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Justin Bieber wearing his own merch on the
Justin Bieber wearing his own merch on the
Jeff Kravitz/Getty

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What the Music Industry Can Teach Fashion About Selling Clothes

There's no celebrity fashion line quite like merch

I don't know how Kanye's merch is so good but his actual fashion line is so garbage." David Turner, a writer for MTV News, is trying to make sense of the pandemonium around Kanye's The Life of Pablo T-shirts and baseball hats. It's late spring and the weekend prior ‘Ye held a pop-up shop in downtown Manhattan stocking, singularly, TLOP merch. Wooster Street was subsequently flooded with fans — shoppers — waiting in block-winding lines to push through the doors of a storefront that was open cumulatively for 20 hours. "His merch does what he says his fashion line does: it's for the people, and it's at prices that are reasonable," Turner argues, making note of one of the biggest critiques of the rapper's Yeezy collection. "The only difference is the merch is more exclusive."

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He's not wrong. While Yeezy Season 1's $625 duck boots and $2,600 sweaters have been discounted since January (and are still easy to track down, even at 60% off), TLOP merch incites crowds ready to slurp up printed Gildan tees and modified Levi's jean jackets.

In part, the success is thanks to a significantly lower point of entry to get a slice of Kanye, with prices starting at $40 for a hat, and topping out at $400 for outerwear. That's not the only notable component getting fans to pop their wallets open, though. Through savvy retail practices like city-specific exclusives, limited runs, pop-up shops, and damn appealing aesthetics, Kanye is leading the transition of tour merch from articles of clothing — tees, hoodies, baseball hats — to bonafide fashion. And with sell-through rates any Gap or Burberry would dream to call their own, it's worth a deeper look at how Kanye and handful of other top artists are architecting off-the-charts shopping hype, on the road and off.

"Ten years ago, merch was 100% event-driven," Mat Vlasic, CEO of the Universal Music Group-owned merchandising company Bravado tells Racked. "You were buying a token to show you were at this specific event at this specific time," he says, referencing the typical concert tee, loaded with chronological tour dates on the back and a band logo or the likeness of an artist's face on the front. "Tour merch was the low-hanging fruit of the fashion statement," agrees Willie Esco, a fashion and music industry veteran now working as creative director of both Coogi and Invisible Bully, the later of which collaborated with Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Entertainment label to execute a merch pop-up shop in Manhattan this spring.

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz /Getty

The history of tour merch is fuzzy. Give or take, it begins with bobby-soxers embroidering names of their favorite singers across their jackets in the 1940s. Commercial band tees cropped up in the ‘60s, The Beatles among the acts to jump on the money-making opportunity. The golden era — or, the first one, considering what's available at a show this summer — was the 1970s. Groups like The Grateful Dead, KISS, and The Ramones offered messages in their music and their aesthetic that fans wanted to be associated with, be it tie-dyed hippiedom or high-contrast punk rock. "Merch, like band or tour tees, are the simplest form of expression for fans," Esco says. Like blue jeans and leather jackets, a provocative band tee has the social currency to become a fashion classic.

"Kanye's merchandise says something about you as a person," Turner contends. He's not universally beloved, and to pledge your allegiance via tee means you stand on the "genius" side of Kanye is a genius vs. Kanye is an asshole (it's a very stark line and there are only two types of people in this world).

The sharp angled, symmetrical, instantly-recognizable Metallica logo was the acknowledged point of reference for Kanye's 2013 Yeezus merch, the modern-day bar raising of the tour tee. We first knew and loved Kanye for samples; his spinning of a recognizable visual felt like a continuation of this. The heavy metal look made sense for the album, as Yeezus was aggressive, angry, and politically-tinged. "Rap is the new rock ‘n roll," Kanye declared in an interview with BBC that summer. "We're the new rock stars and I'm the biggest of them all. I'm the number one rock star on the planet."

Yeezus merch was sold at pop-up shops in LA, NYC, and Chicago, with exclusive styles designed for shows in Australia and a series of festival dates; there was even a collection for PacSun. "That was the first time I saw a merch set as streetwear," Turner says of the heavy metal-derivative shirts and oversized logo bomber jackets.

This was more than a memory from a concert to be worn for gym time or bed; these were clothes people wanted to wear. "Kanye's style became imitable," Turner says of this moment, defined by slim jeans and extra-long T-shirts. "It trickled quickly, and fast fashion caught up with him. The Yeezus merch was perfectly timed," he says, because it basically beat the knock-offs at their own game by being affordable and authentic.

"Merch has evolved to a fashion statement," Vlasic says. Artists like Kanye, Bieber, Rihanna, and even Beyoncé work within aesthetic borders that unite all of the product they offer in to what looks like a cohesive collection around the album or tour. If the artist is the designer and tour is their flagship store, merch is the seasonal collection.

"Contrarian" is trending, even if these are some of the most-agreed-upon people on the planet: Bieber sells a shirt that reads "Bigger Than Satan" above his name, Rihanna has a hat that reads "Most Likely Not to Give a Fuck" at her Anti shows, and Bey made merch out of the "Boycott Beyoncé" slogan that arose (and quickly fizzled) around her Super Bowl performance. Identifying with something that fights back is as powerful now as it was with The Dead or The Ramones. Any "It" brand a shopper wants to be associated with, and proudly show off — VFiles, Alexander Wang, even subtle Celine — have a message and lend the wearer instant subtext to the outside world.

Successful merch mimics the fervor of a Supreme drop or a Nike release. Buy it now or never (well, maybe But It Now on eBay at some point, but probably for a lot more money). "There's a pepped-up drive to get things that aren't as accessible as what's hanging in the store," Vlasic explains of current shopper attitudes. Limited edition product and availability work in this climate, something that's innate to the DNA of tour merch. "In a way, a merch booth was the first carnation of a pop-up. One night and it's gone."

