As the world’s second-largest search engine, YouTube has evolved as a platform where hardcore hobbyists and casual enthusiasts of just about anything (video games, cosmetics, or even Disney toys) can become Internet celebrities with dedicated viewerships. Beyond stars like Justin Bieber, who rode YouTube fame into a more traditional celebrity trajectory, people like makeup artist Michelle Phan and gamer Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (better known asPewDiePie) have cultivated successful channels with millions of subscribers, and billions of views.
While Phan and Kjellberg are two of the brightest stars, there’s an entire universe of YouTube celebrities, each with his or her own respective lifestyle orbit. For guys like 27-year-old Fran Marchello of Franalations and 29-year-old Michael Lytle of Mr. Foamer Simpson, their lane is sneakers. Each boasts a viewership of 8-9 million, where their audiences click through to watch sneaker reviews or inventive unboxing videos that creatively unveil a sneaker for the first time.
The clothing analog to unboxing videos is the “haul video,” wherein the subject boasts about or reviews a plethora of recently purchased products. YouTuber Bethany Mota rose to fame for her haul videos of women’s clothes under her Macbarbie07 channel, and currently has close to 700 million views and numerous endorsement deals.
Men’s haul videos do considerably fewer views, but Jacob Keller’s AlwaysFreshApparelchannel has built a dedicated following of almost 10 million views by mixing the appeal of haul videos with a lens filtered through sneaker and street culture. His highly engaged audience regularly watches his videos that talk about everything from recent clothing pickups to the hottest sneakers in his collection, and he’s ridden that Internet popularity into a job that sneakerheads would kill for: Global Brand Specialist at Jordan Brand.
Keller’s journey began on April 26, 2012, when he uploaded his first video. Titled “My Snapback Collection,” a self-aware Keller prefaces the video as “probably lame” and says the reason he has so many snapbacks is because they fit his self-described awkwardly shaped head. He cycles through caps from brands like The Hundreds, Crooks & Castles, Young & Reckless, and a Chicago Bulls 9FIFTY cap with a snakeskin brim. In the description of his video, Keller put personalized codes that gave users a discount at sites like PLNDR and Karmaloop, and in turn gave him points that could be redeemed on those sites. As Keller began to find his voice on YouTube, his subscriber base grew, too. The more comfortable he became on camera, the easier it was for viewers to see how likable he was.
PEOPLE WILL TALK. PEOPLE WILL HATE. THE QUICKER YOU CAN ACCEPT THAT, THE QUICKER YOU CAN BECOME SUCCESSFUL.
“I’d like to think I always have had an outgoing personality since I was 3,” he says. He remembers stomping around the house in a pair of boxers adorned with Power Rangers characters and singing the song “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the top of his lungs. It seems the work ethic waxed about in the Disney song’s lyrics took root.
Thanks to his his personality and relatability, Keller’s fans became infatuated with the clothes he was buying and the brands he was putting on, as it was a way of channeling the lifestyle he presented. When he got his first thousand subscribers, Keller knew he was onto something.
In September 2012, PLNDR, a members-only e-commerce arm of Karmaloop, held the “$10,000 In Your Pocket” contest for students and budding entrepreneurs, which offered $10,000 towards college tuition or business start-up costs. Contestants entered via inviting friends to join the site, and each entrant had a unique leaderboard to track their progress—although the grand prize winner would be chosen at random. Four months later, in January 2013, PLNDR announced it had found a winner—and it was Jacob Keller.
“It was awesome,” Keller says of winning the scholarship money. While he admits he’s fortunate that his parents “worked their butts off” to help him pay for his education at the University of Portland, the PLNDR scholarship helped relieve some financial strain.
“Receiving that $10,000 allowed me to take the pressure of them for a couple of semesters. Whatever I can do to give back to my family, count me in.”
Since winning that scholarship, Keller recently finished his education at Portland State University, where he graduated with a degree in Advertising Marketing.
“None of this would have happened to me if the Internet didn’t exist,” admits Keller, who understands the unique language and skillset that is tantamount to building a successful personal brand. Beyond YouTube, Keller also cultivated a sizable audience on Twitter (over 19,300 followers) and Instagram (over 61,600 followers).
What separates Keller from the pack is his integration of sneaker content into his channel. He’ll post about covetable kicks like Riccardo Tisci-designed Air Force 1s or “Shadow” Jordan 1s one day, and highlight up-and-coming brands like Represent Clothing on the next day. Unlike fashion people who only recently discovered Jordans yesterday and sneakerheads who woke up and realized that fashion brands could be worn with sneakers, Keller’s visual evolution can be seen on YouTube, which lends it a certain authenticity.
