After years of being told to avoid graphics and phrases on our clothing, classic menswear seems to have come full circle on merch and branded clothing. It’s weird but almost nostalgic in a way.
Like most of you, I remember a time when merch and branded clothing was actively suggested against when dressing. This was during the rise of #menswear, where men wanted to look “dapper” and timeless at every given moment. Looking back, I could see why merch and branded clothing were cast aside- most of those pieces were quite casual, being in the form of tee shirts. They just didn’t have the “classy” connotations that a polo shirt, turtleneck, or button up would have. But that’s only one side of the equation. The other is about authenticity.
Take a listen to the podcast episode first before reading further!
We’ve talked about authenticity before and the conclusion we came to is that when it comes to menswear (or dressing in general), authenticity doesn’t mean anything other than what you make of it. You can wear military chinos and work in finance or you could wear a suit and be a painter- that’s the beauty of having the myriad of aesthetics under menswear. Merch clothing doesn’t do that (at least at first glance).
To me, merch (and branded clothing) usually points to something mass produced and easily wearable that can have a logo slapped on at leisure. Merch and branded clothing takes the form of simple tee shirts and dad caps, though obviously there are plenty examples of polos/rugbies, leather jackets, sportshirts, and knitwear that fall in to this category. Unlike a plain item however, merch clothing is not “vibe agnostic”. Far from it in fact, as the stenciled words and embroidered logos point specifically to something, implying that this garment is tied to a some bigger idea rather than the garment’s inherent design. This root is what makes merch valuable to people, either signifying attachment to a specific organization or a form of souvenir that only certain people had access to. In short, merch provides a shortcut to authenticity, using a simple piece to display personality rather than relying inherently on style and design.
That theme behind merch is probably why classic menswear doesn’t really jive with it. Classic menswear is all about using details to exude specific aesthetics. White socks and penny loafers are ivy, where as tassels and navy hoisery is more classic. Certain stripes signal prep over others. Shirt collar and jacket lapel shape can even allude to certain decades of menswear. Becoming entranced with those specific details are why I left my merch days behind. . As I got into menswear, I really didn’t have much need for graphic tees and university sweatshirts. I wanted to use other ways to signal my taste. In my mind, merch and other branded clothing were simultaneously too specific and not specific enough due to its connotations and “blank” nature respectively.
Obviously this is only a relatively recent problem (perhaps exacerbated by how tailoring is seen as completely formal) as merch has remained such a big piece of general men’s clothing for a long time. You can see men back in the early 1900s wearing crew neck tees, stenciled with government associations and local societies. It’s a cool idea to think that despite the plethora of tailoring and classic sportswear, they opted for clothing that signaled something about them, even if it was just a tee shirt. Perhaps this is because the idea of clothing as “art” wasn’t quite a thing yet.
Of course this idea wasn’t just present on tee shirts. You could find these logos and words present on chore coats and sweatshirts, all things that had more to do with utility and practicality rather than tailoring; we later added ball caps and bucket hats to this. Come to think of it, maybe this was just a version of how school blazers had special patches or regimental stripes for specific clubs! You may not wear a tie on your day off while working in your yard, but you’ll probably have a tee shirt or cap on!
As clothing got more casual, it makes sense that merch became the default mode for personal taste and authenticity. Instead of leaning on all the details of menswear, its much easier to wear something casual that happens to have a logo or brand on it. Only as time went on, it became much less about school or local society, but about so much more. For example, band tees were a great way to show off their music taste (and the fact that they had a special, discerning experience).
Eventually brands, designers, and artists hopped on, paving the way for collaboration merch and graphic tees. It really is a great way for non-clothing entities to get visibility on clothing, the things that people have to wear everyday; its free real estate! This is how you could have an artist put their work on a tee shirt or how Barbour slapped their text logo onto a cap. Sure, you could consume the original piece (art or outerwear), but merch? That’s different. It’s a shortcut- an easily accessible one at that. People are able to gobble it up and wear it with ease! Anything can be branded: Star Wars caps, Anime tee shirts, and indie artwork on totebags. With everything becoming licensed, its up to you to find out what’s “cool” and what’s tacky. Let’s not forget how Hollister, Abercrombie, and RL logos exploded on tee shirts and polos back in the early 2000s.
