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The magic of merch for fashion retailers

Stella mccarntey x taylor swift

Drapers explores why retailers and brands are jumping on the bandwagon for merchandise from musicians, TV shows and films

Logo-mania may have fashion in its grasp – think Supreme and Fendi’s double-F – but today’s young shoppers are just as likely to be found donning clothing emblazoned with their favourite musician, TV show, film or cartoon character.

The once-humble band T-shirt has undergone something of a fashion makeover. Singer Taylor Swift and designer Stella McCartney became the most recent example of this emerging trend in August, when the duo unveiled a pastel-toned collection (pictured above) to mark the release of Swift’s latest album, Lover. Products included a bomber jacket that retailed for £1,335 and a £525 handbag.

H&m stranger things (2)

H&M x Stranger Things

But today’s fashion merchandise extends far beyond music. Films, TV shows, cartoon characters and even video games are ripe with opportunity for fashion retailers and brands. Netflix series Stranger Things has proved a popular choice: H&M, Levi’s and Topshop have all launched clothing collections related to the smash hit show. H&M, Topshop and New Look all offer T-shirts referencing 1990s hit TV show Friends. Budget retailer Primark, a leader in this field, offers customers a plethora of branded products, from kids’ TV show Paw Patrol to Harry Potter merchandise, Disney characters, Snoopy, Barbie and gaming sensation Fortnite.

However, retailers that are looking to merchandising for a quick win and easy revenue stream should be cautious. There are legal pitfalls when creating “unofficial” product that brushes up against copyrighted material, and today’s savvy shoppers can tell when a collaboration is born of genuine enthusiasm, and when it is a cash grab. 

The sound of music

Before Taylor Swift’s collaboration with Stella McCartney, Rapper Kanye West was one of the first to tap into shoppers’ lust for elevated music merchandise in 2016, when fans in cities around the world queued for hours to get their hands on T-shirts, hats and bomber jackets produced in line with his “The Life of Pablo” tour.

There was also huge consumer demand for product released around the time of teen heartthrob Justin Bieber’s mammoth “Purpose” world tour, which ran from late 2016 to 2017. Retailers were quick to capitalise on the demand, and the collection was stocked by Asos, H&M and Urban Outfitters. Such was the power of “Purpose” product that it helped to spark a 5.2% sales lift in 2016’s third quarter earnings at the US arm of Urban Outfitters.

It gives people a sense of belonging, of being part of a community.

Emmy Lovell, WEA Europe

“This is a trend we’ve been tracking for some time,” explains Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product at trend intelligence agency Stylus. “It taps into the ongoing resurgence of the 1990s and early 2000s – a lot of these products, even if they reference a modern franchise, have a very vintage-inspired, nostalgic aesthetic through their use of font and graphics. This kind of product often has quite an ironic feel. Cool younger shoppers are seeking out obscure or ironic brands and franchises, and retailers and brands are then resurrecting this on a mass scale.”

Emmy Lovell is executive vice-president of WEA Europe, part of music label Warner Music Group, whose artists include Ed Sheeran, Charli XCX and Coldplay. 

She says: “We’re living in such a fast-paced, digital-first world, and people are searching for ways to express themselves and make real-world connections. Music and fashion are both different forms of self-expression: they help tell the world who you are and what you stand for. When you wear a hoodie from your favourite artist or a T-shirt from a gig you went to, then you’re signalling to like-minded people that you’re one of them. It gives people a sense of belonging, of being part of a community. There’s something very tribal about it.”

Gordon-Smith adds that to capitalise on the trend, retailers and brands need to have their fingers firmly on the pulse of cultural moments most relevant to their consumer: “Retailers need to work out the key franchises that their customer is interested in and look ahead to what big films, TV programmes and albums are coming out over the next couple of years, as well as pay attention to what’s happening in the worlds of sports and gaming.

“Primark is a retailer that has really nailed merchandise and has found lucrative ways to expand it even further – the Friends-themed cafe at its Manchester store is a great example of an engaging in-store experience.”

