This article was first published in December 2019

In 2011, one of my first tasks as a fashion journalist was reporting from the giant queue outside H&M on Oxford Street, where hundreds of people waited to get their hands on the retailer’s collaboration with Italian luxury brand Versace. Lithe young women wanted a pleated skirt, edged in metal. Ebullient older men were there for the shouty printed shirts. H&M was instrumental in pushing the current obsession with high-street-high-fashion collaborations – most of which now have the sole aim of trying to provoke the kind of hysteria that causes people to line up outside a store like a flashmob to entice others to join. And it was one of the first retailers to initiate the idea of “the queue” as event. 

In the years since, people have queued for all manner of things: for the Savage Beauty show at the Met, and later the V&A; they have camped outside Wembley Ikea for Off-White designer Virgil Abloh’s homeware range; they have queued for iPhones (778 people queued at the Regent Street store for the iPhone 4S release in October 2011. The following year, for the iPhone 5, almost 1,300 people got in line. Those numbers have swollen with each subsequent release).

The queue boom (for shoes, for clothes, for technology, for a Supreme-branded brick) has run curiously in tandem with the rise of internet shopping, Amazon Prime and two-hour delivery slots – all supposedly there to make it easier for us to access anything, whenever we want, with minimal effort. So how did the queue become so culturally significant in what was supposed to be the decade of the delivery? 

I found an echo of my experience outside H&M while watching an episode of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, where the heroine Rory Gilmore, an aspiring journalist, is asked by an editor if she can write about “lines”. Gilmore trails around New York. She stands in line for something being hailed as the new cronut. She queues for sneakers. She passes a line where people have joined simply because others are queuing. Ultimately, she concludes, lines are facile and inexplicable.

Except they’re not. The urge to line up is loaded. The queue defies the laziness we associate with interacting with the world through the internet, but is also a symptom of its pressures, the ones that make us desperate to fit in yet determined to appear unique. We queue to get something first, or to get something original to mark ourselves out, but we also queue to be near others who share our tastes, to be a part of something, to prove we were there. This is what marks these contemporary “lines” apart from the traditional, very British queue: polite, formal, desperately straight, even more desperately seething. The queues of the past were about getting to an end point, but today, the benefits are broader and more subtle. To queue is to prove one’s allegiance; to truly be a Supreme person. A Gucci person. A sneakerhead. A style leader. Someone. “It’s a combination of tribes, trends and tapping into a social media craze. That whole ‘I was here in the queue, I experienced this,’” says digital strategist Rosanna Falconer. 

Supreme, the streetwear brand widely credited with promoting the cause of competitive shopping has a near weekly queue outside its store, which is well documented on social media. Back in 2017, when the Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration was released via dedicated pop-up shops, thousands dutifully lined up outside. In some locations, they weren’t even queuing for the privilege of buying an incredibly expensive piece of luggage, but simply a raffle ticket, randomly generated, that would grant or deny them access to the goods in the first place. Together, queuers waited, commiserated and, finally, hollered as others emerged with their arms piled with goods. “The loss of community in our day-to-day lives is well documented,” says Falconer. “The self-service checkout rather than a chat with the local grocer, a thirst for followers over genuine friendships. The queue is about forming modern-day communities and tribes – the shared adrenaline of the chase brings with it a chance to experience, bond and interact with those who share a common interest.” 

Increasingly, given its prevalence in menswear, the queue seems to have warped into an unlikely opportunity for male bonding and a bit of friendly competition. Who will get there first? Who will win? By buying and by trying, one becomes part of the club. “Queues are not purely about scarcity,” says Gary Aspden, a trainer expert and consultant at Adidas. “Scarcity is not enough – it’s scarcity coupled with a hardcore, cultish brand loyalty. They feed into each other.” 

Aspden argues that the queue is another aspect of streetwear’s current influence on high fashion. The latter was once restrained, discreet, lofty – inaccessible to all but a few. Truly swanky products have often cultivated their semi-mythical status through talk of swollen waiting lists – see, for example, the Hermès Birkin bag. But social media has transformed it into a shouty industry, a part of pop culture. Recent years have seen the high-fashion queues morph into something more physical. Head to Bond Street and you’ll see that the savvy team at Gucci have installed a queue rope outside their store, behind which keen shoppers stand, a perfect advertisement for the desirability and popularity of Gucci’s clothing – a walking, or, well, waiting, advert right there in Mayfair. “Interestingly [high fashion] seems intent on emulating the streetwear approach,” says Aspden of high fashion’s adoption of the “drop”. “I can see how those high-fashion brands are seduced by the idea of people standing in overnight queues to buy their products, but I’m not sure that they really understand the whole subculture that underpins streetwear. It’s all come full circle.”

Of course, another motivation to queue is simple snobbery and the pursuit of something truly unique. “Infinite choice doesn’t mean just one group of people have infinite choice; it means everyone has infinite choice. When everyone has infinite choice it drives people to desire something that is harder to find – whether that is through lining up, only buying limited editions or paying big premiums for vintage,” explains Arby Li, editor in chief of Hypebeast, a site dedicated to reporting from the front line.

Founded in 2005, Hypebeast is now a gospel for style‑conscious young men and women – and has even sparked a useful noun for describing those who gild the lily when it comes to their logos. A “hypebeast” is, according to Urban Dictionary, shorthand for “a kid that collects clothing, shoes and accessories for the sole purpose of impressing others”. Some have linked the hypebeast of today to the hipster of yore – both are seduced by the idea of rarity or access. “I heard this band first” has warped into “I got these trainers – only 100 pairs in the world”.

But is it all just about ego? No, says Li. “The perception of menswear has changed through the years and with the rise of resell and trading platforms specifically for men’s fashion, I think males look at clothes as a commodity or ‘investment’ more in today’s age. Just liking a design isn’t enough; it has to retain its value in case one day you want to sell it on, and there’s only a certain number of brands where you would receive the same you paid or more – these generally are the ones that are more difficult to procure or release via waitlists, drops, line-ups.” 

Trainer fans began queuing more than 48 hours before the opening of Aspden’s Adidas Spezial exhibition at The Exchange in Blackburn in October, which featured over 1,200 pairs of trainers from the designer’s own collection. Over the 16 days the show was open, more than 21,000 people came through. A special Blackburn Spezial shoe, of which only 200 pairs were made, was sold for £100 – later on eBay, bids for the same pair reached £40,000. Sometimes, queueing can be worth the wait.

But often, we queue because others do. Increasingly waiting in line can feel like accessing something better, more intimate, more real. A queue is a little community. And in these times, small feels smart. We hear that big tech is destroying our society. Big business is ruining the environment. With a “limited edition product drop”, or something we had to wait hours for, we kid ourselves that our loot is different from the glut of other stuff produced. We queue to feel that what we bought matters.

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