selfridges launches justin bieber merchandise
As Justin Bieber kicks off his Purpose Tour in London today, Selfridges is launching his most coveted fan merch ever. Anders Christian Madsen looks at the culture that created it.
I'll remember 2016 for a lot of weird things. The year Brangelina broke up, the year an American presidential candidate threatened to jail his opponent in a live TV debate… the year the British government asked my workplace to list me, a non-Brit, as an alien. But none so much as the year that people well into their thirties went out and bought tour merchandise with Justin Bieber's face on it. If someone had told you, in 2012 around the time of his Believe album, that fully grown women — and perhaps most ironically, men! — would be running around in impossibly long-sleeved Purpose Tour sweaters four years into the future, you'd sooner have believed Great Britain would exit the EU and Donald Trump would be four percent away from becoming the leader of the free world. But like Justin says on the title track to that album, "Where would I be if you didn't believe?"
Back then, it would have been as far-fetched thinking that Selfridges would one day be selling Justin Bieber tour merchandise in their hallowed halls of high fashion. Nonetheless, today it's launching to coincide with the first London date of the Purpose Tour this evening, amidst ever-growing hordes of old and very new Beliebers buying it up like Vetements logo raincoats at a Düsseldorf outlet store. (As if a Vetements collection ever lives to see a sale!) Vetements and the culture that surrounds it, of course, play an important factor in the success, not of Justin Bieber but of his merchandise. After badly knocking off their long-sleeved 90s Eastern Bloc vibe in his original Purpose collection, Bieber (perhaps on the advice of a certain fashion-fanatical friend in the music industry?) pulled the whole line and had it re-imagined to Vetements design standards — that is, apart from the quality, which had to fit a $70 price tag for a sweater rather than Vetements' dizzying $700.
What made Justin Bieber — once a popularly ridiculed child crooner — the perfect sales-horse for a new age of pop merch in the course of just four years hasn't just been his own music and age-fueled evolution, but an entire pop cultural evolution. It starts with a new taste for 90s nostalgia and ends with Instagram, and while young Justin has never known a world without Facebook and barely remembers the early 2000s, he somehow became the poster boy for it. Looking back on it, I guess I saw it coming. When I went to his Believe Tour in 2013 — much to the mockery of my friends, but hey, I was an original Belieber — I lined up for ages to get my hands on the holy grail of Bieber caps: the one that says 'Swaggy' on the front and 'Believe' under the visor. I had to out-hiss several vicious tween girls to get it, and in that process I should have realized that the fan merch hype I'd known in the 90s was on its way back.
Twenty years ago, however, the game was different. When you grew up before the internet, nothing makes you feel ancient quite like seeing Justin Bieber in a washed-out Marilyn Manson tour t-shirt from 1994, the year Bieber was actually born. Been there, done that, got the t-shirts — literally. Only, some of us had to queue in a Michael Jackson concert stall circa 1997 to get the good stuff now such a hot commodity on the black market of merchandise. Unlike most of the high fashion we drain our bank accounts for these days, the value of entertainment and art merchandise actually increases the older it gets. If we risked our lives back then for the right pop idol t-shirt, it's nothing compared to the lengths the Instagram generation will go to in order to get their hands on it now.
You can feel a bit silly engaging in an eBay bidding war for what's essentially a sweaty Hanes t-shirt with a barely-waterproof Iron Maiden print on it, but our thirst for original merchandise is symptomatic of a longing for something else. It's nostalgia for a pre-Instagram era when things weren't as accessible and everything felt more real. This is the craving for authenticity that's created Vetements where Titanic hoodies and Champion tracksuits with a design twist easily earn that $700 price tag, and Yeezy, which is effectively Kanye West's extended collection of tour merchandise. Like Bieber's Purpose Tour hoodies, Kanye's Saint Pablo Tour line has a strong whiff of Vetements to it — and Vetements an even stronger whiff of 90s' concert merch about it. Talk about coming full circle.
That whole last paragraph I just lifted from a story I wrote about Raf Simons' newest collection in the Fall issue of i-D, and the fact that the new merch wave is traceable even in the current work of an haute designer like Simons speaks volumes of its commercial power. It's a culture that makes people queue up in front of Supreme stores in the middle of the night to get a piece of their new Playboy collaboration, or at Palace, or at Off-White, which is basically a label tailored to social media merch culture. Four years ago no one would have thought Justin Bieber would ever be cool enough to be the face of such an evolution, but in the fan frenzy that always surrounded him he was well on his way. A change in musical direction, better behavior, and a few flattering full-frontal paparazzi pics, and #believe's the word.
The crazy developments we've been subjected to in this brave new world over the past four years are often enough to make you dizzy, if not depressed. But next to the lunacy of a new political landscape, a fashion world ruled by cult craze, and the downfall of Brangelina, the re-emergence of fan merch madness actually seems pretty forgiving. There's something reassuringly straightforward about the fan culture Justin Bieber represents that kind of makes you worry less about everything else. At the end of the day we'll always have pop idols and fans, who worship them — with or without added degrees of irony. Nothing could be more pure than wearing a $40 t-shirt with someone else's face on it, even if you're doing it from a hipster perspective. It was the brilliant innocence of the 90s, and just the same for a new age of fan merch. Destination: Selfridges.
Justin Bieber's Purpose Tour merchandise collection is available exclusively at Selfridges. Shop the collection here.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Alasdair McLellan