In the last few years, the word “cult” has, ironically, become mainstream in fashion. It’s been used in reference to influencer- and Cool Girl-friendly brands (think: Nanushka, Staud, Rotate); to brands whose products have taken over Instagram (Jacquemus’ Chiquito mini bags, Susan Alexandra’s beaded totes, Sleeper’s dresses); and to established brands whose every drop still gets fans excited (Supreme). But, if every brand can be a cult brand, then what does the designation even mean anymore?
“A cult brand can be defined as a brand that has made significant impact within culture and fashion,” says Telsha Anderson, owner and buyer at T.A., a NYC boutique that carries popular brands like PH5, Ellery, and PRISCAVera. "It also creates its own target audience that continuously bands together to create support surrounding the brand, day after day.”
Caroline Maguire, fashion director at Shopbop, defines it as a brand whose impact extends beyond the products it sells. “Cult brands have their own loyal customer base, who are not only obsessed with the brand but the culture and values that are associated with it,” she says.
Sophie Hersan, co-founder and fashion director at Vestiaire Collective, agrees with both of them. “A cult brand is one that has developed a community of dedicated fans around it. In which case, it’s not always about the latest design or collection, but the identity of the brand that the fans are buying into,” she says. “Cult brands symbolize a lifestyle and culture first and foremost.”
From the Wang Gang — aka members of designer Alexander Wang’s close (and famous) circle of models — to Ganni Girls — fans of the beloved Danish brand — communities have long been known to form around labels, and even specific designers behind those labels, as is the case with Phoebe Philo's #OldCeline or Daniel Lee’s #NewBottega. In the case of Supreme, fans have frequently expressed their allegiance by camping out on folding chairs outside the stores the night before a big drop and buying out every collaboration, ranging from Louis Vuitton and Comme des Garçons to NYC’s MTA, within minutes.
“Supreme is a perfect example of a cult brand and is a pioneer of streetwear. Over the last few decades, it’s developed a loyal following and has continuously innovated and collaborated with other designers and artists to remain trendy. Despite being around for over 25 years now, it remains a top seller on Vestiaire Collective and limited-edition releases are more valuable than ever,” Hersan says. And it’s not showing any signs of slowing down. Its most recent collaboration, Supreme x Pat McGrath, sold out eight seconds after first dropping. Since then, the $38 lipstick has appeared on StockX, Grailed, and eBay at prices starting at around $150.
“A cult brand can be defined as a brand that has made significant impact within culture and fashion.”
“A brand garners a cult following through creative product offerings, innovative design, and exciting marketing,” says Maguire. “These brands always focus on the product integrity first. Next, they create exciting and innovative collaborations, which lends itself to how well it is marketed on social platforms.” With that said, while Supreme, who has been successful on all these fronts, will likely retain its reputation, it’s no longer the only brand that’s reigning, well, supreme. Since the introduction of Instagram and influencers, the idea of a cult brand, much like the definition itself, has evolved and expanded.
“Cult brands have changed over the past few years with the rise and importance of social media. Previously, the fashion community would hear about products or brands through word-of-mouth, and while that is still important, everything is now so instant and easily accessible,” says Maguire. “Today, consumers watch tastemakers and influencers wearing products on social platforms and brands continue to introduce the ‘see now, shop now’ option, which work together to contribute to a cult brand’s large increase in popularity.”
Take, for example, Cult Gaia. After the brand debuted its Ark bag in 2013, a see-through, half-circle bamboo clutch, the brand earned the “cult” label thanks to the way the bag was spotted on the arm of every celebrity, influencer, and fashion-lover alike; soon, it was sold out. Years later, the bag, which is now available in a variety of colors and materials and readily available, remains a best-seller for the brand, that has now also become known for its clothing offerings. (This past summer, the brand was responsible for one of Summer 2020's most popular dresses.)
“Social media, hype via word of mouth, and sold-out product are all important [in making a brand go cult],” says Anderson. “I also believe a brand's ability to innovate beyond what the brand is known for in that ‘cult moment’ is important as well.”
In 2020, according to Anderson, Hersan, and Maguire, no brand is more emblematic of cult status than Telfar, which Maguire calls “THE brand for fashionistas at the moment.” The Telfar Clemens-led, Brooklyn-based unisex brand — that just won the CFDA Fashion Award for the American Accessories Designer of the Year category and revealed an upcoming UGG collaboration — has become known for its “Bushwick Birkin.” The tote, which comes in three sizes and many colors, has become so heavily sought out that it earned its own security program after every drop sold out and fell prey to resellers hiking up the price. There is also the way Telfar caters to its audience. Telfar is not only groundbreaking for its inclusive approach to luxury — the most expensive tote goes for $250 which, while not cheap, certainly doesn’t even come close to the cost of many other luxury It bags — but also for the way it puts its community first. “It's not for you — it's for everyone,” reads the website.
“Telfar is unique in their product offering, editorials, approach to social media, and they continue to evolve. They also have a unique target audience that supports them digitally and in-person,” says Anderson. To wear a Telfar tote, whose supporters notably include Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is to display your values — something that consumers are now increasingly interested in when it comes to brands they support.
“The last couple of years have seen increased consumer demand for purpose-driven brands amongst both independent and mainstream designers. COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter have only accelerated this trend further. The followers of cult brands have high expectations for the ethos that they are buying into, so I anticipate this to continue,” says Hersan. “Speaking out about values won’t be enough. Loyal followers will want to see positive actions and know that their purchases are building a better future for society and the environment.”
“A brand garners a cult following through creative product offerings, innovative design, and exciting marketing.”
Customers are indeed moving away from fashion brands — especially of the fast variety — that only offer clothing, and toward those that have a mission behind them. “Two brands that have had a viral moment this year are Marine Serre and Telfar,” says Hersan. “I think both brands are symbolic of the things that are important to consumers in 2020: sustainability, diversity, and community.” According to a Vestiare report, Marine Serre experienced a 1,200% increase in sales over the past year, becoming one of its top five most listed sustainable brands. After Beyoncé and Adele wore the label’s crescent moon print designs, global fashion search platform Lyst also saw a spike of 426%. Telfar, likewise, has seen a 270% increase in search since being spotted on AOC. It helps that both brands have instantly recognizable elements — Marine Serre with the crescent moon print and Telfar with the oversized logo — which don’t guarantee brand success, but also don’t not.
Anderson says it makes sense that what used to be defined as “cult” is evolving. “Cult brands changed because our culture, needs, and resources have changed. I believe change is important and necessary for growth as a culture,” she says. "As life evolves, I believe the idea of a ‘cult brand’ will evolve as well. What makes something launch or pop today will change in the next six months or in the next five years. The definition of a 'cult brand’ will shift and change as our culture, resources, and day-to-day necessities change. What we need today will never be what we need tomorrow, and that’s the excitement of growth and human evolution.”
So then what does a brand need to do today to go cult? According to Hersan, a strong point of view. “Cult brands will always have a unique story and ethos that really resonates with the values with the community it appeals to. The ones that retain value are those that are consistent with and protective of their brand image,” she says. “Despite being dramatically different, Hermes and Supreme both evoke a certain lifestyle and have earned a loyal following as a result.”
Maguire agrees. “Focus on what your brand really stands for! Don’t try and be everything to everyone. What is special about a cult brand are the styles, the philosophy, and the story behind it,” she says. “As we rely more and more on technology, brands will continue to come up with innovative ways to connect and resonate with their customer base. This will ultimately lend itself to loyal relationships and products more catered to their consumers.”