Bravado has managed to elevate music merchandise and that was always the goal for Mat Vlasic, the company’s chief executive officer who grew up in the music business — his mother, Marsha Vlasic, was — and still is — a rock agent.
For Vlasic, the turning point was when Barneys said yes to Justin Bieber’s Purpose Tour collection, which drew a wide swath of fans, but Vlasic still sees a lot of untapped opportunities within the music merchandise space. He spoke to WWD’s editorial director James Fallon on how he matches designers with musical artists, who is buying the most music merchandise and what prevents them from working with larger brands and retailers.
WWD: What is Bravado?
Mat Vlasic: We do a lot of things, but we look at ourselves as a brand management company for artists. Most of our clients are musicians and we provide them an infrastructure to sell T-shirts, expand into fashion, home decor and other categories where they can extend their brand beyond music. It’s particularly important now as music has migrated to digital and you don’t have a lot of physical touch points anymore. So we spend our day thinking about how can we connect artists deeper to fans.
WWD: How did you get into it?
M.V.: I grew up in the music business. My mom is right over there. She was an agent, so I was at shows all throughout my young age and wearing T-shirts and I had the most unbelievable merch collection, which today could retail for much higher, and I naturally gravitated toward the music business. In the mid-2000s when Napster and the whole digital music revolution happened, I saw a lane to build something that was a merchandise company but a little bit different from what had existed. Before, most of these companies were memorabilia focused. You went to a show and saw a token you put it in a drawer and you never wore it again. I saw an opportunity to really grow something.
WWD: Was it the digitalization of music that drove the strategy?
M.V.: No. It just opened up a lane to create a deeper connection with fans. But it was also a different thought process of this not just being a piece of memorabilia. This is something that can sit next to a fashion brand. For me, I view Ralph Lauren, Off-White, Heron Preston as a lifestyle, so are the Rolling Stones, so is Kanye West and so is Justin Bieber.
WWD: You’ve worked with Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo and Heron Preston. How do you match the designer to the artist?
M.V.: First I want to say I’m so happy for Virgil. That news is amazing. I remember working with him on a crazy project in 2011 for A$AP Rocky. We created a truck that would follow his tour and sell merchandise because he wasn’t happy with the way the merch was going to be sold in the venue. So Virgil sent this thing over and said, “Here, make it.” And I found myself in a Walmart parking lot for two days building a truck. But we don’t select them. It’s an organic process. You can’t force that. We might make suggestions, but if you look at Justin Bieber and the Purpose Tour, that was a natural relationship with that designer. We influence it, but we definitely don’t choose it.
WWD: How do you keep them on your radar?
M.V.: Through all of these great people who keep us informed, and we spend time in the market and being in New York and places that thrive. And a lot of the artists are putting us on. We might foster the relationship, but they know what’s up.
WWD: Music and fashion seem so intertwined right now. It seems tighter now than it was in the past. Why?
M.V.: They always have been. I think fashion oftentimes has used the face of artists to help promote their brands or align with it. I think now there is a deeper conversation. I also believe it’s about the ability to move quicker, to get things to market faster, to create limited opportunities. When we opened up 21 pop-up shops around the world with Kanye West in the summer of 2016, there were three days you could get that product. And that’s really important. You see that with the rise of Supreme. Once a week they release “x” and that’s it. You can buy it on the resale market, but that’s it. And that’s one thing we’ve found to be successful.
WWD: You’ve been quoted as saying that you knew the strategy was working once you got the product into Barneys. Have the retailers generally been receptive to it now? At the early stages was it a bit of a convincing game?
M.V.: When we first called Barneys and Jay Bell who oversees the men’s wear, I said “Hey, come with me to this Bieber show, you have to see what’s going on.” And he wasn’t not receptive, but it was kind of a crazy idea matching Justin Bieber and Barneys. But I think he was sold after seeing that lifestyle aspect and seeing that everyone in that audience is wearing the product, and not just wearing it as a fan but making a statement. Wearing what you believe in on your sleeve. I think now we have to take a thoughtful approach of segmenting through retail. And not everyone can shop at Barneys and we have to be smart about our business and making sure that we are going step by step and making sure that we are making it available for everyone. It’s a stratification.
WWD: What are the most successful collaborations you’ve had? Have any surprised you?
M.V.: With Guns N’ Roses we did a program at Maxfield where it was a consortium of designers. Off-White was one, and they were celebrating what Guns N’ Roses meant to them. When Alessandro was talking about he has to connect this heritage brand back to Millennials and youth-ify it a bit, that’s what we are faced with sometimes. Guns N’ Roses are still out on the road and killing it, but some artists aren’t. And the music can fall by the wayside. It’s so important that that music continues because that music inspired Virgil Abloh. With artists like the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses, Prince and Elton John, they are on the mood board for a lot of the designers out there and they are listening to them on their playlists. We need to make sure that their music continues on forever. And right now with pop-ups and experiential activations that’s a phenomenal way to do it. So, I wasn’t surprised because we’ve worked really hard to do that.
WWD: Are some artists more involved than others?
