Earlier this year, I received an intriguing email from a mysterious London-based firm. They introduced themselves as a creative agency that specialized in insight and production. They had seen my writing and liked it, so did I want to be one of their Dubai-based correspondents? The gig involved researching the behaviors and tastes of “culturally innovative consumers” aged eighteen to thirty-five, then writing short reports on my findings. It would be well-remunerated, and I’d also have the opportunity to freelance for their industry publication. Sounded innocuous enough. Sounded like a chance to play at being a real-world iteration of Cayce Pollard, the spookily intuitive protagonist of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition: she of the acute sensitivity to branding, the ability to discern semiotic content in the tiniest of details—two skills I wouldn’t mind having in today’s hypersaturated terrain. Still, I neglected to respond, their missive got buried, and I forgot about the whole affair.
About a month ago, the same firm sent me another email. Let’s call the company “Blue Ant,” after the fictional agency in Pattern Recognition. This time I took the bait and emailed them back. Their new assignment was more specific. The client was a shadowy global denim brand. Over seven weeks and three phases, I was to provide them with an annotated list of thirteen Dubai-based people who matched their criteria. Duly vetted by the client, a chosen eight were to fill out a text-based fifteen- to twenty-question survey, accompanied by pictures of their denim collection. Of these, I would record a twenty-minute-long video interview with a final two, and transfer the files back to Blue Ant. For their troubles, the survey respondents would receive £50, which would be doubled if they were picked for the video interview. I would be paid £500.
Juicier was the brief itself. The client was looking for eight women (three had to be mothers) and three men in their twenties, denim consumers all. Each was to have an active presence on Facebook or the local equivalent, and at least one other “secondary network,” such as Tumblr, Instagram, or Pinterest. Social influence was vaguely measured only by a “healthy number of followers.” Inquiries about a preferred numerical metric were demurred. Interviewees had to be “informed/actively engaged with contemporary culture (but not too hip, ‘out-there,’ or uber-leading edge).”
Where was the Gibsonesque fantasy I’d envisioned? I had imagined panning and sifting for Dubai’s cultural innovators: the first kids to sew clothes using kaffiyeh fabrics; the first designers to incorporate the iconic agal rope into their clothing; the first teenagers to begin smoking Iranian dokha.
“Coolhunting” is a marketing term that rose to prominence in the 1990s. In the world of clothing, trends were once dictated top-down by high fashion houses; the rise of fast fashion turned this on its head. Tasked with producing more and more collections every year, designers began to look for fresh inspiration—new ideas to appropriate—in underground and street culture. At the same time, brands began scrambling to connect to the increasingly profitable youth market, a demographic traditionally seen as resistant to direct advertising. They began to employ a new toolbox of research and trendcasting strategies: sure, there were the standard focus groups and surveys, but the real dirty money was in covert methods—such as posing as teens in chat rooms or carrying hidden cameras on one’s person. Things like body language were just as important as what the respondents actually said; the qualitative was emphasized over the quantitative. The coolhunter became a kind of roving anthropologist, producing trendcasted ethnographic reports.
In more concrete terms, coolhunting is a type of “diffusion research,” or the study of how trends and ideas spread through a given population—the influenza of social influence. Everett Rogers, a rural sociologist, first defined the categories of trend and innovation adopters in the ’60s, charting how new ideas passed from the people classed as “innovators” to the “early adopters,” then to “early” and “late majorities,” before hitting a wall at the “laggards,” or people who were unlikely to adopt an idea at all. Today, the same diffusion language is most often used in the field of tech. Rather than resorting to Klout-like algorithms to measure influence, however, the business of coolhunting turns entirely on a coolhunter’s uncanny ability to spot—and monetize—emerging trends at their earliest possible stages.
Profiling coolhunting godmothers DeeDee Gordon and Baysie Wightman in a 1997 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell described their niche admiringly: “What they have is what everybody seems to want these days, which is a window on the world of the street.” (Wightman is responsible for repopularizing Converse’s Chuck Taylors in the early ’90s, among other things.) Gladwell was adamant that coolhunting could not really be taught, and was more art than science. “Coolhunting is not about the articulation of a coherent philosophy of cool,” he wrote. “It’s just a collection of spontaneous observations and predictions that differ from one moment to the next and from one coolhunter to the next.” As a mode of predicting the future, it’s more about swirling the tea leaves than consulting the charts.
Included in the brief for my own possible assignment was a directive that the respondents be—and I quote directly—“open to American brands and brand America, ie, not anti-America.” I wondered whether this was a standard brief point, or an assumption specific to the Middle East; whether it was a crypto-assertion of soft power, intimated in blue denim, rivets, and a zipper. Whether this was what cultural imperialism had become in this age of light-speed transnational exchange.
And me—what about my work made me an ideal candidate to be a cultural informant? Was this how the FBI sucked in Black Panther Richard Aoki? Granted, the Dubai publication where I worked at the time did do its best to identify, glossily photograph, and repackage the best of the Middle Eastern underground for a global audience; to connect consumers to capital through brand ambassadorships and sponsored advertorial features. But it ostensibly did so in the name of redressing stereotypes and opening up a space for post-orientalist (albeit ethnicized) representation. While operating in a similar fashion, this new job offer denuded these illusions and laid the transaction bare.
Did I really want to become some kind of mercenary data-marketing informant, thinly guised as a freelance consultant? Were the Gibsonian parallels really seductive enough to mitigate the gig’s creepier side? Did I want to essentially become a coolhunter for big capital?
