Once the preserve of fans in moshpits at concerts, the band’s t-shirt cemented its high-fashion status this week with the endorsement of a luxury fashion label — and the price to match.
As part of their The Vintage collection, Saint Laurent is now selling second-hand band T-shirts for thousands of pounds. Nirvana dominates with the classic smiley face t-shirt selling for £700 and an In Utero t-shirt priced at £2,510. A T-shirt – featuring the cover of the 1992 Incesticide compilation – made headlines. It was sold for £3,295.
These items – and their prices – have been shared on social media. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth – a friend of Nirvana – posted about the T-shirts on Instagram with the (presumably ironic) caption “Sick! So punk!” Nirvana fans complained on Twitter, with one commenting that it was “the opposite of what [frontman] kurt [Cobain] would have liked. He thought $20 was too much for a concert ticket.
Some musicians may find these prices hard to swallow, but the majority of the t-shirts have already sold out, reflecting the fact that people are willing to shell out for something once sold for peanuts at a merchandise stand. “Over the last 10 years it has grown tremendously,” says Deeps Samra, the founder of Catalog London, a website that sells vintage t-shirts and merchandise. “The prices keep going up.” Matt Sloane, founder of vintage t-shirt and memorabilia store Jerks, explains a rule of thumb. “If an original LP is worth £300, you can be fairly certain that the corresponding T-shirt will be worth the same or more,” he says.
Samra says the maximum he made off a T-shirt was £1,000, for a Björk T-shirt, while Sloane says he sold an Aphex Twin T-shirt – the same design worn by musician Frank Ocean – for £2,500. Both say Saint Laurent’s prices are inflated but, as Sloane says, “You’re paying for the experience of buying something from Saint Laurent, it’s one on one.” That’s what to expect.
Nirvana t-shirts are particularly sought after. Saint Laurent’s offers are not the most expensive ever sold. A collector in Japan paid $8,500 (£6,608) for a t-shirt featuring the whole band while a Sonic Youth t-shirt worn by Cobain in 1994 sold for $25,000 in 2014. Jacob McMurray, who curated an exhibition of Nirvana memorabilia at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture in 2018, says this market comes at just the right time. “[Grunge is] 30 years ago, so there’s this nostalgia around that. The kids who grew up listening to this music are now the people in power and have the money to be able to afford this stuff.
Sloane says Saint Laurent’s focus on Nirvana makes sense. “It’s like fruit at hand. The band is big enough to get the attention it wants [as opposed to] someone a little more obscure.
People have been collecting T-shirts for a long time, but it’s only recently that prices have reached extreme levels. Photographer David Titlow published a book in 2016, Teetotal, showcasing his collection. “In the late 90s, you could buy great vintage t-shirts everywhere [at thrift stores] At New York. Now that’s just impossible because people are totally wise.
Sara Blanco, a Los Angeles-based collector, started collecting T-shirts as a teenager. She noted the price increases. “I used to have a 1993 Sade Summer Deluxe Tour which was my favorite that I gave to an ex-boyfriend,” she says. “It now sells for nearly $2,000. I deeply regret it.
While vintage dealers believe the Saint Laurent effect will benefit their businesses – “having a great brand on our side [in] vintage puts more focus on our little community,” says Samra – Blanco kindly dismisses anyone who has purchased a four-digit Nirvana t-shirt. “Let’s be honest,” she said. “If someone told you they got their vintage T-shirt through a fashion house that sources them, you’d be like ‘that’s even dumber than being a collector’.”
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