Alex Powis — collector, documentarian, author, nerd — is the guy behind it
Alex, what’s been happening recently?
Oh man, this question! To be honest I’ve been researching, planning a lot of projects. Seeing what’s going on, what’s got legs, exploring them, and kind of prepping myself for the next year, I guess.
Sneaker world stuff? Apparel?
Yeah, I tend to fall into the same comfortable holes. Comfort zones. I’m really not that attached to sneaker culture as it is, these days, but I still can’t leave shoes alone. I end up drifting back there. In the same way that people say, ‘oh, you work in fashion’… I really don’t. Not in fashion fashion, in a higher-up way, but I do work in clothing and shoes. From more of a cultural angle, I guess. So yeah, I’m basically plotting various projects that I’ll start rolling out next year, and also working on a couple of books — including Sticker Archive. And the other one’s about shoes! I’m just trying to archive things.
You’re a multi-hyphenist! But if you were to introduce yourself to someone in an elevator, what would you say?
The reality is, it would be a kind of awkward, couple-of-sentence-long ramble, which is different every time. The succinct answer — which sometimes I like and sometimes I hate — is that I really enjoying documenting and archiving culture. Whether it’s digging through the history of Levi’s, or something like The Daily Street, where I’m documenting culture as it unfolds; discussing it and putting it in context with the past, and where it’s all going. That’s all that any of this shit is, to be fair. I’ve met proper archivists and wouldn’t say that I am a ‘proper’ archivist — I’ve got too much awe and respect for them — although I’d love to be. Like, I was fortunate enough to meet the official archivist for Levi’s at the 140th anniversary of the 501, and she was telling great stories about bidding wars over old jeans that had been found in Californian mines, but the person she’s bidding against is Ralph Lauren. As in the guy, not the brand.
I suppose your documentarian-archivist-author vocation then boils down into a more brand-facing angle, which sees you work as a consultant.
Yeah, I guess so. It all started with The Daily Street when we were doing white label stuff for brands, and then… well, when you spend long enough nerding-out and obsessing over certain topics you tend to forget that not everyone does that to that level, and so in some way you become a resource. I love studying culture and cultural movements in relation to items and brands. Even brands I don’t really like, I find it interesting. I can’t help but log it. To me it’s normal, and even most people I hang out with, they’re into it. It’s when you hang out with someone different that you realise it’s not normal.
In your mind, what necessitated your move away from The Daily Street as a vehicle for those interests?
Haha! I’m still yet to publicly acknowledge The Daily Street is finished. I did pen an open letter but never ended up publishing it. Basically I got really disillusioned with what it was doing. We set that site up as readers — it was what we wanted to read — but I got to the point where I didn’t like the quantity of shit that was coming out, and no one cared to dig any deeper into it. It was all about speed. Write less, get it out quicker, be the first to get it out, move on. And we got caught up in this rat race of the news cycle, and chasing traffic and trying to be first. And then we’re competing with Hypebeast and Highsnobiety, all in the same arena. And a lot of those publications — us included — were simply putting out the same stories, the same re-written press releases with the same set of images… and a good quarter of it isn’t true, it’s just coming from the brand, un-fact-checked, because the people at the brands don’t know… they just work there. So the brands are just re-writing their histories, and everyone’s pedalling the same shit. I remember getting this distinct feeling that there was just way too much noise. It was overwhelming. And then I clicked, The Daily Street was a part of that. So then and there I just thought that was enough reason to stop doing it. I was quite happy to stop pedalling out stories for PR companies. It was a moment of clarity. A lot of these publications are doing a sales job, where they’re advertising product sales for these companies, for free. It’s nothing deeper than, ‘here’s the latest shoe. Go and buy it’. It whips up a sales frenzy.
Anyway, around the same time, I launched Crepe City magazine. I thought we could do both, but I soon realised, you know, I couldn’t provide a good service with The Daily Street anymore. But yeah, I’ve kind of always lived off my gut, (which is why I can’t give you a nice, succinct job title). And at that stage I just thought, fuck it — the world doesn’t need this right now. So I stopped. What I didn’t do is tell anyone that I stopped it!
OK let’s talk Sticker Archive. What are stickers good for?
Collecting! Many things. They’re a really interesting part of this culture. They’re well known, they hold a lot of nostalgia for people, and they’re affordable. They’re a way for you to have a part of a brand, or a seasonal collection (because they usually have the same artwork) at a fraction of the price, if at all. But outside of that, there’s something levelling about stickers; that the brand gives a certain amount of control to someone who takes a sticker, because they can’t dictate what you do with it. You can stick them wherever. They allow brands to do stuff — or have stuff done — in their name, which they couldn’t legally do. Artistic vandalism, if you will. I love that side of it.
It’s like guerrilla marketing.
Yeah. Especially somewhere like London, where fly-posting is so controlled, so well-behaved. Everyone plays safe, plays by the rules, within these legal fly-postering areas. It’s all so polite and boring. You go to Berlin and the posters are everywhere, or New York, where you can even get arrested and put in a cell for putting stickers up, but even there, every single bridge plinth is covered. Here it’s super clean. Although stickers have in some way managed to evade that. You don’t have to be a graff artist or a fly-postering guy — which takes a lot of balls — it’s just… any kid who’s gone into Patta and picked up a couple of stickers can have that moment of rebellion and slap it somewhere public.
It’s rebellion but it’s slightly more innocent, because it feels a bit less permanent.
Yeah, unless you’re using eggshells!
On a conscious level, was there a moment when you decided to turn your collection into an ‘archive’ and share it with people?
