Toby Shorin recently published an essay, “Life After Lifestyle,” that describes how brands integrate themselves into the cultural landscape. In his brief history of the 2010s explosion of direct-to-consumer companies, he summarizes the DTC aesthetic that had begun to flourish offline as well as online:
“As I wandered alone in Chinatown and the LES, where I lived, I encountered the colorfully branded physical outputs of platform integration. For every new subway ad featuring an online pharmacy and a nice monstera plant, there was a new pop-up skate shop soaking up the runoff of Supreme teens. HSWLD on Delancey, a dozen others lost to memory…”
As Shorin notes, this landscape was at least partially the product of financial conditions: The quantitative easing and low interest rates that followed the 2008 crash increasingly flooded the economy with cheap capital in search of returns—a dynamic that encouraged the venture-funded DTC business model. “These brands typically raised huge amounts over several rounds, and plowed most of the money into subway ads in major cities and paid digital marketing,” Shorin writes. Pastel color schemes, sans-serif fonts, and AirSpace minimalism were the visual imprint of the financial abundance that directly funded its proliferation starting in the 2010s.
In an episode of the New Models podcast last week, the hosts speculate that the emergence of Uber in the early 2010s unleashed a mass migration from New York to Los Angeles, by finally providing an alternative to driving oneself everywhere (although they acknowledge it’s probably not that simple). One of the hosts, Daniel Keller, calls this “ZIRP culture,” the wide variety of behaviors and lifestyles and “types of guy” incubated by an ecosystem of app-enabled, investor-subsidized luxuries like DoorDash, AirBnb, and Uber—an ecosystem that itself was downstream from the same macroeconomic conditions that Shorin describes. Well before the Fed began raising rates, ZIRP culture already seemed to be winding down, but even if the paradigm shifts, the residue will remain with us.
The post-pandemic inflationary spike was the culmination of ZIRP culture as well as its likely undoing. I wrote about the “culture of inflation” earlier this year, describing it as a “swelling, insatiable demand for everything, intensified by a growing rift between our ability to fulfill digital and physical desires.” It affected basic expenses like gas prices and groceries as well as discretionary purchases like travel, restaurant dining, and luxury consumer goods. Speculative assets of all kinds exploded in value. And then there is housing, which we will come back to—an essential human need, a financial investment, and a luxury good all intersecting in the same physical object.