VFiles Discovered the Future of Fashion. Now It's Trying to Do the Same for Music

In early 2015, as both traditional retail stores and the music business were facing historic collapse, a weird little store in Soho thought it might be able to solve the problem. Things were stale. The gatekeepers were unwelcoming. But here, at VFiles, the doors were cracked open, and there was a yellow bench outside where anyone could sit.

VFiles had launched in 2012 as a fashion-focused online social network and quickly became a breeding ground for fashion-obsessed youth. The high-end design community was years away from considering internet fashion valid, and VFiles offered themselves as the antidote. So, the next year, that social network created a physical space and a New York Fashion Week fashion show, VFiles Made Fashion, where designers could win a chance to be shown at NYFW.

That show, too, proved to be an essential breeding ground. In the years since, eight of its designers have gone on to become LVMH Prize finalists or semi-finalists, and one won the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund. The store carried Shayne Oliver’s Hood By Air (which also became the website's first e-commerce offering), Virgil Abloh’s pre-Off-White brand Pyrex Vision, and Jeremy Scott. Before the masses were bold enough to wear Windex bottles and Tweety Bird on their sweaters, VFiles said they could.

But 2015 was an inflection point. That February, VFiles had opened a showroom above the store to showcase the brands it helped launch at its fashion shows, and to help guide the designers into becoming legitimate businesses. In May, the company re-launched its website site with a mobile-friendly design that also made it easier for its users to connect and shop online from their phones. At the time, VFiles had 85,000 registered users, 90 percent of whom were under 35.

And that April, the company launched VFiles Loud!, doing for music what it had done for fashion. A panel of judges including MTV’s deputy editorial director, ATrak, and celebrity stylist Akeem Smith would pick the winners. “Music was and is still going through this thing where kids who put out tracks on their own aren’t really legit,” says Julie Anne Quay, VFiles' Australia-born founder. “We wanted to show that kids in the culture weren’t just creating fashion, but music as well—and that it was important and people needed to pay attention.”

That wasn’t all. “There was the next election and we could really feel a change coming and it was really important for us to acknowledge that vocally,” says JAQ, like Nicholson, which is what everyone calls Julie Anne Quay. They have this saying at VFiles, and it’s the only corny thing about them, but it’s also true: “Music is our voice, fashion is our uniform.”

<cite class="credit">Tayler Smith</cite>
Tayler Smith

It was that need to find a vocal expression of themselves that led VFiles to Brockhampton. With VFiles Loud!, musicians were invited to upload songs to VFiles. The winner would receive a bounty: a VFiles-directed music video that would premiere on MTV, and a debut party to launch a VFiles-backed song mastered by Tom Elmhurst and released through A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold Records. So Brockhampton, the rowdy rap group who called themselves the new all-American boy band, uploaded a track.

“It was Brockhampton, Kali Uchis, and this girl who played a toy piano in her closet and sang ‘Two of Hearts,’” remembers JAQ. “It was unbelievable.” They were all neck-and-neck. But they Quay found a video the group shot entirely in a supermarket, filming in the freezer section, while the place was open. And she thought, “This is the future. This is America talking.”

A young photographer named Tyler Mitchell shot the video. Brockhampton couldn’t watch it live on MTV because none of them had cable. Three years later, Mitchell was photographing Beyonce for the cover of Vogue, and Brockhampton’s album Iridescence would debut at number one on the Billboard charts. Even the runner-up was destined for success: Kali Uchis has since gone on to achieve critical acclaim and tour with Lana Del Rey.

VFiles quickly learned that it had just as much foresight in music as in fashion. But how, exactly, did this idiosyncratic little boutique turn itself into a wildly effective predictive engine?

Early, JAQ understood a few things: that music and fashion were linked and would only grow ever more connected. That popular music could bring challenging clothes to a broader audience—and that, on the flip side, the right high-end clothes could rebrand a fledgling artist. “We’re probably the only company in the world that—we’re both,” JAQ says, as we sit in the 12-person office above the store, next to an iconic Memphis Milano Carlton bookshelf that holds a single Rico Nasty vinyl.

While VFiles was always early on the catch—the list of artists who have performed at the store includes Post Malone and Cardi B—they never quite had the tools to support musicians in their growth and then stay involved once they got bigger. But as fashion has become even more central to culture and music, VFiles is solidifying its place amid it all. In September, VFiles signed a deal with Caroline, the distribution arm of Universal Music Group. Artists who upload their music to the VFiles online platform have a chance of seeing their songs turn into official VFiles releases, blasted out through Universal Music's distribution system.