Real pop-up shops, staged miles from the venue and somes weeks from the local show date, have been a key technique for modern merch sales. The Flaming Lips opened in LA for one day in 2009, while One Direction toured its temporary "1D World" stores in 28 cities from 2012 to 2013. Drake held synchronized shops in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto in September 2013 for Nothing Was the Same promotion, shortly before the Yeezus pop-ups.

In fashion land, short-term retail has significantly cooled off thanks to oversaturation. Everyone from Hermès to Sprite had a pop-up shop at one point or another and shoppers became unfazed by the attraction. Breaking all rules, pop-up merch stores have inexplicitly flourished this year: Drake, Kanye, Justin Bieber, Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Entertainment, The 1975, and The Strokes have all operated at least one storefront in 2016. Esco says he had to push for the pop-up when the Invisible Bully team was working with Bad Boy on merch. "Once they saw Kanye's, they got it," he said. And it paid off: "The traffic was incredible. I haven't seen anything like that in a long time."

thanks Justin xx #12mercer

A photo posted by VFILES (@vfiles) on

"Pop-ups are doing well," agrees Vlasic, whose company helped Bieber, The 1975, and The Strokes execute stores. "They're all a bit different in nature; some are more retail-driven, others are about stepping in the creative vibes of the artist," he says, adding, "the reality is that there isn't a retail environment for [merch], just from a margin perspective. Merch is a meaningful revenue stream; spending time elevating the quality of the product and creating unique environments to sell that your fans wants to be part of are all going to help grow your business." The album, the tour, and the tees are all part of the brand. "Nothing happens in isolation," Vlasic says. "It's all created together."

While details like store design and duration vary, fan interest is stoked by lack of information — and advance notice. Questions about what might be sold, if the artist will show up, what can a fan do to get off of work and make it down there, like, now create the kind of anxiety that's great for determined shopping. Merch shops, including their online components, seem to have nailed the sensitive gap between when to show off new product and when to make it available to buy, something fashion brands have been flailing with ever since TwitPic opened Fashion Week to everyone.

Beyoncé doesn't give her fans any notice, and they freak out every time. Unannounced releases have become part of the Beyoncé brand, dating back to the 2013 execution of the star's self-titled visual album. Team Beyoncé quickly supplied fans with the opportunity to buy crewneck sweatshirts and T-shirts in black with pink text, replicating the album cover in clothing form; a probably-unintended metaphor for the fact that no one was going to pick up a physical copy of the album, a cool shirt as the tangible stand-in.

The moment after Beyoncé released "Formation," was live with song-specific merch: a tote bag with the lyric "I got hot sauce in my bag," a sweatshirt declaring "I twirl on my haters." The drop of the track itself was a surprise release, smartly timed to a Saturday afternoon in February with no competing cultural events, though no accident: the next day was the Super Bowl, where Bey would play "Formation" during halftime immediately followed by a commercial announcing the corresponding world tour. Every platform of digital expression swelled with excitement. With merch at the ready, stimulated fans could instantly order a physical token of their alignment with the song-turned-moment.

Similarly betting on moment's-notice enthusiasm, Drake gave fans just under two hours warning for the opening of his one-day-only Views pop-up shop. Beyond time (4pm) and date ("TODAY"), the only details provided were an address and the fact that it was sponsored by Beats. Beats, of course, is an audio electronics company owned by Apple, with whom Drake has a partnership (the album, released April 29, was exclusive to Apple Music for its first week).

With the energy sparked in New York, Views & Co. brought a surprise storefront to Miami the next day, and LA a few days later. The shops, and their Views-emblazed tees, were purely promotional; everything inside was free. Essentially, Drake ran a "surprise and delight" marketing campaign.

Having merch exclusive to the location, but consistent with the aesthetic, is another powerful "now or never" tension to bolster sales. Justin Bieber's Purpose Tour merch took over New York City's VFiles in May, there were two hoodie styles exclusive to the shop as well as a denim jacket produced in the very-limited run of exactly five (all were sold to VFiles friends and family before the store even opened). A special run of Brooklyn tour shirts were made available, too, shoppable only at the store and — of course — the actual shows. Each TLOP stop, including shows, has featured merch not available anywhere else but always in the recognizable, Cali DeWitt-designed style consistent with the rest of the merch.

King of all, though, is the fact that the actual product looks fresh and feels now. Following years of high contrast, black-on-white minimalism and sans-serif fonts, the chunky, Gothic lettering on TLOP merch and its analogous colorways make the eye pop. Bieber's Lorenzo-designed merch swirls heavy metal iconography with an early-aughts extreme sports layout and the singer's lyrics into pieces that have familiar touchstones but, wholly, are unique. "Hey, I don't have anything that looks like that," is a good way to get a wallet open.

The new era of merch allows fans to wear their favorite artist's taste level, and not just a picture of their face. Get a shirt from an artist Kanye's obsessed with, and clothes by the guy helping Justin transition his image from pop star to spoiled nuisance to fashionable apologist. Selena Gomez is practically providing Halloween costumes of herself at the merch booth, selling temporary tattoos that replicate all seven of her real tattoos, jean shorts and a Calvin Klein-esque sports bra she's modeled on Instagram, and a silky bowling jacket with "S. Gomez" embroidered in script over the heart. Today's merch lets you step inside the style of your favorite artist in a way that celebrity fashion lines promise, but don't always deliver. Merch gets a hall pass in the corridors of fashion because it isn't on a pedestal of art and design: Justin Bieber x Fear of God would be up for critique, while Jerry Lorenzo-designed Bieber merch is an unexpected treat.

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