Meet the Man Who Turned His Kanye West Merchandise Collection Into a 'Digital Museum'
Kanye West revolutionized the musician merchandise game in the 21st century. What was once a simple T-shirt commemorating a concert has turned into a full-blown trend, with many other artists having followed suit, using merch to sustain interest in between projects and build a sense of community. Over the years, Yeezy's merch has become so sought after, fans and streetwear hypebeasts have waited in line at his pop-up shops for hours just to get their hands on the lastest drops.
Enter Randall Audrain, a 36-year-old Memphis native who turned his collection of rare Kanye-related artifacts into a "digital museum" via the Instagram page @vintagekanyemerch. The account remains something of a hidden gem, with a shade under 8,000 followers, but many from West's inner-circle have taken note of what Audrain is doing. Louis Vuitton creative head Virgil Abloh, Kanye's right-hand producer Mike Dean, and designer Don C are keeping an eye on Audrain.
Check out the rest of the conversation with Audrain as he discusses the end goal for his collection, whether he might consider selling any of the items, some of his favorite pieces and more. And look below for the premiere of two vintage Kanye West shirts that he hasn't posted to Instagram yet.
I didn't become a diehard fan right after The College Dropout released. It wasn't until I saw him on The Truth tour with Usher at the FedEx Forum in Memphis back in 2004 that it all clicked for me. The first time I saw him perform "Jesus Walks," I was overwhelmed and blown away. I couldn't believe what I had just witnessed.
During intermission I went and bought my first piece of Kanye merch, which I still have to this day. It's the Thanksgiving multi-colored black The College Dropout bear tee. I acquired a couple more since then. I've become friends with Sam Hansen [designer of the shirt] and Bobby Naugle [owner of the FTK 559 shop where Kanye's merch was printed]. Bobby told me they showed Kanye 20 different colorways and the [Thanksgiving colorway] was Kanye's favorite. I went and bought the album the very next day because I was so blown away.
In 2005, Kanye came to Memphis again on his first headlining Touch The Sky Tour. Memphis is a notoriously unreliable concert market. He had the last show at the Mid-South Coliseum. He probably only sold 3,000 tickets, at the most, out of 10,000. I was embarrassed for my hometown. He didn't get the audience he deserved and he hasn't been back. I've had to travel for every single one of his tours since.
Where was the first time & location you caught Ye live? For me it was Sept 17, 2004 in Memphis, TN at the @FedExForum opening for @usher #TheTruthTour2004 #kanYeWest #Donda #Mascotte #GettingOutOurDreams #Rocafella #Ye #rocnation #KidsSeeGhosts #CollegeDropout #kimkardashian #raptees #DonC #PastellePremium #deadstock #kimkardashianwest #yeezy #GoodAssJob #thecollegedropout #FedExForum #RocafellaRecords #vintagekanyemerch #kanye #yeezusmerch #yeezustour #TouchTheSky #defjam #yandhi #forthekids #FTK
Did you have connections in the hip-hop industry that have allowed you to get your hands on exclusive pieces?
I've made some connections through the Instagram account. I never had a connection before that. I bought another shirt at the Touch The Sky tour, but I still didn't consider myself a collector. The next step when I started to collect his merch was in 2008 on the Glow in the Dark tour. I flew down to Dallas for it. That tour was really when he came into his own: It wasn't just a concert, it was an absolute experience and unlike anything I've ever seen before.
That night I remember thinking, "This will probably be my favorite artist until the end of my days." I purchased another three shirts that night, and I found the others that I didn't on eBay in the months that followed. When I came back from Dallas, that's when I started to collect more and more. At that point, I went back and started buying all of the stuff I may have missed. It was all online purchases and through forums like KanyeToThe. Everything grew exponentially from that night.
What made you want to turn your collection into a "digital museum"?
I felt like there was a market for it. He's one of the biggest artists in the world. I tried to figure out if anyone in the past documented his history of merchandise. I thought it was a void that needed to be filled. I haven't seen many people with the knowledge that I have that would be able to do it. It probably took a little longer than I thought to take off. It was about six months before it started to catch on. I made the page in January of 2018, and it's growing every day.
Would you consider selling any of the items?
Everyone likes to ask, "Are you ever going to sell it?" I don't know, maybe one day. It's my hobby. Why throw away this hobby that I have?
What's the end goal?
