Solange Knowles And The Evolution Of Merch

Her Saint Heron online store makes high fashion accessible to fans

Last week, the clouds parted, the angels sang, and a gift descended from the heavens: Solange Knowles relaunched her online store, Saint Heron, and for that we have all benefited.

While Knowles’s store could have easily taken the route of traditional artist merch (think: Taylor Swift or One Direction) and given us our fair share of limited-edition Solange™ swag, the singer opted instead to use it as a platform to showcase original and compelling designs rooted as much in diversity as in creativity. She enlisted designers like James Flemons, whose pieces are among the first to appear via Saint Heron. "What I’m most proud of with the e-commerce site is that it’s not just invested in fashion," she explained to Billboard. "It’s more invested in the conversation and cultivation of diversity in design as a whole."

Solange also went on to praise Flemons’s aesthetic homage to 1990s R&B girl groups and their affinity for DIY culture – which is something we can obviously get behind. On top of Solange’s choice to use her profile to position her fellow artists under a well-deserved spotlight, Saint Heron reflects evolving expectations of what audiences want to buy from our favorite artists – a conversation that continued days later when Solange’s sister Beyoncé dropped a preview of her Ivy Park collection for Topshop (launching April 14).

While artist/fashion label crossovers are hardly a novelty, what’s interesting about Beyoncé's Ivy Park is that it’s seemingly just a fancier version of what you’d find in her online store. Beyoncé’s pieces — whether the "Surfboard" sweatshirts or the current "I Twirl On Them Haters" top (which I bought and now consider my most prized possession) — merge the worlds of fashion and function in a way that’s rare in music. Sure, each piece in her shop is branded with Beyoncé’s face, words, or name, but they’re also reflective of the looks people actually want to be seen in. They mean we can now wear our favorite artists on our literal sleeves without having to brand ourselves with a slew of corresponding tour dates on an ill-fitting 50/50 t-shirt. Now we can say, "I like this artist and I have immaculate taste in fleece."

Drake has followed a similar model for the success of his OVO store. Yes, it’s a shop dedicated solely to the branding of Drake, but it does so in a way that grants devotees the privilege of wearing pieces that fall in line with Drizzy’s own sweatsuited aesthetic. We’re seeing fewer pieces that are mere badges of fandom, and more looks like those the artists wear.

Back in the '90s and early 2000s, band merch — particularly pop merch — was defined by its kitsch factor, as t-shirts and bags acted as wearable proof that you’d attended a particular event. The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and the Spice Girls were not subtle in their logos or their imagery, and neither were the indie acts that bred a climate of merch-as-elitism as we moved into the 2010s. Thanks to pop culture touchstones like The O.C. (and music snob poster child Seth Cohen), you became who you wore. And where the fashion world saw designers shy away from overt branding, music did the opposite and birthed whole wardrobes that consisted of concert t-shirts and tote bags. (The password for this subculture was, "Oh, you probably haven’t heard of them.")

But that approach to music and fashion is boring — which is why it’s been refreshing to see it shaken up by artists like Beyoncé, Drake, and now Solange, whose M.O.s are to make their style favorites accessible to everybody. When Solange introduces us to new designers, we’re free to create our own style and interpret pieces as we see fit. When Beyoncé and Drake brand their looks and lifestyle in a number of ways, we can adhere to a timely style code while also advertising our favorite acts as subtly (or not) as we’d like.

Ultimately, seeing fashion, music, and merch merge in such interesting and modern ways is exciting — especially as we see more and more artists take risks and treat their stores and products like an extension of self and their personal ethos. Today, it’s a lifestyle site by Solange. Tomorrow, it's Drake’s affinity for fleece. Now, if only Justin Bieber would sell his Marilyn Manson crossover tees, we’d have it all.