The Enduring Appeal of David Bowie Merch

Someone you know owns a Bowie T-shirt. It's (kind of) a fact. 

By Susannah Cohen

“Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your Bowie T-shirt on…”  Art:    Bryan E. West

“Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your Bowie T-shirt on…” Art: Bryan E. West

Everything looks better with David Bowie’s face on it. And a lot of people know this.

Lady Gaga knew it when she rejoiced over A Star Is Born’s BAFTA win, posting a video to Twitter dressed in nothing but an oversized T-shirt that said “Bowie.” Man Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James knows it, too. He’s been been rocking a Bowie tee — a black, long-sleeved one celebrating his Let’s Dance era — in publicity shots for his latest novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. And sneaker brand Vans knew it when they launched a limited edition collection based on four different Bowie albums in April.

David Bowie merch is having a moment — but then again, hasn’t it always? Whatever else is going on in the world of fashion, it seems that paying tribute to the Dame on a piece of white cotton is always sartorially acceptable. Celebrities have long known this. There was Sid Vicious in a red Bowie tee at the age of 15, en route to a concert in the 1970s. Kate Moss paid tribute to her dead friend in 2016, pairing a graphic tee of the artist with a black faux fur coat. Cate Blanchett was spotted in a lightning bolt shirt at the airport last year. Janelle Monae teamed hers with sequins for a performance on The Today Show a few months later.

I’ve had a Bowie T-shirt in rotation since I was about 14. For a time, an Aladdin Sane print tee with ruffles for sleeves adorned my LinkedIn headshot. Right now, my tribute of choice is a classic from the official David Bowie store — a fitted white T-shirt with a cracked yellow circle and the Bowie logo inside. It recently earned me a compliment from the very chic manager of my co-working space, proving that it’s one of those no-brainers — the T-shirt equivalent of a Chanel handbag, say — that never looks wrong.

Photo:    Undercover

Photo: Undercover

If you haven’t already, now’s a great time to climb on the Bowie merch bandwagon. At Alice & Olivia, you can find a suitably rock ‘n’ roll tribute, with multiple Ziggy images on a wide-neck tee, all pimped out with stud details. California-based label Stoned Immaculate, meanwhile, has devoted a whole mini collection to the great man, featuring a skinny-fit knit inspired by Major Tom, complete with Saturn rings, as well as a limited-edition bomber jacket.

Most upscale of all is the spring/summer collection by Undercover, which features images of Ziggy Stardust on cross-body bags, sweatshirts, scarves, dresses and more, each with a price tag of at least $1,000. And let’s not forget NYC-based footwear brand Modern Vice, which offers Ziggy-inspired lace-up heels, lightning bolt ankle booties, and even thigh-highs inspired by the musician and his iconic style.

Men, too, can indulge their love of Bowie merch with a designer tee. The luxury streetwear brand Ih Nom Uh Nit sells a $282 cotton t-shirt of him through Farfetch. Vans’ new limited-edition collection includes various sneaker styles — along with tees and baseball caps — inspired by four different Bowie eras. The merch, it seems, just keeps on coming.

Photo:    Vans

Photo: Vans

What’s the appeal? Well, there’s the whole band tees phenomenon that’s been going on for a few years now. It’s officially been a thing since around 2016 thanks to the likes of Kendall Jenner and Justin Bieber who started rocking vintage metal band T-shirts. Mass retailers caught on and now it’s the trend that refuses to die: pop into any H&M and you’re almost guaranteed to find a shirt emblazoned with a Nirvana or AC/DC logo.

But designers have been slapping David Bowie’s face on fashion since long before now. From the lightning bolt cashmere sweater that I couldn’t justify buying 10 years ago but still think about (it was by Lucien Pellat Finet and nudging more than $1,000, if I remember correctly) to Dolce & Gabbana’s icon T-shirts from 2012, the man behind Ziggy Stardust has long been a popular choice among designers.

Of course, Bowie’s own love of fashion, and his relationship with the fashion world, had a lot to do with this. Whether it was a spangly Kansai Yamamoto catsuit in the ‘70s or an Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat in the ‘90s, Bowie always managed to rope in the coolest designers for his stage outfits.

And fashion loved him back. Dries Van Noten is among the myriad of designers to have paid homage on the runway over the years. Paul Smith partnered with Bowie to design a T-shirt for his final album, Blackstar. Beautifully simple, featuring the chopped-up stars from the album’s cover art and a tasteful Paul Smith signature underneath, the result “puts all other music merch to shame.”

Norman Perry is the president of Perryscope Productions, a licensing and merchandising company that represents David Bowie (among many other icons) in partnership with Epic Rights. He believes that Bowie’s personal style has a lot to do with his impact on fashion.

“I have four clients [Bowie, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix] that were fashion forward, and they each looked different on every album cover, every tour,” he told OK Whatever in a phone interview. “There's a handful of people where clothes were a really significant part of their persona and their aura, and in the case of David Bowie, he was not a predictable man. He kept changing. He was a chameleon by design and by circumstance. One could say safely that you've got a lot more to work with and a lot more ideas that come out of looking at 25 David Bowie photographs than maybe 25 photographs of somebody that wasn't quite as stylish or well known for style.”

Photo:    Modern Vice

When you’re dealing with someone routinely described as a chameleon, it makes sense that you’d have a lot of visual material to play with. Bored of the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt? There’s still the Hunky Dory hippie, ‘70s soul boy, and besuited ‘80s megastar to explore. (Although you might want to draw a veil over the whole Tin Machine era — the blokey, late ‘80s band that even Bowie devotees find hard to see as a highlight).

With Bowie’s creative output spanning so many decades, there’s something, it seems, to fit every style moment. Right now, for example, the ‘80s seem to be the Bowie era to reference, in line with fashion’s current mania for the decade. (See Urban Outfitter’s 1983 tour graphic T-shirt for proof.)

Has Perry noticed different Bowie eras peaking according to what’s on trend? Sort of, but not really.

“I don't know that they fall in or out of fashion,” he said, “but what is fascinating is that there is a designer in every reality. That designer could be working for a T-shirt company that just wants to sell T-shirts at Urban Outfitters. The designer could be working for a fashion company putting a collection together that's going to end up at Barney’s. And each of them might look at David Bowie slightly differently.”

Of course, there’s also a simpler explanation for the musician’s enduring fashion appeal.

Wearing a piece of clothing emblazoned with Bowie’s face might be cool, but it could also just be an homage to a beloved artist. The reason why we see Bowie’s face so often in fashion might have less to do with style than it does fandom. The truth is, maybe we all just really loved the guy.


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