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“I don’t want the panda to be too high, you feel me?” Desiigner says in his guttural voice, half slurring, half mumbling his words. “The eyes are too red. More white on the eyes. I don’t wanna promote too much weed for the kids that wanna buy it.”
It’s a muggy afternoon in August and the 19-year-old rapper is at the Manhattan office of Bravado, the Universal Music Group-owned full service merchandise company, checking out the gear they’ve created for him for the first time. He’s wearing a sample of a black T-shirt that features a panda—with very red eyes—holding a bamboo stick with “DESIIGNER” on the front and “I GOT BROADS” on the back (the opening words of his No. 1 hit single, “Panda”). He turns toward the full-length mirror just outside of Bravado CEO Mat Vlasic’s corner office and poses. Desiigner holds his fingers in the shape of guns, points them at his own reflection and flashes a proud smile. “This T-shirt is fire though!”
Desiigner is just one of the more than 200 artists Bravado currently works with. Founded in 1997 by brothers Keith and Barry Drinkwater (now founder and CEO of Global Merchandising Services), Bravado has produced concert souvenirs for many of the top music acts of the past and present, including The Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Travis Scott, and Selena Gomez. (Despite being acquired by Universal Music Group in 2007, Bravado isn’t restricted to artists signed to the label.) “We want to be the national partner for any artist who wants to expand their brand,” says Vlasic, who was appointed CEO this past March. Vlasic previously led Sony Music’s merchandising division and signed merch agreements with A$AP Rocky, Bob Dylan, The Strokes, and Johnny Cash.
Inside Bravado’s showroom are some of the items it’s made for these megastars: box sets, shot glasses, sneakers, skateboard decks, mugs, collector’s edition Monopoly board games, water bottles, and of course, T-shirts, hoodies, jackets, and hats—all emblazoned with logos, album art, and the artists’ faces. But in the last few years, memorabilia has gone from mere “merch” to a full-blown fashion trend. “It went from a one dimensional product of the black heavyweight T-shirt sold at concerts to a lifestyle product,” says Vlasic.
West played a huge role in that shift, starting with the launch of his highly coveted Yeezus merch in 2013. Pop-up stores, from artists including West, Bieber, Drake, and Future, have also helped. “The street culture embraced the pop-up like nobody else,” explains Joe Perez, former art director at West’s DONDA creative company, who worked on the rapper’s merch. “The same people who lined up for Supreme were at the Yeezus pop-up.”
Now, the merchandise business is dominated by pieces that borrow ideas from streetwear, are worn everyday, and have resale value on Grailed, the version of eBay made for menswear and streetwear nerds. And behind almost all of the wildly popular merch—like West’s The Life of Pablo and Bieber’s Purpose gear—is Bravado.
A global, 360, full-service merchandising company, Bravado designs, manufactures, and distributes their product. “We oversee the creative process—from the pitching of the artist to come work with Bravado and the signing of the artist, to then overseeing the creation of the merchandise line,” explains creative director Charles Dooher, who has been with Bravado for eight years. “From there, we figure out Internet sales, an e-commerce site, tour sales, and retail presence around the globe.” Artists are heavily involved in the process, but Bravado is the machine behind the scenes.
Bravado has a presence in over 40 cities around the world, but its New York office, on the second floor of a high-rise building in midtown Manhattan, serves as the hub for its operation. Inside the showroom are racks and shelves overflowing with merch for West, Gomez, Tupac, The Rolling Stones, and more. Near the back, separated by a white wall, is the designers’ bullpen—a large, open space that’s intended to breed collaboration. “At any point someone can shout and be like, ‘You should try this!” says Dooher. “The best way to approach [design] is to let everyone throw their ideas in.”
Bravado employs about 14 total full-time and freelance designers, each of which are assigned projects based on their interests, the music they listen to, how they dress, and their rapport with the artists. When Nicholas Petronella started at Bravado as an intern five years ago, he helped with 2 Chainz’s merchandise. “They approached me and were like, ‘We just signed 2 Chainz. We wanna come up with merchandise concepts for him.’ I was a huge fan of 2 Chainz already,” he recalls. “I drew some concepts and they got approved. One of the shirts even ended up being on the show 2 Broke Girls! It was huge for me. We try to assign whoever meshes with that artist’s vibe the best.”
