What the Fuck is Merch?

What the Fuck is Merch?

By Dariana Almeyda

Motorsport merchandise–and really any clothing-based merchandise–is one of those things that we process as culturally significant (pop culture, counter culture, car culture, etc.) before we process it as an article of clothing meant to protect our bodies (warm sweatshirt, waterproof jacket, etc.). In light of the Parc Fermé launch of PF merch and Toni Cowan-Brown’s Sunday Fangirls/Motley Crew merch line, the question of “what even is merch?” has never felt more relevant. What goes into creating fan merchandise? What must clothing actively do to meet our desire to wear it?


There are five dress motivations in the study of fashion: protection, adornment, identification, modesty, and status. Merchandise (merch) primarily falls under two umbrellas: identification and status. We can argue that a drivers race suit meets each motivation of dress: protection from the elemental dangers of racing, adornment as the race suit has become the icon for race drivers (race suit = race cars involved; if no race suit, can’t guarantee a race car), identification with a specific team (team colors, fonts, imagery, etc.), modesty here lends itself to protection (though if we really wanted to, we can claim that early race car drivers were maybe a bit immodest in their short sleeved shirts). The final motivation, status, plays a much larger role in our interpretation of the race suit on the whole, and bleeds into our understanding of team-produced fan merchandise. The role of sponsors in F1 has created a complex dynamic in establishing status for both the success of a team (think Rich Energy) and the societal perception of what makes a team likable (think Red Bull and Monster; alternatively, think Jenner Racing–though an analysis of Jenner Racing’s color scheme and the eerie similarity with Haas Rich Energy and the societal reception of both teams in their respective eras is a whole other can of worms). Point blank: sponsorships on race suits and race cars creates an additional level of status markers in racing apparel. What society perceives to be better than something else will ultimately dictate that entity’s status. Here, think the Monaco McLaren Gulf livery 2021.


As fans of such an international sport, it seems obvious that we’d want to adorn our bodies with something that lets the world know which team or driver we support on any given race weekend. This sense of identification is key in the world of merchandise–if we as consumers do not identify with the designs incorporated in the merch marketed to us, no products will be sold. That is where status comes in. The undeniable implication of luxury that clouds Formula 1 is what allows status to become a key motivation in the production of fan merchandise. Merch prices and general accessibility create an unspoken understanding about who can afford and easily access merch, crafting a narrative of status based on financial class and nationhood. F1’s dominance in European countries means anyone looking to buy merchandise outside of the countries already steeped in F1 as a cultural norm must resort to paying often exorbitant prices (whether in currency conversion, tax, or import fees) for merchandise that may not always align with their motivations of dress outside of identification and status. While some teams provide access to commercial versions of their team kit that include jackets, sweatshirts, gillets, hats, scarves, and pants, these articles of clothing are not primarily advertised as modes of protection–their main dress motivation is identification, and that is explicit in their design. So why is it that we’re so willing to spend money and adorn our bodies with clothing that is considered workwear for others?


I recently spoke with Toni Cowan-Brown, also known as @F1Toni on TikTok, about fan merchandise. We chatted about why teams might go out of their way to make their team kit accessible to fans and why fans would be compelled to wear this iteration of workwear at all:


“Most people can pick up a basketball and try to throw a hoop and get a sense of what it’s like. F1 is one of those very few sports where you’ll never get to experience it. There’s such a gap that needs to be bridged and I think a way of doing that is mimicking the stuff that they wear. That is the easiest thing to do–and also probably the safest than trying to mimic how they drive. But I think it’s a bit of that. F1 is such a unique sport that we have so many armchair experts … the closest thing we’ll get is mimicking some of the things they wear.”


It’s no secret that motorsport teams, and the motorsport business as a whole, primarily market their fan experiences, merchandise, and digital content to male identifying audiences. While this inherent sexism in audience engagement and activation is annoying, I’m not sure it justifies having ugly merch designs. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the notion of ugliness is subjective, but good product design guarantees customers–whatever their gender identity. So why is motorsport merch often so disappointing? In this ever-growing digital age, consumers have dawned on the realization that sometimes a logo is not enough. The curation and combination of branding and design is what ultimately prompts most buyers to spend their money on an article of clothing. If we look back on the days of big tobacco as the hallmark of F1 sponsorship and marketing, a logo like Marlboro can be as iconic as it can be stigmatizing–who wants their kid sporting a Marlboro t-shirt to school? In 2022, major tech companies have taken over as the torch bearers of F1 sponsorship. With this new responsibility comes a new layer to the role of status in merch. How do brands strike the balance between good design and optimal product marketing that convey both the joys of identification and the satisfaction of status? This is especially important in F1, where the product being marketed isn’t simply a t-shirt, but a mark of allegiance to a team of engineers, media experts, drivers, compatriots, and fans alike.


