How Kanye West set a global trend with his merchandise

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As far as artist merchandise was concerned, a tee packed with tour dates was long considered the ultimate collector’s badge of fandom. Whilst musical debates raged on, the consumer was always in possession of the secret weapon… “Yes, but did you see the (Insert Location) gig?”, with a cotton-blend product to back their point.

What we’ve seen in more recent times is a shift from not just the nerdy obsession to own arena memorabilia, but the need to own certain items when fitting with a modern aesthetic; making a statement about who you are, and what you represent, with the lines between merch and real fashion increasingly blurring. Of course, one of music’s first pioneers in this world was Yeezus himself, Kanye West.

By the time 2007’s ‘Graduation’ album dropped, Kanye already had the Western world eating from his palm when it came to trendsetting. His white plastic ‘shutter shades’ became the must-have accessory for most club nights, events, and festivals, with a youthful generation merging the visually impairing glasses with the sideways ‘Peace’ hand symbol in photographs.

But it was Kanye’s YEEZY range which soon became the US rapper’s synonymous collection. Following an internship with Fendi, two critically-panned shows at Paris Fashion Week, his first YEEZYS (made with Nike) and the since-abandoned Pastelle line, Kanye finally unveiled the first season of his new fashion label as a collaboration with Adidas Originals in 2015.

Once again, Kanye had changed the fashion game, with more lightwear designs, and higher-reinforced soles – which have since become the norm. Fast forward to 2018, and the likes of Nike Roshe and similar designs are a-plenty down every high street. To say they took their inspiration from YEEZY would be, not just a fair assessment, but a point backed up by Kanye himself, who knows his brand’s incredible worth right now, spitting ““Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy, they line up for days,” in ‘The Life of Pablo’ track ‘Facts.’

The first musician to capitalize on this recent wave of fashion-forward tour merch, Kanye released a series of long sleeve tees in a collab with Cali Thornhill DeWitt, featuring the large-print gothic font scrawled across the back – the collection has since been used as inspiration for a wealth of huge ranges. When Taylor Swift dropped a new line of merchandise to promote her ‘Reputation’ album, fans were quick to point out that the gothic lettering mirrored Kanye’s Yeezy line and ‘Life of Pablo’ promo materials.
Look more closely into the EDM world, and you’ll see a similar minimalist design on Swedish House Mafia’s reunion clothing range, labeled ‘25.03.18’ in honor of the trio’s Ultra Miami comeback. Bass group Brohug currently sport these very items when performing live, and across their online merch store. So when did grunge become cool again? Dark colors, in-your-face graphics, oversized garments?

In the last few years, metal aesthetics have been flirting with the subculture (2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road; and DC’s Suicide Squad – which later released a special line of merchandise for the movie), just two examples of the ‘Harley Quinn-chic’ culture dominating world fashion right now.

After opening 21 pop-up shops across the globe to sell his wildly popular Pablo tour merchandise, Kanye – much like Swedish House Mafia – continued to make headlines with his pricing structure. ‘I Feel Like Pablo’ T-shirts were sold for $55, with printed jackets going for up to $325. He reportedly made upwards of $1 million when he opened a 2-day pop-up in Soho, New York, and a further figure in excess of $20 million when he opened pop-up shops, across Portland, Detroit, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, as well as Singapore, Amsterdam, and Melbourne.

When it comes to transforming your merch range into a credible fashion line, the lesson taught by Kanye is a pivotal one. Pioneering is always more crucial than following, and the ability to get creative, and think outside of the box, is one that can not only prove highly lucrative but also set worldwide trends and catapult an artist’s career from ‘producer’ to ‘cultural figurehead.’