SGCR x ALT3RD: Fashion and nostalgia - why vintage band t-shirts are priced to the hundreds
WRITTEN BY DANIEL PETERS, SINGAPORE COMMUNITY RADIO

For anyone paying attention to modern fashion trends, band t-shirts have become part and parcel of its evolving apparatus — whether new or vintage.

 

Once a signifier of one’s particular music tastes or fandom, the imagery of t-shirts from bands spanning classic rock, hardcore punk or death metal has been embraced by celebrities and fast fashion. It’s not a unique case anymore to find specialized merch for Metallica and Iron Maiden at your local Cotton On, or seeing headline-dominating celebrities sporting a Morbid Angel longsleeve.

 

The once-fringe aesthetics of heavy metal have since become commonplace. It has long been a point of contention for fans and musicians — especially ones who’ve lived through decades where their style was once unique to a subculture and demonized by the outside world — but the reactions have mostly quelled.

 

 

Even James Hetfield of Metallica has chimed in with a statesman-like opinion: “When I see some kid out on the street with his parents and he’s got a Metallica shirt on, whether he’s heard of us or not, it’s a statement, you know? It is a statement, so I love that.”

 

Fast forward to 2020 and the band t-shirt fixation still rages on, but specifically in the market of vintage t-shirts. A cursory look at the Instagram pages of vintage sellers like Teejerker and Never Gonna Turn Down Again show them serving an eager following, while pieces on Depop can be snapped up in minutes. Even as Highsnobiety declares the trend as dead, the underground has never once wavered. In fact, as vintage pieces become increasingly scarce with larger demand, prices have gone up.

 

 

Teejerker photographed by Josh Bryant

 

Vintage band t-shirts can fetch up to the hundreds, and such prices can depend on the sellers you encounter and the bands you like. Death Threads is such a store that has operated in Singapore since 2017 — lovingly run by a team of collectors equally enthralled by music, culture and fashion — and they carry a range of band t-shirts amongst their growing collection of vintage shirts, jackets and sweaters.

 

Beyond being a fashion statement, the lasting appeal of band t-shirts is now permeated by a whiff of nostalgia for eager collectors willing to pay. Death Threads shared some insights with us on the vintage band t-shirt market today, along with some of the pieces that mean the most to them.

 

Hey guys - for the uninitiated, could you please introduce yourselves and what you do for Death Threads!
There's Deon, Justin, Jon and Josh in the DT team! We all source/hunt for the store, Jon does the illustrations/posters, Josh runs the day to day when we open.

 

For starters, I want to focus on the culture of vintage band/artist t-shirts. At what point was it apparent to you that the marketplace had a huge demand for it?
Josh: I'd say that in general the boom in interest definitely began when celebrities started wearing 80s/90s rock and metal tees like Nirvana, Metallica, Pantera, etc. a few years back.
Justin: Haha we might have to give Jerry Lorenzo some credit for bringing band shirts to the mainstream.

 

Jerry Lorenzo, Founder Fear Of God

 

Why are some t-shirts priced the way they are?
Josh: As a general rule of thumb, the market dictates the prices. Current availability of certain prints, prices based off the last sale of the same print, or a celebrity wearing a certain print would make the prices of tees volatile.
Justin: Josh is right! But in some cases, the seller dictates the price. The seller prices the shirt how he values it, perhaps based on his sense of nostalgia or how sentimental it is to him.

 

There’s this interesting Vice interview where another t-shirt seller talked about how Marilyn Manson merch grew in value because of Lil Uzi Vert’s love of his music — illustrating how cursory hype can drive massive demand. With your experience these years, do you anticipate and prepare for any sudden spikes in demand?
Josh: We've always brought in what we like in terms of tees. The market trends have slowly caught up to us though!
Justin: Nope we don’t anticipate upcoming hype or trends. We mostly focus on curating tees that we love.
Jon:It is interesting to see certain tees rise in demand. On some occasions where we happen to bring in those tees in trend, it does draw out the customers that would queue for them.

 

 Death Threads Instagram

 

We imagine demand can also come from the popularity of the band’s legacy. Have there been instances where t-shirts of relatively lesser-known bands are fetching high prices?
Justin: Yes! Some of these tees are fetching over a grand. For instance The Flaming Lips, Manic Street Preachers, etc.

Josh: I'd add that niche bands like the Butthole Surfers and Spacemen 3 too go for a lot as there are more collectors than tees going around in the market. 

 

Are there instances of a presumably big band that doesn’t fare as well in the vintage t-shirt market?

Justin: Hmm I’d say mostly bands that thrived in the 80s... because their shirts were made much smaller than the 90s. For instance Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, etc.

Josh: For some reason U2 tees aren't in high demand considering how big they are till today!

 

From the day Death Threads began to now, have there been any major challenges in sourcing and buying t-shirts for your business? market?
Justin: I think the Covid pandemic made sourcing rather difficult. We had friends in several countries but there were a lot of restrictions initially. Prices of shipping also jumped during this period.
Jon: Being a curated vintage store, sourcing the right tees to bring in for exposure has always been a priority. That also means hours of searching and effort to curate the items. One challenge is that it can be a time consuming process and sometimes subjected to luck to be able to find certain tees. With the high volume of tees we bring in monthly, this also adds on to the collective effort of the team to keep up with the demand.

 

Could you share with us two band/artist t-shirts that you have in your collection and tell us what they mean to you personally?

Jon: First one in my collection will be my 1994 Bjork “Army of me” tee, it was my first “big ticket” vintage tee that I got off from a local collector after a long hunt for this grail. Björk’s artistry and experimental sound always inspired me to think outside of the box when I’m creating. 

The second tee will be this 90s Queen tee. Queen is probably my first exposure to rock while growing up and it’s great to be owning something that I can connect with. 

 

Black Shirts World, 90s BJÖRK "ARMY OF ME" T-SHIRT

 

Justin: First one’s gotta be this 1994 Soundgarden tee from the Superunknown era. I remembered getting into rock/grunge and this has to be one of the best albums ever. Second would be this 2005 Kanye tee. It’s a rare one created by FTK and only given out to Kanye and his crew. I love this shirt for its history. More than that, this was released in between College Dropout and Late Registration which are my top 3 Kanye albums (next to MBDTF).

 

Josh: First choice has got to be a test print of Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger. One of the bleakest Black Metal album prints featuring all 3 members on the back before one of them left. Another favourite would be a one off bootleg print of the Melvins' debut album Gluey Porch Treatments! Their sound influenced the grunge and sludge metal genres and the Melvins' are still highly underrated.

 

Vintage 1997 Wu Tang Forever Tee, GRAILED

 

Deon: My first pick would be my Wu-Tang Forever tee from 1997. Besides being a big fan of the Wu, I just love the fit and it's really easy to match any outfit. It was also the most expensive t-shirt I've ever gotten at $300, dollar dollar bill yall.
The second would be this signed 90's bootleg rap tee of the Microphone Fiend himself, Rakim. Being one of the OGs that really pushed hip hop culture forward, this tee was also a birthday gift from Josh so it's extra sentimental (among a lot of other sentimental gifts from Josh) ❤️