Fashion and music have long had a love affair, but the retailers cashing in on the relationship have only recently expanded beyond merch booths and mall stores. In the last five years, band tees have increasingly made their way into the inventory of luxury boutiques and department stores.
Under its Icons label, Barneys is currently selling “refreshed” vintage tees featuring John Lennon and Van Halen for $225 and $250, respectively. Retailers from Shopbop to Net-a-Porter are slinging Madeworn’s distressed-look Mötley Crüe and Metallica T-shirts for upward of $160.
On January 10, Bloomingdale’s is launching a six-week Music Is Universal pop-up in NYC, featuring limited-edition merch and events. Customers can shop $38 tees featuring Jimi Hendrix, Prince and Eminem, while listening to music spun by artist-director Vashtie.
“Our strategy is focused on providing unique, culturally relevant merchandise and experiences to our customer,” said Kevin Harter, Bloomingdale’s group vice president of integrated marketing. “We are aiming to create distinctive campaigns to enhance the customer experience.”
The activation is a collaboration with Universal Music Group’s merchandise management company, Bravado. It comes on the heels of a Bloomingdale’s and Bravado partnership in the summer, focused on the HBO documentary on Dr. Dre and music executive Jimmy Iovine, “The Defiant Ones.”
“As part of the program we had music-based merchandise, such as tees, sweatshirts and hats, which was incredibly well-received by our customer,” Harter said. “Based on the success of that collaboration we knew we could create a bigger, more robust activation.”
A rendering of Bloomingdale’s Music Is Universal pop-up
Band tees have been available outside the confines of concerts for decades: Hot Topic was selling shirts hyping alt bands Disturbed and Evanescence in the early aughts, and in 1998, vintage-inspired brand Junk Food launched with tees featuring groups like Kiss and Tom Petty. They’re still sold at Urban Outfitters and Revolve.
But the style saw a resurgence in 2013, thanks to Kanye West: For his Yeezus Tour, he linked with artist Wes Lang to create a line of tees and jackets with unconventional branding a higher price point. The collection was received like a streetwear drop, with fans clamoring to buy, and often resell, the pieces. In 2016, West followed up with Saint Pablo tour merch, to amplified fanfare. It reportedly did $780,000 in sales at the Madison Square Garden show alone.
“Merch was category that was begging to be reinvented,” said Kristin Petrizzo, youth culture editor at trend forecasting service Fashion Snoops. “[West] opened a whole new world. It’s no longer about a T-shirt, it’s about expressing yourself in a unique way. These are rare [items].”
A number of artists and retailers have since taken cues from West, turning merch into collectibles worthy of a luxury price tag. In 2016, Justin Bieber teamed with his stylist, Karla Welch, and Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo on merch for his Purpose tour that was sold at Barneys (for $95 to $1,675), before a version became available at Forever 21. Artists including Rihanna, Beyoncé, Zayn Malik and Selena Gomez followed suit with their own next-level releases.
Kim Kardashian in Saint Pablo tour merch (Image via instyle.com)
Just as fashion has influenced the music industry, merch has inspired designers: Vetements debuted a “justin4ever” hoodie on its Fall 2016 Paris runway that sold for more than $2,500. Though never released in stores, Dolce & Gabbana showed an “homage” tee splashed with a Justin Bieber headshot on its fall 2017 runway. Logoed Helmut Lang “Concert Tees” are now available at Neiman Marcus and Garmentory for $150 a pop.
The recent boom has been largely fueled by social media, with celebs showing support for their friends’ and significant others’ tours via Instagram. Bieber’s rumored flames, Hailey Baldwin and Sofia Richie, posted pics wearing Purpose Tour merch, Gigi Hadid has been spotted in tees topped with “Zayn,” Selena Gomez wore “The Weeknd” pieces repeatedly, the list goes on.
According to Promotional Products Association International, the global market for promotional products topped $21 billion in sales in 2016, with a third coming from “wearables.” And, while the threat looms, it seems the market has yet to reach a point of saturation.
According to Petrizzo, the sector is safe: “The concert tee will always exist. It won’t lose steam, but it will change and evolve. There’s a subculture aspect to it that makes it innately cool.”
As for the next wave of band merch, she’s predicting an obsession with vintage merch: “The more destroyed, the higher the price tag.”
A $475 tee by Tyranny and Mutation (image via tyrannyandmutation.com)
For now, among retailers, releasing limited-edition merch in collaboration with a popular artist is still good for a short-term payoff. And thanks to the luck they’ve had with these partnerships, some are making merch and related products part of a longer-term strategy.
“We’ve seen great success with concert tees, as well as merchandise like Beats headphones. And we’ve seen the impact of musician’s style on fashion, such as tracksuits leading to a surge in Adidas popularity,” said Harter. “Music is a universal element across age, gender and background. It has broad appeal.”
Image courtesy of Bloomingdale’s