Now I’m not saying merch is a bad thing (other than how its ideas lead to the rise of hype culture). My main issue with it was how tough it is to make work in a classic menswear context. Again, it just looks like its on a totally different level. Branded items typically don’t really go well in artisanal tailoring or ivy. What it does go with are inherently casual items like jeans and chore coats, both of which are things that the classic menswear crowd took a while to get behind, at least in the mainstream. This is why merch is so popular with streetwear and indie culture. But this leads to the interesting point of today, where both of those things are starting to blend into classic menswear, or at least specifically in the neo-prep and ivy circles. We can still attribute this to the Seinfeld-Sopranos beat currently happening classic menswear and even include the Y2K redux in the wider Fashion world.
One great example of this are ball caps, a hat that literally anyone can wear (and has worn). I recall seeing plenty of guys in the mid century (ivy or not) wearing caps from their favorite teams. The idea of merch worn with trad tailoring (and not just ties and patches) isn’t a new thing, which is why you can typically see some of the most stallwart of ivy dressers make a soft spot for collegiate sweaters or school/team caps. Eventually you see this expanded to mean local barcaps (or the elusive Budweiser bucket hat) or country clubs, pointing toward a new stage in life. And for some reason, it still looks pretty good with OCBDs and tweedy sack jackets. Perhaps then ivy isn’t just about student wear but about what those students wore as they moved past undergrad and became regular ol adults. And get this, adults like wearing merch too, even the ones in repp ties. There’s even the grail-worthy Rolexes given to Dominos executives or how Japanese ivy guys in the 1960s were obsessed with anything Van Jac, even going as so far as to have bags just to look like they had shopped at that store.
Despite it being a rarity and “against the rules”, a lot of menswear guys actually do like wearing merch. This is probably due to the new generation approaching it as artistic expression rather than a hardlined uniform with a bible to follow. In fact, this new cohort of dressers lacks the same context as other traditional dressers, instead sharing a common root with the streetwear and indie kids whose fashion incorporates merch a lot more. That’s why a lot of my inspirations have a soft spot for various types of merch and branded clothing, even if it doesn’t make much “sense” for tailoring. Hell, irony in streetwear is nothing new, where the novelty of owning a collab is just how different the two brands are! Why can’t that happen in menswear?
It’s actually pretty clear that many menswear brands are seeing how popular the streetwear and “indie look” is getting, especially as a new generation enters the market. They’re realizing that tradition isn’t enough to keep people interested in it. Say what you like about it, but as I write this I realize that all of this post-modernism happening with menswear is simply what I discovered in the Future essay: Menswear is becoming just like any other fashion subculture and its starting to get its own take on merch and streetwear. It’s all a bit more trad. The cheap poly blanks are now wide wale corduroy caps and cashmere sweaters; the topics aren’t indie bands or rappers but figures like Princess Diana and Barbar the Elephant. Even now, Drake’s has started putting their logo on basics, so that you can wear “normal” clothes that still signify your attachment to an artisanal brand. Merch inclined menswear guys no longer had to simply deal with Ebbets field creating reproductions of vintage sports merch.
Now you have places like Rowing Blazers, Noah, and ALD positioned to bridge that streetwear-to-menswear gap. it’s pretty cool to see them create pieces for real collaborations. Sometimes its as easy as rugbys for Harry’s Bar or as complex and brand-incestuous as the Barbour x RB (or Noah) collabs or the frequent partnership between Drake’s and ALD. And since these brands have a basis in classic menswear, the pieces don’t feel too out of place in a trad wardrobe. Sure they might be a bit bold, but they’re easily worn with tailoring or at least classic “sportswear”. And even if they aren’t a great match (like the Are You a Preppy tee), you can still say fuck it and wear it anyway, hoping that the vague menswear connection will be enough. At least you aren’t wearing a Coca Cola logo tee from Target! This time, the merch is “cooler” and more appropriate for classic clothing.
