The desirability of band T-shirts has been rising and rising over the past few months. Prices, too. What’s going on? And how high will they go?
Words by Faye Fearon. Pictures by Sean Thomas.
Translation from French by Helene Tammik.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 8.
A blue square with the image of an uncrested wave is printed on a black T-shirt faded by hundreds of washes. Above the square, huge gray letters spell out RIDE. On the back is another word, also in gray: “nowhere.” To the average person, this is just an ordinary worn- out old T-shirt with a sagging neckline and no particular value – ideal for lazing around in on the weekend, or, worse, cleaning the silverware. A fan of English indie music will appreciate it slightly more, seeing it as a nice reference to the band from Oxford that put shoegaze rock on the charts in the ‘90s with their album Nowhere before being unjustly overshadowed by the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Photography or surfing buffs will see it through yet another prism, as the artwork of Warren Bolster, the American photographer who was known for his skateboarding and surfing images. He pioneered the use of fisheye lenses in the 1970s, and this photo of a wave forming is his work. But there was one person who saw this T-shirt, size XL, as much more than the sum of those parts.
Mid-morning on a Thursday a couple of weeks ago, some English guy put this T-shirt in his shopping basket and then completed the payment process without batting an eye. How much did he pay? In British money, £1,290 (€1,550). “I knew it would go eventually, even at that price,” smiles Nik Sinha, the founder of specialist vintage T-shirt website Lost Blue Heaven. “The guy who bought it is a Ride fan, and this piece had been at the top of his wish list for a while. To tell you the truth, that tee is one of the most highly sought-after among British music fans.” Nik himself had bought it for a decent price from one of Ride’s early followers, who’d been at the band’s Bristol gig during their Nowhere tour in October 1990. “I’ve knocked around in music a fair bit, and being from Manchester, I always find connections with mates or friends of friends who were at the gigs,” says Nik. Every Friday at 6 PM he lists another half-dozen vintage band T-shirts on his website. The new batch might feature the Smiths, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays or New Order, the towering legends of the Manchester music scene. But he also sells T-shirts featuring names like Radiohead, Blur, The Doors and R.E.M. Not all of them are worth as much as the Ride tee, but many are on sale for several hundred pounds sterling. And, judging by the number of “sold out” tags that fill the site’s pages, they don’t have any trouble finding new homes.
The market for vintage band T-shirts seems to have gone into overdrive in recent months. A couple of clicks online bring up a 1994 black Primal Scream T-shirt for €950. Next to it is a red one for the same band, long-sleeved and in XL, for an even higher price. A green Blur tee with the Parklife logo is just shy of €1,000. As in that golden age, Oasis can be found in the mix, too, with a design featuring the song “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”
American bands are seeing the same inflationary effect. A 1993 black Sonic Youth T-shirt is listed for €800. Another Sonic Youth design, from 1986 – a white ringer tee with a red collar, screen-printed with a closeup of Jane Birkin – hits €1,300. The listings go on and on. From mainstream bands to the most niche groups, ads are being posted non- stop and prices are soaring. Terren Urlacher and Drew Heifetz, owners of the secondhand clothing marketplace platform Bidstitch, aren’t surprised to hear these names and amounts. They claim to have sold “Nirvana promo T-shirts to collectors for over $8,000.” That’s a crazy amount, but it’s still far less than someone paid for the most expensive band T-shirt in history. Last October, Sotheby’s auctioneers sold a 1967 Grateful Dead T-shirt, one of the American band’s earliest official tees. The orange T-shirt had belonged to a sound engineer who worked directly with the band. It was in excellent condition and went for $17,460 (€16,130) to American collector Bo Bushnell, who wanted to own it as a tribute to Allan “Gut” Terk, the former Hells Angel who created the design printed on the front. “I wanted to keep his memory alive,” he said.
CAR TRUNK AND JAPANESE BUYERS
Let’s back up and start from the beginning. The first celebrity T-shirt was created in 1956. Five years after the release of A Streetcar Named Desire, an image of the movie’s star, Marlon Brando, printed on a plain white T-shirt, was still making waves and inspiring copycats among America’s youth. An Elvis Presley fan club decided to make some money to cover its running costs by selling a white T-shirt with their hero’s picture on it during one of his concerts. Priced at $2 each, they sold out immediately. The initiative was repeated, and the idea soon spread. In San Francisco, the high-profile (and very canny) impresario and concert promoter Bill Graham, who ran the Fillmore and the Winterland Ballroom music venues, knew a good thing when he saw it. He started making promotional T-shirts for his groups, which he sold during concerts. Dozens of de- signs were produced, featuring stars like Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. During this period, you could buy the orange Grateful Dead T-shirt that would later fetch a record-breaking price at auction.
The wife of the band’s drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, was intrigued by how well the T-shirts were selling. One day, she asked, “Who makes money on the sales?” Graham realized it was time to put a proper structure in place for that side of the business. In 1974, he teamed up with two of his employees, Dell and Dave Furano, and set up Winterland, the first ever company specializing in band and concert T-shirts. It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. “In the beginning, we had to work pretty hard to shift that merchandise,” recalled Dell Furano, who passed away last year, in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “The bands would say, ‘Okay, you can sell T-shirts, but don’t embarrass us. Stay out of the way in the corner!’”
