It’s anything but low-key at the night show. Travis Scott is playing at New York’s Terminal 5, and Virgil Abloh—under his Flat White moniker—is opening with a DJ set. The sprawling dance floor of the venue is divided between the kids ready for the rodeo—closest to the stage, ready to mosh at moment’s notice—and a smattering of casual fans and certified washed-olds towards the back, away from the guaranteed pandemonium that will ensue as soon as Scott takes the stage.
Tonight also happens to be Travis Scott’s birthday. But at this moment, the place that’s popping the most is the merch stand.
A gaggle of concertgoers is huddled in front of a long table covered in black cloth, various “Birds Eye View” tour tees, hoodies, and hats hang behind it, from cobalt blue tees with a holographic print to purple tour hoodies that would soon end up on the body of Kylie Jenner—who happens to be here tonight, along with Jaden Smith, Sasha Lane, and other attendees of note.
Despite the fact that Virgil Abloh is spinning a mere few feet away from them, the kids seem decidedly more excited to get their hands on the exclusive merch he designed for tonight, having debuted a limited-edition hoodie on his Instagram just hours before.
The collaborative merch is a full sweatsuit, consisting of a hoodie and sweatpants featuring Scott's signature Bird's Eye View tour graphics spliced with Abloh's penchant for sans serif typefaces and ironic usage of quotation marks. There's also a coordinating T-shirt for completists. Nerds will fawn over the fact that the blanks used are Champion Reverse Weave, the sportswear manufacturer's line of high-end knits that hits all the right notes that get vintage heads to salivate.
How did we get to this point—when merch wasn't a way to commemorate the show, but a main event unto itself? While there has always been a certain affinity for music merchandise and band T-shirts, vintage Metallica and Slayer tees have since been reproduced for modern consumers, causing some to declare the fad officially dead. But as far as a rap music is concerned, only recently have tees become a mass-market trend. Vintage versions are highly sought-after, and can demand a hefty price. According to DJ Ross One, who quite literally wrote the definitive book on rap tees, that rarity comes from the fact that for the most part, hip-hop culture didn't really understand how to successfully market itself through merchandise.
"Hip-hop in general through the ’90s was really bad at doing merch, especially for concerts," he remembers. But he does admit certain artists foresaw the value of merch early on, citing Chuck D of Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and Naughty By Nature as early pioneers. In many cases, merch wasn't picked up as a memento at a concert, but ordered through catalogs and CD liner notes, as was the case with Naughty By Nature's Naughty Wear line.
But now, the physical interactions between listeners and artists are diminishing in favor of virtual ones. You can't really brag about your record collection when it exists in the cloud instead of on a shelf. And for artists, the digitalization of their careers means it's even more important to tell a consistent story through multiple platforms, not just through an album, but also through Instagram, concerts, and yes, merchandise.
That's where Bravado comes in. Founded in 1997 by Keith and Barry Drinkwater, the music merchandise company was acquired by Universal Music Group in 2007. Their artist roster includes classic bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and modern heavyweights like Travis Scott, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, and Kanye West. Mat Vlasic, who has served as the CEO since March 2016, understands the importance of leveraging an artist's platform as an omni-channel brand.
He points out that in the past, artists could express themselves in other ways, like CD packaging, but as the industry has evolved, so have their creative responsibilities.
"More than ever, an artist has to focus 100% on every single aspect of their business," says Vlasic. "10 or 15 years ago, you could focus on the music. If you didn't want to think about how your brand was portrayed in apparel, or other consumer products, you didn't have to."
For Bravado, business is booming—to the tune of reported revenues of 313 million euros in 2016, up 13.4% from the previous year. Events and concerts are currently where Bravado converts the most sales by person.
"You got 70,000 people in a stadium that are super excited coming into the show, and even more excited coming out of the show, and you're exiting through the gift shop," explains Vlasic.
But where Bravado is changing the game is by taking merch beyond the stadium setting, orchestrating 21 global pop-up shops for Kanye West's The Life of Pablo project, bringing Justin Bieber's Purpose tour merch (designed by Jerry Lorenzo) into fashion boutiques like Barneys and VFILES, and partnering with VLONE to create a Tupac Shakur-inspired cafe in New York's Lower East Side, replete with exclusive collabs. Most recently, Bravado ventured out of music to create merch for Dave Chappelle's Radio City Music Hall residency, designed by Heron Preston. "The Virgil/Travis thing was super-organic. because they're both natural collaborators, and obviously friends too," says Charlie Mangan, a Senior Product Manager at Bravado. "Virgil is opening for Travis. Virgil hits him with the three limited pieces. It causes hysteria, but it also supports Travis and Virgil's brands. The merchandise is an extension of OFF-WHITE, and the bird stuff is an extension of Bird's Eye View. So those things add clout to the other products. If I can't get the Virgil hoodie, I still want the Bird's Eye View hoodie, because I want to show my affinity for Travis Scott." These types of creative partnerships make sense to Vlasic, because he reasons that if artists are going to spend countless hours and creative energy forging their sound and the visuals of their live show, it's only natural that they would have an equally discerning lens to their merchandise. In working with cultural heavy-hitters like Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo, and Heron Preston, Bravado taps into the hype cycle of limited-edition collaborations and the ephemeral nature of a concert or pop-up shop to create demand for their product.