The process for Bravado’s projects is the same: After an initial meeting with the artist, Dooher and his staff brainstorm ideas, research the artist heavily, and create trend boards, which could consist of everything from images they find on Google to memes fans are posting on Twitter. “We dive in deep,” says Dooher. Designers take note of the music the artist listens to, the clothes they wear, their birthday, and their hobbies. A proposal is presented, and Bravado works with the artist and his or her team to finalize designs.
Dooher remembers putting together a massive presentation for merchandise for Michael Jackson’s This Is It concerts at The O2 arena in London in 2009, which were ultimately canceled after the singer's death. “It was very influenced by tattoo flash art, but at the same time, [Jackson] still had this great attraction to Baroque,” he says. “We made this beautiful leather-bound Baroque book with his name encrusted in diamond at the top. Our CEO at the time and I flew out to L.A. and we spent about three hours working with him and going through the designs. I remember he said, ‘You have to do the diamond glove. Rich people will buy it. Trust me.’”
"I remember [Michael Jackson] said, ‘You have to do the diamond glove. Rich people will buy it. Trust me.’” —Charles Dooher
Most of the work is done in-house, but talent can also be outsourced. “If we don’t think we can hit it exactly how we need to, we’ll find other people,” explains Petronella. “It’s way more important to make sure it’s right. None of us are too proud.”
In the case of Bieber’s Purpose tour merch, Bravado enlisted Jerry Lorenzo, designer of menswear brand Fear of God. Lorenzo had previously worked with Bravado on West’s Yeezus merch; Bieber was already wearing Fear of God. “Justin wholeheartedly believed in Jerry,” says Dooher. “It was the evolution of what his merch needed to be.”
Lorenzo was also instrumental in the decision to set up pop-ups at Barneys and boutiques like Nomad in Toronto, Alchemist in Miami, and VFiles in New York. “In talking to Jerry, it became clear it needed to be accessible, but there was no reason it shouldn’t be accessible at upper tiers, too,” Dooher says. Mark Riddick, an illustrator and graphic artist, was also brought on to help design the heavy metal-inspired logos.
In the case of West, Bravado has been serving more as a production company since its work on the rapper’s Glow In the Dark tour merch in 2007. According to Perez, West and his team handle the design. “With Yeezus, we worked with Wes Lang on the art, then we’d give finished files to Bravado. We had so much merch. By the time we finished the Yeezus merch, I had roughly designed 2,500 different pieces no one’s ever seen. Kanye had so many good ideas.”
“Kanye has his own team, and they’re excellent,” adds Petronella, who was assigned to help with the rapper’s merch. “The stuff they present always ends up being the hottest and biggest trends.”
The pop-up stores were also conceived by West and his team, says Perez. In October 2013, West opened a Yeezus temporary store on Hollywood’s Melrose Avenue, next door to the Kardashians’ Dash boutique. All of the merchandise sold on tour, including the '80s rock-themed shirts, were available for purchase, and fans lined up for hours. But Bravado’s Petronella, who helped open the pop-up, admits they didn’t know how much of a blockbuster it was going to become. “We understocked,” he recalls. “I probably made 16 trips back and forth trying to bring more merch [to the store]. I was in L.A. getting in cabs—I didn’t have a rental car then because I was still underage!”
West’s subsequent pop-up shops for his The Life of Pablo merch were also highly successful. According to the rapper, $1 million worth of apparel was sold at his weekend-long TLOP pop-up in New York this past March. Since then other artists—Drake, Future, Cash Money (in partnership with VFiles), and Bieber—have set up temporary stores. “Kanye’s pop-ups changed merch forever,” says Petronella.
“It set the tone that merch was becoming this other way to reach fans,” adds Perez, “The pop-up store is another [fan] experience. People line up for blocks. It’s crazy. Sometimes you’ll see the same people there for three days in a row.”
But that success hasn’t been without its tradeoffs. Brands and retailers have since released bootlegs of West’s merch, using the same Old English font and formatted in the same manner. There are also a number of copies of Bieber’s merch on the market.
Is Bravado’s team bothered by the fakes? Vlasic smirks. “What’s that they say? The purest form of flattery is being knocked off.”
Want to experience Complex IRL? Check out ComplexCon, a festival and exhibition on Nov. 5-6, 2016 in Long Beach, Calif., featuring performances, panels, and more. For ticket info, click here.