The cultural significance affiliated with tour merchandise, while disparate from years past, is greater than ever. What was once an emblem that bonded tribes of people who shared a common admiration for a particular artist or band, is now something that signifies how astute you are to modern fashion trends.
Back in 1985, purchasing a tee from Metallica’s Ride the Lighting tour meant that you were taking physical ownership of a memory; it served as a souvenir that provided evidence of your partaking in the experience, much like a photo, which you could flaunt and tantalize your friends with who weren’t lucky enough to attend. Today, people aren’t so much bragging about how much they enjoyed an artist’s show as they are about how quickly they were able to cop a piece of their tour merch before it sold out.
Now I’m not saying that everyone wearing "fashionable" concert shirts today is doing so frivolously - VFILES’ Purpose pop-up event in New York City a few months ago was clear proof that OG Beliebers are still an active breed, despite the many poser JB fans who were in attendance.
But this raises the question: why were these fake Bieber fanatics there in the first place? A few years ago, unless you were a hormonally-challenged teenage girl at summer camp, you wouldn't be caught dead wearing a T-shirt with Justin Bieber’s face or name slapped across it. Now, Bieber merch is spotted at fashion weeks all over the globe.
Thanks to online streaming services and illegal downloads, artists are reaping little to no fiscal revenue for the records they produce, making live performances and tour merchandise extremely critical to an entertainer's commercial success. As a result, artists and their creative teams are in an arms' race over who can create the trendiest, most sought-after clothing. The outcome? Well, it appears that one too many pop stars are ripping pages out of the same lookbook.
Like most modern fashion trends, the tour merchandise craze was first ignited by none other than Kanye West, when he, under his enigmatic creative imprint DONDA, commissioned artist Wes Lang to design the graphics for his Yeezus merch back in 2013. The designs included a series of skulls, crosses, roses and bold logos, all of which were sharply reminiscent of graphics affiliated with '80s heavy metal bands.
"Man, if you look back at some of the bands from the '80s, there were timeless aesthetics," said DONDA graphic designer Geo in a 2014 interview. "As of now, you'd like to look back in a decade and remember the vibes from Yeezus...In the words of Kanye, 'rap is the new rock n roll.'"
Kanye's adoption of rock and roll aesthetics was a milestone moment for the hip-hop community, with the colossal success of the tour's merch spearheading a grungy style that would go on to become streetwear's latest obsession. Today, as the lines between street and chic continue to blur in the fashion industry, designers have also demonstrated an affinity for metal-tinged clothing.
Anarchic design collective Vetements - aka the "It" brand of the moment - churned out a number of death metal-inspired garms in their FW16 collection, while Jerry Lorenzo's LA-based label Fear of God (also a favorite among Kanye, the Kardashian Klan, Bieber and a slew of other A-listers) has played a pivotal role in putting the rocker "look" back on the mainstream fashion map.
With concert gear being a crucial element in a musician's business model, pop stars have realized that their merch should reflect what's trending with the youth in order to get the most bang for their buck - because an album cover with a list of tour dates printed on a T-shirt simply won't cut it anymore.
Justin Bieber, a singer whose style has transformed drastically over the years, enlisted the talents of Jerry Lorenzo and Mark Riddick, a notable illustrator in the death and black metal scenes, to design the merchandise for his Purpose tour. Featuring a range of hoodies, long-sleeves, T-shirts and jackets all emblazoned with bold fonts, vintage-looking patches and a sinister logo, the line resembles the kind of graphic luxe-streetwear that's all the rage among fashionistas and Instagram cool kids right now - making even non-Beliebers unable to deny the collection's irrefutable swag factor.
Following suit is ex-One Direction singer and fellow teen idol tastemaker Zayn Malik, who released an equally stylish collection of concert gear that includes a tee with an original illustration by Mark Wilkinson, the designer behind the aesthetic of heavy-metal icons Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.
Kanye continued to amass hype when he poached storied music industry creative Cali Thornhill DeWitt to whip up the gothic-style logos for his The Life of Pablo capsule, while Rihanna recently became the latest mega-celeb to hop on the trendy tour merch bandwagon with her über on fleek ANTI gear, which incorporates the near same font used in Ye's aforementioned apparel.
The formula for so-called "hype" tour merch seems to be uniform for a number of artists. As the demand for heavy metal-inspired streetwear continues to mount, the music illuminati have grown keen to capitalize on the trend by creating gear that could just as easily be sold at a high-end retailer as it could at a concert stand.
But what's interesting is how much the tour merchandise that's popular today mirrors the aesthetic of the genre that propagated band shirts back in the '80s. While the authenticity behind pop music's current fascination with rock subcultures remains questionable (the thought of Bieber jamming to Motörhead on his tour bus seems about as farfetched as someone raising the sign of the horns at one of his shows), musicians and their camps have realized that by hiring designers who bear close ties with the genre (Riddick, Wilkinson, DeWitt), they're demonstrating a desire to collaborate rather than appropriate - call it what you will, however.