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What’s Next for the Merch Shirt?

A miniature purse is among one of the most coveted luxury items in the market, sneaker resale is a viable income for some and “tribes” are formed on the long lines outside Kith and Supreme.

Some may say we’re living in strange times, but these generational shifts in how people acquire fashion is striking up excitement and buzz. And the rise of commemorative apparel may be one of the most interesting.

The reinvented concert tee, or “merch” as it goes by now, is reaching peak status this summer with merch-friendly musicians like Ariana Grande and Travis Scott on tour, and a calendar of music festivals on deck. The trend that began to percolate with Kanye West’s 2013 “Yeezus” tour is now part of most popular musicians arsenal of money-making extracurricular activities. In April, Taylor Swift teased fans ahead of the release of her latest single “ME!” by wearing her own glittery merch, while Beyoncé marked the release of her Netflix special, “Homecoming,” with pricey T-shirts and hoodies inspired by the 2018 Coachella—exactly one year after the performance.

And everyone wants a piece of merch pie, including cultural institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

To commemorate its latest exhibit, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the museum enlisted 14 labels to design exclusive apparel, accessories and items that would typically be considered tchotchkes, but aren’t because they were designed by Moschino and Gucci. Met merch spans $65 Marc Jacobs key chains to $330 co-branded Off-White and The Met tees, with some of the more absurd items being a pearl-embellished face mask by Blindness Fashion and Vaquera’s $155 “sock bag” made out of a single white crew sock.

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offwhite tee
Off-White tee for The Met The Met

While The Met’s move into merch may just be a campy take on fashion’s thirst for exclusive and ironic fashion, the merch trend, in general, speaks volumes about young consumerism. And one of the most recent iteration of merch—the church clothes sold at Kanye West’s 2019 Coachella Easter Sunday service—may be indicative of where the niche category is heading and might explain how absurd it has all become, says Brian Trunzo, Informa’s newly appointed lead sales for menswear.

When West hosted “Sunday Service at the Mountain” during the festival, a traveling version of the musical service he regularly hosts for friends and family, he brought with it its signature monochromatic uniform of Yeezy-approved basics. Attendees looking for a dose of spirituality got hit hard with opportunities to purchase commemorative merchandise at “Church Clothes” tents, including $50 socks with the words “Church Socks” and “Jesus Walks,” a $225 tie-dye sweatshirt with the words “Holy Spirit” on the front and a beige “Trust God” T-shirt for $70.

Critics and some Coachella goers were less enthralled. Attendees took to Twitter to express their dismay about the high price tags, while The New Yorker described the service as “full of longing and self-promotion.”

But that’s what merch ultimately is, Trunzo says—profit-making self-promotion for the artist and wearable self-promotion for the Gen Z or millennial who wants everyone else to know that they experienced the event. Merch, he says, represents the wearer’s knowledge of the subject and participation in a tribe. And owning merch, he adds, is a subtle sign of luxury. While the tees are affordable for the most part, the price of admission to the event is often high. “Paying your dues—to know that the show was worthy to attend—and then wait in line for item are softer signs of luxury,” Trunzo explained.

The merch shirt itself has evolved from Iron Maiden concert tees from the ’80s, thanks in part to influential artists/designers like West. The new aesthetic, which Trunzo says is typically based on typography and amateurish designs, is being adopted by designers as well. “In years past, designers would scoff at the idea of merch, but now we see designers incorporating graphics on entry level products like tees and sweatshirts,” Trunzo said.

Off-White is a leader in this space, offering 30 styles of men’s screen-printed sweatshirts (retailing for more than $500 each) on its website. Balenciaga struck the right chord with tees and hats adorned with its 2017 campaign logo—a dead ringer of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign logo. Other designers have embraced merch as a way to enhance their branding, particularly for a younger consumer. “Prada and Louis Vuitton are really good examples of how each collection is graphically designed with a merch feel,” Trunzo said. “The collections are very identifiable.”

So, what’s left in merch? Now that the “everyman” has access to this level of design, Trunzo expects a slowdown in the merch category. However, the trend may live on through the OG of merch makers—The Grateful Dead and its allegiance of deadheads. The legendary rock band is back on tour this summer and its signature aesthetic of tie-dye and embroidery is right on track with the direction another Gen Z trend, Dadcore, is heading.

“[This merch aesthetic] touches on the great outdoors and the Pacific Northwest, which has captivated some of the progressive designs,” Trunzo said.