On average, his Instagram increases anywhere from 100-700 followers per day, while his Twitter nets around 10-30 new followers per day. With these types of numbers, it’s not uncommon for him to get hit up by companies or brands with a request to feature product, which he says happens every day.
“I get emails from brands constantly. I’ve been much more selective lately. I know the benefits I bring to a clothing brand. And I think it’s important that every person that’s in a similar position as me knows their value as an ‘influencer.’ There are certain brands and designers that will hit me up and send me things, and I’ll put them on because they’re homies or because I used to buy their stuff before.”
The first thing Keller remembers getting seeded was from was from a brand called A Rare Sight in July 2012. As trends and styles evolved, so did Keller’s own tastes—and the aesthetics of his videos. It isn’t uncommon to see AFA’s YouTube thumbnails co-opt the creepy, Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque typeface, now commonly associated with #BEEN #TRILL. Today, he’s seeded product from independent menswear designers like John Elliott Co. and Daniel Patrick, department stores like Nordstrom, and national footwear retailers like Champs and Finish Line.
Initially, he didn’t charge for promotion if he genuinely liked a product, but has since changed his tune. Keller makes $10,000 a year directly from AlwaysFreshApparel YouTube views, and sponsored content nets him an additional $15-$20,000 a year. With over 110,000 subscribers and close to 10 million views, he says his numbers back up his prices.
Like anyone who’s achieved a modicum of Internet fame, Keller’s attracted a cabal of very vocal critics and detractors, but he says it just comes with the territory. He certainly didn’t let it deter him from making a career out of being himself.
“People will talk. People will hate. The quicker you can accept that, the quicker you can become successful.”
In the summer of 2013, Keller featured Portland-based retail store Machus on his YouTube channel, interviewing owner Justin Machus last August. Shortly after, Keller began working weekends in the shop, handling everything from customer service to maintaining the product on the shelves. He’s also put Machus onto new brands he discovers online—like Premium Co. and Lease On Life Society—both of which are now carried in the store.
Keller loves the environment because he sees it as one of the few destinations in Portland that’s pushing boundaries of the city’s fashion culture. Portland is a city known more for readily embracing flannel shirts and hiking boots than genre-defying labels like Hood By Air, Public School, and ADYN. Keller claims he’s generated over $46,000 in sales for Machus and increased their social audience by 37 percent.
Last October, Keller combined the retail experience he learned at Machus with his knowledge of successful Internet branding for a project called Flan Naish. His best friend Alex Veltri designed 50 flannel shirts while Keller created a promotional campaign around the collaboration. It sold out in under an hour.
Keller followed that up with another collaboration around the holidays, teaming up with Lease On Life Society’s Everard Best on a six-piece capsule collection of oversized hoodies, distressed denim, and long sleeve T-shirts with an elongated bib. The hoodies and denim flew off the digital shelves, and the tees sold out in a matter of days.
Projects like these, and the continued success of AlwaysFreshApparel, gave Keller the opportunity to make a lot of connections. One of them was David Perry, owner of an up-and-coming athletic-inspired menswear brand called BLK RBN. Perry’s girlfriend was looking to fill a vacant position at Jordan Brand, and thought Keller would be an ideal candidate.
Keller then embarked on a series of interviews with Jordan Brand, using what he’d built with AlwaysFreshApparel as an example of what he was capable of. On March 13, he took to Twitter to announce he accepted the position of Global Brand Specialist at Jordan Brand.
“Growing up in Portland, it’s every kid’s dream,” gushes Keller. “And I’m extremely happy to be able to apply a fresh young perspective to a long standing company.”
The 23-year-old is still learning the ropes of his new gig, but his responsibilities are varied. One day he could be creating marketing decks, another preparing internal presentations, or maybe even getting a shot list together for an upcoming photoshoot. It’s the kind of dynamic environment that allows Keller to hone his already existing set of skills while developing new ones.
He knows his journey isn’t a typical one, and remains extremely grateful and humbled by all the support he’s gotten along the way. For similar kids who wish to follow in his footsteps, he suggests the best course of action may be forging a unique digital path of their own.
“Just be you. Show you. Post you. Embrace you,” suggests Keller. “I don’t ever want someone to be afraid or nervous about what they post on the Internet because they’re scared about what people might say.”