certain degree of separation between their cut-and-sew collections and the YouTube channels that, they readily concede, in no small way helped make those collections a reality. "Cole and I wanted to start Bare Knuckles so that we could make clothing that we’ve wanted to wear for years but could never find," says Keller, who still largely keeps his collections separate from his channel.
For Ken Iijima, who started uploading videos to YouTube documenting snippets of his life after moving to Tokyo in 2018, keeping that sense of separation is crucial. When Iijima co-founded Vuja Dé earlier this year with Ringo Chang, the two of them agreed to keep the brand at a distance from Iijima's rapidly growing channel, though both acknowledge YouTube as a powerful tool for engaging with their audience. Their first drop included paint-splattered sweatshirts (acrylic, applied by hand) and bondage cargo pants, all made from Japanese-milled cotton and available exclusively through their website, where each size sold out quickly.
"We always knew what we ourselves have wanted and liked to wear, though we were unsure if our preferences directly translated into products an audience would purchase," says Iijima. "In order to realize this, interacting with our audience was a form of validation in allowing us to gauge viewer support… [and] proceed with the project altogether." YouTube, the two note, has "facilitated interaction and provided a way for our audience to get to know us and see we are just as clothing-obsessed as them."
When Magnus Ronning set about launching his eponymous label, he saw his collection as an organic extension of his wardrobe: well-made, approachable basics with a twist, like a denim jacket in a green paisley print, or twill work pants in a dusty pink hue. Ronning is similarly appreciative of the platform his YouTube presence affords him. "YouTube has without a doubt been the most significant incubator for the brand. It has essentially given me a platform to share my interest in clothing, Ronning and everything else with a larger audience than I could ever imagine," he says. "I love the community on YouTube, and I find it amazing recognizing names of people who consistently interact and comment on [my] videos."
Ditto Owen Hyatt, who started posting videos on YouTube in the summer of 2017. Hyatt always wanted to be a YouTuber, even as a kid. "All my idols back then were YouTubers," he remembers. "It was amazing to me that recording videos about your interests could be a job." In early 2019, he debuted Colette Hyatt, a collection that openly pulls inspiration from some of Hyatt's favorite and oft-referenced designers. (Hyatt dutifully shouts them out in the product descriptions on his site.)
The brand's aesthetic skews slightly avant-garde: Its first collection included hand-distressed hoodies with detailed, gothic-looking graphics and an embroidered vegan leather crossbody bag that wouldn't look out of place hanging on the dimly-lit racks of some iconic institution of downtown cool. "At the end of the day I just design clothes that I love and want to wear, and if my audience and customers love it too then even better," Hyatt says. "Getting input and seeing people's reactions to new pieces is always great insight but it doesn't have a major impact on what I create." Yet Hyatt maintains YouTube still holds a lot of value for him "when it comes to showcasing Colette Hyatt, since it's hard to get 'personal' on Instagram."
Hyatt could've just mocked up a few graphic tees and called it a day. Instead, he (and Iijima, Keller, Ronning, et al.) are creating thoughtful, high-quality clothing by aspiring to a level of craftsmanship on par with the luxury labels they admire. For the most part, these guys are making product they like and figuring their followers will, too, all the while responding in real-time to a constant stream of feedback from fans. Internet influence, though, is fickle and fleeting. Pivoting away from content creation is a great way to guarantee a degree of career longevity beyond making a quick buck promoting another company's products. Tapping into the rapidly growing market for men's clothing is a savvy way to capitalize on demand from followers who are constantly clamoring for an "ID on the 'fit, bro?!" Why promote another brand when you could be promoting your own?
Keller sees his brand and others like it as a natural progression of what he was already doing on YouTube. "We go from consuming products, and showing off other people's creations, talking about other people's designs and details. Eventually, we want it to be our product and our details that we're showing off," he says. "We consume so much product and buy from so many brands that we start forming a vision as to what we want our own clothing to look like and take cues from those clothes we've bought in the past." The easy thing to do, Ronning points out, is to release a limited-run of a few cutesy printed t-shirts. In his opinion, the channels currently churning out some of the most exciting menswear content out there are defined by a "want to do better." The bona fide brands he and his friends have started are "well past the point of [T-shirt] blanks and are developing actual cut-and-sew collections."
Vuja Dé's Iijima and Chang share a similar sentiment: "We think there is a common misconception that all YouTube brands are automatically categorized as 'overnight sensations' or 'cash grabs.' We wanted to distance ourselves from this association… It would not do Vuja Dé justice." Hyatt wouldn't be surprised if the nature of menswear content on the platform changes, too. Videos will become "more oriented around our brands," he predicts. "There will be less pickup videos and more behind-the-scenes videos. How our next lookbook photoshoot was shot, how to take product photos, that sort of thing."
Despite the handwringing caused by an Instagram personality with over 2 million followers who couldn't sell 36 T-shirts, influencers still move a lot of merchandise. Keller and McBride have since dropped two more Bare Knuckles collections, further developing the ideas they introduced in earlier designs and expanding into new product categories each time. Most pieces currently in stock on the brand's site are still available, but there's no reason to assume that's cause for concern. Keller uploaded a video to his YouTube channel in early August, just over a year after his last update. Among the hundreds of comments — largely roasting Keller good-naturedly for his inactivity — one fan noted: "As weird as it sounds, every time I watch your videos... it's like seeing an old high-school friend. Crazy it's going on 7-8 years since I've been watching your videos! Glad to see Bare Knuckles doing great bro!"