Closet Constructor: Think Merch Is Dead? Okay, Boomer.

It's death may or may not have been greatly exaggerated

May 31, 2024 12:26 pm
Merch isn't dead.

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Welcome to Closet Constructor, a weekly series where I (a style editor) help you (a well-meaning person who likes clothes) discover new, interesting and affordable ways to really start dressin’.

Earlier this week, our style-forward friends over at Conde Nast released a veritable hit job on the state of merch, which postulated that the scores of collectible apparel and gear shilled by everyone from your favorite podcast to the New York Knicks is “one big trend that had gone way too far.” In layman’s terms, to wear merch is to look cooked. The GQ feature caught fire and was paraded around the internet, even finding its way into yesterday’s New York TimesThe Morning” newsletter.

This is all well and good, except for the fact that it was wrong. (The iconic pieces of merch photo story they ran in conjunction was pretty cool, though.) The financial reality is that the business of merch is far from flopping. The article affirms as much itself, citing the booming industry that is Eras Tour t-shirts. This Taylor Swift citation is a solid one — per Forbes, the artist has reportedly made upwards of 200 million dollars from the sale of t-shirts and adjacent Swiftie paraphernalia. Likewise, Abercrombie & Fitch reported their strong first quarter in it’s history, built on, among other trendy garments, a robust catalogue of licensed graphic tees.

It would stand to reason, then, that the insinuation about the failing New York Times merchandising landscape is one concerned with the artistic quality, that the merchandise of today is somehow “repetitive [and] less creatively potent,” than…Yeezus Tees from 2013, I guess? Again, a bizarre take, given that the genre of product has existed for decades outside of the ten-year screenshot GQ is choosing to point at, and many of the most coveted garments were screen-printed thirty five years ago. Is this era of Phoebe Bridgers bone-emblazoned sweatpants and Erewhon trucker hats really any more aesthetically prolific the tie-dyed Phish gear and XL Lil’ Weezy joints that have been coming out for ages, or will continue to release daily?

Merch is alive and well, if you know where to look. (Left to right: AndAfterThat, Petrified Goods.)

Case and point: good merch abounds. Yes, bad merch exists, perhaps even in the majority, as it always has. But there’s solid officially sanctioned gear, of course, from folks like the aforementioned Swift or world’s-hottest-designer Jonathan Anderson. And the bootleg gear available is better than ever, with sellers like Petrified Good and Andadterthat dropping heater after heater. I might argue that, should you know where to look, merch as has never been better. (Coincidentally, this is all stuff that GQ actively lauds.)

An unspoken implication here is that there is now more merch in general, and therefore more room for error, or more impetus for the trend cycle to work its cyclical in-out magic. But beyond a broad strokes acknowledgement that there are more clothes than ever (clothing production has approximately doubled over the past 20 years globally) this seems difficult to quantify. The bootleg operations that sell out of instagram shops today are a mirror of the ‘Dead lots of yore. Anecdotally, your bodega started selling tees. Anecdotally, Rainforest Cafe (hell, even Zabars) has been doing that since before I was born.

I’m not trying to intentionally nitpick points. One of the big throughlines of the essay pointed to the fact that, in an age of hyper-consumerism, thousands of TikTok accounts dedicated to dropshipping “Nonna’s Little Meatball” tanks and GRAILED, a once-niche merch market has become oversaturated, and worse, too accessible to the guy more concerned with looking swaggy that repping his alliances to the Alaska SeaLife Center. This particular take, I believe to be spot on. There’s been a well-documented destruction of the gatekeeping media class, and there’s a good chance that the once elite piece of merch has lost some of its value as a elicit signifier for the odd Kitchens of Distinction ‘head or diehard David Lynch fan.

At the heart of it all, what rubs me wrong isn’t so much the take on the current state of merch (although I do feel that its lazy, and worse, boring) but the idea that a few more 24-year old “creatives” wearing Siegelman Stable flat brims and filming themselves doing so has suddenly devalued the act of wearing that tee/hat/accessory you love so much. Cringe is everywhere, manifested in many forms. Don’t let it bring your love for Jeff Tweedy apparel down.

Similarly to the allegiances that compel you to spend $45 on a Comfort Colors, merch isn’t a fleeting trend that you can write off. It’s a tee-based tao. If not to whatever downtown restaurant you’re repping, then to the novelty of splashy graphics and catchy design (although I’m not convinced that the former has disappeared as much as style writers would like you to think). Recent bi-coastal elite co-opt aside, merch has and will continue to make for good, and equally importantly, fun clothing.

To that end, I’ve concocted a merch-forward ‘fit for you to wear in a radical act of defiance this week. And it all starts with one of the best pieces out right now, the “I TOLD YA” Challengers shirt. (To his credit, author Sam Hine graciously ends the hit piece with love for the exact joint.)

Don’t pack away your band tees just yet. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Be excellent to each other. Shop this week’s closet constructor below, and enjoy your weekend.

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