In a way, the deal puts VFiles in a position to become something like the next SoundCloud, but one where the platform works with its artists to achieve success. By the time a song goes viral, the thinking goes, JAQ and her team are already finding artists, already putting them on, already making merch and videos for them. “Instead of being like, Oh yeah, that’s the kid I saw at VFiles, it’s now like, OK, VFiles released this track with this kid,” JAQ explains.

So 2019 marks another VFiles inflection point. In the post-HBA landscape, with the entire fashion world enmeshed in a newer, stranger moment of streetwear and Balenciaga—a moment that was in part predicted and introduced by VFiles—the store’s oompf and star power just isn’t quite as strong. Mike the Ruler’s grown up. Thugs Bunny works at Depop. Getting into music now is JAQ’s next canny pivot.

But that also puts VFiles in a new and unusual position. While it's consistently and quietly influenced the future of music and fashion since opening, the stakes are changing. Can VFiles maintain that foresight as it develops deeper connections and structures within the corporate world?

When VFiles opened shop on Mercer Street nearly seven years ago, the concept was somewhat befuddling to those in fashion and media who were watching retail implode and social media thrive. “I remember when I first started VFiles and there was a lot of criticism around having a physical space. Six to seven years ago it was Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Instagram was just starting. People were like, If you’re going to launch this digital platform and a creative community, why would you have a physical space?” JAQ remembers.

The store itself was spare and minimal (the New York Times likened it to shopping in an office), but VFiles also behaved like a media entity, which was prescient in another way—now everyone from Casper to Glossier have magazines and blogs, while editorial outlets like Ssense and 032c are also stores. Back then VFiles filmed a whole bunch of very funny YouTube videos starring the people worked at the shop, many of would become internet-famous personalities themselves. Luka Sabbat once manned the register.

JAQ ignored the criticism. To her, the most important thing was “to physically see people who were like you.” She had this analogy about social networks and parties: “If you went to a Facebook party, who would be there? Kids from high school, relatives, random people. If you went to an Instagram party, everyone would be super hoity-toity, dressed up and trying to look better than everybody else. There’d also be some comedians. And if you go to a VFiles party, you know what you’re going to get, too.”

You’re going to get models, musicians, designers, party hosts, DJs, scenesters, and hyphenated combinations of all the above. They’re dressed in clothes that are probably more expensive than they can afford, but less because they’re rich than because they value fashion more than a big apartment. They’re diverse. They follow cute dogs on Instagram, but also fifteen-year-old Japanese fashion influencers—unless, of course they are 15-year-old Japanese fashion influencers. They look intimidating, but they’re friendly. They’re dressed in colors you will only realize are in style next year. And they’re all younger than you.  

And beyond defining a new New York tribe, the community-building physical space actually suggested potentially viable futures for retail, fashion, music and maybe even media. VFiles sells things. It host shows and events. It’s a hang-out. It’s an online network.

<cite class="credit">Tayler Smith</cite>
Tayler Smith

And if you’re brave enough to step in and loud enough to speak up, you’ll be welcomed. “They have the door open like you can do what you want here,” says Candy Pratts Price, a fashion brand consultant and a friend of JAQ’s who’s worked at Style.com and Vogue. The people on the shop floor are not just there to sell clothes, but to actually provide a real physical place to...link and build. “The team here is the Navy SEAL team of culture.” JAQ says. She’s dressed as a captain of sorts in a red jumpsuit from Hyein Seo, a VFiles runway designer. “Literally.”

And so the artists have flocked. iLoveMakonnen’s first performance was at VFiles. The first time Migos performed “Bad and Boujee,” it was at a VFiles event in the store. (Sheck Wes opened for them, approximately two years before “Mo Bamba.”) Post Malone has played in the store, as have Cardi B, Lil Uzi Vert, A$APs Rocky and Ferg, too. “The list of artists who’ve played in the store is really”—JAQ raises her eyebrows to the heavens and nods—“ridiculous.”

They weren’t just there to perform. Artists, sensing the power VFiles had and the community it built, wanted to be a part of it, and gain from its reputation. Lil Yachty used to hang around because he had a crush on the shop clerk (and VFiles personality Danielle Greco), also known as Thugs Bunny. She’d say, “You need to either buy a hoodie or you have to leave,” JAQ remembers. And so he stayed.

