There are many reasons why apparel is an ideal medium for fans to flaunt their beloved fandoms. First, fashion marries functionality, fun, expression, and the esoteric. Fans can also draw upon fashion to financially support their favorite franchises, represent the fandom community, and — most importantly — facilitate connections with other fans.
Sure, buying a detailed, 1:12-scale Captain America collectible is gratifying in its own right — but there is a distinctive, unmatched experience in someone pointing out the superhero on your T-shirt and striking up a passionate conversation about the character’s appearances in comics or films. Plus, it’s a somewhat subtle way to draw attention to your interests instead of, say, hopping on the nearest elevated surface and screaming, “WHO LIKES GAME OF THRONES?!?”
But for a long time, the presence of fandom fashion has often meant the absence of style. As recently as 10 or 15 years ago, highly stylized, creative fandom apparel was hidden in obscure corners of the internet. The only hope for fans was to scour specialty retailers like Hot Topic or commission artists to bring their apparel ideas to life on Etsy or eBay.
I know that I spent hours online in high school searching for a nice hoodie that didn’t have the Naruto logo poorly rendered on a cotton-blend fabric. I also remember how ecstatic I was when I saw higher-quality Naruto shirts in a Hot Topic store for the first time in my local mall. I never would have imagined that, years later, Naruto would have its own Champion collection.
Over the past decade, companies including Her Universe, Cakeworthy, RSVLTs, and Loungefly’s Stitch Shoppe have stepped up to offer fun, fashionable clothing that features both subtle and overt homages to popular shows, movies, books, comics, and more. And while these companies are offering clothes fit for the average fans’ budget, there is an even more recent, intriguing development in fandom fashion: high-fashion collaborations.
In the early ’00s, Moschino and Sesame Street would never find themselves in the same room, let alone sharing space on the same webpage. Now, the Italian fashion house has an entire Sesame Street collection, with pop-country singer Kacey Musgraves modeling as the face of the collab.
So, what’s changed over the years? It seems that fans are growing up, but not growing out of their favorite fandoms. High-fashion brands are helping bring some chic streetwear into fans’ closets that help retain their long-time, more grown-up love for these classic fandoms. For the Moschino collection, this meant tapping into what makes Sesame Street so iconic while adding a luxe flair: bubble-letter logos mixed with biker jackets, Big Bird all blinged out, and muppets all à la mode.
Risa Greenbaum, vice president of international consumer products at Sesame Workshop, says that nostalgia was a significant factor in creating the collection.
“Whether you’re in London, Melbourne, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, or New York, the Sesame Street characters are instantly recognizable,” Greenbaum says. “The apparel category itself is so expressive and can provide consumers with the opportunity to show off their own personalities and mirror the brands they love… And what’s great is that the Moschino Sesame Street pieces are both on-trend and wearable — whether you enjoy the comfort of a T-shirt at home or head out to a party in a Moschino Sesame Street dress.”
Nostalgia has also been an invaluable source of style inspiration for the revival of the Space Jam brand, with the release of this year’s Space Jam: A New Legacy. For the film’s debut, the corresponding fashion merch focused on giving the Looney Tunes crew a 21st-century streetwear makeover, accompanied by some retro touches to pay homage to their original Space Jam appearance — an appropriate choice, considering the comeback of many ‘90s trends and accessories, from bucket hats to patch-filled denim jackets.
Fashion collections inspired by the sequel launched at Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Bloomingdales, and more. Sunny Hong, creative product development director of fashion, home, food, health, and beauty at Warner Bros. Consumer Products (WBCP) North America, says the company intentionally sought out brands that would embrace all facets of the new movie.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy offers a sense of nostalgia but brings in freshness with a new story and cast. So working with partners that bring a legacy — pun intended — of high-quality product and their own point of view on-trend was a top priority for WBCP,” Hong says. “We layered in emerging streetwear brands to bring their fresh perspective for a new generation of Space Jam and Looney Tunes fans.”
