NEW YORK, United States — You may have noticed them. On city streets, on high school campuses, and, more often than not, on Instagram: young people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with oversize block lettering on the chest, the back or running up the sleeves. “I Feel Like Pablo” or “Bigger Than Satan” or “Summer Sixteen”, the shirts read. Or, rather, announce. It’s a fashion statement and also a coded advertisement for their pop-cultural allegiances. It’s “merch”, and it’s everywhere.
The once lowly art of selling branded merchandise inside concert venues has become its own fashion-adjacent industry with numerous sub-categories. Musicians including Justin Bieber, Drake, Zayn Malik and Kanye West each offer promotional clothing lines that mimic the swaggering energy of streetwear and skate brands, while high-end labels including Vetements and Gucci playfully adopt the aesthetic to ironic effect. You can now find merch at fast fashion favourites including H&M and Zara. Media brands are even creating their own merchandise, from The New York Times to the indie magazine 032c and fashion-news website Fashionista. And so are religious organisations, most notably the Los Angeles-based Zoe Church, where influencers including Justin Bieber and model Hailey Baldwin attend events and services.
The significance of this moment in fashion can be felt in the way such influencers have embraced, and evolved, the merch movement. See: Miroslava Duma sporting a Google baseball cap, or Rihanna’s meta take on the trend, when she wore a shirt featuring herself wearing an “I’m with Her” Hillary Clinton T-shirt during last year’s election.
Of course, commercial merchandise is nothing new. Concert tees have long served a starring role in the wardrobes of certain style tribes, with fans of Metallica, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead wearing those items as regularly as a fashion fan dons a pair of Gucci loafers. And it has also always been a big business. In 1998, popular American group the Dave Matthews Band reportedly brought in $200,000 a day through merchandise sales alone. Pulling back, the numbers on the broader merch category are impressive. The global market for promotional products reached more than $21 billion in sales in 2016, up more than 2 percent from the year previous, according to trade organisation Promotional Products Association International. More than a third of those sales came from "wearables" — i.e., t-shirts, caps, jackets, etc.
For today’s consumer especially, merch is not just about associating oneself with a certain artist or tribe; it’s about associating oneself with the height of fashion. Consider Justin Bieber’s merchandising strategy during his 2016 tour. First, he offered the merch at his own concerts. Next, it was available at Barneys New York and then, finally, for the masses at Forever 21. (It should be noted that Bieber’s line was made in collaboration with designer Jerry Lorenzo of the well-regarded label Fear of God, giving it an extra whiff of street cred.)
The result? Influencers and editors who got hold of the street-style bait early on wore the hoodies and t-shirts all over Instagram. Those posts essentially served as free advertising for when the products finally hit the floor at Forever 21.
Merch represents the way in which fashion has become inexorably tied with pop culture, yes, but it also underscores the use of social media platforms like Instagram to visually express one’s values.
The movement has been financially fruitful as well. Bravado, the licensing division of Universal Music Group that handles Justin Bieber’s branded apparel amongst others, has seen significant growth. According to Variety, Bravado reported growth of 13 percent during its first-quarter earnings this year.
Last year, Vetements chief executive Guram Gvasalia told the New York Times that sales of its merch-driven line reached eight figures in just three years. Luxury conglomerate Kering called out Balenciaga's “excellent” performance — in part thanks to creative director Demna Gvasalia’s elevated take on merch for the house — as a reason for an 11.1 percent rise in revenue for its portfolio during the first quarter of its 2017 fiscal year. Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri garnered much press for the graphic t-shirts she showed during her spring 2017 show, which read “We Should All Be Feminists”. The bold statement was a risk that paid off. The shirts, which cost $710, sold out quickly — the proceeds of which went to charity — all of which helped fuel a 17 percent rise in sales at the house in the first quarter of this year.
You don’t want to saturate the market, experience a backlash and kill the brand. People get bored very easily nowadays.
