Recently, David Stark, Founder of Rome Pays Off, the lifestyle brand that bridges art and fashion worlds, successfully bid on a now-rare and unique pair of Reebok sneakers. They were Reeboppers, a collaboration between the shoe company and the estate of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, originally released in a limited edition of 60 pairs and exclusively available at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. Notably, the partnership between Reebok and Basquiat’s agent was facilitated by licensing agency Artestar, which Stark launched in 2003. 

This anecdote, as told to Jing Culture & Commerce by Rome Pays Off’s Christina Burns, illustrates the cultural capital to be had in the fusion of fashion and art in an institutional context, not just 16 years ago, but today. “Fashion gives accessibility to art,” says Burns, “and art can give more context to fashion.”

It’s in this nexus that Rome Pays Off operates. Inspired by the Basquiat artwork, “Rome Pays Off,” the NYC-based brand helps brands evolve beyond traditional gift-shop offerings to create collectible pieces that celebrate a crossover of creative industries. As the company’s CEO, Burns has a comprehensive understanding of the museum and fashion worlds, having graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology around 30 years ago, and worked in the merchandising division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in product development at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

Rome Pays Off’s Basquiat collection. Images: Rome Pays Off. Artwork © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar.

Despite the rise of sophisticated, digitally savvy cultural consumers, museums remain largely lacking in premium product offerings. For example, Rome Pays Off’s Basquiat x Browns capsule collection, though launched to coincide with the Barbican’s 2017 Boom For Real exhibition, was not stocked in the museum’s gift shop. Conversely, the brand’s latest Ai Weiwei Zodiac Collection can be bought at Pace Prints, which is currently staging Ai Weiwei: Year of the Ox. It’s why Burns, below, emphasizes on the full potential of premium artist goods that has been boosted by street and luxury commerce, highlighting an aspect of licensing and merchandising that cultural institutions should have on their radar.

Why does merchandise matter today, particularly for museums hoping to engage with a younger demographic?
People may not be able to buy original artwork by a particular artist, but they can buy a hoodie. Merchandise has definitely got to be more meaningful today. Young people have driven a need for better quality with more thoughtful product development.

Rashid Johnson Escape Collages capsule collection by Rome Pays Off. Image: Rome Pays Off

What’s the thinking behind Rome Pays Off’s products?
Well, I started out saying, “We don’t make key rings.” Our first mission at Rome Pays Off was to create elevated, art-related merchandise and street fashion, but then one very well-known living artist said he was concerned about having something that was appropriate for schoolchildren to buy. It was justified in that case; we had to be a little more grounded about it. When a consumer buys one of our T-shirts, they might not be thinking about the history or thought behind it, but once time has passed, it’ll still be crisp, soft, and one of their favorite T-shirts. That thought process didn’t exist 20-30 years ago.

How does Rome Pay Off translate or channel artwork into on-trend pieces?
We’re always on trend with our silhouettes – we just did a line for an Ai Weiwei pop-up with a boxier cut, for example. We learned that to be on trend, we had to create our goods from scratch. It’s understanding the artist, the art, doing the homework. If you do all of that well, you manage to speak to a younger audience and then, you’re ahead of the curve.

What have you observed about the evolution of museum merchandise?
Back in the ‘90s, artist merchandise was very standardized — it was Van Gogh on an umbrella or Monet in a square on a plain white T-shirt. But things have become more thoughtful, because you’re creating products that are really for super fans of an artist; [artists are] celebrities now. 

And how does premium merchandise benefit a museum?
There is the benefit of revenue and marketing, but the most important one is relevance. As young people are so digital, you’re also getting the added benefit of them spreading the word about what they’ve purchased on their social channel if you’re doing it well. 


Jing Culture & Commerce