Fashion is dead, long live MerchTainment ™
Last night I went to an event that didn’t have a name. It was a “fashion show”, a “presentation” or often just an “event”. The official invitation read “Summer 22 Red Carpet”, but the majority of those present dubbed it “The Balenciaga Thing”.
When I arrived there was a red carpet encampment that shone like a 4k resolution screen in the middle of a rainy Parisian evening. Through the crowd of onlookers and paparazzi, guests were led through a step-and-rehearsal in front of a gang of cameramen equipped with digital SLRs.
Inside, that’s when they told you the joke: that the theater that The Balenciaga Thing was in was actually a viewing room for the real show outside. Onlookers watched their friends and peers walk the mat, most of them oblivious to the masquerade.
Then came the Balenciaga looks, worn by models, celebrities, Balenciaga staff and members of European cognizanti, all of whom walked through the carpet like everyone else. Cardi B and Offset arrived as Ambassadors from the House of Atlanta, Dev Hynes and Ella Emhof from the House of Dimes, Naomi Campbell and Juergen Teller from House of 90s Fashion, as well as Anne Imhof and Karen Boros from House of German Art World. Then, of course, there were the regular Balenciaga models that we recognize as characters from a reality TV show. When they appeared on screen, the crowd cheered them on, until they entered the building and started among our ranks. The energy in the room was like a high school graduation ceremony.
But it wasn’t until everyone had gotten inside that The Balenciaga Thing’s real headline moment happened. The live broadcast of the red carpet cut and queued a special episode of The Simpsons made in collaboration with the brand. There was everything anyone could have asked for: Goofy Simpson in Paris looking for KFC, vampire-like fashion agents and Smithers finally made it to models.com.
Watching it all unfold, I couldn’t help but remember The Telfar Thing in New York City about two weeks ago. There, attendees entered the soundtrack to Gil Scott Heron’s âThe Revolution Will Not Be Televisedâ and were treated to a theatrical press conference by designer Telfar Clemens and his mastermind. The rally announced the launch of Telfar TV, a new live streaming channel through which the brand would begin hosting not only content, but its biggest drops. When asked at The Telfar Thing if the channel would be the start of a media empire, its creative director Babak Radboy replied, âThis is the end of a media empire. A few days later, graduates of art schools around the world were scanning QR codes on Telfar TV to copy the brand’s new it-bag.
The problem with unnamed events is that they are usually a sign that we are entering a new era, an era for which the old era does not yet have the vocabulary. Jazz, social media, pop art, punk, and reality TV all started happening before critics knew what to call them. And if it’s writers’ job to figure out what to name these things, then let’s start here. What we saw last month at The Balenciaga Thing and The Telfar Thing was the season when fashion became MerchTainment.
If what MerchTainment is seems unclear, let me unwrap this a bit. MerchTainment is Kim Kardashian wearing Balenciaga bondage gear to her ex-husband’s Balenciaga-style listening event, and turning that same outfit into an undisputed victory on the Met Gala red carpet. The Met Gala itself could be MerchTainment’s patient zero. MerchTainment is the Instagram brand you really love. Philipp Plein even knows how to do MerchTainment. Lil Nas X may have just overpowered him. And Moncler and Alicia Keys know exactly what we’re talking about. MerchTainment could in fact be anything affiliated with Kanye West, the Olympian god of the music and merch industries, and if all goes according to plan with Gap, this could be the time when the whole world will subscribe. MerchTainment is the fashion industry that swallows all the entertainment, in an age when no one cares less about a Grammy or an Oscar, and many teens can name more creative directors than directors. MerchTainment is how the fashion has spilled out of its designated weeks and into a year round show where consumers follow brands as much as they buy things from them.
In Highsnobiety’s research we conducted on Gen Z and Millennial luxury consumers in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group, we learned that early adopters make their buying decisions in the inspiration phase rather than later in their customer journey. To say it without talking about the marketing: nobody walks into a department store and says “Well, this Balenciaga is really cool, I want it”, they form that relationship over the months on Instagram, in the magazine pages. , and by being blown away by the levitation of Kanyes and The Simpsons brand episodes. As our Editorial Director Christopher Morency rightly wrote last year, modern brands aren’t businesses, they’re universes, and those universes are made up of MerchTainment.
When the world went on lockdown and brands started making movies and lookbooks instead of runways, it felt like an industry putting band-aids on a PR machine that was already broken. But this scenario has accelerated the path of those who know how to play the game, who understood that fashion could fill a void in an attention economy that craved content. And now that industry events are taking place IRL again, being in Paris feels like visit the internet in person more than there is the feeling of being at the main event. Having said that, I’m ready for the next episode.