THE FIRST THING I noticed was the trash. As I approached the Long Beach Convention Center this past weekend after braving a lengthy security line, my loafers crunched over empty pizza boxes and discarded blunt wrappers. I passed an orphaned folding chair. This was the forgotten flotsam of the fanatical sneakerheads who had camped out in order to be the first to enter the sneaker and streetwear festival ComplexCon. The rarest pieces go first. Everyone knows that!
Now in its third year, ComplexCon is a two-day conference organized in Southern California by the website Complex, which focuses on rare, limited-edition clothing and sneakers. It’s Comic Con for a specific breed of clothing nerds: a trade show where they can buy the hottest and newest “gear” at booths manned by major sneaker and streetwear companies. Though the goods in the “marketplace” are the main draw, attendees can also take in panel discussions on topics like “New God Flow: How to Make a Rap Album in 2018” and “Hilfiger & Hip-Hop” (with an appearance by Tommy Hilfiger himself!) and concerts by the likes of Future, Rae Sremmurd and T-Pain.
I do not collect sneakers, but I am in my late twenties and, as the men’s fashion editor of WSJ’s Off Duty, I’m obviously interested in clothing, so I’m not that far off from the fair’s target audience. I’ve also heard some of my industry peers call ComplexCon the future of clothing retail, a way for brands to create a memorable experience—the key word—that traditional or online shopping can’t equal. A survey released by Harris Poll and the ticket services website Eventbrite in 2017 found that 78% of 18-34 year-olds “would choose to spend money on a desirable experience or event over buying something desirable.” ComplexCon lets them do both: An entry ticket starting at $100 lets you max out experientially and buy something at the booths.
After two hours of maxing out, I can honestly say that if ComplexCon is the future of retail, I’d like to retire from shopping right now. At the airplane-hangar-sized convention center, plumes of weed and vape smoke rose to the rafters. I found myself trapped in an aisle filled with male bodies, shuffling along without a clue where we were going. I hadn’t noticed a map at the entrance; no one handed me a guide. We inched down the row, passing lines of people waiting for….I don’t know, actually. I couldn’t see any signs through the throngs of people.
I passed a Reebok booth, an Adidas booth, a PacSun booth, one representing the global sneaker chain Atmos. For the most part, long lines snaked outside these generously sized stalls selling limited-edition shoes and sweatpants. A booth focused on rubber pool-slides was the outlier, drawing only three souls. A mop-topped kid—the brand’s official representative, apparently—sat on a bench, looking tired just a few hours into the day. Or stoned. Or both. I passed scores of shoppers openly smoking weed and, reader, if I said I didn’t get a contact high, I would be lying.
In a far corner, McDonalds had a ginormous stall, peddling Big Macs to many of the tens of thousands (Tens. Of. Thousands.) of attendees.
I walked past a boxing ring. A skateboard bowl. I clocked a DC Comics booth, a Disney booth, a booth for the movie “Creed II” (with its star Michael B. Jordan in the flesh!). I came upon a circle of people using their phones to scan a mammoth Adidas cube hanging from the ceiling—apparently, doing so with a certain app would let you buy a pair of shoes at a set time. I stopped to watch these sneaker-seekers tapping away furiously, hoping they could check out before time expired. Once it did, they scattered the way cockroaches do when you switch on the lights.
In the void they left behind, I saw a bewildered mother trailing a sullen tween in a $500-ish Off-White hoodie with a giant logo on its back and gleaming Swooshed sneakers on his feet. Nearby, tired-looking teens slumped over clear bags with Nike boxes inside. People trudged by carrying bags upon bags upon bags. No one seemed to smile. I passed two adjacent booths with competing DJs playing thumping trap music. It sounded like fifteen YouTube videos competing to drown each other out.
I watched the rapper Pusha T enter the booth of the Japanese brand AAPE, where custom T-shirts were being screen printed. A sea of his fans, phones outstretched, cut the line, rushing right into the booth. I worried that the stage was going to collapse as selfie-seekers muscled their way up to Pusha, who was safely ringed by a troupe of bodyguards. After a minute, he just walked away, the crowd in tow.
I came to a booth dominated by a giant Air Jordan made of flowers. It struck me as a funeral arrangement though the Air Jordan is alive and well. Was there a commentary here? None of the 20 or so people inside seemed to care. They just kept taking photos on their phones.
I made it to the farthest corner, where a buzzing stall was stocked with T-shirts and hoodies bearing the ComplexCon logo. (The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami was chosen to design the logo, a recognition of his late career turn as streetwear icon.) A sign overhead read “ComplexCon Gift Shop.” But, of course, the entire event was a gift shop. Still it wasn’t as if these kids were buying a souvenir of a museum show they particularly loved. The sneakers, T-shirts and hoodies they purchased were mementos of the opportunity to buy, period.
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com