Though familiarity is a key stylistic component of these collections, some fandoms don’t even have to be around for very long to earn their spot with premier partners. Ever heard of an anime about cartoon kittens living in bananas? Maybe not. But you have heard of Gucci, and Gucci has heard of this show and, well, they Gucci-fied it in the Bananya x Gucci collection.
According to John Leonhardt, head of consumer products at Crunchyroll (the streaming home and licensor of Bananya), retailers are absolutely starting to recognize the merchandising potential of anime. He says that the Gucci collaboration speaks to the rising popularity of and interest surrounding anime, as it evolves from a niche entertainment area into a flourishing space for fans to indulge in all their favorite franchise elements.
Since anime is such a robust and expressive art form, it blends seamlessly into the fashion world. Both mediums rely on communicating a unique visual language that resonates with and inspires fans. In the collection, Bananya iconography is incorporated throughout Gucci’s established apparel, shoe, and accessory styles while retaining its adorable “a-peel” through pastel colors and pop art.
“This special collection gives a platform for anime-inspired jewelry, footwear, and apparel on a completely different level of style and influence,” Leonhardt says. “This quirky concept mixed with seriously cute imagery breaks out of the anime box and appeals to a mainstream consumer.”
We’ve also got influencers and celebrities to thank for bringing our favorite franchises into the high-fashion limelight. Megan Thee Stallion, John Boyega, Kanye West, and even Jamie Lee Curtis are not shy about letting their anime fandom flags fly. LeBron James has also been spotted wearing some of the licensed Space Jam collections in honor of his theatrical appearance.
Kacey Musgraves already had a long-standing relationship with Sesame Street — due to an appearance on The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo — and was enthusiastic about being a part of the Moschino collaboration, according to Jacquelien Hou, senior manager of brand marketing at Sesame Workshop. Musgraves’ participation also helped put the collaboration on the couture magazine map. “Elle, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Billboard covered [the collection], helping us reach a new demographic of high-fashion followers and pop culture influencers,” Hou says.
These high-fashion brands have been working diligently to weave each individual fandom’s nuanced lore and language into their apparel, and fan reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Hong says pieces from the Space Jam x Tommy Hilfiger and Bloomingdales collections have sold out. “We know that each of our partners have a distinct voice and style, so we work together to combine their brand DNA with ours and that can include picking the color palette, verbiage or silhouette, etc. all the details that make each piece ownable to our brand,” she says.
On the Sesame Street end, Hou says that fans and the fashion community have both embraced the Moschino collaboration. “We were so appreciative with the support and plan to submit the collaboration to various awards programs. The best sellers were the graphic tees — the designs featuring Oscar and the other featuring the very popular letters of the alphabet.”
The Bananya x Gucci collection has garnered its fair share of buzz on the internet, too, bolstered by a distribution of more than a million licensed Bananya products in North America, according to Leonhardt. The collection’s Ace and Rhyton sneakers are his personal favorite.
Fans relate to programs and characters in ways that move well beyond canon narratives, and these high-fashion brands stepping in to bridge the gap between fans’ imagination and official fandom imagery are ushering in a new wave of pop-culture couture. Their ability to stylize muppet characters, banana cats, and out-of-this-world basketball players and successfully sell those styles for hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars all comes down to creativity and passion from the fans. “It’s the fans that keep the brand alive,” Hong says. “Every time they mention Space Jam or Looney Tunes in a pop culture reference or when they walk out wearing their vintage Bugs Bunny tee, or when they watch our cartoons. All that inspires us to continue creating awesome products, while blending in new trends and stories.”
Ultimately, fandom fashion isn’t just about the look: It’s about the feeling. The brands and stories resonate with fans, underneath all the fabrics, appliques, and accessories. Fandoms are the gathering stitches of fashion textiles, and fan experiences drive the purpose and mission of these collaborative collections. The future of high-fashion fandom merchandising is fresh, exciting territory for beloved franchises, and it won’t disappoint. This isn’t the last time we’ll be seeing high-profile collaborations from WBCP, Crunchyroll, or Sesame Street, so take it all in and prepare for more premier partners to bring pop-culture faves to fashion stardom.