I'd eventually like to do a high-end coffee table book documenting the history. He's got such a big fan base, there's no reason to think that wouldn't go over well. I presented a chapter for each era of official merchandise to one of the guys from Kanye's team. I told him seeing people like Virgil Abloh, Ibn Jasper, Don C, Taz Arnold, Joe Perez, Justin Saunders, Mark Seekings, Tracey Mills, and Jerry Lorenzo do their thing, it has inspired me to want to contribute to the lasting legacy that is Kanye West in a more substantial way than an Instagram page.
How do you feel about Kanye's merch being so sought after now? Was this something you saw coming?
Over the last five years or so, concert merchandise has gone from tour shirts to a full-blown fashion trend. This one-dimensional product is now a lifestyle product. Kanye was a major part of that. He's the bridge between music, fashion, and style. He's embraced the streetwear culture. A lot of those same people in line for Pablo merch are also waiting in line for Supreme. Kanye set the standard for the pop-up model in the music industry. He was really the first with the Yeezus pop-ups, and everybody does them now.
Do you have a favorite item?
That very first shirt that I got. The Thanksgiving colorway The College Dropout tee. I absolutely love that. If I didn't get them live, I don't feel nearly as strong [about them]. There's no real sentimental attachment then.
What is known as the “Thanksgiving colorway” College Dropout tee. While not one of the original colorways from 2003, this was one from early 2004 the guys over at FTK mocked up for Kanye’s upcoming tour with Usher. While the designs & color options were still in development, they laid out 20 different colorways for Kanye to look at. He chose this one as his favorite immediately, which is amusing, as it’s the first Kanye tee I ever purchased, back when I saw him open up for Usher on #TheTruthTour2004 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, home of my beloved @memgrizz. #kanYeWest #Donda #Mascotte #GOODmusic #GettingOutOurDreams #Rocafella #Ye #rocnation #KidsSeeGhosts #CollegeDropout #kimkardashian #raptees #kidcudi #PastellePremium #deadstock #kimkardashianwest #lateregistration #yeezy #GoodAssJob #thecollegedropout #FTK #kanye #yeezusmerch #yeezustour #defjam #yandhi #ForTheKids #vintagekanye
How do you keep these items in pristine condition?
I know a dryer will ruin shirts. Anything I have, I wash it in cold water on delicate, and then hang-dry. That makes all the difference in the world. I have a huge walk-in closet and there are T-shirts everywhere. It drives my girlfriend crazy. As far as sorting them, I like to use the really big Ziploc space bags that you can vacuum seal. That keeps them in good condition. Some are also in storage.
What's a crazy story you have surrounding how you obtained a certain shirt?
I had made a connection with a guy who worked at Jive Records on an online forum. He was telling me about The Godfather-style College Dropout promos. He sold me two of those for a pretty good price once I told him about what I big collector I was. Those were only offered at the 2003 Mixshow Power Summit. He actually shouts out that event on "Gotta Have It" when he raps, "Had a conference with the DJs, Puerto Rico three days." I thought that was super cool.
The front & back of what many consider to be the most rare piece of #Kanye merchandise of all time. “The Godfather” styling of #TheCollegeDropout was the original logo for the project. The third picture is of a friend of mine (who worked for #Jive Records) in Puerto Rico with #MrWest throwing up the #Roc while wearing the shirt at the 2003 Mixshow Power Summit, which ‘Ye shouts out on the #WatchTheThrone album: “had a conference with the DJ’s/ Puerto Rico three days.” The tee’s were not sold anywhere, only given out as a promotional item at this event 15 years ago. #theholygrail #KanyeWest #Donda #Rocafella #DefJam #GOODmusic #Complex #Yeezy #hiphop #Supreme #LateRegistration #Graduation #Yeezus #Konman #kimkardashian #hustleperiod #kimkardashianwest #tlop #vintage #authentic #yeezyseason #vintagekanyemerch #yeezyboost350 #mixshowpowersummit
I'm enamored with some of these Yeezus Tour merchandise samples that I had no idea existed.
In addition to the merch he did, he was going to do a full-blown Yeezus line that had skate decks, T-shirts, hoodies, stickers, and that whole idea got scrapped. His guys over at DONDA had been working on that for a couple years. There were so many unused ideas and samples. They'd usually print six or seven and people would sneak out the backdoor with them. I talked to one of the creators who said, "There was so much stuff being made that nobody would notice if something went missing."
