Picture this: It’s early March 2020. You’re in the 187th row (it’s all you could afford, but you’re just happy to be there) at the first stop of Billie Eilish’s world tour. You’re wearing a vintage *NSync tee celebrating the anniversary of their pop classic No Strings Attached. Your best friend is beside you, wearing a throwback Selena Quintanilla-Pérez shirt. Neither one of you has a care in the world.
Though rock merch (think CBGB, the Rolling Stones, and Metallica) won’t ever go out of style, Gen Z has recently done an overhaul of the industry, swapping out their parents’ dusty favorites for new—well, technically old, just less old—totems of eras past. As we’ve all adapted to a life spent in sweatpants and slippers, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin tees have lost their luster in the wake of new nostalgic icons—think Aaliyah, Selena, and Britney—whose legacies signal a less overwhelming time in pop culture, before streaming and social media. The shirts are comfort blankets, swaddling burned-out fans in pre-pandemic bliss, reminiscent of childhood and gesturing toward happier days ahead. And now, current artists are churning out new merch that channels the nostalgia of those cherished vintage finds. Dell Furano, founder and CEO of Epic Rights, which licenses for acts like Britney Spears, *NSync, and Juice Wrld, notes that it’s become an important source of revenue: “Especially with no touring in the last year and a half, you have to maintain your profile.”
No wonder more and more musicians are turning to established designers to modernize their legacies while still evoking vintage style. Streetwear brand The Hundreds is fresh off a throwback collaboration with pop princess Spears, whose Oops-era image has been printed onto hoodies and track jackets as bright and eye-popping as a Lisa Frank sticker sheet. Before that, Madonna made streetwear waves with a sold-out Supreme collection featuring retro images of herself. And Harry Styles enlisted Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele to design a shirt inspired by his 2019 album, Fine Line.
Young pop stars often look to the A-listers who came before them for inspiration. Trendsetting ’90s and ’00s babies like Miley Cyrus (a Madonna stan, according to her wardrobe) and Billie Eilish (who’s been known to rock a Spears tee) have folded vintage merch from music’s biggest stars into their own aesthetics. Stylist Maeve Reilly, who works with Hailey Bieber and Ciara, says her clients are drawn to the look of ’90s icons.
For artists, there’s money to be made in rewinding the clock—look no further than the fervor Lindsay Lohan kicked up among millennials when she reissued her 2004 album Speak on vinyl last year. But the savviest among them have realized nostalgia is an easy way to communicate with fans longing for connection during socially distanced times. Take Mileyspace, a MySpace-indebted website listing Cyrus’s “Top 5” (including Stevie Nicks and, naturally, Tom), as well as her splashy new Plastic Hearts merch line, some of which pays homage to concert tees from decades past.
Cyrus’s digital and marketing director, Olivia Rudensky, chalks up the retro-fest to the singer’s willingness to listen to fans and her desire to celebrate a legacy-in-progress. “So many of these artists are really tapping into what the fans want because they’re seeing it,” she says. “Nostalgia makes people feel comfortable and safe and part of this community, because it’s almost like we’re all in this together.” It also fits into a longing for a time when music was less driven by algorithms and massive streaming platforms. For Rudensky, one of the few upsides of quarantine was the ability to actually enjoy pop culture again rather than merely navigating through the onslaught of noise: “We’re just constantly keeping up, especially with the streaming era. There are so many songs every single day, where it used to be an event. I think we were able to go back to a lot of these things and give them the real appreciation they deserved.”
Of course, it’s important to remember that nostalgia is just as cyclical as fashion itself. In merch, everything old is new again—until the next red-hot throwback comes along. The Stones begat Bruce Springsteen, who begat Metallica, who begat Spears, who’ll soon cede the floor to acts like Cyrus and Eilish. As one enraged TikTok user bemoaned recently, “If my kid puts on a One Direction shirt for fashion because it’s hip and vintage, I’m gonna tell him to take it the f–k off.”
This article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ELLE.
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