Telekom Electronic Beats

More than just merch: how fashion became electronic music’s dynamic new frontier

From collaborations between cult superclubs and emerging designers to fully-fledged brands by DJs, fashion is now a key strategy for cultivating community in club culture.

Fashion’s abiding crush on electronic music and its broader culture is well-documented, but in recent years, it’s been turbocharged. Whether Kiko Kostadinov’s longstanding creative relationship with PAN’s Bill Kouligas; Parisian fashion house Courrèges seasonal afterparties with lineups including the likes of LSDXOXO, ISAbella and Crystallmess; Prada’s ‘Extends’ party series; or London-based menswear label JordanLuca’s enlisting of the Herrensauna crew for a gritty Milan Fashion Week rave; or Carhartt WIP’s recent Tresor link up, the status of club sounds and culture as key sources in fashion’s collective repository of inspirations has made itself pretty clear over the past five or so years. Right now, rave is to fashion what rock once was.

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While fashion has openly capitalized on electronic music’s cultural capital – in particular, its implicit connotations of sub- and counterculture – this relationship has, historically, been pretty unilateral. Of course, fashion has always played a key role in club cultures, particularly as a means to articulate an affiliation with a particular tribe or scene – often to the point of pastiche; just look up ‘Berghain fit check’ on TikTok. Still, its relationship with fashion design has remained relatively limited, sticking within the confines of generally first-degree merch.

Now, though, that’s changing. Just as we’ve seen a boom in elevated, directional merch offerings in more commercial sectors of the music industry, this nuanced, more fashion-oriented approach to merch-making is increasingly strongly felt in electronic music contexts. Essentially, what we’re witnessing is a step beyond a simple ‘got the t-shirt’ approach from record labels, clubs and artists alike, blurring a boundary between ‘merch’ and ‘fashion’ that, at this point, nighs on indistinct.

Before diving in, though, let’s briefly unpack what that distinction has historically predicated on. For Filip Samuel Berg, a Berlin-based creative director and mind behind the pioneering merch project Souvenir, a key point is that “classically, merch isn’t designed purely for its creative output – it’s more about a narrative that you want to support with it.” Rather than motivated by innovations in garment design, the foundational logic of merch creation is to take a roster of pedestrian pieces or objects – t-shirts, hoodies, peaked caps et al – and brand them with a logo or a graphic that succinctly conveys the desired theme. “When I’ve done merch in the past, it’s been more about using it as a billboard for a concept,” he says.

Within electronic music alone, there are numerous examples of merch projects that have stepped beyond this remit – PAN’s deliciously esoteric graphic tees and Fatima Al Qadiri’s 2017 collab with Japanese streetwear label Phire Wire (both discussed by this very platform) are well worth mentioning. Still, the highest profile examples of this cross-pollination are to be found in more mainstream musical contexts – pop and hip-hop as the main ones. From Kid Cudi’s collaboration with Pharrell-approved graphic basics brand Cactus Plant Flea Market to Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack line (no direct relation, surprisingly!), Kanye West’s collaboration with London-based emerging label Lueder to Rosalía’s collaboration with emerging artist and model Ch’lita, global-tier megastars have taken to collaborating with below-the-radar, often one-man-band brands on their merch offerings.

In these sectors, this drift towards increasingly niche, creatively directional merch design has numerous functions. For artists, it shows that they’re plugged in; to show that, rather than A&R-engineered bots, they’re real people with honed taste, and merch offers a way to express that beyond their audiovisual output. What’s more, to cater to a global audience more attuned than ever to the visual and cultural vernaculars of high fashion (in part because most global top-tier talents now have lucrative wardrobing deals with luxury fashion houses), considered merch offers a way to sell a slice of the aspirational aesthetic seen on stage at a comparatively affordable price. You may not be able to afford the custom Dion Lee leather bolero and belted miniskirts Rosalía sported throughout her Motomami tour, for example, but you can probably stretch to one of the Ch’lita-designed stonewashed jersey ‘Novia’ sweaters.

