Why Collegiate Merch Is 'Fashion' Now - Fashionista

Over the last few years, nostalgia has fueled much of the dominant forces in fashion and retail. Along with all things wistful, college-licensed apparel — the crux of which is rooted in sentimentality — has found its way both onto runways and into contemporary tastemakers' closets.

But the "nostalgia trend" is certainly nothing new. Fashion media has spent the last few seasons attempting to discern to what the long-lasting craze is attributable, as well as why designers are so keen on disseminating it. (Fashionista, for one, first explored nostalgia-fueled consumerism in September 2016, accrediting the onslaught of 90s-era looks to a psychological need for comfort from a romanticized past.)

As is often the case, celebrities have their way of bringing fashion trends to the masses. Hailey Baldwin and Kendall Jenner have swapped out their concert merch for college gear, despite neither of them attending university. Drake, a known college basketball fan, recently wore a $260 "Tennessee" crewneck (which isn't officially licensed apparel from the University of Tennessee, and sells at nearly five times a premium for a comparable Tennessee crewneck) artfully distressed to spell out "finesse." In April, Beyoncé launched her own collegiate partnership with Balmain — inspired by the gear of Historically Black Colleges and Universities — after a historic Coachella performance, and later donated $100,000 to four HBCUs.

Omnipresent logomania has extended to include collegiate logos on runways, too. For Resort 2019, Raf Simons (who has spent much of his time since coming to New York as Calvin Klein's chief creative officer reexamining American classics and youth culture) offered University of California, Berkeley-stamped bags and Yale University T-shirts alongside classic collegiate insignias. At Comme des Garçons Shirt, logos belonging to North Carolina's Appalachian State University and the Cincinnati Bearcats repeatedly covered colorful button-downs. And just this week, insider-favorite menswear brand Noah released its Fall 2018 lookbook to much fanfare on Instagram, featuring preppy, collegiate-inspired items with university-style lettering and branding.  

Even before this season, Opening Ceremony's classic Varsity Jacket reemerged for Spring 2018. (Virgil Abloh also offered up varsity jackets for Off-White.) Meanwhile, for Fall 2017, Rihanna's Fenty Puma label showed college-inspired varsity letters stamped on skateboards and stitched into baseball T-shirts.

The perfect confluence of the nostalgia craze and a renewed penchant for dressing up has made fashion's obsession with the mundane — DHL T-shirts and repurposed Ikea bags — outdated, Sidney Morgan-Petro, senior retail editor for WGSN, tells Fashionista via email. It's here where a shift toward Ivy League logos and subverted school uniforms has emerged.

Fenty Puma's Fall 2017 runway show at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France during Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Fenty Puma's Fall 2017 runway show at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France during Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

But what is it about the university experience, specifically, that makes people so wistful? Perhaps it's a preoccupation with youth culture, wherein we value the shiny, idyllic whimsy of our younger selves. (Look no further than the countless movies and television shows about the college experience for evidence.) Or perhaps it's a certain desperation to relive a four-year period where life was yet unencumbered by the responsibilities that come beyond graduation. (See also: fashion escapism.)

Given its appeal to professional trend-spotters, like Morgan-Petro, and non-fashion followers alike, college-inspired wears and licensed apparel also make good business sense.

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"The appeal of this trend is widespread," says Morgan-Petro. "However stateside, it offers more volume opportunities as you're catering to the university students as well as the fashion crowd buying into the DIY customizations and designer interpretations."

To be sure, college-licensed apparel has enjoyed popularity long before someone like Simons took it on in-house at Calvin Klein. Victoria's Secret's Pink label launched its licensed college apparel gear a decade ago, and it's served as an early model for lucrative partnerships that amount to both $2 billion in royalties to colleges and a seasonal cushion for retailers.

A look from Calvin Klein 205W39NYC's Resort 2019 collection. Photo: Calvin Klein 205W39NYC

A look from Calvin Klein 205W39NYC's Resort 2019 collection. Photo: Calvin Klein 205W39NYC

Culturally speaking, the picturesque, grassy-quad-adjacent university experience is as stereotypically American as cowboys and the Southwest — which makes it no surprise that designers have spent much of the last year commenting on it (alongside other complex American relationships) in what some consider to be one of the country's darkest hours.

"A large part of our Fall 2019 forecast centered around a 'subversion of the classics,' which we're seeing come to fruition through collections like Comme des Garçons Shirt's copy-and-paste parochial looks and Calvin's Klein's heraldic crests on their Resort 2019 jackets," adds Morgan-Petro.

But in subverting the classics — that is, by definition, in undermining their power and questioning the authority of the established system (in this case, the university system) — a collection of repurposed college logos may not a reference to the cheerier side of higher education, but rather a commentary on the institutional underbelly: ongoing debates over free speech, racial tension and student loan debt.

Beyoncé in a custom college letter sweatshirt during Coachella 2018 in April. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Beyoncé in a custom college letter sweatshirt during Coachella 2018 in April. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Of course, college gear relates as much to football season as it does to academia and the intelligentsia, which is arguably under attack by a cultural discourse muddled by disinformation acts. (Indeed, designers found a way to promote the importance of responsible journalism on the runway in direct contrast to the President's continuing war against the fourth estate.)

College memorabilia also plays an integral role in the visibility of HBCUs and Black Greek Letter Organizations. One more time for the cheap seats in the back: "Beychella" was so much more than a festival experience for privileged millennials wearing flower crowns.

To think that wearing a shirt with a screen print of a school mascot is merely a way to identify which team should win a sporting event would ignore a fundamental truth of the American collegiate experience: It also helps foster a sense of allegiance to a group of likeminded people, and possibly in place of our forlorn patriotism while country leadership diminishes the experience of so many Americans.

Perhaps back-to-school season will bring with it a renewed appreciation for critical thinking, both within the scope of fashion and beyond. 

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