The first band tee I ever owned was a beaten-up Led Zeppelin number that completely changed my life. The moment I slipped it on I really thought I had an Erin Wasson-type thing happening which – despite being drastically miscalculated – felt damn good.
It felt like the kind of cool that 14-year-old me could only ever dream of. And just to give you some context, my version of teenage rebellion went about as far as choosing blue instead of pink braces. That T-shirt became a prized possession because of the way it made me feel. And for a cheap-ass, screen-printed, hand-me-down band tee, that’s a pretty cool thing.
The current retro band tee revival reminds me of those simpler times. A time when a band tee was just a band tee. No fuss, no heartache.
But it's 2016 and those halcyon days of the ’90s are gone.
The ties between fashion and music have now reached their full commercial potential with artists like Rihanna and Pharrell forging all sorts of glossy links between high fashion and mass accessibility.
The new wave of ‘band merchandise’ is everywhere from Barneys to Topshop to Kim Kardashian’s Instagram. So while I lament the simpler times of the OG band tee are now over, there’s no denying the band T-shirt has evolved.
It’s no longer just a band T-shirt, it’s a fashion artefact. And these are the artists that are doing it best right now.
Resist it all you like, but Kanye is a luminary. The man could get you hyped for a pap smear. From his Yeezy shows to his Pablo pop-ups, Ye’s got the entire fashion world’s attention. He’s tapped into the Supreme street-style aesthetic so convincingly that even if you hate him, you’ve gotta give credit where credit’s due. That something so outstandingly basic as a cotton T-shirt could cause such a shit storm obviously speaks to the cache of Kanye and his marketing genius. Because ultimately, it’s genius.
Where’d this guy and his perfect facial hair come from? Zayn is the kind of guy that you probably ignored in high school only to bump into him 5 years later to find he’s mega famous and going out with the hottest girl in the world. No, wait… that’s literally Zayn. Oh, and also it turns out he’s REALLY good at fashion. Think bomber jackets with Arabic inscriptions of Zayn, and long-sleeved skater tops in simple monochrome tones. It’s all ridiculously appealing for shit that’s so unassuming. A bit like Zayn himself. I think the lesson we’ve learnt from this is to never ignore boys in high school, especially if they’re part of a chart-topping band.
Bey’s not exactly trying to create super high-fashion merchandise in the way that Kanye and Justin Bieber are. Her brand of merchandise is more about the message behind her music. Literally. Her sweaters and T-shirts are printed with her snazzy little cult one-liners and self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek-style slogans. Not much chop if you’re trying to get your street-style fame game on, but this is more of your good, old-fashioned style of merchandise. It’s simple, it’s flip and it’s v Bey.
The best part about Drake, is that for all his swagger, the Canadian-born rapper is still a good Jewish boy who makes me proud of my inner nerd. He is living proof that it’s completely possible to get you a man that does both. His record label OVO (October’s Very Own) has its own apparel line attached, and it’s not so much merchandise as it is a fully-fledged fashion label, producing small batch design runs that pay homage to his love of sporting heroes and streetwear. And while Drake’s not a high-fashion follower, he does maintain an impressive attention to detail when it comes to his cultural currency. That chocolate brown terrycloth baseball cap that you always wanted? You can get it from OVO, and a matching T-shirt to boot. You’re welcome.
When I first heard that Justin Bieber was selling a T-shirt at Barneys with Marilyn Manson’s face on the front and BIEBER written in Slayer font on the back, I fell into a rage blackout. My standard Bieber response. But when you really think about it, even though Manson and Bieber are on polar opposite ends of the music spectrum, they’re both controversial and unpredictable characters. Bieber just wants to prove he’s grown. If he wants to wear a $2000 plaid coat that he is selling as ‘tour merch’ then you can’t stop him. He signals a new kind of flagrant self-promotion in which his persona is meticulously crafted, in both his music and his merchandise. His Purpose Tour collaboration with Barneys is a sure sign that fashion folk are no longer turning their noses up at the mainstream. As long as it’s still got a touch of rock star rebellion. Even Chiara Ferragni, fashion street-style goddess of the moment, approves.