Justin Bieber announced his new streetwear brand last week. At a first glance, Drew House looks like an algorithmically generated mash-up of YEEZY and Chinatown Market. Muted colorways with a smiley face, this trend plus that trend. To no one’s surprise, practically everything in the first drop sold out — as will the next drop and the one after that ad infinitum.
Even more recently, the daughter of notorious Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán announced a new clothing label named El Chapo 701 after her old man. It seems everyone is a brand nowadays, be they famous or infamous.
The fact a pop star as bankable as Bieber has dropped his own brand says something about how today’s rich and famous stay, well, rich and famous. It’s what WGSN senior consultant and trend forecaster Brian Trunzo calls “passive income” and is a given for any artist trying to keep the money flowing when streaming services and illegal downloading have killed the record royalties model of income. Concert prices have skyrocketed and music merch has been remodeled away from being a mere perk of attending a live gig into a fashion trend (see the unlikely Grateful Dead renaissance) and an integral part of an artist’s income.
“Passive income is setting up an enterprise where, as a celebrity, the goodwill behind your name and your brand does all the heavy lifting and you outsource the real work to someone who knows what they’re doing,” says Trunzo. “You know, clothing manufacture, marketing agency, whoever else you need to distribute.
“If I was an artist touring the world, performing five nights a week, on a bus and on an airplane non-stop, I’d be thinking about my physical and mental health and energy levels. The amount of work that goes into making that sort of money versus scaling back, having more time to myself, and creating a passive enterprise like a clothing label, where I can use my celebrity to sell products — 10 times out of 10, I’m gonna try find that perfect blend where the passive income can match my day job.”
Having a separate business has become near-essential for a celebrity. Rihanna has Fenty, Kanye has YEEZY, Beyoncé has IVY PARK, A$AP Rocky has AWGE, Drake has OVO, The Weeknd has XO, Emily Ratajkowski has BODY, Gwyneth Paltrow has controversial wellness brand goop, and former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen shunned the limelight to launch uber-luxe fashion line The Row in 2006. The list goes on.
And it’s not just clothes. For example, Azealia Banks’ CHEAPYXO line sells soap especially for your asshole.
So, is the celebrity-turned-CEO thing symptomatic of our times? “I wouldn’t say this is a new thing,” says Trunzo. “In the early to late ’90s, we saw a rise — specifically hip-hop-inspired — in what was then called ‘urban wear,’ starting with Wu-Tang and moving on to Russell Simmons with Phat Farm, P. Diddy with Sean John, and JAY-Z with Rocawear. Then with the 2000s, it was 50 Cent and G-Unit, Eminem with Shady, and André 3000 with Benjamin Bixby.”
The earlier artist brands were something of a testing ground, with haphazardly managed labels that no one really wears anymore, except maybe in an ironic way. Today’s labels are managed more professionally.
“I think the right people are involved [today], and I think they are setting themselves up for more longevity and success by being a bit more well-considered,” says Trunzo. “Back then, a lot of these lines either folded or went through bankruptcies or changed hands multiple times because they were so mismanaged. I think today is just a better, more well-oiled machine.” Another new factor that radically improves the mechanics of launching your own brand is social media.
The goods being sold are essentially still just merch, only these days this elevated merch might be the most lucrative and easiest source of income for an artist. “I think the merch trend is starting to feel very old,” says Trunzo. “But there’s a long tail on it and I think something like Drew House is the perfect example of how you can take different pieces of one trend, like this merch trend of the last couple of years, and extend upon it, make something du jour, and blow it out, right?
“Because Bieber’s tour merch did so well, the one designed by Fear of God, that’s how he went into the [Drew House] preview. Like, ‘Why don’t we just do this right, give this more longevity, and let this last beyond the merch trend?'”
When we think of which celebrities have leveraged their fame into brands most effectively, probably no one has done it better than the Kardashian-Jenner clan. The cover story of Forbes’ “America’s Women Billionaires” issue put Kylie Jenner, the face and owner of Kylie Cosmetics, on the path to becoming the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, with a reported net worth of $900 million.
The potential for stars to spin their celebrity into a successful brand has never been better. The more fame Jenner accumulates, the bigger her reach in media both traditional and social, and the greater her profits become.
There’s a cautionary tale here, however. If your brand’s success is tied to you and your fame alone, the minute you destroy your image is the minute your brand gets irreparably damaged, too. It’s an extreme example, but look at VLONE, a label once called “the hottest brand of the moment” by NSS. Now, following a widely circulated video of A$AP Bari attacking a woman in a London hotel and his guilty plea to a charge of sexual assault at trial this January, VLONE is a husk of a brand that no one wants to touch.
Just a decade or so ago, the rich and famous were rich and famous because they got paid to do a thing. Sing. Perform. Act. Not to suggest today’s celebrities don’t do those things, too — they do, often all three! — but for musicians in particular, making music doesn’t generate the big bucks it once did. Developing a branded side gig isn’t so much a choice as a necessity. It’s a paradox, but while consumers no longer want to buy records, they’ll help your new streetwear drop sell out within hours.