It’s 2011: All you want is a souvenir jacket like the one Ryan Gosling wore in Drive, Donald Trump is feuding with the Democratic nominee for president, and artist merch is hella hot thanks to Kanye West. So, literally nothing has changed in 2016. Great.
While all these things did a pretty good as a crystal ball stand-in, we’re interested in one in particular: the idea of merch as fashion. Just look at the cheesy unworthy-of-Barneys merch Justin Bieber and his bangs were trying to sell you five years ago. Now, Bieber sells his merch at luxury boutiques and department stores and other artists like Zayn Malik, Post Malone, Future, 21 Savage, Metro Boomin, Rihanna, and Pusha T have also taken their own stab at fashionable product based around their concert tours and albums. Now, we can see that we largely have Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne album and tour, five years old today, to thank for elevating concert merch to a higher fashion plane.
West and Hov worked with Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci to create both the album artwork and custom tees for the pair of rappers to wear on stage. In the same style as the popular animal tees he’s created, Tisci created vicious portraits of Jay and ‘Ye as half human, half animal—all the fun of the designer’s rottweiler tees with the added bonus of rap royalty. These T-shirts were eventually sold to the public at Virgil Abloh’s Chicago-based boutique RSVP Gallery.
Even in the moment, Tisci knew that his involvement in the merch made a powerful and groundbreaking statement. “I said, “Are you ready to really break down this barrier?” Tisci told the now-defunct Details. “Because for me, rap until then was about gloss and diamonds and the chain and fur, girls in swimsuits. And they were like, ‘Yes, we’re ready.’”
Tisci, to use another common phrase, opened the floodgates for other artists to follow. Now, working with a high-end designer on product to be sold in conjunction with an album release is much more commonplace—see also Bieber’s collaboration with Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo, for example. The efforts of Tisci, West, and Mr. Beyoncé Knowles was also the first sign that the line between merch and fashion was drawn in pencil and not pen. In 2016, people camp out to buy merch that they’ll wear as a fashion item, Kanye can now make an alleged million off a pop-up selling solely merch, and the product category, previously limited to cheesy tees, is now serving as inspiration for designers like former DONDA employee GEO and Second/Layer. None of these things were happening in 2011 when WTT was released and the tour kicked off.
When it came to designing the Watch the Throne album cover the single artwork for “H.A.M,” Tisci also pushed his own personal boundaries. “I was a little bit scared, because I’m not an artist or a graphic artist,” Tisci told Vogue in 2012. However, he wasn’t alone. After agreeing to design the covers, he found himself exchanging ideas with Rihanna, Swizz Beatz, and Pharrell Williams. “Like a family giving opinions to each other and sharing—which is something that fashion is missing.” The resulting cover is a perfect fusion of the gaudiness we typically associate with hip-hop and the tribal and religious iconography Tisci typically plays with.
The collaboration was also perfectly timed to the era of streetwear meets high-fashion, a phrase that is still just as relevant now as it was in 2011. Now, it’s accepted as fact that Kanye is always on the forefront of the marriage between fashion and music; in hindsight, we can see it was no different then.
As profit margins on actual album sales dwindle, artists trying to fill that gap with something else to sell was inevitable. However, Kanye and Jay were the first to realize that “you can’t download a T-shirt” and actually throw their eggs into this merch basket in a major way. And like WTT the album is a defining work in its genre, the merch would still make a huge splash if it were released today. How many other artists can say their swag was created with the designer of a major fashion house like Tisci? Jay Z raps on “Otis” I invented swag/Poppin’ bottles, puttin’ supermodels in the cab.” He could tack must-have merch onto that verse.