Merch is the new luxuryClayton Chambers
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The other night I was drinking with friends at a neighborhood bar when a dude I've never met walks up and ordered a drink. He's wearing normal clothes, you know, like a polo, shorts, shoes.
None of that was more interesting than what was on his head: a very plain, navy baseball cap with one word across the front...
Notice it’s sold out. Any old person wouldn't think twice about the hat, much less notice it, if they saw it in public.
But I noticed it.
So, naturally, I began making assumptions about that person and his interests based on the fact that he was wearing that cap.
Quick context: Where's the cap from? It's part of a merch drop by "How Long Gone", a well-known podcast run by personalities Chris Black and Jason Stewart, two dudes who describe themselves as "bi-coastal elites." In short, the pod is for millennials and by millennials.
Now back to my assumptions. I got to thinking, maybe he only flies first class, drinks natural wine, just hangs in Silver Lake when he goes to LA (and gets his groceries from Erewhon, obviously).
I got a little carried away. But my train of thought highlighted a larger narrative that’s taking shape culturally, and it’s more mainstream than we realize, which is this:
Merch is the new luxury
Flexing your merch (specifically merch made by creators) is something that we haven't seen before, but as technology shifts and the mediums evolve, creators will continue cementing their rightful place as the arbiters of what's cool.
Let's look at a few creators who are driving this shift, subtle or not, and explore why flexing your tote bag is a stronger statement than flexing a handbag.
First up, How Long Gone. Their podcast has grown immensely over the last few years. On their Spotify page, founders Chris Black and Jason Stewart describe their product as a bi-coastal elite podcast delivering takes on pop culture, fashion, music, and more. Think of it as equal parts cultural commentary, shit-talking, and elitist humor.
There’s a whole world of jokes, hot takes, and ideas that you really have to know about if you want to belong. Along the way, they’ve created custom branded dad hats and totes (as is custom!) for fans to rep around the world. They’ve sold out of both products.
Next, this one is arguably the most interesting anonymous account on the internet. What we do know is that Hidden is run by a 26-year-old from England. What we don’t know is his name or what he looks like.
And that’s just the way he wants it. Hidden.
Over the last several years, Hidden’s influence has skyrocketed, going from some random repost account on Instagram, to being recognized as a master curator of all things streetwear, sneakers, and fashion et al.
While he's well-respected for his curation, he’s equally been criticized for not giving proper artist credit when he posts content. Outside of the reposting, he also writes a weekly paywalled newsletter on Substack. And, legend also has it, Drake, once DM'd him asking if he could pay Hidden to be his personal stylist and shopper. Apparently Hidden said yes, which is awesome.
Oh, and he sells merch. Lots of it. Just go to Hidden’s tagged accounts, and you’ll find countless people tagging him wearing his socks, hoodies, shirts, and pants. And the resell prices on platforms like Grailed and StockX are not kind.
Want 3 pairs of socks?
That’ll be $80.
A steep ask for a pair of plain white socks with a blue “h” logo. Yet, that’s the audience Hidden commands.
And finally, Fred. He’s the founder & creative director of his eponymous label, one he’s been building for years. Outside of design, he’s long been a writer and photographer as well, documenting clothing as he sees it.
These days, he makes custom suits and accessories, but I’ve caught him dropping random side products that fit his brand ethos, like hats and hoodies.
One time, not far back, a released a series of dad caps with logos of old, iconic establishments we all know and love. You can’t get them anymore, which only further emphasizes the FOMO we all feel when we see how cool they are.
Who wouldn’t want a hat with logos like The Economist, The Paris Review, or National Geographic?
If you know, you know.
Luxury used to mean handbags and scarves, now it's tote bags and dad hats. It was once "that" Burberry scarf, now it's "that" dad hat.
Why is merch such a flex?
Wearing luxury brands has always signalled social status, standing out, power.
But creator merch is shifting the paradigm. It’s less about the money these days.
Turns out, we're drawn to the things that make us feel like we’re in the know, in the know of a trend, inside joke, a movement, or secret information. It's about subscribing to a tribe or a set of shared interests and hobbies.
Merch makes us feel like we belong.
Buying a handbag has traditionally been about making a statement, a way to stand out. If handbags or stilettos were about proximity to wealth, merch is about access to knowledge.
And in 2021, knowledge (not wealth) is power.