The Met keeps releasing clothing with Pacsun. Why?

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The Met keeps releasing clothing with Pacsun. Why?
The fourth collection produced by Pacsun and the Met was inspired by the museum’s collection of Greek and Roman statues. The unlikely coupling of art museum and mall brand has yielded three apparel collections, with a fourth releasing this month. (Pacsun via The New York Times)

by Callie Holtermann

NEW YORK, NY.- When Pacsun, the brand known for selling skate and surf wear at malls, announced last year that it would release a clothing collection in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some reactions could be summed up as: Why?

The type of laid-back West Coast lifestyle associated with Pacsun since its beginnings in California in the 1980s seemed at odds with the interests of the Met, an Upper East Side museum where saltwater could damage the artworks.

Not to mention: Was there even an audience of skaters and surfers with an eye for Renoir?

Apparently, yes. After releasing three collections with the Met, Pacsun will release a fourth Friday.

The new line contains 25 pieces, ranging from $25 to $90, and is inspired by the museum’s collection of Greek and Roman statues. The items, sold on Pacsun’s website and at its stores, include a mesh long-sleeve shirt printed with the Marble Head of an Athlete ($35) and a black puffer jacket embossed with the Marble Statue Group of the Three Graces ($80).

Merchandise from earlier collections has featured artwork of New York City landmarks and oil paintings by artists including Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Vincent van Gogh.

Pacsun’s partnership with the Met is the latest step in a larger pivot for the company formally known as Pacific Sunwear of California, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016.

In recent years, Pacsun has attempted to move away from the type of sun-dappled leisure it had come to epitomize. Now it is focusing on streetwear and using apparel partnerships as ways to resonate with its predominantly young customers. Some of those partnerships, like the collection Pacsun released with Fear of God, a cult streetwear label, have been more obvious than others, like its line with the risqué magazine Playboy.

“I think that feeling of being surprised that we’ve done something like this is a real positive,” Pacsun CEO Brieane Olson said of its wide-ranging collaborations, which have also included a line with racing behemoth Formula One.

Streetwear, fashion and fine art have become increasingly interconnected. Designer Virgil Abloh, who died in 2021, often referenced Italian painter Caravaggio in his clothes. Off-White, the brand founded by Abloh, has released apparel in partnership with the Louvre, in 2019, and with Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, in 2021.

Pacsun and the Met, like some other couples, were initially set up by a third party. Beanstalk, a licensing agency, connected the clothing company with the museum, said Richard Cox, the vice president of men’s and global partnerships at Pacsun.

Josh Romm, the head of global licensing and partnerships at the Met, which has partnered with other clothing brands including Champion, said that a collaboration with Pacsun was appealing because it stood to give the 153-year-old institution a bit of an edge, particularly among the younger demographic that gravitates toward Pacsun. “Now we’re interesting,” Romm said.

To inform the collections with Pacsun, the Met invited its design team to tour various galleries and provided a list of around 1,000 pieces of art that could be licensed.

“We really let them look at what’s available in the museum,” said Stephen Mannello, the Met’s head of retail and licensing. Cox said Pacsun would not disclose the costs to license artworks.

As the partnership has progressed, the clothes in the collections have started to look less like the kind of T-shirts you might expect to find at a museum store. (Though plenty of that type of T-shirt have been released.) The third collection, for instance, included a strapless bustier ($32) and a midi skirt ($50) with a subtle cloud print from New York from Governors Island, an etching by John Hill based on a watercolor by William Guy Wall.

Pieces from the third collection, released in June, were mostly gone from the Pacsun in SoHo on a recent Saturday afternoon. But a few stray shirts featuring van Gogh’s 1888 still life Oleanders ($30) were positioned above a stack of Aerosmith tees on a wall of T-shirts.

Alexander Carnot, 22, a student at Elon University who was browsing the merchandise, said that visiting a museum can be a tough sell among his peers, whose attention span is tailored to seconds-long TikTok videos. He saw the Met’s collaboration with Pacsun as a way “of getting new audiences in,” he added.

His friend Ray Kao, a 22-year-old student at New York University, said he has also noticed “a growing sense of alienation from art museums” among people his age. Kao said he visits the Met often and that he thought its partnership with Pacsun made sense, because “it pedestrianizes things that are really inaccessible.”

Carnot considered buying a van Gogh T-shirt, but decided against it, he said, because the painting was overwhelmed by text. Instead, he headed to the registers carrying a pair of beige shorts and purple T-shirt with the Playboy bunny on the chest.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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