Chen Chen & Kai Williams Serpent Lighter Holder Trend 2023

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Retailer

About a month ago, while attending a preview for jewelry designer Millie Savage, I noticed a commotion on the other side of a display case that housed about $300 worth of cocaine scoops. The reason: a keychain hanging from another guest’s bag that looked like a metal snake coiled around a slim BIC lighter. A second participant said she saw three walking around town that day, to which the first replied sulkily that she would have to stop using hers.

Call it confirmation bias, but since that night I’ve also been seeing frequent appearances of the Serpent lighter holder designed by Chen Chen and Kai Williams from their collaboration with accessories brand KARA in 2018. In fact, after leaving the aforementioned event, I counted two more : one rocked a Fendi Baguette dupe and the other a mini-Kipling zip up. A third appeared outside Leo’s in Williamsburg, at what I like to imagine was after San Giuseppe, a cigarette break before soft serve.

When I started asking around to find out why this 3-inch stainless steel coil — it’s almost always the stainless steel version, though it’s available in brass — seems to have taken downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn by storm, everyone agreed that sometime in the last four months to a year, the word-of-mouth exposure and peer-to-peer copying that creates a trend has finally reached a saturation point. Unfortunately, no one could point to patient zero. (Coming Soon’s Fabiana Faria says she can’t recall ever seeing a celebrity post it.) But I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up my own observations.

“I’ve been to some art shows where there were definitely skate bros — who don’t carry bags — and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got one,'” says Sarah Lowe, founder and creative director of KARA. “It’s not particularly specific,” she continues, which may explain why it circulates in fashion, design, and yes, skate circles—different (but sometimes overlapping) scenes. Meanwhile, Chen says the design duo is tagged every other day on Instagram photos of the keychain by “Japanese teenagers with 100 followers.” (When I reviewed their tagged photos to see who else might have purchased the lighter holder, I confirmed that there a lot in pictures of preternaturally well-dressed Japanese youths—and some dudes from Engineered Garment, as well as a few women in tiny shirts and big pants.) My colleague Simone even spotted one in Cleveland at Cent’s, a pizzeria with an attached storefront; Vince Morelli, owner and former Bushwick resident, says it’s a bestseller.

Evan Scott, retail and merchandising manager at the Noguchi Museum Shop, which sells the key chain, attributes the popularity to the playful, clever design: “a snake polished down to its basic, abstract form” that makes an everyday object into a once more beautiful and more private from your unadorned self. (You choose the lighter color that shows through the mascara; Scott says pink and blue are the most popular at Noguchi.)

His aesthetic, Faria points out, is also very much in line with the swirling leak of Y2K revival we’re in right now—and with it, an upsurge in smoking against cigarettes. “I think people just want more of a physical connection with their objects because we live in this digital age,” Williams says. “And what is more physical than the ability to create fire?” Or more romantic. I don’t smoke (except outside Bosa), but I always carry one in case someone hot asks for a lighter. Even if they are jerks, at least the snake holder makes it much harder for them to collect your BIC.

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