Music merchandise is back, and everyone, from the pacesetting savants to luxury labels, is leaning way, way in.
Kanye West is in the middle of a dialogue with two radio hosts, about media pressure, at the launch of his new album Ye in June, when a disembodied voice interrupts. West listens, then reconfigures his face, meme-like, into a lock of stunned incredulity: off-camera, mega-manager Scooter Braun has delivered the news that he has sold half a million dollars of merchandise in 30 minutes. West finishes his drink.
This kind of turnover is what every fashion label, from streetwear upstart to elite French house, dreams of. Strangely, this particular merchandise of West’s isn’t for a concert tour – band name clearly demarcated in a bold typeface square in the middle of a T-shirt – it is for an album listening party. Indeed, acid-orange hoodies have exactly this printed on the back in lieu of the usual schedule of dates. Meet the new wave of music merchandise, tapping the deepest nerves in the cultural conscious and diversified so much since its beginnings in the 1960s that some might have trouble recognising it.
Take a long-sleeve jumper that reads simply: ‘I’m having your baby.’ That’s a Harry Styles tour T-shirt printed with his lyrics. Or a black T-shirt with a picture of a 50-year-old radio, accompanied by the words ‘Kar Audio Systems’. That’s British DJ and music director at Louis Vuitton Benji B’s latest collaboration with Arthur Kar, a Parisian car dealer who procures rare, vintage cars for a cadre of in-the-know clientele (West included), and who will be debuting the T-shirts at Paris men’s fashion week. Confused? That might just be the point.
Merchandise, once consisting mostly of T-shirts bought in car parks at shows, has metamorphosed into versions that draw together high fashion and tropes of streetwear in a single piece that can be as difficult to get as a wait-listed five-figure bag. These aren’t the rare vintage band T-shirts that now can clear upwards of $500 in dedicated boutiques (although this in itself is telling); this is the establishment of an aesthetic that belongs entirely to today and comes in a plethora of designs that express artists’ sensibilities in a whole new medium.
“Artists are becoming curatorial about their merchandise and look beyond the item itself,” says Shanu Walpita, founder of Futurewise Studio and a former youth editor at trend forecaster WGSN, who points to pop-up stores and more permanent bricks-and-mortar set-ups that sell artist’s merchandise far away from the foyers of concert halls and festival stalls on the standard tour circuit. “It’s evolved from a mere shout-out of a gig or artist to a symbol of status. It’s not so much about music merchandise influencing the fashion industry, rather, it’s about the convergence of music and fashion.”
Graeme Jack is head of Asia-Pacific at the Universal-owned Bravado agency, which works to pair artists and designers to develop anything from T-shirts to hoodies and full ready-to-wear lines that include leather jackets and silk shirts, a service that wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago. “What has changed is the level of sophistication and execution,” he observes. “The artists have a vision for their brand that is reflected in their music, videos and now merchandise. Nothing is just thrown together,” Jack says of an industry that grew 9.5 per cent year on year to be valued at USD$3.1 billion in 2016. “We can make a call tomorrow and within two weeks have a global program with pop-up stores activated around the world and have product placed with the world’s leading retailers.”
Hoodies can now be emblazoned with a single word, a number, a more subtle visual clue that might hint at an artist rather than scream their name, or, words are done away with altogether. Bravado created pieces by pairing artists like Justin Bieber, who worked with Jerry Lorenzo’s buzzy luxe-meets-street Fear of God label for his Purpose tour; Kanye West’s sold-out and much-copied The Life of Pablo merch was produced with artist and designer Cali Thornhill DeWitt; and the estate of Tupac joined forces with label 424 to create a line that was sold in Barney’s. Musicians are becoming the creative directors of their own merchandise that harnesses the design prowess of established designers while they move with the kind of agility Jack describes. It’s helped along with the simplicity of the starting product: a cotton T-shirt, a piece that both transcends seasonality and avoids the slowing drag of perfect technical execution. The rest are pressed to keep up.
And in case you thought it was happening solely on the backs of teenagers, look to the runway. In 2012 Nicolas Ghesquière set things in motion by rehashing Iron Maiden’s iconic searing red metal typography on a sweatshirt reading ‘Join a Weird Trip’ for Balenciaga. In 2015, Vetements and Balenciaga under Demna Gvasalia picked up the thread, borrowing from heavy-metal flame text and reworking Wiccan pentagons on conceptual hoodies, while houses like Loewe and Opening Ceremony are also borrowing from the design markers of the band shirt, using their own names printed on clothing. Over at Gucci, Alessandro Michele is working outside of his seasonal collections with Elton John. Dedicating an entire collection to the artist for spring/ summer ’18, he has now been enlisted by the piano man to make the costumes for his upcoming three-year farewell tour. Fans of Gucci or John – or both – can currently pre-order Levon tote bags for $4,900.
Then there’s newly anointed Louis Vuitton menswear creative director and Off-White founder Virgil Abloh. On the eve of his first-ever collection for the luxury house in June, he said that his rise, from aspiring design student to the go-to sage of designers, artists and rappers, had its roots in the merchandise T-shirt. He gave guests T-shirts printed with the date and place of the Louis Vuitton show,
“The artists have a vision for their brand that is reflected in their music, videos and now merchandise. Nothing is just thrown together”