This is a first run sample of the friends and family #YeezusMerch that was never released to the general public. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this was initially going to be a huge new line of Yeezus merch featuring a new (at the time) Yeezus logo, different from the 2013-14 Yeezus Tour merch. While the line never saw the light of day, back in 2016 some of this unreleased merchandise started showing up on DJ Khaled (pictures included) Kylie Jenner, Kourtney Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Big Sean, Tracey Mills, etc. Then shortly after it started appearing on celebrities close to Kanye’s circle, the instagram account “@yeezusmerch” was up for a few days where this new Yeezus merch was teased before disappearing, leaving many #Kanye fans wondering what might have been. #kanYeWest #Donda #Mascotte #GOODmusic #GettingOutOurDreams #Rocafella #Ye #rocnation #KidsSeeGhosts #CollegeDropout #raptees #PastellePremium #deadstock #kimkardashianwest #lateregistration #yeezy #MBDTF #thecollegedropout #virgilabloh #murakami #takashimurakami #defjam #pastelle #ThePastTellsAll #FriendsAndFamilyYeezusMerch
What's the best method to authenticate Kanye West merchandise?
Most of the stuff I have I would cop when I went to see him. That let me know what brand of T-shirts he was using to print on at the time. Even the bootlegs don't have any of his copyrights. A lot of his shirts will have a small copyright somewhere to distinguish itself from the bootlegs. I've never seen a bootleg of anything that says “Mascotte Holdings.” I get people hitting me up every day to tell them if something is authentic. There are so many bootlegs out there, I try to help everyone out.
Are there any major similarities or differences that stand out to you in Kanye West's evolution as a designer with his merchandise over the years?
All of the early merchandise was made at the FTK 559 apparel store outside Fresno. The owner and Don C were introduced in early 2003 and he proposed ideas to Kanye. FTK stood for "For The Kids." They did all the early merchandise until Bravado took over in 2006, who's a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, and now does merch for just about everybody.
Bobby [the store owner] even went out on tour with Kanye for The Truth tour and the School Spirit tour. He was in charge of keeping track of the merch. So if someone ordered a shirt from Kanyewest.com, they were the one's printing and mailing them out. It wasn't done by this big machine. I feel like people don't realize this small mom-and-pop shop did all of his merch.
How is the quality on those early shirts?
The quality is kind of the same. They did produce some of their own shirts for a while. If you see something with the Kanye West bear or older G.O.O.D. Music merchandise, it had tags to distinguish it, if it was an official product. They produced those shirts at the FTK store, in-house. I feel those were a little more high-end. He's getting back to making sure more of his stuff is high-quality with recent drops being printed on YEEZY shirts.
What's been the best experience and interaction that's come out of having the account?
My favorite part has been getting recognized by people like Virgil Abloh and Don C. They both follow the account. That's the ultimate compliment. There's nothing that can be more flattering than having people you look up to recognize whatever your contribution is when giving back to the culture.
If you ever met Kanye, what would you wear and say to him?
I'd probably throw on a very rare piece. It would be something authentic and vintage that I think he'd appreciate. I have a feeling he's heard about the account, with so many people that work with him reaching out to me. I’d want to ask him if he’d be willing to collaborate on a coffee table book documenting the history of his merchandise. I’d probably want to ask him about his three favorite performances off all-time, and ask him about his favorite pieces of merch ever released. I’d definitely try to talk him into coming back to Memphis for his next tour.
How has your opinion of Kanye evolved over time, especially recently with his support of Trump?
Musically, my opinion of Kanye has never really changed. On a more personal level, I found his behavior with regards to Trump much more concerning. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when Kanye first aligned himself with the president and started wearing the MAGA hats, it was an extremely bitter pill to swallow. Donald Trump is a national embarrassment, and his lack of character is an extremely disturbing issue for me personally.
By aligning himself with Trump and referring to him as a “hero,” I was concerned Kanye was turning his back on the hip-hop community and his core fan base that had been down to ride for him since day one. I know for a lot of newer and younger white Kanye fans, it wasn’t a big deal -- but for his old school fans, it was heartbreaking. A lot of my close black friends were extremely hurt by Kanye’s stance, and some have yet to forgive him. Now that Kanye has become more aware of Trump’s policies & beliefs, and distanced himself from the president, I feel more at peace with the whole situation than I was a year ago. It’s an extremely complex issue.