LOS ANGELES, United States — Aaron Levant, co-founder of ComplexCon and creator of streetwear trade show Agenda, doesn’t believe kids actually like queuing up for drops.
But he does believe in the power of the community that gathers in those lines. While Gen X and Old Millennials used to line up at Tower Records, waiting for a record to drop, today’s affluent teenagers are more likely to spend their Saturday afternoons admiring Balenciaga or buying bots to get their hands on the latest Supreme drop. Consumerism is the new core of youth culture, and streetwear is the new music.
That’s why, today, Levant is launching NTWRK, a streaming platform that will give consumers access to live by-appointment drops featuring exclusive, limited-edition product available to purchase immediately within its app.
“Consumers want the most exclusive content, product and experiences, but sometimes getting access to those things can be quite difficult," says Levant, who wiggled his way into the streetwear scene in the late 1990s working for first-gen brand Gypsies and Thieves (GAT). Instead, he wants to makes exclusivity more "accessible." He calls it "exclusively inclusive."
Much like QVC or the Home Shopping Network (HSN) — American television channels that shill product hour after hour — NTWRK will feature on-air talent to entertain viewers in between sales. Unlike QVC or HSN, NTWRK’s vibe will be more late-night comedy hour than morning talk show, and will begin with just one sale per week.
The first sale will go live at 5pm PT, although timing may be tweaked depending on user response. Levant and his investors — including Warner Bros. Digital Networks and MSA Enterprises, the fund backed by the likes of Beats founder Jimmy Iovine and LeBron James — are very much betting that NTWRK will swiftly become appointment television for the YouTube generation. (The venture has raised north of $20 million in its seed funding round, according to a person familiar with the matter.)
Levant cites the success of HQ, the live trivia game app that has attracted more than 2 million players in a single session, as a proof point. But there’s a big difference between HQ and NTWRK. With HQ, viewers show up to win money. NTWRK is asking viewers to spend money.
This means Levant has to deliver a pretty compelling proposition with a mix of must-have product, top-line talent and content. To help him do it, he’s assembled a team of experienced entertainment and apparel industry operators, including Shanon Kelley, a nine-year veteran of Vice, as chief revenue officer, as well as Jamie Iovine — Jimmy’s son — as vp of talent relations and Gaston D-Letelier, the former chief executive of recently closed Los Angeles institution Meltdown Comic books, as vp of licensing.
NTWRK’s starting lineup features comedian Eric Andre as host, releasing a new $349.95 limited-edition pair of DJ Khaled and Beats By Dr. Dre headphones.
In the coming weeks, actor Michael Rapaport will drop a collaboration between celebrity jeweller Ben Baller and footwear label Straye — $70 slides and a $54 long-sleeve t-shirt — while Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah and GZA will unleash a pair of co-branded $190 Clarks Wallabees in honour of the 25th anniversary of the group’s seminal album, 36 Chambers, alongside a Wear Wu t-shirt ($34) and jacket ($150).
Initially, NTWRK will host one-to-two sales per week, with the expectations of upping that to three-to-four within the next few months. The general idea is to pair a more-accessible, if not entirely unlimited, product with a premium item released in ultra-low quantities. The celebrity host might have a project to promote, and the products might be connected to that project.
The early roster — which also includes an episode featuring merchandise that promotes the latest Halloween film — suggests that NTWRK wants to appeal to more than the typical hypebeast. "We have zero boundaries," Levant says. "I truly believe we will be able to go from a beauty influencer and a beauty product to a mainstream NBA athlete and a sneaker to a video game to a total comic book, geek, nerd thing, to some weird cult following for a 1960s movie. We will blur the lines."
Levant’s track record for blending entertainment and commerce has been enough to attract heavy-hitter investors like Iovine and top brand partners early on. When he launched Agenda in 2003, he transformed a business-to-business trade show into a must-attend event that attracted consumers, too, with celebrity appearances, an enviable schedule of musical guests and local food vendors.
In 2013, Levant sold a majority stake in Agenda to trade show giant Reed Exhibitions, where he went on to launch ComplexCon, the consumer-facing streetwear show that has inspired a wave of experiential events, from Beautycon and Sephora’s forthcoming House of Beauty to Hypefest, Hypebeast’s ComplexCon competitor, which debuted in Brooklyn this past week. (Reed bought out his remaining interest when he exited earlier this year.)
NTWRK will also host events, some of which Levant envisions as mono-branded, pop-up theme parks or museums that will last 30 days or more. (Think in the vein of Refinery29's 29 Rooms or the Museum of Ice Cream.) But to start, the focus will be on the app, with shows staged at the now-vacant Meltdown Comics store at 7522 Sunset Blvd. Fans will eventually be invited to attend live tapings.
For a company like the Warner Bros. Digital Network Group — which has a whole roster of characters, from superheroes to cartoons, that lend itself to products — Levant’s plan is utterly compelling. “There were seven-to-eight strategic reasons why it made sense," says Jay Levine, the group's executive vice president. Along with Levant's "extreme hip factor and authentic voice," the partnership allows Warner Bros. to participate in the creation of a new retail channel, reach new audiences, raise brand awareness and merchandising sales for certain characters and franchises, and also create live experiences around those franchises. Not to mention the data NTWRK will be collecting on its customers, which Levine says will allow the company to "better serve the audience down the road."
So much so that Warner Bros. agreed to sign on despite the fact that NTWRK will partner with competitors, too.
"Aaron had a really good point. When he started ComplexCon, he was so focused on the kids, the opportunity that he missed was the 50 million kids at home," Kelley says. "That is what we’re tapping into. They don’t have access. They’re not in the city, so they can catch this on their phone."
But Levant is certainly not the first to try merge commerce with entertainment content in a way that resonates with a younger audience. From Simon Fuller-backed Fashionair, which shuttered in 2010, to MikMak, which has pivoted its business model from being a "shopping app for millennials" to a business-to-business service that helps brands build better native commerce experiences within their own accounts and platforms, making live shopping work in a modern way hasn't been easy.
In 2016, shopping cable channel Evine announced that music executive Tommy Mottola and designer Tommy Hilfiger were investing in the venture and would advise on strategy, with the expectations that the channel’s celebrity wattage would increase. However, nothing outwardly materialised, and in April TechCrunch reported that Amazon was in talks to buy the company, which generated $650 million in 2017.
Meanwhile, QVC and HSN, now both owned by Qurate Retail — which acquired HSN at the end of 2017 and also owns deals site Zulily — continue to dominate the market. QVC alone is in more than 370 million homes worldwide and generated close to $8.8 billion in sales in 2017. But as cord-cutting continues and the number of paying television subscribers drops, these businesses are figuring out how to build engaged online audiences through YouTube live streaming. (About half of QVC’s sales were completed through e-commerce in 2017.)
NTWRK is certainly playing to a different audience — one chasing cool more than deals. But Levant will likely face many of the same challenges as legacy players. For one: why wouldn’t brands sell their special, one-off capsules through their own direct-to-consumer channels?
"They’re not doing this themselves," Kelley argues. "There are smaller brands getting it right, but others are struggling. They're more focused on Amazon than they are their own platform. NTWRK is really the aggregation of pop culture and storytelling that brands can’t do on their own."
Levant certainly remains bullish on curation. He thinks good retail, and a good time, is enough to get people to show up — whether or not there’s a physical line. “For brands, that cross pollination of subcultures — in sports, entertainment, gaming, etc — all in one platform is what makes this powerful," he says. "Each one of those things will have its own organic pull."