A key feature in this upward shift in the general calibre of merch has been an increase in quality, both concerning the graphics that feature on garments, as well as their cuts, shapes, finishings and fabrications. It’s an underpinning ethos of terrible*, a prolific presence in the niche merch field. Starting life as a sustainable streetwear brand, the company later pivoted to the merch space, recognising significant gaps in the space it was aptly placed to fill. “We approached merch with a fashion business model and a focus on quality, good retail and margins that could sustain all the costs of the business,” Tersha Willis, terrible*’s co-founder, says. “It probably doesn’t sound that revolutionary now, but at the time, most artists were printing Gildans and taping a t-shirt to the wall at the shows.”

Now, the company is responsible for sourcing, creating and distributing an unfathomably eccentric range of merch for close to 700 artists including Shygirl, Sampha and Romy. A quick flip through at some of the recent pieces they’ve designed reveals the extent to which they’ve stepped beyond traditional confines of merch design, from embroidered bomber jackets for a Self-Esteem tour to fully-fashioned intarsia knit sweaters for the release of Headie One’s latest single. While, in line with classic merch, each piece feels like a badge of fandom, they’re also plausible fashion objects in their own right. “Merch allows for a strong, personal voice, curated by a fan culture,” Willis notes, “but generally, music and fashion have always been good friends so merch becoming fashion and fashion becoming merch seems quite natural.”

While this phenomenon is certainly attested to in electronic music spaces, there arguably remains a greater degree of non-commercial motivation at play here. While any label executive would be pretty upfront about the commercial impetus of a merch line for mainstream artists, the anchoring of electronic music’s relationship with fashion in the earnest expression of subcultural identity introduces a distinct grain to the role and function of merch within it. While it would be remiss to say that electronic music scenes are, in blanket terms, ‘underground’ today, they nonetheless remain closer to a more classical sense of a creative underground than any popular music genre or scene – particularly when it comes to the social infrastructures that undergird them and serve as a font for broader creative expression and collaboration.

Irakli Rusadze is the designer and creative director behind Situationist, a luxury fashion label based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a regular appearance on the Paris Fashion Week schedule. It is mostly known for its austere, sensual tailoring and deconstructivist flair. Since 2017, though, the brand has been creatively involved with Bassiani, the esteemed techno club nestled in the concrete bowels below the Georgian capital’s main stadium – often dubbed the city’s answer to Berghain. “We’ve always been friends with the people behind the club,” Rusadze notes. “Our partnership kicked off back in 2017 when we had the chance to showcase our SS18 collection there. Then again in 2018, we teamed up during Tbilisi’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.” In the wake of the police raids that shook the city’s rave scene and the subsequent widespread protests, their collaboration amplified in scope. “In response to the rallying cry of the protests, “We dance together, we fight together,” we both decided to join forces creatively. We began by printing the slogan on T-shirts and hoodies, marking the start of our collaboration. Since then, our partnership has become stronger, and we’ve continued to create together.”

Rather than edgy promo material for a hyped club, Rusadze sees the merch collaboration as a token of a “shared commitment to freedom” and their belief in Tbilisi’s club culture as a crucible for those values. Comprising thoughtfully designed pieces that illustrate a shared ethos, the collaboration is an intriguing example of the potential of merch when it “is well-made and there’s an honest reason that brought two parties together, people will see it as more than just a promotional item,” he says. “I feel like Bassiani really represents freedom for young people in Tbilisi. Wearing a t-shirt with a Bassiani logo means you’re asserting your freedom.”

The proliferation of collaborations at the intersection of electronic music and fashion can be boiled down to a much more essential truth: fashion people like to party, party people like to dress. It’s this plain fact, coupled with the mainstream explosion in club culture and aesthetics (DJs are the new pop stars, after all!), that has made this overlapping Venn diagram such a lucrative space for exploration. There’s Kirin, the womenswear label founded and designed by Peggy Gou, and backed by the Milan-based owners of Off-White, New Guards Group; London-based DJ VTSS’ collaboration with Milanese labels A Better Mistake; former Berghain resident Kobosil’s venture with Claudio Antonioli, 44 Label; and Honey Dijon’s high-fashion and accessories line housed beneath the Comme des Garçons umbrella, Honey Fucking Dijon.

