Media People: Thom Bettridge of Highsnobiety

PARIS It turns out fashion brands aren’t the only ones who have pivoted to become cultural content creators during the coronavirus pandemic. Highsnobiety, the streetwear and lifestyle publication known for obsessively tracking sneaker drops, is increasingly filling the gaps for canceled events with online experiences.

A case in point: “Not in Paris II,” the second installment of the platform it launched in June in response to the cancellation of physical runway shows at Paris Men’s Fashion Week. The exhibition program features projects from a curated list of brands and artists, linking collection presentations, exclusive music video releases, exhibitions and short films under one digital roof.

Since taking over as editor in chief in July 2019 from founder David Fischer, Thom Bettridge has steered Highsnobiety through intense change. With many of the events it traditionally covers suspended, he has developed alternatives in the spirit of Surrealist art: think fashion shows with no clothes and no runways, and exhibitions without rooms or walls.

It’s just as well he majored in philosophy. After graduating from Columbia University in New York in 2012, Bettridge honed his cultural eye at independent publications like 032c Workshop and Interview magazine.

That might account for the eclectic selection of 28 brands participating in “Not in Paris II,” which features luxury labels like Bottega Veneta and Hermès alongside cutting-edge designers such as Martine Rose and Craig Green, and lesser-known brands including Nigerian design collective Vivendii. 

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The exhibition, which opens on Wednesday and runs through Jan. 26, features a special spotlight on Berlin, as well as virtual showcases of the work of artists Robert Smithson and Thomas Ruff. As part of the project, Highsnobiety is launching a capsule of “Not in Paris II” merchandise.

Reached via Zoom from New York City, Bettridge spoke to WWD about flattening hierarchies, brands as cultural institution, and what he misses most about coming to Paris.

WWD: How has the Not in Paris platform evolved from its inception last season? 

Thom Bettridge: The first time around, it was a really short timeline from start to finish, and in a way, it was really a reaction to the fact that Paris Men’s Fashion Week was being canceled. This time around, we wanted to focus on what would become a permanent cycle of programming, and to also start looking ahead toward what fashion week is going to be like in the future, post-COVID-19, as well. For us, the central idea to “Not in Paris” is that for our reader, fashion exists as much as content as it exists as clothing. Commissioning art projects from brands and having them sit alongside the work of artists and musicians and other creators, we really approached “Not in Paris II” thinking of this as a new paradigm, rather than a kind of emergency response technique.

WWD: Brands are increasingly becoming content creators. Do you think the demand for this added cultural content will continue even after physical shows return?

T.B.: Absolutely. It makes the whole thing more democratic as well, right? Because not everyone can go to the shows, and not even all the brands that are relevant in the space right now can even have shows in a central city like Paris, so I think that in a way, this content-ification of fashion is making things more accessible, especially for a younger audience like ours that has a voracious appetite for culture. 

I see fashion brands as being almost like cultural institutions of the future. From a huge luxury brand like Dior to a more independent brand like Grace Wales Bonner, they have stables of artists that they’re working with, and that they exhibit through their shows, or through outside programming. They have musicians they’re working with, so I think that this model of a brand as a cultural institution is for me the way of the future, and the logistics are almost just a detail.

WWD: Having all the brands on a single online fashion week platform is a great leveler. For the person sitting in front of that computer, it’s all the same, right?

T.B.: Exactly. I think that flattening effect is actually really positive, and it’s geographic as well. That’s where the irony of “Not in Paris” becomes serious, as well. 

In curating the second program, something we realized is that we can take our pick of brands from across the entire world and really showcase something that covers a lot of ground in that sense. That was also why we have this special city spotlight on Berlin that is running in conjunction with the program, because we liked the idea of focusing on a place that isn’t on the normal fashion radar. And our headquarters are based in Berlin, so it seemed like a really logical place to start.

WWD: Do the brands come to you with the content that they would like to broadcast? Or do your editors come up with the concept? 

T.B.: It’s a bit of a handshake. We come up with an invitation list, and then we get conversations started. There’s a lot of really great brands we spoke to that, because of all the logistical nightmares happening, couldn’t do what they wanted to do this season.

It’s really a conversation, and we try to give the brands a blank slate, and only fill in the blanks as far as providing ideas or making things feel more relevant for our audience in certain cases. The big thing that is really exciting is, you would expect brands to come back with all these marketing-heavy ideas, but I think the level of creativity that they’ve been coming back to shows how things have changed in the industry.

WWD: How do you curate the mix of brands?

T.B.: First of all, it’s about balancing. But then for us, it’s who we’re drawn to, in terms of their relevance and their message. One brand that I’m really excited about is Vivendii, which is a brand based out of Lagos, and the content ideas they proposed to us make a map of the entire universe of their brand. The creativity that they show on their own feed is so prolific and strong.

A lot of these younger brands really understand that making content is one and the same with making clothing. We often get some of the most natural and dynamic ideas from some of the more emerging brands.

WWD: What are the elements that can be delivered online, that a physical fashion show simply isn’t able to provide?

T.B.: All runway shows look the same [online.] For the majority of the people who see it, that’s how they experience it, so it’s very one and the same. The only thing that changes is maybe there’s a cool set. Obviously, there’s different clothing, but I think that there’s a certain dynamism that works so much better on the internet about these videos that brands have been commissioning in lieu of their shows. You look to this Martine Rose panopticon activation that she did to debut her show, which we’re doing a behind-the-scenes feature on for “Not in Paris,” and, I mean, that’s just such an incredible piece of content and such an immersive thing. Whereas just a first-look shot of someone walking down a runway, you can get fatigued on that image, seeing it over and over and over again. So I think there’s also, from a communications standpoint, so much brands can do. They’re really just scratching the surface as far as what they can do in this new context.

A hoodie from Highsnobiety’s “Not in Paris II” merchandise collection. Courtesy of Highsnobiety

WWD: You’re launching a merchandise line alongside this platform. How much does that represent of your actual business? Are you more of a media or an e-commerce site?

T.B.: The founding principle of our commerce business is that it’s really at one with what we do editorially, whether that is the expertise we have as critics that transfers into the brands that we’re working with, but then also we create a lot of our own merchandise that’s tethered to the stories that we’re telling. For “Not in Paris,” it’s a really seamless thing, because we almost think of the merchandise as souvenirs of this digital experience. It’s very much an important part of not only how we monetize the project, but it becomes almost part of the user experience of the project.

WWD: You joined as editor in chief one and a half years ago. How would you say Highsnobiety has evolved with the pandemic?

T.B.: With the pandemic, it became very clear that in a world where so many different cultural moments are being canceled, that we had to actively create cultural moments and be cultural producers ourselves, rather than being an outlet that covers what’s going on in the world only. A big part of that, for us, involves the clothing that we make, but it also involves bringing groups of people together, adding to the conversation these kinds of ways. For example, last fall, we did this jazz TV project, where we created a digital Newport Jazz Festival, and that was very much in a similar vein, where we wanted to act more like a hub for culture than as another news site covering what’s going on.

WWD: Now that you’re literally not in Paris, is there anything about the place that you miss?

T.B.: I miss Paris so much. It’s such a privilege, and it’s such a honor to be able to go to a global event like this and to be able to see your peers.

When I think about what’s really lost in this whole time period, it’s those kinds of chance encounters with peers, to get a coffee before a show with someone who you only see a couple of times a year, because they’re based in another city. I really wanted to push this project forward, the first time especially, because as people who follow style and culture, I think we needed more shared experiences to bond over. At least if we’re not in the same place, we can enjoy the same stuff.

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