"The origin point is always the artist," asserts Mangan. "There's no merch business if you don't have the music to lead it, but the artist is driving the creative more and more."
That's definitely the case with artists like Travis Scott, Kanye West, and The Weeknd, for whom Mangan recently oversaw a collaboration with Futura. Now Bravado is branching out even further, not just with pop-up shops and comedians like Dave Chappelle, but high-end installations with some of their more tenured artists. Last weekend, Bravado launched a new shop-in-shop at Los Angeles boutique Maxfield to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Guns N' Roses' debut album, Appetite for Destruction. To mark the occasion, Bravado tapped a roster of designers for their own interpretations of the band's style. The brands include MadeWorn, AMIRI, Kelly Cole, Palm Angels, Enfant Riches Déprimés, and OFF-WHITE.
Virgil Abloh's contributions include an homage to Axel Rose's signature red bandana, done up in the brand's recognizable iconography and a screenprinted "BANDANA" in quotes. Abloh even goes deep, making a shirt emblazoned with the slogan "NOBODY KNOWS I'M A LESBIAN," reproducing a tee Rose wore in the '90s, but now with the added text "OFF-WHITE c/o VIRGIL ABLOH," of course.
"I like to look at it as more of a collaborative partnership than a license," says Vlasic. "To me a license is just kind of like: give me a check, you can take this, go slap it on whatever you can find, and send me a royalty statement. Whereas in the partnerships, we've gone in representing the artist's brand, sat down and figured out how we'd work together. What makes sense? Where are the creative synergies? How do we talk to your fan base? How do you talk to our fan base?"
Vlasic sees this space as a place where Bravado can really grow. It's where they're able to leverage the brand an artist has, and explore how they can expand it from a retail standpoint. Mangan says they already tier the product to different retailers, which is why you can find Bravado artist merch everywhere from Forever 21 to Urban Outfitters, but the high-end collaborations speak to an entirely different, more discerning audience. It's their version of a prestigious Nike collab that boosts awareness and demand for the general release model. And while Bravado's current partnerships have been focused on apparel, Vlasic sees a future where artists' brands extend beyond what fans put on their body, but also in their body.
"Why can't we do more things in food and beverage? Why can't we do more things in travel and leisure?," he asks. "That's a definite focus for us right now because it's a lifestyle at the end of the day. The Rolling Stones is a lifestyle. The Beatles is a lifestyle. The Doors are a lifestyle. Travis Scott is a lifestyle. There are lifestyles in all of those things, and we want to be able to have an infrastructure that can help build those."
While Justin Bieber or Travis Scott restaurants may be in the pipeline, Vlasic doesn't see the merch wave cresting anytime soon. He points out how much more dedicated fans have become—not just in music, but other entertainment properties like Star Wars, Marvel, and Disney (all of which happen to be owned by the same company). We live in a saturated paradigm where fans of a brand are just waiting for the next thing to consume, whether it's a film, television series, or album. Hype has evolved beyond apparel and into pretty much anything people are passionate about.
According to Vlasic, the common thread tying all these disparate things together is great storytelling. That's what keeps people hooked, and it's why they can get as excited over a trailer as they would a photo of an upcoming product. Bravado is helping its artists build a universe that fans can buy into, but as a result, Ross One isn't quite sure of how long the products can stay relevant. "These guys are experts at creating hype," he says. "It's a little bit more of a frenzy, and so I don't know what it will be in 20 years if you look back." But perhaps sentimental value still outweighs aftermarket value. At the end of the day, these products are reminders of specific moments that have left an impact on the wearer—regardless of whether or not you were actually able to attend the concert or pop-up. For plenty of fans, having a physical way to interact with an artist, even if it's as simple as putting a T-shirt on, is enough. "What it comes down to is if you're a fan and you love the music, you should go out and buy a shirt and rep it," says Ross One. "Because there's a good likelihood it will mean something to you down the road."
Now read why streetwear’s sexist imagery is letting the whole scene down (NSFW).