This merch x menswear situation has certainly exploded further, leading to brands that are meant to masquerade as merch, going full force into the irony aspect. You already see Rowing Blazers do this, utilizing basics (caps, tees, sweaters) emblazoned with logos and references to things that don’t really exist, like the “Archaeology Club” or a generic “Finance” division. Novel Mart was started to create university esque attire that references support for food and other fake clubs in the form of a “Tonkatsu” collegiate sweater and a cap for the “Novel Bowling Club” respectively. The Bullshot Bookclub has pencils, caps, and hoodies for a friend group that famously is not accepting new members at this time (though you can look like you’re apart of it). Drake’s has manufactured the “Haberdasher Horticultural Society” and the “Chard Racquet Club” in order to put their logo on caps and chore coats. You also have Torch Sportswear producing garments that are meant to evoke the merch (or varsity wear) of HBCU.
None of these concepts are quite new in the Fashion, but they are new to the classic menswear industry. Presumably, they want to capture what they’re seeing out in the wider world: people are buying merch, whether its new or old, real or not, ironic or authentic. Tailors, brands, and enthusiasts are finally able to join in on the fun!
The collaborations don’t even have to be in the form of traditional merch like caps, tees, and sweaters- they can be fully menswear too. We all know that Ring Jacket has made exclusive models for The Armoury, which I count as a vague form of merch. There are also smaller stores like Brogue who frequently has special make ups from Alden. But akin to how professional atheletes have their own collabs with Nike and Under Armor, so too do the influencers in our space. Matt Hranek of WM Brown has had multiple collaborations that has lead to parkas, watches, loafers, and now fabric. These have happened before and concurrently with the Merch x Menswear activity, which makes me posit that menswear is fully engulfed in it now. It’s indier, more modern, and perhaps poised to be treated like any other fashion subculture. At least now, that is.
I will say again that I don’t really have an issue with Merch x Menswear. Like I said before, its actually cool that menswear is getting its try at this streetwear mindset; many of these brands even do limited production and recurring drops just to further the connotations. My only critique is the wearability of it all, as its not typically something you associate with classic menswear. Design and aesthetics is the draw and when you take away the graphics and text, you’re left with something quite normal. But perhaps that’s entirely the point.
When we dress down, have a day off, or are stuck in our homes for extended periods of time, a lot of our choices are rather plain. My drawers are no different. Most of my tee shirts and sweaters are solid colors with a few stripes thrown in. But after a while, they can get boring; the idea that these are supposed to be vibe-agnostic can be quite lifeless! That’s probably why prep and 60s-70s has come back into the scene, which introduce a very specific aesthetic to classic clothes. Merch simply does the same thing for our basics, pushing our attire toward a specific root, similar to a Navy Blazer or Bold, Colorful Trouser. This fascination with merch has lead to menswear doing its own version of streetwear/indie’s “merch look”.
Dad caps are probably the easiest way to get into it since as we said before, they lend themselves to be utilized with tailoring, being the point of novelty in a typically
sober ivy-trad-ish outfit. Instead of rocking a plain twill cap, why not have one with your old uni crest? Or be a little cheeky and wear one to support a vintage sportsteam you’ve never seen or a bookclub you can’t join? I’m reminded of Blamo!’s Jeremy Kirkland and his beloved yellow cap from his favorite frozen custard place. It’s a quirky, authentic connection that seems to be a great way to get into the merch x menswear mentality, similar to resurrecting collegiate sweatshirts and hoodies. The connection also avoids the common critiques of merch, where people tend to wear things ironically (like for tees from bands that they’ve never heard before).