I’ll admit that my own biases towards merchandise lean towards heritage inspired messaging that often incorporate iconic brand logos. I’ll also admit that being a fan from outside of the ‘typical’ F1 market may also play a role in the kinds of brand messaging I may have been exposed to. This proved to be a great topic of conversation with Toni as we shared a mutual appreciation for the iconic and culturally significant designs gracing NASCAR t-shirts in the USA: 


“ … what I like about the NASCAR t-shirts is that I’m owning a part of history. It’s a little moment in time that will forever live on. Is that a thing in formula one? … I get excited by the fact that this t-shirt is a little moment in history. I think it’s the same feeling you have in the music industry.” 


There is no greater motivator than nostalgia, particularly in a sport centered on speed. What we can’t relish in the brief moments of success, we can relish in owning something that conveys that success. As Toni and I reflected on how NASCAR and the music industry have mastered the art of bottling nostalgia and putting it on a t-shirt, we shifted to a topic that has kept both the Sunday Fangirls and the Parc Fermé crews busy: the role of content creators in endowing merch with importance via their communities. I asked Toni to walk me through the merch creation process and explain some of the driving force behind her merch designs. Her focus on maintaining longevity in design is something more merch-producers should be centering on. Arguably, many brands may assume that they’ve achieved this evergreen design by selling simple designs centered on a singular logo, but they’re missing the ‘cool’ market, or what Toni may call the evergreen ‘pop culture moment’:  


“I wanted this to be something you could find in a vintage store 20 years from now and say ‘wow that’s a cool shirt’. … I’ve never been someone in that mindset of wanting to wear something because it’s of the trend, but I like the longevity of something–it excites me.”


In one of her latest articles, Toni calls for Formula One’s ‘pop culture moment.’ She invites us to consider the role of Drive to Survive in cultivating not just a fan base in the United States, but an effervescent ‘pop culture moment’ that promises longevity for a sport looking to establish roots in a foreign market. She ends her piece with a question we should all consider, not just in relation to the resurgence of F1 in the content creator economy, but in relation to the future of merchandise: “Did it all just happen in a perfect storm vs. the result of a carefully crafted expansion plan?”

Toni and I spoke at length about the expansion of the kinds of merch being circulated amongst teams in the paddock–particularly the stark difference between McLaren’s approach to independent driver merchandise and Ferrari’s approach to driver brand collaborations: 


“We connect with people, not teams, not sponsors. … That shifting of power away from the institutions, to the teams, to the drivers, has done something really unique in what type of merchandise we want. McLaren has been really clever, it looks like from the outside, in pushing and welcoming the merch created by Lando and Daniel. They know that that is a good association for them; they know that having people walk around with a Daniel t-shirt they think of McLaren right now and so that’s good brand association. Ferrari has gone completely the other way–where if you’re a Ferrari driver you don’t have any brand collaborations. It’s not about the drivers, it’s about Ferrari first and foremost.” 


Her reference to the shifting power in what entities fans connect with is the key takeaway in our perception of merchandise in meeting our dress motivations. Yes, we seek clothes that allow us to express our identification and status, but we’re also invested in the history behind the product. We want team merch to look good, feel good, and protect us (from the rain at Spa or the sun at COTA). Fans now are more invested in the kinds of merch they purchase, the quality of the materials, the ethicality of the production, and the satisfaction of a good design. For many fans in this new landscape of a 24/7 fandom, it’s no longer enough to buy a piece of merch because the entity is historically significant. Fans want active engagement, and merch is the perfect way to engage your consumer in a way that benefits both the fans and the brand. Simply put, brands should no longer be thinking about merch as a cash grab–we’re looking for the embodiment of a pop culture moment.

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