I’m Not Buying What Justin Timberlake’s Pop-Up Is Selling

A real man of the woods needs beard oil. Photo: Megan
Reynolds

By most
accounts
, Justin Timberlake’s latest musical offering,
Man of the Woods, is
bad
—a half-hearted attempt at getting back to his roots
while reconciling his new identity as a basic L.A. dad. Against
all understandable odds, it
debuted
at the top of the Billboard 200—perhaps thanks to
washed dads like Timberlake himself—but I’m pretty sure his
three-day Man of the Woods pop-up experience in New York City
had nothing to do with it.

The retail experience, curated and orchestrated by Bravado, was
housed in an empty storefront in Soho during the first weekend
of New York Fashion Week. The draw, of course, was likely not
the Breeze off the Pond x Maestro Classic beard butter or the
Wave x Warby Parker exclusive sunglasses available for
purchase, but the
Air Jordan 3 JTH
, a collaboration between Timberlake and
designer Tinker Hatfield. The shoes, which retail for $200 and
are now only available for an exorbitant markup via various
online resellers, made their debut on Timberlake’s feet during
his anemic Super Bowl Halftime performance and were the most
exciting part of the entire spectacle.

Debuting the sneaker at the Super Bowl was a smart move by Nike
(free advertising); making the shoes available at this highly
unnecessary pop-up is the savviest decision Timberlake has made
since the Trolls soundtrack. Traditional retail is
dying and the retail “experience” is rising to take its
place—Instagram-worthy events that are meant to sell some
limited-edition goods, but hype most of all. If a consumer
happens to leave an experience with a candle or a $50
Moleskine, consider it a bonus. For musicians like Timberlake,
who might be quietly panicking at how the passage of time has
rendered their shtick irrelevant and slightly passé, a
heavily-curated pop-up shop built largely on the strength of a
fashion sneaker is nothing more than a desperate grasp at
relevancy—a way to prove that he’s a cool dad who’s still got
it.

The shoes in question. Image: Megan Reynolds

By the time I arrived Sunday morning, a small line had formed
in the spitting rain. A girl behind me stood with a rolling
suitcase, waiting patiently for the doors to open. She polled
the line about whether or not there were any sneakers left.
Word travelled down to us that the sneakers had sold out by
Friday morning and people camped out Thursday night to get
them. “I could budget at least $200,” a man in front of me said
with great certainty. We all agreed that anything over that
price point would be an unnecessary extravagance and a waste of
money. It was clear that no one in line was really there for
Timberlake’s music, though the two people I was next to agreed
that 20/20 was some of his best work. The new album
hadn’t really moved the needle for anyone I spoke with.

WHO IS WEARING THIS VEST OR THIS BANDANA OR BOTH? Image:
Megan Reynolds

Once I finally gained entry, I found myself in a space that was
arranged sort of like a museum. A smiling attendant handed me a
sheet with product images and prices; the Jordans, two $25
bandanas and a $250 Levis jacket were crossed out. What was
left were other markers of Timberlake’s supposed new persona:
beard oil; a $350 Pendleton blanket; a $125 flask; and,
laughably, a $350 axe that was sticking straight out of a tree
trunk mounted to the wall. Each item in the store was
associated with a song off the album. If you particularly
enjoyed “Say Something,” the track where JT enlists the help of
Chris Stapelton for some country cred, there’s a $50 bright
yellow Moleskine notebook for your thoughts; if the opening
number “Filthy” is more your speed, perhaps a $500 silver vest
that screams MAN OF THE WOODS in safety orange on the lapel,
crafted by streetwear designer Heron Preston, is more your
speed. The vest really threw me for a loop; I puzzled for five
minutes in front of it, wondering who precisely was the target
audience? Perhaps just Timberlake himself—a washed dad trying
to kick it with the children, but unsure of how to do so
without seeming like a total goon.

Bravado, the Universal Music Group-owned merchandising company

responsible
for Timberlake’s attempt at rebranding, also
orchestrated Kanye’s Yeezus pop-up and Justin Bieber’s Purpose
tour merch, the latter of which effectively changed the way
artists think about and handle merchandising. “It set the tone
that merch was becoming this other way to reach fans,” Joe
Perez, former creative director of DONDA,
told
Complex in 2016. “The pop-up store is another [fan]
experience. People line up for blocks. It’s crazy. Sometimes
you’ll see the same people there for three days in a row.”

If you can’t reach fans through your music, might as well kick
them right in the wallet, I suppose. Given these facts, the
instinct to work with Bravado is correct, but the result, for
Timberlake at least, is lukewarm. Collaborating with streetwear
designers and targeting the people who would wait in line for a
Supreme drop is one way to stir up buzz, but the result is
empty when it’s this inorganic: hype for hype’s sake.

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