Mu­sic mer­chan­dise is back, and ev­ery­one, from the pace­set­ting sa­vants to luxury la­bels, is lean­ing way, way in.

VOGUE Australia - - CONTENTS -

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”

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