Merch tees are certainly a bit harder to do, as classic menswear doesn’t leave much room for tee shirts to be worn in general. That being said, you are seeing it quite a bit just with a bit of a twist depending on what subsection you fall under. For vintage workwear/milsurp guys, logo and merch tees from the 1960s-1980s are the sweetspot, as they are mainly solid (or ringers) with simple stenciled text or a logo. They make a great pair against chore coats/military jackets (which can also feature branding) and jeans/chinos, with the outfit truly bridging the gap between classic menswear and indie/alternative fashion. The irony argument can definitely be made here because the references these merch make are often long gone. But hey, it’s not like we’re buying military chinos to serve in the armed forces; authenticity doesn’t really matter much, right?
On that note, let’s talk about vintage band tees. I don’t think that menswear guys aren’t cashing into the indie trend but simply resurrecting their actual interests in music, as many of these new age dudes have been hardcore rock/punk enthusiasts and have even played in bands themselves. Band tees tend to be quite graphic heavy, but that hasn’t stopped a few menswear guys from donning them, as they sometimes lean into the wild designs from Metallica or the Grateful Dead. Ethan Newton shows his interest in the former quite often, wearing his shirts with both jeans and tailoring. Hey, when you like it, you make it work!
To me it seems that vintage merch is perhaps the best way to go about it do to a twofold draw: your interest in the subject matter and the fact that you had to search hard to find it. For example, a vintage Barbour merch cap would be cool to find for those very same reasons. In other words, it’s typically cool and easy to incorporate! The real discussion points come with neo-merch, which can still be quite fun to wear and certainly quite bold, both in personality and in actual execution. As menswear gets more loose and fun, there is certainly room to not look like you’re following the rules but instead have a bit of ironic fun with your clothes. Authenticity be damned!
That being said, the idea of personal connection within clothing is something that reinvigorated my interest in merch. I always struggled with the fact that most of my interests either didn’t have wearable merch or if they did, it wasn’t very good. Perhaps that’s why I was able to latch onto classic menswear, where there was a clear delineation between my lifestyle and the “root” of the clothes I wore.
And even then, my past in vintage menswear made me opt for something a bit more “vibe-agnostic” with a bit of interest. or example, I wouldn’t really want a patch on my blazer because I think brass buttons are enough of a signaler; I sure as hell wouldn’t want to buy a sportcoat or a button up shirt with large logos or artwork on it. But that was simply me projecting apprehensions onto merch, because at the end of the day, like all the other guys doing the look, I finally decided there was room for me to introduce my interests. Not in specific tailoring aesthetics but overt life interests.
This is why over the years you’ve see me wear what little merch I have here and there, though admittedly they are much more lowkey than others. My ball caps, which you’ll see in the photos below, are probably the most prominent ones, being nearly all vintage with something cheeky. On one end of the spectrum I have an old “The Fugitive” cap, bought from a random costuming warehouse; on the other, I have a Novel Bowling Club cap given to me by Lucas when he started his brand. Both I wear semi-frequently on days where I feel like wearing a ballcap, which usually are a form of neo-ivy, though instead of repping my school (of which I actually don’t have any merch from), I support something funny or non-existent.
In terms of clothing merch, I don’t really have much; again my style is usually based around collars and ties rather than brands and logos. My sweaters and sweatshirts are typically solids, but I have a handful of cool ones: a U of BC sweatshirt from my dad, a “Fuji A.C” sweatshirt from Ebbets field, and a 1960’s shortsleeve sweatshirt with a crest from JFK’s 50 Miler; I’m told that this one predates his assassination’s. Each have a fun little story behind it (as well as literal history themselves), which make it more interesting than a plain tee or sweater I picked up from eBay or Uniqlo.