While these collaborations are perhaps more fairly categorized as ‘fashion’ rather than as straight-up ‘merch’, the fact that a significant part of their success hinges on engagement from a pre-existing fanbase rather than one that organically coalesces around the fashion itself is a key indicator that “the line between merch and fashion is increasingly blurred,” Nikolai Goutzov and Simeon Dimitrov, the duo behind Berlin-based creative studio and store superconscious – and the designers of Electronic Beats’ ‘Higher State’ collection – say. “Today, merch has evolved to embody the same creative and expressive qualities attributed to high fashion, challenging traditional distinctions.” The Telekom Electronic Beats x Superconscious Berlin ‘Higher State’ merch offering is a testament to that. Drawing inspiration from Josh Wink’s iconic track, Higher State of Consciousness, the capsule speaks to “the euphoric and transcendental experiences of the rave scene,” the creatives note, offering a “symbiosis between the kinetic energy of rave culture and the transformative power of fashion.”

Drawing on the cultural resonance of football garb in rave culture, oversized t-shirts with subtle dropped sleeves come in iridescent gradient tones, with graphic logo appliqués in the place of club emblems or sponsor insignia. The garments’ kinetic graphics are echoed on a weathered denim cap, its fabric treatment suggesting the unpretentiousness and casual flair endemic to club culture.

While the collection, in essence, comprises a football, t-shirts and a cap, what’s most noteworthy in its design is its incredibly distilled, distinct aesthetic. Essentially, it serves as a concrete “homage to the transformative experiences shared by attendees of electronic music events,” the creatives says, speaking to “the aspiration of achieving a heightened sense of awareness and connectivity, not just with the music but with the community. This collection is designed to resonate with those who see fashion as an extension of their identity.”

Beyond aesthetic resonance, though, we’ve also seen a rise in merch products that directly appeal to the specific lifestyles and demands of the specific audiences they appeal to. Herrensauna – the hard, dark and fast Berlin rave with a sound and look to match – recently announced the release of a shoe designed in collaboration with Buffalo, the German footwear brand known for their clodhopper platform boots. While it may seem odd at first glance to see an ostensibly underground techno party teaming up with a commercial shoe brand, the move reveals itself to be a pretty shrewd one on deeper contemplation. “It’s a really good match in my eyes,” Berg says. “There’s a direct point of contact there – a great deal of people who go to that party would wear Buffalos or similar black platform shoes, so it’s directly tapping into an existing audience.”

Savvy, for sure, but fair questions could be raised around the implications of merch-ifying a party that’s emblematic of a scene in which conversations around gentrification and commodification are rife. Is a Herrensauna shoe the death knell in the commercialization of Berlin’s techno scene? Well, not quite. “The thing is, today, anything can and will be commercialized – even ostensible punkness,” Berg argues. Rather than an indication of the party’s waning integrity, he sees Herrensauna’s merch collaboration, and others like it, as opportunities to consolidate the communities that have coalesced around them, offering ways for people who self-identify with a party, club, record label or DJ and their ethos to affirm their affiliation. “The underground doesn’t exist in the same way it did three decades ago, and it’s almost impossible for it to,” he says. Rather than on nicheness, geographic specificity and countercultural values, he notes that “perhaps a more contemporary expression of the idea of ‘underground’ is rooted in defining a strong, uncompromising aesthetic and finding ways to give people access to that,” a task that, with something as simple as a shoe collab, the team behind Herrensauna have gone some way towards achieving.

Berg makes a convincing point. We live in a time where anything that conjures a sense of community is subject to commodification, and a physical spirit of community is an intrinsic value of electronic music culture. Rather than cause for cynicism, however, the swell in elevated, fashion-tier merch offerings is arguably a sign of development, offering novel means for people seeing access to an increasingly global, delocalized cultural movement to feel like they’re partaking in a meaningful way. “In electronic music culture, merch serves as a tangible connection to the ephemeral experiences of music and community,” Higher State creatives conclude. “It’s a form of self-expression, a badge of belonging, and a medium through which fans can support their favorite artists and movements. Merchandise in this context transcends its material value, becoming a symbol of cultural affiliation and personal identity.”


Written by Jean-Ignace Mahoro Seward
Title image: ZenGxrl by Viiktoria Vanina
Telelom Electronic Beats x Superconscious editorial shooting: Gorsad Kyiv

Published June 12, 2024.