Mikey Trapstar always wanted to work with Rihanna. Amazingly, this wild dream turned out to not be that far-fetched. Rihanna, who Mikey considers a "style icon," has been a supporter of the UK brand and one of the first to co-sign it since its early days. Still, Mikey says he couldn't have imagined designing the tour merch for "Monster," the six-date concert tour RiRi co-headlined with Eminem. It's funny how things work.
The "Monster" tour kicked off in Pasadena, CA on Aug. 7, and beyond the music, fans went nuts for the merch that was designed by Trapstar. The collection included graphics that superimposed Rihanna and Eminem's faces with different images of "monsters"—using fans, bat wings, and werewolves. We sat down with Mikey when he stopped by our offices to talk about the merch, how the collaboration came about, the inspiration behind the designs, and why he decided to shoot an editorial for the collection, which you can get an exclusive look at right here.
Interview by Karizza Sanchez
How did the collaboration with Rihanna come about?
It's going to sound funny and crazy but I basically saw her out and she approached me and said, "I want you to do my merch." So the next day I got a call from Ri's manager and Eminem’s, too. They brought me into the room and they were like, "Are you sure you can do it?" and I'm like, "Of course I can." Then I gave them a mood board straight away. It was between me and a few other designers but they liked the mood board and they ran with it.
What was the conversation like when you were talking about what the tour merch should be?
I wasn't familiar with merch as much. I just thought merch is what people did for the fans. But there was a reason they picked us, because they didn't want it to look like just merch. So they gave us free creative control and we just had a mission to make merch not look like merch, so even if you're not necessarily a die-hard fan you'd want to wear the clothes out of the concert, out of just being a fan of the person. I wanted to make the new era Iron Maiden because, you know, people don't even listen to Iron Maiden but they'll still wear the T-shirt because they see it as fashionable. So that was the aim. Along with sticking to the monster theme of the "Monster" tour.
Photo by Andy Hurr
Did Rihanna have any specific ideas as to what she wanted the designs to be?
We bounced around. We did a crazy amount of designs, and she's hands-on, so we bounced back and forth. She'd give ideas and whatnot. So it was a joint effort.
Was it a huge collection in terms of sketches that you guys had before it was narrowed down for the release?
It always is. That's the best way. There are certain things that we both wanted to go crazy on but we knew at the same time that the silhouette wasn't necessarily able to exist as merch. If I could have made this jacket, I'd have made this jacket, but not everyone in the stands would be able to afford it. So we went to the hockey jerseys.
I need to see these images when I'm old and grey and say, 'Yeah I was a part of that. That's me.' It's too epic of a situation.
Is there anything that you wish you could've made that maybe you weren't able to?
No, everything we really wanted made it in. The favorite is the monster hockey with Ri's eyes, and the other one was Eminem with the bat holding the American flag. Those are my two favorites. Everything else, the hottest designs went through. So anything else didn't really deserve to go through; we just wanted to make an all-star lineup where everything could stand by itself. There were no fillers.
How long did the process last?
The whole summer. Everyone was worried that we wouldn't make it in time for the tour.
How did the design of the hockey jersey with Rihanna's face on it come about?
They're different elements of a monster. We went to the darker side of her. We based the mouth on fangs, but the new era of a fang is a grill, so we gave her grills, which she already had. And then went with the moon and then the werewolf. We wanted it to be artistic.
What do you think about Rihanna's style and sort of like how that affected the tour mech?
She's a style icon. So you know, it's a higher body of work you make. But it's also better, it's an advantage because her demographic is fashion-orientated because she's such a style icon. The bar may be raised but her fans are more open-minded. You really have open-minded fans, it's not like it's people who don't care and you're giving them something they don't want. So it was a higher bar to reach but at the same time it was perfect for us 'cause we want to keep it fashion, we don't want to just churn out things like McDonalds. No disrespect to McDonalds, but it was perfect because it wasn't just merch. It felt more of a collection because of the standard she has set and the people that would receive it, they're already into being open-minded.