M.V.: Yeah. Every artist has a different way of working and that’s my tricky job of figuring it out. Because ultimately they are our creative director. You can look at us like this infrastructure and we have 150 brands and each one has its own creative director. And those creative directors are very busy. They are writing albums and touring and we have to be able to help them build their brand.
WWD: There are a handful of artists that are on their farewell tours. Would that dictate the type of merchandise you roll out?
M.V.: With something like that there is going to be some aspect of memorabilia. You have to have that. But there’s the Gucci collaboration with Elton John and there are lots of other things that will come about that will really try to hit all of these different fans that he has.
WWD: You’ve mentioned numerous times the word lifestyle. How far can you take it?
M.V.: I think there are a couple of factors there. There is the artist’s vision and acceptance of commerciality. We sit in this place as Bravado in the middle of artistry and commerce and there is a really push and pull in that situation. One part is about what is the artist open to. The other part is what does the fan base want. He’s not an artist that we work with, but if you look at what Jimmy Buffet is doing with the Margaritaville empire, it’s unbelievable. It’s Disney-like. And he has restaurants. I was in the Cancun airport recently and there was a Margaritaville. And Jimmy Buffet has nothing to do with Cancun. But he has one there. And then you walk into Bed, Bath and Beyond and there is product there. But he’s into that and the fan is open.
WWD: Is there a type of music where it wouldn’t work?
M.V.: I don’t think you could pull out a genre and say it wouldn’t work. But there are genres where it is more accepted and more realistic to achieve bigger goals. Right now urban pop music is the largest genre, which has just recently happened. We are seeing a lot of opportunities whether it’s Kanye, or the Migos or Tupac, to create brand extensions that extend well beyond the music.
WWD: And is that fed by the streetwear popularity as well?
M.V.: Yes. Very much so. But the streetwear popularity has always been there. Youth will always want something that’s edgy and rebellious. Heron is doing a great job of supplying that. We just worked with him on a Justin Timberlake product line and he designed this whole pop-up line and tour line and it was a great situation.
WWD: Does it help that they the Herons and the Virgils of the world are so involved in the music world?
M.V.: Of course. They have great taste and a point of view and they know what’s cool 10 years before anyone else does.
WWD: What do the retailers view as the advantage?
M.V.: I think from a retailer’s standpoint, one thing that’s attractive that we are doing is that we are bringing a lot of people into the malls or stores. We are helping bring traffic because it’s only available for “x.” It’s constantly refreshed, we aren’t beholden to seasons and we can move fast. We are really nimble. When we approached Barneys about the Justin Bieber collection they questioned how we could have the product ready and two months later the product arrived. We might have had to put it on a plane to get it up here the day before, but it got there. So I think that’s something that’s really advantageous to us. We are constantly developing these.
WWD: You never see making these permanent?
M.V.: The Rolling Stones logo is available in 44 countries at any given time, but there will be different versions of it. If you have that constant, it would be boring and people wouldn’t be excited to get the product.
WWD: Last year the Licensing Industry Merchandising Association’s annual survey said global sales of license products grew 4.4 percent to almost $263 billion. What are the opportunities for music in that.
M.V.: Well music is only one percent, so 99 percent. There is a lot of opportunity and if you look at the way other companies have done it with athletes and characters, it’s massive. And music has never been that and we are trying to figure out how to do that. It might not be as simple as [throwing] as much product as we can in Walmart. But we are creating the swell that’s going to get us there.
WWD: What makes some artist merchandise programs stronger than others?
M.V.: It’s a combination of who the fan is. I think the fan base is important. There is a sweet spot of female, junior 10 to 20 fan base that really eats it up whether it was Bieber back on the day or One Direction. And then there is the classic rock that lasts. Urban artists and some pop artists, it’s a give or take and lot of it depends on their ability to promote it in an organic way and to make it into a lifestyle. And that can be tricky in terms of measuring success. We don’t measure it by as many sales as possible, because part of our effort is beyond retail sales. We are activating touring and e-commerce. There can be an artist who doesn’t have a successful retail program, but they are doing $25 a head on tour.
WWD: You talk a lot about young, cool designers. Are you only looking for those kind of designers or would you be open to something like Ralph Lauren?
M.V.: It has to be somebody who cares about the music. And that’s where every one of our collaborations starts. But we would love to work with everyone. But if you work with Ralph Lauren or Louis Vuitton or some of the major houses, they match up really well to the iconic artists and I think there is definitely room for collaborations. But what’s been a problem in the past is that we move very quickly and they don’t. So lining up the marketing tent poles can be a little challenging unless you start with long lead times. For example, with the Justin Timberlake pop-up, there were 17 different products and each product represented a song. There was Levi’s and Air Jordan and many different brands and that was a 12-month process of building that.
WWD: With artist, there is always a chance of social misconduct. How do you mitigate those types of risks and choose artists who are able to be socially acceptable?
M.V.: That’s a tough one. I don’t know that that’s our place to determine that. Oftentimes we work with a lot of great artists and sometimes we choose not to work with certain artists. It’s a tricky situation and we think more and more about it every single day and that’s a tough one.