When a branded baseball cap from JStor, the academic library, resurfaced on the timeline a few months ago, a hot-headed furore took over (a very specific corner of) Twitter, with people searching for a way to cop. The $15 dad hat, which has been out of circulation since 2017, has now become somewhat of a grail, with eBay cast-offs going for over $200. It would seem that between the scarcity of the OG cap and these ludicrous resale markups, JStor had, albeit accidentally, stumbled into Supreme territory.
The lust for an otherwise unremarkable navy accessory – one which is normcore at best, plain ugly at worst – is emblematic of our collective obsession with all things merch. Particularly if said merch flags some kind of cultural pedigree. And over the past year, the trend has been hotwired, with restaurants, museums, and publications increasingly cosying up to fashion. That’s not to say these relationships have never existed before though, they have – the most famous being that of Vogue and MoMa’s The Costume Institute. It’s just, we are now wearing these affiliations in block letters on a gift shop t-shirt.
Modern merch dates back to the 1960s when, during the post-war boom, printing businesses in Miami began to emblazon beach towels and t-shirts with the names of local holiday resorts. Our current affliction, however, can be traced back to 2016 when Demna Gvasalia released a canary yellow Vetements T-shirt, splashed with the DHL logo. It was ironic, it was camp, and it split opinion.
From that point on, other designers started to absorb, and play with, the visuals of corporate culture within their own work – see Palace’s riff on PayPal, Christopher Shannon’s Sports Direct piss-takes, or Opening Ceremony’s Kodak capsule that same year.
Beyond all the spoofing, though, actual merch was undergoing a renaissance. Foam fingers and glow sticks aside, record labels began to enlist the support of design studios, transforming concert memorabilia into fully-fledged fashion categories. In 2016, the clothing sold at Justin Bieber’s Purpose World Tour was designed by Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God and wound up as a capsule collection at Barney’s. Similarly, Kanye West’s Life of Pablo gear was the work of Virgil Abloh collaborator, Cali Thornhill DeWitt, and had fans, as well as hypebeasts, queuing round the block. This, plus a strategy of short-lived pop-up shops and scant product drops, meant that band merch had, for the first time, aligned itself with all the kudos of streetwear.
Then came 2018. Logo heavy, promotional apparel had gone from novelty to luxury – creating an opportunity for cultural establishments to expand their reach. Against a backdrop of fake news discourse, Sacai unveiled its AW18 collection, featuring a flurry of garments stamped with The New York Times branding; A-COLD-WALL* did the same but with London’s National Gallery; Virgil Abloh released a line of Air Force 1s in collaboration with MoMA; and Raf collaborated extensively with The Andy Warhol Foundation during his last year at Calvin Klein.
As a result, our attitudes towards luxury began to expand. What was once heavily coded, in say, Phoebe Philo’s sloping silhouettes and Stan Smiths, was now made obvious. We didn’t need a cloaking white Céline shirt to suggest that we might subscribe to The New York Times – we could just wear the newspaper’s collaboration with Études instead.
Fast forward to now. During the pandemic, merch took on a whole new meaning. When it became clear that restrictions weren’t going to be lifted anytime soon, copping a T-shirt from your favorite spot became a way to support them through the crisis, and tap into a real-life sense of community that we all craved. In London, foodie haunts like Top Cuvée, St John, and Cornerstone sold their “if you know, you know” prestige via t-shirts decorated with line-drawn illustrations – flagging the orange wine drinker in much the same way a colour-coded handkerchief may have indicated your sexuality in the ‘70s. It was a secret handshake for those who know the best spot is always at the bar.
In the US, the same idea was met with slightly more altruistism. Nonprofits like Merch4Relief partnered with district locales so that customers could support their favourite restaurants alongside much smaller delis and bodegas. After all, there are far better margins on a printed t-shirt than there is a plate of food.
As merch warped from cultural to cult institutions, The Cut heralded the rise of Zizmorcore – “an embrace of hyperlocality” – whereby you can, quite literally, wear a slice of the city on your sleeve. Of course, these kinds of local souvenirs have always been used to telegraph community, but it’s picked up greater significance over the past year. Nostalgia quickly became a coping mechanism for those of us stuck in a seemingly endless carousel of lockdowns, so it’s little surprise that merch, a keepsake of sorts, found such resonance. If you can’t go to your favorite restaurant or museum, the least you can do is wear the T-shirt.
This new wave of merch has emerged separately to any runway trend, suggesting that we may have reached a saturation point when it comes to the traditional formula of designer merch. Cult(ural) merch, however, taps into a desire for deeper, authentic connection, which doesn’t have to be restricted to first-hand experience, either. After all, just how many of us who carry the New Yorker tote actually end up reading the magazine? In the same way that a J-Stor cap might signal an arts graduate, carrying one of the publication’s totes – reader or otherwise – indicates an alliance with a wider cultural cognoscente. Likewise, when Browns’ East London outpost stocked a load of Fanelli’s Cafe (New York) and Restaurante Da Japonesa (Brazil) t-shirts, the line quickly sold out. But this was in Shoreditch, meaning most shoppers would never have visited either restaurant. Still, the power, and inherent allure of merch is that it’s rooted in notions of belonging. To feel a part of something greater than ourselves. Even if that is tangential, it's just as tantalising.
Lest it become a complete victim to the resale complex, JStor “don’t have any plans” to restock their beloved cap. If anything, it’s proof that what we wear has almost nothing to do with clothes. Because the desire we feel towards merch is really endemic to the proposal of fashion. It’s a marker of identity, an artefact of our tastes, affiliations, and communities. Or at least, what we’d like those to be. The value of an item rarely correlates to its inherent quality and that’s no more evident than a lovingly worn souvenir t-shirt. It’s the same reason tourists buy those college sweaters at market stalls. Did they go to Harvard? Probably not. But just to be enveloped in that association is sometimes enough.