The nineties, in the UK, was the era of what was punningly dubbed “Cool Britannia.” The Labour Party bristled back into power in 1997, with a renewed neoliberal bombast that all but eviscerated the austere hangover of Thatcherism and Conservative rule. A throwback to the modish London of the Swinging Sixties, it was a time of unbridled optimism that gave rise to Britpop—Oasis, Pulp, Blur, the Spice Girls—and the YBAs (Young British Artists), Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin chief among them. The Union Jack was slapped about then with all the decoupaged subtlety of a QR code today. Great Britain was back, if only for one last imperial hurrah, and the market couldn’t get enough of it. Justin Gibbons worked as a coolhunter at this time, and recounts his experience enthusiastically:
Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit were on the front page of Vanity Fair and the world (and its CEOs) wanted a slice of London cool. However, I think it was addictive, as my work quickly spread to cover Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, anywhere that had a vibrant underground culture and where street trends could be captured. My memories of being a coolhunter are of lots of late nights, too much time spent in nightclubs, and a lot of effort analyzing the data to make it useful to product and marketing departments.
Certainly, there had to be something terribly flattering—and yes, even addictive—about being anointed in this way. Being inducted into the jetsetting cosmopolitan lifestyle that was then the domain only of rock stars and supermodels couldn’t have hurt. Perhaps Gibbons just happened to be living in the right place at the right time, but was I any different? What was once New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, or Berlin may well become Dubai, Shanghai, Cape Town, Rio, Jakarta, or Mumbai, as the Pangaeic plates of global underground culture continue to shift and re-tessellate in different configurations. If anything, this seemed like a job tailor-made for the diaspora, for expats or “third-culture kids” like me. Our bereavement of place—of home—was attractively refashioned as the rare ability to insinuate ourselves into any place, and more importantly, translate between those places’ languages.
As an industry, coolhunting explicitly turns on this production of authenticity and legitimacy. The transaction between brand and employee is one of social—and increasingly, multicultural—capital. My own misgivings about these dynamics, however, soon gave way to more practical constraints of time and money. Or so I told myself. Really, what I would be selling was not my time, but something that I realized—albeit with cringey trepidation—was far more valuable: my own multicultural capital and connections. My wasta.
I never took the job. Still, one question nagged at me: if coolhunting is a faddish relic of ’90s exuberance, what could explain the continued existence of trendcasting agencies and jobs such as the one I’d been offered?
With the rise of the internet came new channels of trend diffusion, and a different breed of virality. Coolhunting had to adapt, fast, or risk obsolescence. Indicative of this shift is the trajectory of ur-coolhunter DeeDee Gordon, who once published a quarterly called the L-Report, a bible of cool that was aimed at brands and retailers. When she became cognizant of the move online, in 1999, she founded the wildly successful, trend-predicting Look-Look.com. In a 2002 article on the decline of coolhunting, the New York Times quoted an interview in trade publication Sportswear International about Look-Look in which Gordon had insisted, “We don’t consider ourselves a trend-forecasting agency. We consider ourselves an information and research company, a Bloomberg or Reuters.” Look-Look eschewed paid coolhunters and instead encouraged youth to self-report on their own culture—all for free.
Just a decade later, Look-Look’s approach already seems eerily prophetic. Data mining has all but replaced Big Oil as our primary extractive industry. If we take attention—in the form of clicks and impressions—as our liquid currency online, then data can be considered analogous to gold reserves (or maple syrup, if you’re Canadian). Data rules everything around us, and we can’t get enough of it. The proliferation of street-style, trend-discovery, and personal blogs suggests that we can’t give up enough of it, either. Why pay someone to coolhunt when millions of people are willing to generate data about their consumption habits and desires, entirely for free?
Ex-coolhunter Justin Gibbons now runs Work Research, an agency that integrates neuropsychology and the behavioral sciences with market research. In the nineties, coolhunting “really was the occupation of the intrepid, as you had to have guts to walk into bars and clubs all over the world and seek out the weirdos,” he says. “Now, the whole business of trendspotting has moved to the web and the trends themselves are there for free. The analysis and application is still a skill that is paid for, but the actual data is there for everyone to look at.”
He adds, “We still interview people and survey them, but now we can add a data layer of social sentiment, Google trends, website data, and the like…I still think it’s the analysis that marks out the smart researchers.”
Today, as markets expand seamlessly to cover the entire globe, coolhunters-turned-analysts have become more mobile. They necessarily become transnational figures, trading in and on the multicultural capital that allows them to straddle contested borders. When corporations begin to enter new markets, they shock-troop-in coolhunters to survey the terrain and send back information that will allow the parent company to make their assault. Once the market has been understood and its influencers identified, however, brands are able to discard the human agents and work through these unearthed networks instead. What was once an ongoing service of cultural mediation and translation has become a single transaction: one month’s rent in return for the access code to your social network.
Now more than ever, culture is a commodity to be traded on stock floors worldwide. The data no longer needs a human face. Instead, it is aggregated, crunched, and processed. It is research and analysis on a mass scale. Networks instead of individuals. Pattern recognition. And as for the street? As William Gibson once wrote, “the street finds its own uses for things.”
Illustration by Patrick Kyle
Patrick Kyle is an award-winning artist and illustrator from Toronto, Canada. His illustrations have appeared in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, and VICE, among others.