Yeah, it was maybe a couple of years ago. What it came down to was I had a memory of being a kid, in SS20 — the skate shop in Oxford — this really dingy little shop. And I’d go through to the counter where the older guys were working and ask to check the sticker book. And they’d have this old photo album, with the peel-back plastic sleeves, full of stickers, which cost between 50p and two quid, depending on what sticker it was. Obviously they’d been sent these stickers for free by the brands, for promo. But I used to love going there with a quid in my pocket and being able to walk away with something that looked like something else in the shop which would have cost me fifty.
It’s funny that as kids at that age we’re still very aware of the significance of brands…
Yeah, and you can have a piece of that brand, or a moment in history of that brand. But also, they’re just sick graphics. So instead of buying a new skate deck, you’d just buy a sticker and put that on your deck.
Anyway, launching Sticker Archive, I thought about that and how those folders were a nice way to keep my stickers safe and could put them on the shelf. So I started doing it. At the time I was also quite into @fruit_stickers, and @matchbookdiaries, which collects match books from restaurants and things in America. [The format] was so simple and clean, and maybe this is the editor in me, but it also doesn’t come with an opinion. They’re not trying to discuss this and that… it’s just the facts, they’re not putting any preconception about the object into anyone’s head. So I thought I’d do that, but with my sticker collection, which also gave me an excuse to scan it and digitise it all.
Interesting point about not attaching an opinion to each image. You’ve been very factual with the posts.
By deliberately leaving them opinion-less, they can mean different things to different people. It’s partly because I don’t know a lot of the stories behind the stickers, but also because I’m so aware of people putting things out there online without fact-checking. There was a really good podcast about this actually. It was about how with the rise of blogs you had the rise of bloggers rather than journalists. People who didn’t study journalism as a craft, and attention to detail and moral standing was lost.
Well blogging as a culture is based on opinion.
Yeah, which usually isn’t backed up. I mean, it’s like, I like your opinion, and I like the way the way you write, but I wish you’d then put the time in to back it up. I’m almost scared of that as a writer.
Maybe it comes back to documenting, and the idea of true documentary, which seeks to avoid inserting an opinion.
Yeah. And personally I’m not going to do that unless I’ve researched something to the point where I’m happy to put it out there. And in all honesty, I don’t have the time to dig for the actual stories behind these stickers to get to the point where I’d happily put it out. Not on an Instagram account, anyway. But there’s something nice in the fact that [@stickerarchive] is educational in what it’s doing, but it’s not trying to educate you. It’s just archiving.
You were saying that, as a kid, stickers were a way to access a certain world, and what you’ve done with Sticker Archive is provide people with access to your own world. Or the world of street culture / streetwear where most of this comes from.
I think as it grows, maybe it can become a resource for designers… it’s one of those things where I have to wait and see how it’ll work. At a base level it’s a nice reference tool for designers, as something interesting to look at, but I wonder if it’ll become an interesting and different way to track the histories of these brands.
A few months after I started, I bumped into Andy Freshney, who used to be at Gimme5, and he was saying he’d been planning on doing something similar with his collection, but for a book rather than social media. And I showed him my thing, so we decided to team up. We’ve been working remotely because he lives in Amsterdam, but basically it’s our collection, and then we started sourcing contributors. And the end plan is still a book, a massive table book, with a publisher who will do it justice. Featuring written pieces discussing stickers as a form of art — this levelling, rebellion art — and as street marketing.
What I find interesting is the syncing of tangible artefacts with digital archives. What are your thoughts on the importance on archiving tangible strands of culture these days, when everything now happens online?
For me it kind of started with Crepe City magazine when we put this section in the middle, inspired heavily by the Japanese magazines — like Lightning Archives and stuff — and there was a section which was supposed to be a magazine-within-a-magazine, called Archive. We’d pick a collector, and they’d pick their personal fifty favourite [sneakers]. We’d say, ‘don’t worry about the shoes you think people want to see, just choose the ones you really like’. The idea was to put that thought into print, as a document for people to flick through. And that all came from my general dislike that the internet, through list culture and algorithms based on popularity, keeps pushing the same things to the top. You get this predictable, cream of the crop shit; ‘the best sneakers of all time’… everyone’s just looking at the same thing. Often it’s whatever’s being pushed by a brand, whatever they’re currently trying to sell you, and that’s the only sliver of history that we’ll see. And there’s so much more. I mean, I’ve been obsessively looking up this stuff for ten years, and I’m still finding shoes I didn’t even know existed, simply because it hasn’t been deemed relevant by a blog or by a brand, and it hasn’t entered that system.
I put this thing on Instagram recently that I’d scanned in from an old Adidas catalogue. The original Ozweego, which inspired the Raf Ozweego. Partly because when I saw it it brought back some memories, but when I tried to Google it, it was like, good luck! Because when you search ‘Adidas Ozweego’ you won’t find the original, because it’s so out shadowed by the Raf ones. And then I was thinking, I bet there’s a bunch of people out there who don’t know that the Raf one is inspired by an original shoe. It’s like the Falcon coming back and being renamed the Yung 1. That really pissed me off because they retro’d something I’ve been waiting for them to retro for a couple of years, and then they changed it.
I don’t know, maybe because they hadn’t secured the license for the name. There might have been an issue. But the problem for me was that they then did a modern interpretation of it, and called that the Falcon. I was like, you’ve retro’d the shoe and given it a different name, and then you’ve done another modern take on the shoe and give that the original name. That stuff annoys me too much. I shouldn’t really care! But when you play a part in that online culture I think you feel an obligation to feed actual facts, or undiscussed topics, into that machine.
Long story short, it all comes back to that with the sticker thing. It’s niche and nerdy but it’s not weird. Everyone knows stickers but I don’t think anyone’s documented them like that, yet. At some point I’d like to do an actual website, where you can browse by brand, and by year…
Yeah, I’m really into the idea of online resources.
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