Finding fans

Collaborating with popular cultural phenomena, which come with their own set of hyper-engaged “super-fans”, can be an effective method of exciting today’s fickle, easily bored shopper. Denim giant Levi’s has produced lines with Snoopy and Japanese cartoon character, as well as Stranger Things. Jonathan Cheung, senior vice-president of design innovation at Levi’s, tells Drapers that such partnerships have correlated into significant uptick in interest in the brand.

Collaborations help us stay close to the centre of culture

Jonathan Cheung, Levi’s

Levi hello kitty (3)

Levi’s x Hello Kitty

“One of the special things about Levi’s is the relationship it’s had with culture,” he explains. “When you picture Levi’s, it’s often in relationship with cultural references, whether it’s Kanye [West] wearing a Levi’s Trucker jacket or the brand being worn in films or TV. We want to stay connected to culture, because it is the best way to stay relevant to our shopper. Collaborations help us stay close to the centre of culture and they really help us create energy, experiences and engagement.”

He argues that authenticity is the key to making this kind of merchandise collection a success, and warns that canny customers can detect if a brand is simply jumping on the latest bandwagon: “A successful collaboration has to be authentic. When we start the creative process, even when we’re just talking about who we’d like to work with, it always comes from us being fans first. I can’t underline that point enough, because I believe customers can feel the difference. Our successful collaborations have come from being fans first and then the business side takes care of itself.

“For example, from the get-go with Stranger Things, we wanted to start a much deeper relationship than just getting access to a graphics library. We went on set and worked with their amazing wardrobe department and ended up helping to dress several of the characters.”

Warner Music Group’s Lovell has worked on a range of merchandise collections, including a partnership between Joy Division and independent retailer Goodhood. 

She agrees: ”The most successful collaborations tend to come about when both sides have gone into the project with a shared understanding of what they’re trying to achieve, what their fans want, and what they’re both individually bringing to the table. When everyone is pulling in the same direction, and the key players in the team have the same passion, commitment and vision for the project, then you’re off to a really good start.”

Beg Berdan, designer for London Fashion Week label DB Berdan, whose spring 20 collection features a collaboration with French cartoon Smiley, agrees: “A collaboration where the two brands work well together and really believe in each other is the best kind – it really elevates the product.”

Elevated offer

Although branded merchandise products often appeal to a younger customer, link-ups can also have a broader appeal. Contemporary womenswear brand Chinti & Parker, for example, has worked on collaborations with characters including the Moomins and Miffy. Most recently, it launched an autumn 19 collection featuring characters from Peanuts, including Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

14 av190131 sh13 034 v1

Chinti & Parker x Peanuts

“This kind of product works because it is fun, nostalgic and has a broad appeal,” explains co-founder Anna Singh. “It is very important to consider the global appeal of this kind of collection – our sales are split equally between the UK and the US, and Asia is our third-biggest market. Finding a character or franchise that has appeal for all three markets can be very difficult.

“Obviously, you need to respect the character, but you also need to enter into a licence partnership that will allow you a degree of creativity and make product relevant to your customer. We’ve turned down other characters we wanted to work with because they were too stringent over what we could and couldn’t do.”

There are also legal pitfalls for retailers when creating merchandise. Rock band Nirvana is suing designer Marc Jacobs, as well as department stores Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, for copyright infringement over pieces from the designer’s Redux Grunge collection. The brand claims the products resemble its well-known smiley face iconography, thereby “threatening to dilute the value of Nirvana’s licences for clothing products”.

“Retailers do need to use common sense and check if something could be a registered trademark or look into if there is a licence fee to pay,” explains Tracy Lacey-Smith, partner and joint head of the commercial litigation and dispute resolution team at SA Law. “Sometimes the fashion industry doesn’t take the time to think these issues through, because trends move so quickly and there’s so much pressure to get new products out. It is also important to remember that some things that have trademarks aren’t obvious – like slogans.”

Despite the hurdles brands and retailers must jump, the vogue for product referencing musicians, films, TV shows and characters in fashion shows no signs of waning. To cash in on the trend, retailers and brands need to carefully consider which franchises are most relevant to their consumer and put their own stamp on product to stand out in this increasingly competitive sector.


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