Cool and the gang

What the ghetto wears today will be worn by the rest of the world's teenagers tomorrow. That's why American shoe manufacturers like Nike and Reebok send `coolhunters' out on the streets to test their latest products.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Baysie Wightman met DeeDee Gordon, appropriately enough, on a coolhunt. It was 1992. Baysie was working for Converse and DeeDee, who was barely 21, was running a very cool boutique called Placid Nation, on Newbury Street in Boston. Baysie came in with a camera crew, the 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 recalls 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 $125 basketball sneaker with 17 different kinds of high-technology materials and colours and air-cushioned heels anymore. They wanted simplicity and authenticity and Baysie picked up on that. She brought back the One Star, which was a vulcanised, suede, low-top classic old-school sneaker from the 1970's 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 an the ground after committing suicide? Black One Stars. DeeDee's big score was the One Star sandal. She had been out in LA and kept on seeing the white teenage girls dressing up like choloes, 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. "I'm like, `I'm telling you Baysie, this is going to hit'," DeeDee remembers. "`There are just too many people wearing it. We have to make a shower sandal'." So they cut the back off a One Star, and put a sandal out-sole on it, and now, DeeDee says, "they've probably sold half a million pairs".

Today Baysie works for Reebok as general merchandise manager, part of the team trying to find out what exactly will turn Reebok into the really hot sneaker company again. DeeDee works for an advertising agency in San Diego called Lambesis, where she puts out a quarterly tip sheet called the L Report on what the cool kids in major American cities are wearing 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 LA (DeeDee: "It's, like, how many times can you drive past OJ Simpson's house?") and between them they can talk for hours on the art of the coolhunt. They're the Lewis and Clark of cool.

What they have is what everybody wants these days, a window on to the world of the street, because the street is what drives everything else. Fashion, in its essence, is about chase and flight - designers and retailers and the mass consumer giving chase to the elusive prey of cool and the rise of coolhunting is testimony to how that chase is speeding up. 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 18-month lead-time between concept and sale. Now they're reducing that to a year or even six months-all the better to react to new ideas from the street. The paradox, of course, is that the better coolhunters get at bringing the mainstream in touch with the cutting-edge, the more elusive the cutting edge becomes. This the First Rule of the Coolhunt: The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight. The act of discovering what is cool changes cool, which is the explanation for one of the strangest things about coolhunters like Baysie and DeeDee: although they can talk for hours and hours about what cool is, they can never quite pin it down. How could they? Then it wouldn't be cool.

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