And as one artist after the next went on to massive global fame, JAQ and her team at VFiles realized something: “culture” and “fashion,” as presently constituted, really just meant music. So around 2016, to build the community and embrace music more fully, VFiles began organizing official meetups at an event they called Pass the Aux. Anyone could come, enter a lottery, and if they were selected they’d plug into the aux and perform live. It started in the actual store, with 10 or 15 people huddling in a circle. Now, VFiles takes over SOBs about once a month.    

Pass the Aux became such a jumping off point that kids were driving up from Atlanta—the literal heartland of modern hip-hop—in the hopes of performing for JAQ. This year VFiles returned the favor, hosting an event down south, and another at SxSW. JAQ attends each one. “Live performance is the great leveler,” she says. “If you can’t do it live, you can’t do it.”

Eventually, JAQ and her team began putting together EPs of music they support—and, naturally, all of the artists came from Pass the Aux events. When VFiles put on a fashion show in the basement of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center last year, the musical performers were also pulled from Pass the Aux.

Soon after, JAQ and her team went out looking for industry support, a way to formalize their work. But as she learned the intimacies of the music business, the structures of record and management deals, she became increasingly turned off. “They basically say, we’ll invest in you for all of your IP, in perpetuity,” she says.

“I was like, I’m not showing that to anybody,” she says. “I wouldn’t even ask that of my own child.”

JAQ threw out all of those deals before ending up with Caroline, which was the most flexible and amenable to her needs. A lot of other labels had an equation, JAQ explains, and would turn down the types of artists VFiles was prone to feature—saying they’re too young, too new, they don’t have enough followers, they’re not trending, the right people haven’t picked up on them yet. “That’s kind of the whole point of why VFiles works,” JAQ says. This was about fostering the greatest youth community in the world—not waiting until someone else approved it first.  

One evening last May, A$AP Rocky was trapped in a glass box at Sotheby’s, but JAQ’s attention was squarely on a 20-year-old kid named Delly. She was at the auction house for Rocky’s Testing album-release event, but JAQ is always talent scouting. Delly—who happens to be A$AP Ferg’s younger brother—looked cool and seemed interesting, and when you might be downtown’s most productive, efficient and on-point tastemaker since Fab Five Freddie, that’s all it really takes. “Most VFiles employees have a special thing and it’s enthusiasm and energy. He has both of those,” JAQ says. She asked if he had any interest in interning at her store.

“I was like, 'Yeah, why not, let’s do it,'” Delly says. He’d been making music for about seven months by then, alternately calling himself the “Prince of Harlem” and “Silky Papa.” At VFiles he worked the floor and also served as a talent scout for new music, spending nine-hour stretches on YouTube looking for new acts, eventually working his way up to being a full-time community ambassador. His recipe for success: “In order to be relevant you have to know who’s relevant.”

In those YouTube holes he’s looking for good music, of course, but that might not even be the most important thing. “When someone doesn’t have a presence that can go along with their songs, then they’re not much of an artist,” he says. “Chief Keef wouldn’t have been Chief Keef if he wasn’t a dread-headed ashy kid with guns from Chicago.”

Delly at a Pass the Aux event.
Delly at a Pass the Aux event.

The day I meet him Delly is working the floor, but also blasting his own music, and dancing to it. He slides and hops around the store. He likes the energy. “VFiles is a crazy cosign,” Delly says. “Once you’re affiliated with VFiles you’re seeing the talent that comes through.” He’s met Soulja Boy and Blueface there. Other folks, too: “If somebody’s underground, but they’re lit, like Yoshi24K, and they want to get involved in VFiles, they gotta talk to someone that will respond to them.” He’s the liason.

He’s also VFiles’ first homegrown artist, the first person to go from intern and shop clerk to releasing music under the VFiles label. JAQ can’t talk much about the future details of their partnership, but he goes into work at the VFiles store every day—and when he's released music, he’s preferred to do it with them, too.

JAQ also plans on expanding to music videos this year. She recently spent an afternoon counting all of the product placements in DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One.” JAQ imagines a fully integrated circular system: a VFiles stylist, VFiles videographer, VFiles clothes. She recently launched the VFiles Yellow Label, their first in-house higher-end clothing line designed by Paul Cupo, who used to work at Hood by Air. “We’re probably the only place that can do incredible fashion in the music videos and the whole thing is VFiles.”

And as for the rest of the music they plan to release, JAQ is focused on her community right here in New York City. “All we hear about is LA,” she says. “Coachella is the influencer Olympics.” But what about right here? “We want to focus on the artists that we are exposed to and hear on a daily basis.” The doors on Mercer Street are wide open.

Originally Appeared on GQ