Was designing tour merch something you've always wanted to do?
Nah. I've always wanted to collaborate with Rihanna but I never thought about it too much. We didn't necessarily think that it was possible. That was really her just wanting to break a boundary. I've got to give full credit to her because she approached us for it straight away. She knew that it would work. I didn't know that you could merge the two. I like to break boundaries but I'd never thought of those two things. I never had my eyes on merch. The only two things I've thought of being like that are Iron Maiden, which was a basic tee, and then "Yeezus." Other that that I'd never really seen much come out of a show and become an aspect of the daily wear of someone, so I didn't really know.
I think it's funny you say that because there's definitely that trend, where artists are collaborating with brands that they wear for their tour merch. Now, tour merch is being designed like clothes you can wear on a regular basis. What do you think about that?
I didn't know that was, apart from the "Yeezus" merch, I didn't actually know that was going on. But that was why we really wanted to do it. We wanted to break a rule, we believe in being a heretic within fashion. That's what we live by, like no rules. We wear high-end shit with streetwear shit, we don't follow anybody's path. So to be involved in changing the game is what we're more up for. I'm happy if it's like that, it's more for the fan and the customer, anyway. It's better for them than giving them half-hearted shit, which is just glorifying the artist. It's giving something to them as well. You always have to give them an element to make them feel a certain way beyond just being a fan. I think the main reason tour merch exists is to say, "I was there," but with the Internet it's not about alienating. You also have to appreciate the person who has the energy and the heart for the brand and the artist who can't make it.
Photo by Andy Hurr
How does it feel to be one of the few brands, and one of the earlier brands, to be changing what tour merch really is? Do you see it that way?
Hardly anything has registered with me in the first six months. When I hear people say, "I want that top," people who have no intention of going to shows and are just on that fashion shit, I'm like, “Okay, I like that. Job's done.” I try not to let things get to me. I'm just moving so much in my own design bubble that I don't really register things until I'm approached. But I went to the show and I just saw everyone with it and that made me happy.
Did you go to the show in New Jersey?
Yeah, and people were wearing the hockey one, which doesn't have the tour dates on it, and that was the most expensive item. So, I was like, “Okay, people wouldn't really be wearing merch.” It hit me there. Looking in the crowd, it touches you. It's hard to take in, this year has been hard to take in, because so many things have happened. It's crazy.
I just tried not to let anybody's status or their greatness intimidate how I design. And that's what they wanted.
Do you think the change in how tour merch is designed was created by the fans or brands?
Artists are heavily fashion-oriented because without merch artists are constantly collaborating with brands anyway, one way or another, and most fans look towards artists for their fashion direction. So I think it's more about fashion and music are merging so much that something like that has to happen. Rapper are walking down the catwalk and getting collaborations from fashion houses that may not have done it 50 years ago. I guess that the fusion is bigger than ever, and things like that must happen. I think it's this evolution.
When you designed the tour merch, did you have a different mindset from when you design Trapstar?
No. We always make a theme, and the theme was already there with the two artists, the monster, but I didn't want to water down anything. I told them, they know that if they were going to collaborate with us, we're never going to follow a rule. We're going to go hard. So I just kept it in my head that even though we were collaborating, we have to make sure the standard's still hardbody. And that was it because if I let that slip... I've done that in the past, where you're not fully sure of yourself and gone slightly safe, but it never works. The reason why the collaboration came about and we were asked to do it is because we remain us.
Even though you're dealing with two giants, and there's maybe two different opinions, we just had to remain us. It's just not going pop, not being so “PC,” which we're not within our designs so we just had to keep that, and that was it.
Were both Rihanna and Eminem hands on?
They gave us great direction. We pretty much got free reign, but it's their brand at stake, so there were a few tweaks here and there out of their opinions, but other than that I guess they trusted us.
What was it like working with Eminem?
