In a twist of corporate musical chairs, Bravado’s Mr. Vlasic actually founded the Thread Shop during a 12-year stint at Sony, where he began in the finance department, while Ms. Wong worked at Bravado until 2015.
Now, the two are engaged in something of an arms race to own the increasingly lucrative cross-disciplinary fashion territory they have defined.
Founded in 1997 by Barry and Keith Drinkwater, and sold to Universal about a decade later, Bravado operates in 40 countries and works with retailers like Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, Selfridges and Barneys New York. Last year, the revenue for the merchandising arm of Universal, of which Bravado is a major part, was 313 million euros, or about $365 million, an increase of about 13 percent from the year before. Besides handling merchandising for dozens of living artists, Bravado also works with the estates of former powerhouses, including Prince, the Beatles and Tupac Shakur.
The Thread Shop is a much younger operation. It began in 2009 as a straightforward T-shirt business to support touring artists, and eventually grew to provide more exclusive, higher-priced pieces and capsule collections. The company now works with some of the same retailers as Bravado, including Urban Outfitters, Pacsun and Kohl’s, and, like Bravado, operates globally.
Sony would not provide revenue figures for the Thread Shop. But Richard Story, the president of Commercial Music Group, which handles licensing, estate management, television and film contracts and more for Sony, acknowledged that while currently a minor contributor to the parent company’s balance sheet: “There’s no question that when we’re in our strategic planning conversations, we look at these types of businesses and think, ‘Can they be very robust multimillion-dollar revenue operations?’ We firmly believe they can be.”
On a recent afternoon at Sony’s offices on Madison Square Park in Manhattan, Ms. Wong considered Bravado’s position in the field. “They are the leader of our arena,” Ms. Wong said. But, she added: “I start from a trend standpoint because I think that’s why people will come to us. How do you do a concert tee and take it to the next level? Do you crop it, do you cut it, do you put safety pins in it?” Ms. Wong, who previously worked at Bloomingdale’s, Calvin Klein and Benetton, was wearing an ASAP Ferg shirt that she had cut a V-shaped neckline into herself.
When first releasing an artist’s products, both Bravado and the Thread Shop will often do so through pop-up shops. “We’ll identify the ground zero retailers that create demand, create urgency,” said Frank Bartolotta, Bravado’s senior vice president for national sales. “That creates a crazy amount of energy. Because it’s like, ‘If I didn’t get it during that three-day cycle, I need to figure out when I’m going to get it.’ Then we go to a larger retail partner.”
Thus in early May, “Starboy” merchandise was sold for three days only at boutiques in eight cities across the United States, including Patron of the New in New York and FourTwoFour on Fairfax in Los Angeles, and also online for limited periods. After that, Bravado went to PacSun for a larger rollout. “If there’s not an experience tied into this, it becomes stale, it becomes mute,” Mr. Bartolotta said. “When we create these moments that live there for literally 72 hours, there’s an alertness, and that fan is rabid.”
The key is to ensure that pop-ups offer certain exclusive items. “The kid that goes to New York wants the New York piece,” Mr. Bartolotta said. “The kid who goes to L.A. wants the L.A. piece. And then there’s the main collection. So if you weren’t in L.A., you can then go, weeks later, to PacSun to get that extended collection.”
Ms. Wong takes it a step further and offers a different collection at each distribution point. “I don’t want fans to see the same thing over and over again,” she said. “If you’re a fan, you’re going to be shopping online; if we drop something at Urban Outfitters, you’ll go to Urban; and if you’re at the tour, you’ll buy a T-shirt, too.”
Or, if you know your way around the resale market, you might go to eBay, Grailed or similar online marketplaces for the items you missed. After all, not everyone lives in the city where a store pops up or a tour stops. “The reselling culture is now crossing over into the world of music and merchandise,” said Lawrence Schlossman, the brand director of Grailed. “With social media, when you see a line outside of a pop-up or you see people making money or getting a lot of likes and looking cool, that creates a hype cycle that feeds itself.”
Still, while the pop-up shops and exclusive items are a key for building attention, the moneymakers are the items that many consumers can afford and easily access. “You always need premium to sell the mass,” Ms. Wong said. “I can’t afford a Gucci bag at $5,000, but I’ll buy a wallet for $700 and still be part of that lifestyle.” And in fact, according to Edited, the artists who drive the most e-commerce traffic are Run-DMC, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Ramones (all Bravado clients). Not exactly of the moment.
“There’s a huge middle market in this trend,” said Katie Smith, senior analyst at Edited. “It’s not just buzzy, like, ‘Check out the latest Pablo tee.’” (Pablo being from Kanye West’s album “The Life of Pablo.”) “For retail, there’s still a big opportunity for the older, more known artists. That stuff doesn’t sell as fast, but it performs very well.”
Laird Adamson, the head of international at Bravado, said: “There’s an evergreen business that happens at Kohl’s that’s in constant replenishment. It’s the stuff that lives there all day long, drives volume for us, doesn’t make a lot of noise. And then there’s us identifying with key retailers where every other month there’s a different event happening. At Urban Outfitters, there’s a Gaga event for one month. Then there’s a Bieber event for two months and then that goes away.”
In reality, the products attached to one artist are not vastly different from those of any other: The design might vary — especially if you bring someone on board like Jerry Lorenzo, the designer of Fear of God, who collaborated with Justin Bieber, or Wes Lang, an artist who worked with Mr. West — but this is not high fashion, or even trickle-down runway style. The sense of diversification is manufactured by buzz built around the artist, and it is key to perpetuating consumers’ desire for the products.
“The challenge I have on a daily basis is, ‘How do we drive traffic to these stores?’” Mr. Bartolotta said. “You look at malls and you see traffic is down. We’re bringing an experience that’s being driven by the artists. When you do that, these retailers’ appetites are stimulated. If we don’t do this, we’ll die like a lot of malls are dying.”
Like all successful brand builders, Mr. Vlasic and Ms. Wong know their references.
Ms. Wong calls out “Armani and Valentino and Prada” because “you can look at it right away and know whose hand it is. And the same goes with artists. These kids are too smart. If it’s not authentic, they don’t want it.”
And for Mr. Vlasic, “Star Wars” and Disney provide inspiration.
“Do consumers tire of it?” he said. “Sure, but keep reinventing it, keep rethinking how to do it. ‘Star Wars’ products are everywhere. Your product can be in Target, in Coach, in Uniqlo. You just have to be smart about it.”