Following recent, high-profile collaborations with Nike, Crocs, and streetwear brand Chinatown Market, the influence of the Grateful Dead on mainstream fashion is more apparent than ever. The limited edition sneakers inspired by the band’s dancing bears logo now fetch over $1,000 on the resale market, and you can buy an officially licensed Grateful Dead t-shirt at almost any store in the mall including Gap, Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, PacSun, Free People, Urban Outfitters, Tillys, Hot Topic, and Journeys, to name but a few). Liking the Grateful Dead is now more mainstream than ever, but the band has become so trendy that wearing their logo doesn’t necessarily mean you know anything about their music. So how exactly did Grateful Dead merch become mainstream fashion?

Related: Jimmy Fallon Expresses His Love For Dead & Company On ‘The Tonight Show’ Following First Show At MSG [Photos]

The Grateful Dead’s relationship with fashion is rooted in the band’s early history and the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s. The bohemian style of the time, which incorporated things like imported textiles, vibrant colors, trippy patterns and, of course, tie-dye, never really went out of style with Deadheads, who continued following the band in droves well into the ’90s. Deadheads famously produced their own handmade crafts and apparel, including unofficial band merchandise, and sold them outside of concerts in “the lot,” a.k.a. “Shakedown Street.” Rather than trying to stop the sale of bootleg memorabilia like other artists, the band encouraged it. This decision allowed the lot scene to flourish, and made it possible for Deadheads to help design the Grateful Dead aesthetic. Companies like Not Fade Away Graphics Inc., Grateful Graphics, and Club Dead got their start as lot vendors, and some of them were eventually hired by the band to design official merch. This move was recently echoed by Dead & Company when they linked up with Online Ceramics, who became known in the streetwear world for their Grateful Dead-inspired designs.

Over time, the Grateful Dead became synonymous with hippie culture, and the iconography of the band has become identified with psychedelia. The thirteen-point lightning bolt, “stealie” skull, and dancing bears logos have become recognizable symbols even to those who have never really listened to the Dead’s music, and they have all been licensed in recent years by brands aiming to capitalize on the band’s distinctive imagery and branding. Since 2006, all licensing for the Grateful Dead, including merchandising and music releases, has been controlled by Rhino Entertainment, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. Under president Mark Pinkus, who attended his first Dead show in 1973, they have worked with different brands to try and expose the band to a wider audience, especially younger generations, while using strict standards to maintain the authentic character of the band.

In an article published by Input, Pinkus said that Rhino “gives licensees a fair amount of leeway when coming up with designs,” but before they are approved, a panel made up of David Lemieux (the band’s archivist), Bernie Cahill (the band’s manager), and Pinkus himself judge whether the designs “ring true.”

“They reject designs that paint the Dead’s skeleton symbols as ‘dark’ or ‘demonic’ or otherwise don’t represent the celebratory, positive nature of the band,” the Input piece explains. “These standards remain strict, no matter how big the collaborating brand may be.”

Gone are the days when these kinds of brand deals would be criticized as “selling out.” Today’s pop artists are defined by the brands with which they “collab”, and there are few brands that garner more respect from younger generations than Nike. Like Deadhead culture, sneakerhead culture has exploded in recent years, and there is no bigger name in sneakers than Nike. Their limited edition “hype” releases sell out instantly and are quickly flipped for exorbitant prices on the secondary market. Some of the company’s most coveted designs have been artist collabs, like rapper Travis Scott‘s signature Air Jordan 1s, which resell for over $1000.

Not all Deadheads could get behind this kind of marketing, and many were critical of the Grateful Dead x Nike collab when it was announced, but in the context of Rhino’s strategy, the partnership was less about making sneakers for Deadheads than it was about introducing the Grateful Dead to sneakerheads—and it worked. The fuzzy, dancing bear-inspired shoes remain one of the most sought-after Nike designs, and will go down as one of their most successful sneaker collabs.

 

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Following the hype of the Nike collaboration, the Grateful Dead released several capsule collections with streetwear brand Chinatown Market. The first drop included tie-dye Crocs decorated with little rubber dancing bears and a limited run of accompanying apparel with the slogan “Positive Mental Attitude”—a good example of a design that represents the positive nature of the band. A photo of NBA superstar LeBron James dressed head-to-toe in the collection (including the Crocs) went viral on social media and was shared by the band.

After two more successful releases, a fourth Grateful Dead x Chinatown Market collection dropped late last month, again accompanied by a celebrity photo shared to the band’s social media, this time of The Roots drummer Questlove. A photo posted to Chinatown Market’s Instagram showing Grateful Dead basketballs seems to indicate that another drop is on the way next week, and like the others, it is sure to sell out.

 

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These collabs have helped expose the Grateful Dead to a whole new generation of fans and, meanwhile, many of the classic Grateful Dead tees that defined the band’s aesthetic have become rare vintage grails. Popularized by celebrities like Jonah Hill, Matty Matheson, and Travis Scott, original shirts from the ’90s and earlier, both officially licensed and lot bootlegs, now sell for hundreds of dollars, even if they are still in print today. Known for their bright colors and psychedelic designs, Grateful Dead shirts have become their own category among vintage band tee collectors, and in 2019, a massive collection of vintage Dead tees belonging to Taylor Welch was displayed by New York art collective Heads Will Be Heads in a show highlighting the artistry of their designers. What was once bootleg has become high art, and what was once the counterculture has become mainstream.

From designer jeans and handbags to Igloo coolers and Sanuk sandals, all of this merchandising is bound to ruffle the feathers of some hardcore fans who would prefer not to see their favorite band sell out or go mainstream. However, the Grateful Dead’s recent influence on fashion has contributed a great deal to their skyrocketing popularity, and they have done a good job staying true to the spirit and history of the band as they market themselves to a wider audience. Fashion collabs have made the Grateful Dead more relevant than ever, and the band’s strict licensing standards help ensure that the new designs pay reverence to their heritage. They represent the Grateful Dead’s ethos of love, kindness, and creativity for a new generation, which is a beautiful thing whether or not they know the music, but hopefully they discover that too.

For more on the Grateful Dead’s influence on contemporary fashion, check out Dead Style by Mordechai “Mister Mort” Rubinstein (the perfect gift for any Deadhead on your holiday shopping list)—and don’t forget to support the lot vendors and artists affected by COVID-19 while you’re at it!