If you are a major celebrity on the brink of a major world tour, you launch a merch collection. That is what Kanye West did with Life of Pablo that made gothic-font-on-long-sleeved-tees one of the year’s biggest trends. That is what Justin Bieber did with Purpose that had both his fans and haters scrambling to scoop up hoodies sporting Sin City-fied images of a former teen pop star. Rihanna’s Anti, The Weeknd’s Starboy, and Beyonce’s Lemonade all had wildly successful merch lines to accompany wildly successful albums. And then Justin Timberlake released Man of the Woods.
If ever there was a sign for the way A-list artists and their handlers build hype around marketing trends, but sometimes miss the point, it came Wednesday morning when news broke that Timberlake would be opening up a NYC pop-up shop to sell a collection of merch. Never mind that the press preview for fashion editors came the first day of women’s Fashion Week and the last day of men’s, a big no-no considering that typical Fashion Week events are carefully organized through the CFDA to minimize scheduling conflicts. The fashion establishment doesn’t like this sort of thing — and this is not an unknown. When West brazenly skirted the etiquette of Fashion Week the first year he showed, there was significant backlash. Timberlake also didn’t think the same rules should apply.
This is a weird attitude to take considering the week that he's had: A new album got panned by critics (Pitchfork called it “a huge misstep” and assigned the album a rating of 3.8/10, the New York Times asked whether the past 12 years of Justin Timberlake’s status as a pop star was delusional, and even Forbes called the album “fake woke”). His Super Bowl performance called into question whether he’s always used black bodies, products, and production for personal gain.
To a much more minor, but much more hilarious extent, it also offended fashion people. His performance featured a debut of sort of a new, countrified Timberlake that was supposed to present a more authentic self, but came across as clearly manufactured. His outfit consisted of a fringed leather jacket, an orange bandana, camo pants, and a shirt sublimated with a Montana landscape featuring two bucks (deer, not cash). Twitter erupted in jokes about the hard left turn Timberlake had apparently done with his new woodsy wardrobe. Reporter Matthew Shneier collected a few in a tweet: “Like a bitcoin millionaire who just bought his way into Westworld.” “Like a molly dealer at Coachella.” “Cashier at Urban Outfitters decided to rob a train in the 1890s.” It’s a look that’s curiously both right-on (country-Western motifs are one of 2018’s bigger fashion trends) and completely off-the-mark (country-Western-by-way-of-service-station-gift-shops is a look with limited appeal). This new style direction was like the result of a game of telephone, played during a Coachella act.
This is exactly the look he decided to hawk in the wild woods of New York City. Upon arriving at the pop-up shop, at a location of which was emailed to me only after I confirmed I could attend, it was unclear what I had arrived to. A trio of security guards stood on an empty street in front of window covered in brown paper. The only sign of the event was the “Man of the Woods” song that was echoing through the doors. Meanwhile, the inside was shockingly empty.
"Maybe everyone is still in the woods?” my sole companion, a fashion editor, joked. We were free to take in the collection of merch — 16 items designed in collaboration with a number of brands — which had been displayed on shelves like art in a museum. Each item featured a placard with information like “machine wash cold” and “packaged in a letterpress envelope,” but not, you know, the price. There were blankets made with Pendleton and an axe made with Best Made. The collection of stonewashed-denim jackets made with Levi’s were pretty great, and featured the only visible price tags ($250).
The T-shirts were made with Heron Preston who had earlier in the day announced an apprenticeship with Eileen Fisher. Like West or Bieber’s merch that also riffed on predominantly white subcultures like heavy metal or skateboarding, Timberlake and Preston were clearly inspired by the clothing worn in predominantly white spaces, like hunting lodges, Nascar tailgating — the kind of ambiguous athletic logos you might find for sale at service stations or big-box stores. A shirt reading “Man of the Woods” sported a “JT” insignia that was a clear homage to the Virginia Tech logo and colorway. A sneaker editor told me later during the event that the set of five Nikes would undoubtedly sell out. “But I’m not sure about the rest,” he said.
Timberlake was not there in the beginning, and I was thankful for that, because there were barely a dozen people in the space half an hour into the event. I spoke with Mat Vlasic, the CEO of Bravado, the branding and merchandising division of Universal Music Group, and the man responsible for the success of West and Bieber’s merch. He told me that Timberlake had come to him with the idea for a merch line and a pop-up store. According to Vlasic, the products were all made in a day. Another spokesperson told me that they didn’t coordinate with the CFDA to put on the press preview: “We did it rogue,” they said.
An hour and a half in, and the room was considerably packed with streetwear editors and music industry players, but Timberlake was still a no-show. Again, still probably a good thing since most conversations in the room revolved around the album, the Super Bowl performance, and the juggling that certain editors had to do to make additional Fashion Week shows and events. I imagined myself in Timberlake’s (Nike collaboration) shoes, and wondered about the amount of therapy I’d need to arrive in a room like that.
Right as the event was supposed to end, Timberlake appeared, in the black version of the Levi’s collab jacket and a beanie rolled up to show off both his ears, British skinhead-style. He slowly circled the room, chatting with friends, and filming a trio of Instagram videos he posted to alert hypebeasts to the location. I asked a PR representative whether I could ask him a question since this was an event designed for the press, but they informed me that I could only talk to him off-the-record: ‘Because…you know. Super Bowl stuff.”
If I couldn’t ask Timberlake directly, I wondered if he was already planning to acknowledge the flannel elephant in the room. I asked a PR rep whether he was going to make a statement, but they let me know that his mingling was about to come to a close: He was supposed to traverse the room in a circle, stopping in front of a leather sofa where he would pose for pictures and possibly say a few words. “He’s only five feet away,” they told me. “He’s 75% of the way through.”
When Timberlake finally reached the sofa, it was an hour and 45 minutes after I arrived, and fifteen minutes after the event was supposed to end. He posed for some photos with Heron Preston and Vlasic, and quickly returned to a conversation with some friends. And then that was that.
I left a few minutes afterwards to an empty street. By midnight, there would be a crowd of hypebeasts — most of them young men of color, who’d be standing outside in the below-freezing weather until the shop would open at 11 a.m. this morning — again providing Timberlake with some credibility in a time of crisis.