Sep 15, 2016 6:04PM

Oyster Words: The Tour Merch Revolution

Fanboys, fangirls put your hands in the air.

If there's one thing that has defined the year so far in fashion, it's a crazy obsession with tour merch. The gothic fonts and heavy metal iconography that would have once been found emblazoned on the mementos picked up from the merch table and stashed in the wardrobes of goths and metalheads have become pervasive; cropping up everywhere from Selena Gomez's clothing range to the runways of Milan Fashion Week.

The high street may have appropriated band t-shirts over the years — with the addition of decidedly anti-rock 'n' roll glue on diamantés, of course — but never has tour merch infiltrated the ~fashion elite~ to this extent.


Last month, people around the world flocked in their thousands to the 21 Pablo pop-up stores set up around the globe by Kanye West, queuing for hours — and even overnight — to get a look-in. From London and Melbourne to Suntec City, Singapore, the pop-ups were held at carefully chosen locations (Kreuzberg in Berlin and Shoreditch in London, obvs) and only announced 48 hours in advance.


A photo posted by 35MM (@alifeinadiary) on

It was more than just a love of Kanye's music, though, that sent people in their droves to try and get their mitts on a piece from the collection. These weren't necessarily die-hard Yeezy fans there to add another collectible to their horde of Kanye ephemera, but fashion-savvy kids bedecked in head-to-toe streetwear participating in an event that was as much about style as it was about music. Theo, a 16-year-old who counts Supreme and Saint Laurent amongst his favourite brands, told us why he visited the London pop-up: "I liked that every store had a different design, and being able to express my music and fashion interests at the same time."


While Kanye's Yeezus t-shirt from 2013 took more explicit references from authentic band merch — take a look at a Metallica t-shirt and you'll know what we're talking about — the Pablo stuff, designed in collab with artist and former Hole roadie Cali Thornhill DeWitt, adopted the old English font frequently seen on the oversized sleeves of Vetements hoodies. We know Kanye's keen on the collective as back in February he did the Yeezy equivalent of fangirling on social media, Tweeting: "I'm going to steal Demna from Balenciaga".

But if Kanye brought this obsession into the mainstream, Vetements brought it into high fashion. The label's anonymous design team, led by Demna Gvasalia, staged their debut runway show in 2014 and, in the super short time since, has managed to get everyone talking about the "Vetements effect".


whoopi casually wearing a $1200 vetements hoodie on the view just changed my life

A photo posted by OfficialSeanPenn (@officialseanpenn) on

Through their collections, the traditional tenets of the heavy metal aesthetic are subverted. The branded pieces regularly forgo the Vetements logo, and instead the brand name is scribed in a gothic font, as though it's a piece of merch created in homage to the label, not an item of clothing that'll set you back a month's wages.

The collective's playful take on fan culture — and the way we show our interests through the clothes we wear — is epitomized in the sell-out Kate and Leo hoodie from their SS16 collection. Print the faces of total angels Jack and Rose above a sinking Titantic on a black hoodie with bold red lettering adorning the sleeves, and what do you get? A post-modern contradiction of aesthetics. This isn't about taking elements of subcultures past to make a profit, but creating new meanings in an environment that is seemingly post-subculture.

"There are no subcultures to be discovered anymore, at least not in the Western world, " Lotta Volkova, the cool lady who works closely with Demna as Vetements' stylist, told 032c magazine earlier this year. "It's more about the remix of information. Kids today — the new generation — they think in different ways."


@riccardiboston @_byronrodriguez

A photo posted by VETEMENTS (@vetements_official) on

We have the internet to thank for this remix of information. In the digital age, fashion is more accessible to young people than it has ever been before.  Social media and live streams mean that new collections and ideas can be delivered to us regular joes at the same time as those on the front row, and these blurred boundaries are manifesting themselves on the runway. See Gucci's SS17 menswear collection, which included a t-shirt that starkly resembled a knock-off, or Gosha Rubchinskiy's collections, which draw heavily on streetwear and are inspired by the skater boys of post-Soviet Russia.

The current infatuation with tour merch is really an embodiment of how we now interact with fashion differently. Modern Man's bootleg tees are a perfect example. ICYMI, the French label has created a bunch of mock band tees in homage to cult designers including Phoebe Philo and, of course, Demna Gvasalia and Gosha Rubchinskiy. They're a piss-take, but also comment how fan culture is infiltrating the industry, both in its visual elements and its attitude. 'Cause you don't have to buy it to like it, right?


As Biebs' concert gear (which bears striking resemblances to certain Vetements pieces) proves, we have come full circle — and the merch obsession probably won't last that much longer. After all, we've been there, done that, and, um, got the t-shirt. What's likely to remain, though, from the blurred boundaries between tour merch and high fashion, between bootlegs and legit designer products, is the influence fan culture has had on fashion and the way young people are interacting with it. Happy to wear a tee printed with the face of their fave designer, or to queue nine hours for a $50 baseball cap, this is the new fashion fandom.

Phoots: Ava Nirui, Instagram, Modern Man

Lily Pearson

Lucy Jones