As you’d expect the way I wear them leans more into that rugged Americana, just with the basics swapped for something with a bit more interest. Alternates are the name of the game. Sure, a university sweatshirt may not always replace dark navy knitwear underneath my Ascot Chang suit but it does work for when I’m looking for a sweater to wear with jeans and an OCBD. Because when a plain navy or grey sweater feels too played out, merch is there to save the day and make you just a bit more interesting. Like my fellow menswear guys, I feel that I’m finally allowed an outlet to get into that streetwear or indie fascination with merch- just now I can do it in a way that finally feels authentic, rather than simply jumping into a trend.
Approaching merch in this method paved the way for me to revisit my old merch tees. It was tough, as I barely wear tees to begin with, but even so, I was still quite bored of always wearing a breton stripe with everything; even putting them under a button up wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. Bretons can do that to a menswear man. But merch tees? They’re different and fun!
I’ll probably write a full essay about how I use them in the future, but for now, just know that I’ve been enjoying breaking out my merch tees with casual attire, especially in the spring/summer. They definitely do not lend themselves to be used with tailoring or even Americana as much as a dad cap or sweater, but that’s okay, I liked the challenge of adding them to outfits. Doing my version of “indie LA” fits with wide legged jeans, chore coats, and my merch tees can seem like a regression, but in actuality, its just about expanding what my style POV is. I’m not even that unopposed to wearing them with tailoring, as sacrilegious as that sounds. Forced Versatility- I like it, so I make it work.
Now my merch tees tend to be more about Star Wars rather than bands (though I have one band tee I got from my first non-symphonic concert) or collaborations, which is certainly a nerdier choice, but I wear them anyway. It lets me add a new genre of menswear to my repertoire, one that is more “indie” and accessible for others to get into. Adding in my more “Ethan” pieces adds the final touch, bridging the gap between merch and menswear, or more specifically my non-menswear interests and the clothing I choose to wear everyday (which happens to be menswear inclined).
Perhaps that’s what it’s all about. Menswear is finally loosening up, allowing its makers and wearers some more leeway in how they dress. No longer is it about formality and business wear but rather about…clothing that features details like high rise, pleats, and collar roll and lapels. It comes naturally after years of casualization and style-specific cues sneaking in, like jeans with sportcoats or wearing a bucket hat with a suit. Wearing merch takes it to the next level, signaling hobbies and attachments not through the functional details of a garment but by the text and logo on them instead! I mean many of these guys grew up with merch and so now they can do it in a way that makes sense for their current aesthetic.
It’s only pretty cool to see classic menswear adopt the “merch look” that’s been done by streetwear and indie culture for a long time. After all, we already are starting to share similar ideas in silhouette, furthering the fact that menswear doesn’t have to be vibe-agnostic but instead, can point toward something specific. Merch makes that connection overt, but whether or not this introduction of merch is tacky or too ironic is entirely up to you. I mean what’s truly the difference between a Star Wars tee, a Supreme Brick, and a WM Brown parka if you authentically like all of them?
Though with the introduction of Fila x Brooks Brothers, we may be heading to another bubble. Better buy those collabs while you still can.
- 04:35 – Intro/Cold Open Over
- 08:07 – Merch Entering Menswear
- 10:11 – What is Merch/Branded Items?
- 13:19 – Why Do People Like Buying Merch?
- 16:23 – “What I Never Really Got About the Merch Thing”
- 19:42 – Merch “Back Then”
- 21:03 – Associating with the Product
- 22:32 – Merch Economy
- 23:22 – Everyone is Into Merch/Collector’s Mindset
- 28:08 – Authenticity of Merch
- 35:09 – Brand Logos/Brands Making “Fake” Merch
- 44:41 – Introducing Merch into Menswear
- 46:29 – How Do You Know if Merch is Good
- 49:16 – Souvenirs/Approximation and Pricing
- 55:18 – A Novel Idea and Supporting Friends
- 58:58 – Merch We Own and How We Wear It
- 1:15:27 – It’s Okay to Like Things
- 1:16:44 – Wrap Up
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Always a pleasure,
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