Think of church merchandise and you will likely think of mugs decorated with stained glass windows or key chains with bible quotes, sold in a dusty gift shop. But things have changed: for the face of “church merch” in 2017, look in the somewhat unexpected direction of Justin Bieber.
In recent weeks, the Canadian pop star has been Instagramming photos of his friend and pastor Chad Veach – a man whose look isn’t a million miles from fashion’s creepy “Uncle Terry” Richardson. In one image, both are decked out in the sort of attire Bieber tours in, including a scarf from the recent, much-hyped Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration for which streetwear fanatics AKA “hypebeasts” queued for hours. Veach, who was recently dubbed the “hypepriest”, is matching his look in a long-sleeved T-shirt with a checkerboard design on the sleeve – merchandise from LA’s Zoe Church, where Veach preaches and Bieber attends. Other garms from the new collection include white sports socks, emblazoned with “Zoe LA”, and hoodies, all sold at a recent pop-up.
Veach isn’t the only streetwear-loving pastor running in Bieber’s crew: there’s LVxSupreme-wearing Carl Lentz of global megachurch Hillsong, and Judah Smith of Seattle’s City Church, who looks more Hunter S Thompson than Uncle T, in his tucked-in graphic shirts.
Threads as church merch are nothing new. Jian Deleon, editorial director of streetwear and fashion website highsnobiety.com – and attendee of the Brooklyn chapter of megachurch C3 – remembers the Pepsi-can-inspired T-shirts from the 90s that read “Jesus: the first choice of a pure generation”. And streetwear inspired by religion has also been done; Deleon points to cult streetwear designer Jerry Lorenzo, whose brand Fear of God “is literally inspired by his fear of God” (and is a Bieber favourite). But that Zoe, and others such as Miami-based Vous, whose pastor officiated at Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s wedding and who had Lorenzo design T-shirts for them in 2015, are turning to streetwear aestheticsis original. “The new wrinkle is that they are doing it in a cool way,” says Deleon. It is a two-pronged bid to cater to their young, hip, savvy congregations, and the communities they serve, as well as promoting “the church in a super organic way”. But jumping on the streetwear bandwagon to promote their message could also be read as a cynical ploy to reach younger generations of churchgoers.
“Hypebeasts” used to waiting in line for hours for the latest drop may notice similarities beyond the clothes: “I’ve been to a couple of Hillsong services,” adds Deleon, “and you can’t go there without getting in line, like a club.”
While he wouldn’t himself wear “church merch”, he does believe that the modernity of the messaging is a much-needed antidote to the longstanding portrayal of the church on the news and in pop culture; at best “out of touch”, at worst, he mentions the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its hate speech. So does he think that church hoodies that look like they could have come from the latest Palace drop will work? “I don’t think people are getting into church for the merch, I think they are getting into it for the message, and for the pastor,” he says. “And maybe the fact that Justin Bieber goes here.”