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11 August 2016

How tour merchandise became high fashion

Former Disney star Selena Gomez is selling paper-thin mesh bodysuits for hundreds of dollars apiece. How did we get here?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Have the worlds of music and fashion ever been so closely intertwined? Earlier this year, Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show captured a moment when it also functioned as the debuting of his latest album, The Life of Pablo – two distinct worlds colliding in one chaotic show. The last two years have seen collaborations between major artists and big labels (Kanye West’s work with Balmain, Rihanna’s lines with Puma, Dior and Manolo Blahnik), stars with their own fashion lines (Drake’s OVO, Beyoncé’s Ivy Park, West’s Yeezy), and trending tour shirts (Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour merchandise, West’s Yeezus tour range, Beyonce’s tongue-in-cheek tees). Former Disney star Selena Gomez is selling paper-thin mesh bodysuits designed with a hip vintage curator for over $200 a piece. How did we get here?

Selena Gomez x Sami Miro Vintage Bodysuits

Of course, band T-shirts have been a staple of dressed-down style since the Sixties, even if they hadn’t reached designer status. But once upon a time, the band T-shirt was just considered a passing trend. As Amber Easby and Henry Oliver write in The Art of the Band T-Shirt, “While Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Monkees all participated in early music merchandising, the T-shirt was one of many products for sale in their names. […] Along with Ringo wigs and toothbrushes, T-shirts were considered another fad.” That is, until promotor and entrepreneur Bill Graham had the idea of designing T-shirts specifically to be bought at music events, and founded Winterland Productions – which went on to become one of the most prominent merchandising companies in the US. It capitalised on the idea that you could wear your participation in a subculture.

Owning tour merchandise is now no longer a signal that you actually went to the artist’s tour: with many artists giving a far wider audience access to their merch via pop-up shops, websites, and collaborations with high street outlets. Rapper Future’s pop-up shop in LA was held at the same store that was previously home to hip-hop collective Odd Future’s clothing line. Beyoncé’s Ivy Park line was sold in Topshop, as well as alongside her Etsy- and fandom-influenced tour designs on her store.  

Vetements / The Life of Pablo merchandise

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Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour merchandise has been available to purchase not just at his tour venues and website, but at pop-up shops in trendy New York boutique VFiles, luxury department store Barneys and now Urban Outfitters. Despite this level of availability, the façade that this is specifically a product only owned by a person who has attended, or even worked at, the Bieber tour persists in the items of clothing themselves: they are branded with meta vocabulary, reading “TOUR MERCHANDISE”, “STAFF” or “SECURITY”. The short shelf lives of the internet age mean relevance is everything, and savvy merchandisers understand that people will pay through the nose for it.

One wave of tour merch also has a surprisingly specific and consistent aesthetic: grunge and metal influenced items in particular are having a revivial. Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus tour shirts arguably started a trend that was continued in his Life of Pablo merchandise from earlier this year – gothic lettering, dark colours, in-your-face graphics. Zayn Malik invited the illustrator Mark Wilkinson, who designed iconic album artwork for Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, to design T-shirts available to purchase from his online store. Justin Bieber’s metal-influenced tour shirts were designed by streetwear label Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo.

So when did heavy metal become cool again? In the last few years, metal aesthetics have become trendy. Movies are flirting with the subculture (2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road; the bizarre proliferation of biker leathers in Now You See Me 2; heavy metal concert scenes in Ghostbusters; the film Suicide Squad, which courts the early-2000s Hot Topic nu-metal vibe so intentionally the shop has a released a line of merchandise for the movie). Using “that’s so metal” as a form of high praise became a semi-ironic meme on social media. And, most notable of all, metal aesthetics are crowding music merchandise, even when the artists come from entirely different genres.

Zayn merch / Kanye West merch

The heavy metal look has been at the cornerstone of music fashion since the Seventies – but has been less prominent in more recent history. In 2002, Billboard reported that while “the standard black metal T-shirt still dominates tour merchandise sales”, music apparel trends was becoming increasingly marked by increased use of colour, more feminine shapes, and a more “mainstream” vibe: tight-fitting babydoll tees with rock band logos sold in Abercrombie & Fitch. Who can forget all those rhinestone-encrusted Rolling Stones shirts in Topshop?

Felix Sebacious, the then-president of Blue Grape Merchandising said: “If it’s doing well at retail, we put it on tour.” It was a move away from the masculine, generic-cut, black-with-gothic font aesthetic that had dominated tour merch for so long. Sebacious added: “Metal is always going to exist, but there are also always going to be cycles, and we’re seeing a cycle right now where it’s turning, and metal bands will take a back seat for a while.”

Fast forward to 2016, and the metal tour merch aesthetic is back in the driver’s seat. The aesthetic is a merging of metal, grunge rock and hip-hop. Jerry Lorenzo called his collaboration with Bieber a “perfect marriage of Kurt Cobain and Allen Iverson”. Rappers like Kanye West, Future and A$AP Rocky have done it best.

Midnight Studios / Kanye West merch

But this time around, it’s harder to tell whether merchandisers are taking their lead from fashion, or vice versa. And now, we’re seeing not just an exchange of ideas between music merchandisers and high street retailers, but musicians and high fashion designers. The masculine cuts, moody colour palettes and ornate gothic lettering of Yeezus merch dovetailed with a similar aesthetic on catwalks from fashion’s most high-profile streetwear labels: Vetements, Midnight Studios, Enfant Riches Déprimés. Now those worlds are deliberately colliding: Balmain collaborate with Kanye West, and Metallica have starred in a Brioni ad. After their success selling Bieber merch, US store Barneys is now retailing vintage metal tour shirts for hundreds – even thousands – of dollars. The look is androgynous, monochrome, oversized – crossing the divide between high and low fashion.

Will it last? By definition, no – the love triangle of music, commercialism and fashion is an uneasy one, and the cyclical nature of trends will see this latest feel corny within the next few seasons. But the development of tour merch from geeky badge of honour, to high street staple, to high fashion statement is an interesting one – and the relationship between music and fashion will doubtless continue to play out on the band T-shirt for years to come.

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