HOW THE MERCH BOOM BUILT NEW STYLE TRIBES
Main image: @esmolin
Who else is nostalgic for the days were one would - in a thoughtfully planned outfit - join legions of peers swimming through booth after booth of counterfeit t-shirts, caps, and hoodies and filter into a venue pulsating with pre-concert buzz, before everything was “selfie or it didn’t happen,” when the same frenzy applied for concert merch? If you didn’t buy tour merch, did you really go? Merch - which was once reserved for the participants of the experience, fan club mail-in specials, or loyal inner sanctum - has now become its own fashion adjacent, multi-tiered, billion dollar industry.
Merch culture is by no means anything new. Concert tees, band merch, and affiliated memorabilia exploded with the global success of the Beatles. Beatlemania in its peak (between 1963 and 1965) boasted merch in nearly every form: shirts, dresses, shoes, jumpers, pins, hairclips, wigs, school supplies, trading cards, handbags, jewellery, and so so much more turned promotional merchandise into a complete category of its own. Pretty soon, every major artist, band, even TV program churned out millions of promotional products to piggyback off of Beatlemania. As the 60s turned into the 70s/80s, band and concert tees became staples in certain style tribes - especially those who worshipped the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, AC/DC, Metallica, and Iron Maiden.
The underlying ethos of merch culture began as a way for members of subversive communities to express themselves and their interests, and to attract like-minded peers. The Internet, and more specifically social media, has allowed those small, scattered communities to merge, elevate, and break into the mainstream. No longer do you actually have to attend a concert to purchase merch - it’s all available online. It’s also given brands, artists, companies, influencers, and bands the platform to sell their “full experience.” Brands - like Glossier, Gucci, and Vêtements - create an entire atmosphere, energy, and universe around themselves as much as their products. Through social media, advertisements, shows, and campaigns, brands like these invite people to join and subscribe to the ideas of their world (and then announce it with a t-shirt, tote bag, or stickers to emblazon their laptop with).
Many artists are taking this brand-like, all-immersive approach to merchandising, further blurring the lines between fashion and promotion. Kanye West, Drake, and Zayn Malik have each opted for full-on clothing lines instead of the classic tees, pins, and tour booklets. Sister trio HAIM inject their wit and coolness into their coveted tees, Selena Gomez collaborated with Sami Mira Vintage to create a collection of $200 mesh bodysuits, Lady Gaga created a capsule collection for Macy’s to promote her album “Joanne," and The Weeknd held an exclusive partnership with H&M. British band The 1975 turned the pop-up shop into a not-to-miss event in 2016, with around the block queues, and dropped limited edition tees, dad caps, hoodies, and hand painted leather jackets. Even media brands have joined the merch bandwagon with the New York Times, Pod Save America, Marvel Studios, Teen Vogue x Urban Outfitters, and many more. It’s quite a reflection of our times that artists, bands, and even actors and models are not just people with crafts, but with a trademarked monetizable brand.
The commercial success of promotional merch, as well as the meteoric rise of merch/high fashion hybrids like Supreme, Off-White, and the aforementioned Vêtements, has cycled back to influence established fashion labels. Sometimes, it comes in the form of official counterfeit-esque pieces. Take Christopher Bailey’s final collection with Burberry where the brand is referred to as “Burberrys” throughout, or Alessandro Michele’s embrace of the various counterfeit spellings like “Guccy,” use of popular cartoons and logos, as well as reference to Dapper Dan. Balenciaga took logo inspiration from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign while Fendi collaborated with Fila to merge their two iconic logos. All have adopted a street wear sensibility, yet are still steeped in expensive exclusivity.
As much as it’s about branding and all the work that goes in at the top, the grassroots influence of subversive style influencers is what drives the appeal of merch and establishes trendiness among the masses. Seeing girls like Kicki Yang Zhang, Annie Friberg, Krysten Bates, and Yuki Haze sport nostalgic 90s band merch, or online publication-slash-shop Fashion Fuckery’s merch-heavy high street style inspiration and adjacent Instagram account @streetwear, disseminates this interest from the masses up.
Proof of the branding and marketing’s success lie in the numbers. Promotional products on the global market reached more than $21 billion in sales in 2016, according to Promotional Products Association International, with more than a third of which coming from “wearables” (caps, tees, jackets, hoodies - you get the idea). Chief executive of Vêtements, Guram Gvasalia, told the New York Times that the line’s sales reached eight-figures within only three years. When Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia took the reigns at Balenciaga, pushing the legendary brand to a much more anti-high fashion, merch-heavy place, revenue rose 11.1% during the first quarter of their 2017 fiscal year. Dior saw a 17% rise during their first quarter, thanks in large to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s graphic rebranding and those buzzy “We Should All Be Feminist” tees. The merch boom has also benefited custom apparel companies; take Zazzle, for example, an estimated $300 million customization platform, or Teespring, which earned $55 million since its genesis in 2011.
These impressive numbers have people in the industry asking, “When will the bubble burst?” That’s tough to say, because merch’s accessibility is probably its greatest (and most enduring) strength. It can be created at someone’s kitchen table, or in someone’s basement, and make as big of an impact as something Vigil Abloh could sell. Have a civic cause? You can merch it. A favourite beauty brand? Show your love with DIY merch. Just form an band? Merch it. Got a podcast? Merch that. Its adaptability, connectivity, and transcendence are what have and will keep merch culture alive.
And yet, so much of our modern merch culture and much of what I’ve spoken on so far, is prime commercialism. What’s worse? It feeds on our emotions. For true fans, they will buy or create merch because they hold an emotional investment in the brand, artist, group, etc. that the merch represents, be them tangibly real or broadly ideological. It unlocks an instinctually pack-like need in us all, to coalesce and uplift. In a time where finding your tribe and expressing your interests is so vital and healing, merch has created a materialist outlet for that communal energy. When the aesthetic of the culture becomes “cool,” it then turns from purely connective, to mainstream and homogenising, undermining what it was born to do in the first place.