For the fashion industry, the merch movement is a welcome antidote to a general consumer shift away from collecting things to collecting experiences. However, as with any trend, the block-letter look will eventually tire as consumers grow exhausted spending hundreds of dollars on screen-printed t-shirts. Therein lies the question: When will we reach peak merch?
“Merch fashion lines for artists will certainly carry and evolve,” says Sara Maggioni, director of retail and buying at the trend forecasting firm WGSN. “There’s too much money in it for them not to do it — for a little while, at least.” If anything, she says, the rise of merch has proven just how much the general public will buy into this type of branding, and clothing is just the beginning. “Supreme has already started to brand everything, from bricks to NYC metro cards, so anything can happen.”
“However, I do think that moderation is key,” Maggioni adds. “You don’t want to saturate the market, experience a sudden backlash and essentially kill the brand,” noting that even the beloved Supreme has gained detractors of late. “People get bored very easily nowadays.”
New approaches indicate that merch 2.0 could include deeper, more symbiotic partnerships between brands and celebrities. For example, Helmut Lang has tapped hip-hop artist Travis Scott for a collaborative capsule collection that, in theory, represents the ethos of both musician and fashion label. Bravado recently unveiled a collection created with the Los Angeles boutique Maxfield and the rock band Guns n’ Roses, featuring a “curated collection” using the band’s iconography but reinterpreted by Off-White’s Virgil Abloh and Palm Angels’ Francesco Ragazzi, and others. Forever 21 announced a collaboration with musician Future and streetwear label Cease & Desist.
Consumers are also developing their own merch, feeding into the remix culture so prevalent today in younger generations. Because there are no minimums for customisation today thanks to advancements in software and digital printing technology, small runs of personalised product can easily be made and distributed. Anything could be considered merch, from a t-shirt printed with one’s declarations on the President to beer cozies customised for a bachelorette party.
Consumers express status not just through purchases, but also through their statements and values.
A new wave of indie brands are also capitalising on the trend. Consider the retro graphic T-shirts from Monogram, the popular skate line Bianca Chandon and the flirty embroidered messages at Sporty and Rich, from the social influencer Emily Oberg who now serves as women’s creative lead at the streetwear brand Kith, as prime examples.
The rise of personal merch has equalled financial success for companies like Zazzle, the $300 million Silicon Valley-based customisation platform. Chicago-based custom apparel website Ript Apparel brings in $4 million in revenue annually. Teespring, which has raised $55 million since its founding in 2011, is fuelling small businesses like that of merch maker Benny Hsu, who claimed in 2016 that he was able to make $100,000 in just five months by selling product he manufactures via the customisation website.
Adriana Krasniansky, senior strategist at consultancy PSFK, sees two places the merch trend could go. First, after expressing their personal tastes, consumers may accelerate the ways in which they use clothing as a means of expressing more value-oriented messaging — think of the rise in shirts used as political dispatches in the post-Trump era. “A big thing we’re seeing is consumers express status not just through purchases, but also through their statements and values,” she says.
Krasniansky points to the fact that part of the popularity around merch is its tribal qualities. While merch is currently fashionable, it’s the community connected to it that makes it resonate emotionally. The next step is figuring out how to make those in-real-life experiences translate online. “We’re looking at the activation around merch. The built-in hype, getting people into queues or stores — that’s becoming more digital,” she says. “So we’re thinking about augmented reality: how do you create a pop-up that isn’t a physical pop-up? How do you create that community, like the sneaker line, in a digital space?”
As for longevity, it appears that we’ve not yet hit the trend’s apex. “I think we’re just ramping up,” says Robert Burke, chairman and CEO of Robert Burke Associates. “It hasn’t peaked yet but it’s certainly been prolific.” However, he also notes that the pendulum does swing, and it does so swiftly. “With anything that comes on strong, it also falls off quickly,” he says. “No one has a crystal ball, but I think when it becomes too much, people will start gravitating towards things that are easier on the eye.”
Editor's Note: This article was revised on August 29, 2017. A previous version of this article misstated that Vetements’ merch-driven line reached eight figures in seven years. This is incorrect. It was over a three-year period.