Why 2016 Was The Year We Became Obsessed With Celeb Merch

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I remember the first bit of artist merchandise I ever sharpened my elbows for. The year was 2002, the concert was Christina Aguilera’s and the item? A pair of hot-pink pants with the word ‘Stripped’ emblazoned across the backside.

It may not have been exactly what my mum wanted her barely teenage daughter to wear but oh, how we flocked. That frenzy isn’t something I, or any of us, thought we would experience, post-fandom. After all, how many twenty-somethings want their teenage idol splashed across their chest? According to 2016, it turns out… pretty much all of us.

From Kanye West’s Pablo to Justin Bieber’s Purpose merch – currently stocked everywhere from Selfridges to ASOS – via Zayn Malik, Drake, Selena Gomez and the recent launch of Beyonce’s holiday merchandise, pop culture, its many trending references, and fashion have this year become inextricably entwined.

Of course, music and fashion have long been linked, with musicians often acting as muses to designers and vice versa. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen Rihanna collaborate with Puma and Dior, Nicki Minaj as the face of Roberto Cavalli and Pusha T for adidas – and that's just brushing the surface.

With celebrities dictating trends, and brands capitalising massively by association, it makes sense that artists want to feel the benefits themselves. You need only look at Rihanna, who – having teamed up with numerous high-street retailers in the past – has now evolved to use her marketability to design her own beauty, fashion and accessory lines.

A photo posted by Kylie (@kyliejenner) on

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Arguably the masters of personal branding, the Kardashian-Jenners understand that consumers want to be part of their world; much of their success stems, in large part, from this marketing savvy. Kylie Jenner, the youngest of the klan, has just launched her pop-up shop, stocking Kylie Jenner merchandise including T-shirts and underwear bearing her name and face. There is also a calendar, shot in collaboration with Terry Richardson: a fresh dose of Kylizzle each month.

But tour merchandise is nothing new. Band T-shirts, hoodies – even tea towels – have always been popular, albeit as mementoes of a great gig or to indicate musical allegiance, as opposed to a fashion statement. The Grateful Dead generated a vast chunk of their revenue from gigs and accompanying merchandise sales. In 2012, Odd Future opened one of the first artist pop-up stores all along their North American tour.

But in the midst of dwindling album sales – in large part due to massively disruptive streaming services – live concerts and tour merchandise have become an increasingly significant part of the business model for artists.
“With digital music now being seen as more of a throwaway commodity, fans are substituting it for a more physical, tangible product as a way for them to connect and be closer to the artist,” explain Dion Hamilton and Jonny Grant, founders of Blanks Factory, a unisex contemporary essentials brand who specialise in premium blanks and have created merchandise for Stormzy, Sam Smith and Disclosure.

The subsequent frenzy surrounding the release of such merch can be extraordinary. In March, Kanye West claimed to have made $1 million from his pop-up shop in just two days, while Urban Outfitters has revealed that the release of their Justin Bieber merch boosted their overall sales significantly. And then there's the never-ending queues of impassioned shoppers of all ages who camp out for hours at a time, just to get their hands on something… anything...

it's a KenGi xmas 👭

A photo posted by Kendall (@kendalljenner) on

This year’s street style snaps saw industry influencers like leading blogger Chiara Ferragni and designer Gilda Ambrosio – as well as pretty much every fashion editor – rocking Justin Bieber’s face or an ‘I Feel Like Pablo’ item. Chiara told The New York Times: “I saw it on one of my friends and I was like, ‘I have to get that' [...] Something that back in the day we would have found so stupid and never be caught dead wearing is now the hit piece of the season.”

Gone are the days when you need to have ‘been there’ to get the T-shirt. In fact, you don’t really need to be a fan at all. Belonging to a subculture is enough. In 2016, what with hashtags, lyrics trending across social media and the cult of the celebrity, it’s far from just the most die-hard obsessives proudly showing off their participation.

And for the artists themselves, merch is now an integral part of their branding strategy. Jerry Lorenzo, founder and designer of Fear of God, who helped to create the looks on Justin’s Bieber’s Purpose tour, told Business of Fashion: “It’s the new CD. It’s as important as the sound, a part of the vision.” Not to mention free advertising in abundance.

The fact that the most sought-after merch takes its cue from the streetwear and athleisure trends currently prevailing both on the catwalks and the high street goes a long way to explaining its rabid popularity. Celebrity merchandise now often features oversized sweatshirts, bomber jackets and other effortlessly ‘cool’ pieces. Sporting mashups of familiar, repurposed cultural signifiers, it’s never been easier – or more tempting – to ‘#slay’ or 'Feel Like Pablo'.

Where fans would once hoard vinyl or proudly display their CD collections, these days, as technology renders obsolete any physical manifestation of our interests, merchandise allows consumers to own a piece of a celebrity's world. As Felix Carrasco, senior director of product management at Warner Group told Fashionista: “You can’t download a T-shirt.”

And so we queue.
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