Commentary

Arun Gupta’s Grailed is democratizing luxury streetwear. Still, is this actually a good thing?

In a recent report for Complex, writer Skylar Bergl (formerly of Complex’s jocular and now-defunct streetwear title, Four Pins) profiled the rapid progress of high-end streetwear resale marketplace, Grailed. Since its quiet debut in December 2013, which saw no flashy rollout, no bullhorn announcement, no heavy press push — just a simple, useful service for the ‘hashtag menswear’ set — the venture has amassed an active user base of 200,000 who post over 70,000 listings each month. From the very start, founder Arun Gupta has listened intently to Grailed’s avid audience, taking feedback from Reddit, email, menswear forums, and wherever else he can find it. Along the way, he’s implemented smart, measured adjustments throughout.

In truth, we are much less focused on the content of what Grailed is selling, than we are on the company’s impact on the broader resale market, and how its mission encapsulates modern luxury standards more generally. Streetwear sits outside the periphery of Lean Luxe’s focus, but we think Grailed deserves recognition and a closer look. We’ve jotted down some observations on the company, and in light of a recent complaint about the merits of Grailed’s mission, we address whether or not commodifying high-priced streetwear is a good thing for the market. Out take is below. But first — what have we noticed about Grailed as an operation?

A strong team of enthusiasts.

The Grailed team knows its market well because they are its market. Indeed, Mr. Gupta has pulled talent directly from Grailed’s target audience. Names like Lawrence Schlossman, for instance, formerly Four Pins’ editor-in-chief, and Nico Lazaro, formerly employed at menswear darling, Ovadia & Sons, are just two examples of the twenty-something menswear veterans who pull the strings behind the curtain. So far, Grailed’s success has been tied to accommodating the desires of its core audience: easy access to menswear “grails” or prized gear, solving the trust issues that plague selling these items on eBay, and making it convenient for casual sellers to sell an item or two and get it sold quickly. The following quote explains the eBay trust issue well:

“I can’t do eBay,” says Jacob Keller, manager of Portland menswear boutique Machus, who’s also worked with Nike and Jordan Brand. “There’s too much clutter and I don’t trust people there. You can stumble across eBay, but people are on Grailed because they know what it is. It’s close-knit—I’ve bought from people multiple times and they’ve bought from me multiple times.”

Understanding the importance of the consumer.

What Grailed demonstrates superbly is a keen understanding of today’s new marketplace standard: the primacy of the consumer. In fact, as Mr. Gupta explained, its very existence is predicated on this premise. He “built Grailed after realizing there was no used clothing service that catered specifically to men,” writes Complex’s Mr. Bergl. Here’s Mr. Gupta’s explanation: “I spent so much time on StyleForum, SuperFuture, and StyleZeitgeist trying to come up on good deals, but I had no money and no job. When you can cop a $240 sweater for $40, that’s an amazing thing. So clearly, the deals are great. But you feel like a rookie and outsider. . . . There’s a large barrier to entry that makes it difficult.” The result is a site that strips luxury streetwear (and access to it) of any artificial barriers or pretense.

So is democratizing high streetwear a good thing?

Not all menswear insiders are infatuated with what Grailed is doing. At StyleZeitgeist, writer and Lean Luxe subscriber Eugene Rabkin wagged a finger at Grailed for its commodified treatment of high-end, avant-garde men’s clothing. “Grailed,” he wrote, “turns all fashion into mere commodity. . . . [It] devalues [fashion] by turning itself into a supermarket.” He added: “Fashion does not simply sell garments but also intrinsic attributes that make them desirable enough to demand a high price tag,” and he lamented the fact that a cherished parka “that should be in a collection of any museum whose fashion curator is worth his chops” sat unsold with a price of $171.

He detests the practice of “lowballing” on the site too, a practice he believes Grailed has helped to perpetuate across the broader industry overall. He argued that the site is overstuffed, packed, and teeming with naive, trend-chasing members “who by and large neither have the means to buy designer clothes, nor the knowledge to truly appreciate them.”

While it is understandable that Mr. Rabkin might feel this way, his reasoning is flawed for a number of reasons. First, if price alone is a central differentiator for a luxury business, that’s a poor strategy. Second, lowering prices and democratizing access to luxury products is a defining feature of today’s modern luxury marketplace (see: Warby Parker, Everlane, etc.). Within the last decade consumers have grown to expect this, and it’s central to a consumer-centric economy. Third, as Everlane has famously shown, many of these prices are artificially high, featuring unnecessary markups. Buying these items used at a fraction of their retail price means that shoppers don’t have to foot the bill for the heavy marketing and branding overheads. It’s simply an economic correction.

Mr. Rabkin also cites the credentialization process of men’s fashion forums, Styleforum, Superfuture, and StyleZeitgeist in his argument against Grailed. Each forum enforces a rigorous, time-based set of requirements before users were allowed to buy or sell items there. StyleZeitgeist, for example, requires “members to have [a] one hundred post minimum before they are allowed to buy and sell in the classifieds,” Mr. Rabkin explained. This is to ensure that only enthusiasts have the right to participate. New arrivers or casual fans are not welcome.

Mr. Rabkin’s wish is to preserve the insular nature of this area of fashion. His impression is that only the true “enthusiasts” should be allowed to make these transactions. As a result, lowballing from “amateurs” would cease, these coveted used items would sell at higher prices, and most importantly, they would only land in the hands of those who truly deserved them. These “holy grails,” in other words, would no longer be subjected to the horror and indignity of open market economics.

But avant-garde menswear is no longer an insider’s game, a fact that Mr. Rabkin clearly bemoans. Its appeal has reached a growing population of fans, and is becoming more mainstream. The ascension of Grailed and the growing amount of activity within it only helps to confirm this.

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  • Anonymous

    There are no rigorous time-based requirements for buying and selling in Superfuture and Styleforum. Only StyleZeitgeist required a 100 post count (now reduced) to sell and not necessarily buy. Besides, 100 post count does not equal to an “enthusiast.” Somebody with as low as 5 post count can have read and sifted through the majority of the forum’s information or admired and collected the designer’s works but is shy and/or not as vocal in social discussion.

    • Andrew

      Something else to consider is the fact that there were no resolution measures built into message board BST transactions the way there are with sites like Grailed. Waiting for a member to hit a certain post count was a way to verify that he was legit and trustworthy because he had taken the time to get involved in the community and to contribute as well – and less to do with only “enthusiasts having the right to participate.”

      • Anonymous

        Post count was and will never be a good indicator. Even how good or informative their participation is worth will and cannot count towards it either. If you have been in the those fora long enough, you will know that there were well established members with high post counts and meaningful forum participation that eventually ended up scamming other members to the point of even getting away with hundreds of thousands. Having a required post count does nothing. Again, SF and SuFu don’t enact that rule but their BST are doing just fine.

        It is true there were and still no resolution measures built into those BST but it is clearly stated that they are not liable for transactions gone and will go bad. Even with measures enacted by Grailed or eBay, it is still not guaranteed somebody won’t get scammed. It is actually up to Paypal’s decision (sometimes not even relaible) or how good is your bank/credit card provider at recovering your funds.

        • Andrew

          I agree with you completely, post counts sometimes tell you nothing but they were one of the few early on messageboard “safeguards” that would say something about the seller (how long he had posted, if he had a record of successful transactions in the past). I was just presenting a counterpoint to the author’s notion that post count rules were implemented as a barrier of entry for “casual fans.”