I just tried not to let anybody's status or their greatness intimidate how I design. And that's what they wanted. People like messing with people who stand up to them, who stand their ground. You have to bring something more to the table rather than conform a bit too much, so we just did our designs and they, by grace of God, messed with us.
Did you buy tour merch at concerts?
I haven't bought tour merch. The only thing I bought was like an Iron Maiden tee. Usually when I'm at concerts, I'm trying to get to the parking lot. I get there late and then I'm trying to get to the parking lot straight after. The only thing I've bought is like an Iron Maiden tee back in the day, but that's because I collect graphic tees. But it turned out to be a fake one because it didn't have tour dates on the back.
I bought it at a music store, so I didn't get the full concept, where merch is really about the tour dates on the back. It's about being there, but I bought the tee on the basis of graphics on the front. I wanted people to do the same thing with the "Monster" merch.
Were you upset when you found out the Iron Maiden tee you bought was fake?
I didn't realize until about a year that it wasn't a proper one because my dude had a vintage one from '96. I was like, "Oh shit. The date's on the back." I didn't know the depth of tour merch. This was like seven years ago. I mainly go to rap concerts in London, and they barely have tour merch anyway. So I didn't really understand the authenticity in it. But I also feel like that ignorance was bliss.
Even though you're dealing with two giants, and there's maybe two different opinions, we just had to remain us.
The "Monster" tour merch is currently online, but will you sell it elsewhere, outside of being at the shows?
That's a conversation we have to have with all three. I think they might want to keep it timeless because that was the big thing, because it's only six dates. The collaboration itself between two artists is something that's never going to happen. That's the other thing—the main thing about merch is, “I was there” and how [the wearer] were there in this epic moment where two of the biggest artists of our time collaborated together. You don't see that every day. It's kind of like it should be with sneakers and limited releases these days. That's why people queue around the block. That's why people are happy, that's why some people don't even wear the clothes and just keep it because it means more to them. I collect graphic tees as well and I don't wear them.
How big is your collection?
Not bigger than my kicks, but um, it's quite wide. I just collect graphic tees ranging from designer to like basic, I just put them in a box in my mom's attic and will open it in like five years.
Do you want people to treat the tour merch you designed the same way you treat your graphic tees?
Yeah, because I'm a collector myself. So that's a reason why they might not sell it too much after. We all agreed that the whole reason is to make it collectible, so you have Ri and a brand like us collaborating, and making it more timeless. So I think that’s what the aim is. I collect a crazy amount of things, and I try to pass that energy on.
You guys have done a lot over the last few years, but how do you see this tour merch affecting brand awareness for Trapstar?
Yeah, it’s given us a lot of awareness. We’ve already had the effect of it. It is going to be one of those milestones. This is like our Bobby Shmurda.
Do you think this just the beginning of you designing tour merch?
It depends on the relationship. It’s all about the relationship and the experience. This was a tour that no one would necessarily see coming. They both do crazy numbers and have crazy influence onto our culture right now, they’re already in the great section, so that there, to be able to collaborate with them is crazy. But I wouldn’t turn down epic shit because that’s what we want to do.
Who would you want to design tour merch for?
Jay Z. It means a lot to be able to work with someone whose music drew you. It drew me when I was young. Alongside making people dance, his music educates people, and he has an entrepreneurial side to him, like a modern-day Donald Trump but with a mic.
Why did you decide to shoot an editorial for the tour merch? Not a lot of brands or music artists have done that.
That's exactly why. NO one expects it. If it's not the norm and it's going to give an impact then that's why weren't going to do it. The same mission is not to see merch as just merch. Whoever does it after, it’s no concern of mine. It’s opening the door. If that’s what everyone does from now on, then cool. We’re glad to open the door for people to treat like every piece of clothing with respect. They’re a part of time, a part of history. It’s part of the culture. Image is everything now, so why wouldn't you have that?
And then on a selfish tip, I need to see these images when I'm old and grey and say, "Yeah I was a part of that. That's me." It's too epic of a situation.