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.