How merch took over fashion and is likely here to stay
The rise of merch
Words— Marc Richardson
Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko
From restaurant tees to concert wares, merch is a must-have in 2018. We grabbed some promo apparel from Montreal’s biggest institutions, mixed it with our latest arrivals, and went for a stroll in the Mile End.
I still remember the first piece of merch I bought: a Riccardo Tisci-designed T-shirt at Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne concert in 2011. Even then, the concept of merch was dramatically different than what it is today. Today merch is arguably the hottest product category in the world, which is a little bit odd when you think about it. I mean, it was always cool to flex your favourite band, but we’re talking about walking around with tote bags from grocery stores and T-shirts from cafés. How did we get here?
The plain canvas tote bag has become the prestige accessory in certain circles (the New Yorker tote being the prime example). Here we accessorized with a tote from our favourite purveyor of local fruits and veg – Fruiterie Mile-End.
As usual, it is music that has helped a trend. The roots of music industry merch go back to The Beatles — duh! — who sold licenses to companies that made Beatles-branded T-shirts, dolls, and, really, anything. Coca-Cola has been making merch since the 1800s when the company offered promotional clocks and notepads that bore the Coca-Cola logo. Media companies, like The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker have offered branded merch for what seems like decades — everything from tote bags and duffel bags to baseball caps and sweaters. And that’s essentially what merch is: clothes bearing the logo of a company that doesn’t traditionally make clothes.
It’s essentially a way to flex one’s interests. A baseball cap with The New York Times’ logo might seem like a staple of a norm-core wardrobe, but it also lets people know that you read The Times.
Beyond merch is merch culture, something which owes a tremendous amount to Deadheads, the cultish fans of The Grateful Dead. Ironically, the most popular Grateful Dead merch among Deadheads was the bootlegged stuff created by unaffiliated vendors, who would sell T-shirts out of the trunks of their cars at concerts. Still, it became a way for Deadheads to flaunt their affinity for the band and became a rallying cry between fans.
While the battle of Montreal bagels between St-Viateur Bagels and Fairmount Bagels very much rages on – the winner of merch is clearly St-Viateur with their royal blue tee featuring their waving bagel logo.
That is very much what merch has become: It’s essentially a way to flex one’s interests. People are proud to carry around tote bags that promote the fact that they shop at local independent grocers; a baseball cap with The New York Times’ logo might seem like a staple of a norm-core wardrobe, but it also lets people know that you read The Times; and a T-shirt from that Caribbean lunch spot down the street broadcasts to the world that you don’t only eat leftovers or microwavable meals.
It was also your mom’s favourite souvenir, whether you brought her back a mug from some wacky diner in South Carolina or she brought you a T-shirt from Roland Garros. Merch was the perfect conversation starter — “no, I haven’t been to the French Open, but my mum went a few years back.”
Love public radio and the dulcet sounds of CBC Radio 3 / Ici Radio-Canada? What better way than a throwback cap featuring the classic 70s "butterfly" logo.
In recent years, people considerably cooler than your mom — I assume — have started to get excited about merch. That 2011 Riccardo Tisci-designed Watch The Throne merch was a harbinger of things to come, really. Kanye West has since tapped Wes Lang — who actually made Grateful Dead merch! — to create some of the merch associated with his musical projects and he pioneered the rolling pop up shops that have since become the norm in the music industry. Elsewhere Justin Bieber teamed up with Jerry Lorenzo — a former Kanye collaborator himself — and rolled out a similar concept to the Yeezus merch. Travis Scott recently beat out Nicki Minaj for the top spot on the Billboard 200 by bundling his merch with his album, thereby boosting his “album sales” for the week. The power of merch in contemporary music is almost unlimited. Yes, albums are cool, but if you’re wearing the latest T-shirt, people know that you listened to the album, or they think that you trekked all the way to San Diego to cop the San Diego-exclusive hoodie. It’s become about bragging rights.
What’s most impressive though, is that merch has outgrown the music industry in a sense. Designers like the aforementioned Jerry Lorenzo have appropriated vintage merch and fashioned them into, well, contemporary fashion. Others, like Needles, find vintage merch, cut it up and then sew pieces of different T-shirts and hoodies together to create a veritable smorgasbord of merch — there’s even one piece that references Quebec’s provincial volleyball championships!
Yes, music merch is everywhere, but restaurant merch is a new challenger. Think of it as streetwear for the foodie crowd. We opted for a garm from legendary smoked meat emporium – Schwartz's.
If you needed more proof that merch has become ubiquitous within fashion, look no further than Balenciaga. The Parisian fashion label first riffed on Bernie Sanders’ logo from when the Vermont Senator was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was a statement that kitschy merch graphics were acceptable in fashion. But then Balenciaga went and threw its logo on lighters, eye-shades, umbrellas and even those neon yellow slap-on running bracelets during a pop up at Colette. While Balenciaga is definitely a clothing brand, it was an ironic take on merch that resonated with customers.
The Balenciagas, Needles and Lorenzos of this world — not to mention the traditional purveyors of merch like Kanye, Bieber and Travis Scott — helped spark a wider trend. The Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibit last fall that offered an overview of the history of fashion; to go with the exhibit, the museum released a Yankees baseball cap and a Champion hoodie bearing its iconic “MoMA” wordmark. It was the perfect merch, really. The items that the MoMA used were already ubiquitous and people were generally proud to advertise the fact they had been to a museum. It certainly helped when the movers and shakers of the industry, like Virgil Abloh, shared their thoughts — all very positive — on their merch.
Music, food – merch has come for all of your favourites. Even our local X-rated institutions like Cinema L'Amour.
Of course, that’s the pinnacle merch, but it has also trickled down to the mainstream. It’s hard to walk ten minutes without coming across someone carrying a New Yorker tote — they gave them out with yearly subscriptions around Christmas — or a Fruiterie Mile-End bag; last week I was wearing my Café Olimpico T-shirt (a Montreal institution if there ever was one) when I came across a stranger also wearing his Café Olimpico T-shirt. No matter where one turns, there’s merch to be bought or fans trumpeting their love of a band, café, or publication.
In a sense, it’s an extension of the digital era that we live in, where we are constantly broadcasting our interests and activities. Yes, I know I posted a picture from the symphony, but I also want you to know weeks later that I went to the symphony because of the tote bag that I have. It’s also a way of seeming to skirt traditional fashion norms by saying, “Yeah, you think this looks good? It’s not even fashion! It’s from a newspaper.” Given this new reality, where anti-fashion is fashionable and where we are constantly aiming to showcase our interests, merch seems set for a lengthy stay within our wardrobes.
But it’s cool now, so what once was the epitome of effortless, non-conformity is no longer. Unless you pull up in a T-shirt from some establishment that nobody’s heard of before — that’ll be really cool and that’s what will keep the trend alive and fresh: People constantly seeking to differentiate themselves from the masses with older and weirder merch.