I was outside a pub the other weekend when I saw a young man marching past in a full Greggs tracksuit, the big white letters spelling out G-R-E-G-G-S on navy joggers, with a matching hoodie. I wasn’t convinced people like him actually existed before that. I thought the idea of Greggs “merch” was a joke – more about the idea than the reality. But there he was, this young lad, all decked out in the Greggs and Primark collab.
Greggs aren’t the only big business to have released merch recently. A lot of the UK’s monolithic, everyday mega-brands have been putting out their own clothes. See: Lidl’s chunky trainers and retro swimming shorts, Creme Egg’s conceptual collection from sustainable designer Charlotte Kirkham and, now, KFC and their Y2K-style handbags and bucket hats. Some of this merch has been a hit – famously, the Lidl trainers swiftly sold out and were being resold like they were Supreme.
But how did this happen? It’s not as if this has always been the case. Woolworths wasn’t releasing shotta bags back in the day. HMV shoes would have been considered weird. Francesca Muston, vice-president of fashion content at trend forecasters WGSN, says that they’ve been monitoring what she calls “the mundane” trend for over three years. “These brand collaborations are deliberately relatable rather than aspirational,” she explains.
Muston thinks merch like this works because of their casual, everyman vibe – Lidl is cool because Lidl is cheap. “Many of the true heroes of the pandemic were the delivery and public transport drivers, supermarket workers and restaurant staff who enabled life to continue, bringing a newfound appreciation of the brands, services and products which we had taken for granted as a mundane part of life.”
“The current cost of living crisis makes this trend even more relevant,” she says. “It has a realness that celebrates everyday life and rejects the assumption that people are aspiring to something else. It is societal commentary with an honesty that feels refreshing for the fashion industry.”
Amy Hendry, the director of advisory at Fashion Snoops, says that our interest in merch from companies like Lidl, and especially Greggs, can be viewed through the prism of our nonsense-based British sense of humour and kitsch. “People are getting over the ‘perfect’ aesthetic and now they want to be more real and almost this kind of kitsch, jokey real,” she says.
“Greggs is just the epitome of it,” she adds, noting their sausage roll-emblazoned boxers. There’s something inherently funny about treating a British bakery like a streetwear brand. “It’s like a rebellion against fashion trends, in a way. ‘I'm going to wear what I want and that includes a supermarket t-shirt.’ If enough people do it, it almost becomes a counteraction of itself, where it becomes cool.”
Sure, Greggs might not be Prada and KFC might not be Gucci. But these are still huge corporations (in 2021, KFC’s annual revenue was around £2.2 billion, while Greggs made a profit of £145.6 million). And the merch has been released by the brands themselves, not the workers. Doesn’t that kind of destroy the charm, if the corporation is in on – and actively pushing – the joke? I am the proud owner of at least eight different small-town Florida restaurant tees, but at least there’s a little personality to them; each tethered to a memory and a little slice of Guy Fieri Americana.
Aside from the kitsch factor, it’s clear the clothes are also earnestly intended to appeal to brand-obsessed Gen Z: the Depop kids and those into the latest streetwear drops. “What Lidl and Greggs worked out is that they are aiming at Gen Z, who are notoriously difficult to market to because they don't watch TV,” explains Hendry.
“They don't really read magazines – they're all online. Everything is done through social media and TikTok. So they're really hard to get to. This is creating something that's kind of like cult wear or meme fashion, where you'd wear it to post it online.”
Thanks to growing up around social media, Gen Z generally more product and brand-based in their fashion, Hendry argues. Millennials may have been aware of what their friends were wearing, but not what the world’s youth were doing. Gen Z, in contrast, are well aware of global trends. “That's why hype culture and Depop culture is popular with them because it switches and changes regularly, but they can keep up with it because everything is sold to them so easily.”
For Tiffany Hill, creative director and founder of Tiffany Hill Studio, the likes of KFC are also tapping into and capitalising on a “shift towards nostalgia”. “As Gen Z and millennials continue to wear their favourite brands like badges of honour and 1980s and 1990s nostalgia emerges as a key lifestyle trend, these fun, capsule collections bring these two key elements together,” she says.
Hendry wonders how many young people rocking these looks actually shop in Lidl or Greggs. For the companies though, it’s almost irrelevant. “I think there are two sides to it: There's one where they're kind of creating this fashion for meme culture and social media,” she says. “But also, it's a great way for free advertising because logos and brand mania are really popular with the younger generation. They're wanting to make themselves a meme or something viral, that means that their name is being spread. It's incredibly great marketing.”
Looking ahead, Hill said distinctly non-fashion brands like Lidl entering the merch space “opens up new opportunities for other established retailers and chains to follow suit, as long as they retain their authenticity and unique identity”.
It’s halfway impressive how these everyday corporations have been able to capture the zeitgeist. Lidl’s merch drops show a certain generational savvy many execs could only dream of. “It's not like queuing up for the latest Off-White sneakers,” Hendry says. “It’s queuing up for something that is totally affordable and can be worn by everybody, so it's really clever. It still kind of blows my mind.”