This kind of merchandising quickly be- came standard. Bands saw T-shirt sales as an additional revenue stream and would often produce their own. Fans also saw a chance to turn a profit, and many would make T-shirts that they’d sell surreptitiously at gigs, doing a swift trade from the trunk of a car or a cooler box. These bootlegged versions were cheaper than the official tees, and purists loved them. “It’s like the T-shirt version of a fanzine,” says Urlacher. The culture of band T-shirts grew in parallel with the business side. “In the late ’70s, we started to sell T-shirts in actual stores, not just at gigs,” Furano said in the same Roll- ing Stone interview. “The first band whose merch we sold in stores was the Grateful Dead. We managed to get some tie-dye T-shirts into several San Francisco retail outlets. And they managed to sell them…”
Frenchman Philippe Christol specializes in sourcing vintage clothes, acting as a middleman between wholesalers and retailers. On hearing this story, he can’t help but smile. He’s already come across band T-shirts from that era. “I was at a flea market in Texas in the early ’90s,” he recalls. “There was this guy sell- ing 1970s band T-shirts – the Ramones, Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, the Stooges. I bought a bunch of them for five bucks each. A few years later, a Japanese friend offered me $5,000 for the lot.” Seems crazy, right? But in view of today’s market, that buyer probably got a good bargain. Christol continues: “It may seem irrational to someone looking at it from the outside, because it’s just a T-shirt, but what we’re seeing is a classic phenomenon. Prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. If some people are willing to pay a lot of money for a band T-shirt, that means it’s priced right – that’s all there is to it. You just have to accept that the T-shirt’s symbolic value is higher than its real value. If you think about it, buying a Doors T-shirt isn’t really that different from buying a T-shirt from a luxury fashion house with a flashy logo.”
You’ll hear the same story from Ian Humes, founder of the Brighton store Freak Scene on the south coast of England. His collection spans the pick of 1990s bands such as Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Smashing Pumpkins. He recently sold a tee from Billy Corgan’s band for €2,000. The current top at- traction on offer is a Nirvana T-shirt originally purchased on December 3, 1989 – well before the band’s heyday – at the legendary Lamefest in Detroit organized by the Sub Pop label. The price tag? A cool £1,800, or €2,160.
“In the past few months,” says Hume, “we’ve seen extremely high demand for 1990s T-shirts, so prices are rising. Our customers are in their 30s and 40s. They buy T-shirts that mean something to them. I’ve been a Nirvana fan myself since I was 13, so I’m especially drawn to their T-shirts.”
Richard Colligan, owner of the legendary Metropolis store in New York, gives his take on the phenomenon: “I think a lot of this enthusiasm for the 1990s has to do with the pandemic. Lots of younger people spent their spare time learning about the music of the decade they were born into, which was the ‘90s in many cases.”
Patrick Klima, owner of WyCo Vintage in Kansas City, adds another strand to the theory: “That decade, the 1990s, also happened to be when the evolution of music in the 20th century came to a head. It was influenced by all the rock, punk and indie genres that had gone before, so young people see it as the high point of the industry, the decade that brought music full circle.”
Christol sees another aspect to it: “Let’s not forget how much celebrities are influencing this trend.” He points out that A$AP Rocky and Kanye West have been photographed in the T-shirts of ’90s bands like Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine, bought from Metropolis or Procell in New York. “It’s interesting to see how people we think of as hip-hop artists are referencing pre-2000s indie music in their style,” says Colligan. “It’s a way of showing that everything in music is intertwined and that no one ever belongs to just one genre. That’s a good thing. Those two have brought a lot of new customers into our store.”
SULFUR AND SIMPLE TAILORING
The fundamental principles are fixed and are not going to change, but then there are subtleties. Why is a My Bloody Valentine T-shirt worth more than a Velvet Underground T-shirt, when Lou Reed’s group was far more important to rock history? And why can two tees from the same band be valued at such very different prices? “It’s all about how rare that particular design is,” says Urlacher, “Although there’s a certain amount of snobbery involved, of course.”
Nirvana fans know that a T-shirt from after 1993 is worth less than one from 1990, when the band was in its prime. Shoegaze fans are aware that a My Bloody Valentine T-shirt is more desirable than a Slowdive T-shirt because critics consider MBV’s album Loveless to have kickstarted the explosion of the genre in the 1990s. “If I had to sum up what makes an old band T-shirt valuable or not, I’d say it’s a three-way equation between how rare that piece is and how popular the band and its music genre were,” says Nik Sinha of Lost Blue Heaven. He corrects himself: “Of course, aesthetic criteria are also part of the equation, although they’re less important than for other clothes. Not all band T-shirts have great-looking designs, and some are in better condition than others.”
There are some obvious markers to identify a good band T-shirt and screen out recent reproductions. “Modern T-shirts are double-stitched, which is not what we’re looking for,” explains Drew Heifetz of Bidstitch, extracting a threadbare Soundgarden tee from a pile. “All the ones from the ‘90s or earlier have a single-stitch construction, sewn with a single row of stitching. You can spot the difference immediately, especially around the collar.”
Thom van de Velde of NLVintage in Rotterdam notes that “it’s easy to spot a fake vintage tee because the prints are generally oversaturated and not as crisp as the originals.” Harry Cantwell, who runs Never Gonna Turn You Down, adds, “After a while, you can tell instinctively when something doesn’t feel right. You have to get a feel for it, touching the fabrics, spotting the labels. And once you’ve bought a T-shirt, you have to look after it.”
The wearers and collectors of old band T-shirts have two opposing schools of thought. “Some of our customers see their T-shirts as rare artworks,” says Colligan. “They’ll frame them or put them in protective plastic to pre- serve their quality.” But that may not be the best way of caring for a T-shirt. “When you wear an old T-shirt, you strengthen its fibers – especially black ones, which were made with sulfur-based dyes,” the experts at Bidstitch say. “Conversely, if you never wear it, there’s a danger it’ll dry out and deteriorate.” Which, at that price, would be a crying shame.