Frank Ocean exists as a mythical creature, crafting music from afar, proving distance makes the heart grow fonder. In 2012 he released Channel Orange to critical acclaim then vanished from the spotlight almost as quickly as he found his way there. After four years of hiding, he released the visual album Endless in the summer of 2016 as a conclusion to his contract with Def Jam, then released the studio album Blonde the very next day as an independent artist. Though it could have won many awards, Frank Ocean chose to not submit Blonde to the Grammys for nomination, telling the New York Times he wanted that to be his “Colin Kaepernick moment.”
Frank Ocean, very obviously, likes to do things his own way. Since Blonde’s release he has only performed a handful of shows, even cancelling a couple due to production difficulties. Luckily, I was in attendance last weekend for his beautiful set at Panorama Festival in Brooklyn, NY. The concert was nothing short of mesmerizing, and what was just as interesting was the process of buying Frank Ocean merchandise. In true Frank fashion, buying fashion from Frank was a process indeed.
Pictured below is a view from the back of the intertwining line to the blonded merchandise tent. From what my friends and I had heard, Frank Ocean merchandise was screen printed on the spot; as mysterious as the artist himself, we wanted a part of this action too. The line took four hours to make our way to the front, and much of that time was spent speaking to other festival-goers who asked about the length of the line and how long we had been there.
When we reached the last leg we were each handed an order card, pictured below. After providing my name, phone number, and shirt size, I was asked if I would be buying a fresh t-shirt or providing my own (had I known about this beforehand, I would have provided my own). I was then instructed to choose a color palette and a design, which was basically three different designs alone or overlapped on top of each other.
We paid and handed the order forms to the attendant. The view inside the tent was absorbing, people interpreting order forms and translating it to shirts at various printing stations. The machines would stamp ink onto the clothing, spin, then stamp again; for someone like me who has never seen this process before, it was compelling seeing it happen just hours before I would watch the artist behind it all perform. When the shirts were finished, they were placed in a drying area for a minimum of two hours, or how long we were instructed to wait before returning to pick them up.
After completely rehydrating myself and inhaling Spicy Pie (a Bonnaroo favorite of mine), I watched Frank’s close friend Tyler, the Creator perform before returning to the tent to retrieve my purchased merchandise. The shirts were presented in custom blonded bags with the order forms to keep, but I put the shirt on soon after. I arrived to the main stage to see Solange’s spectacular performance, then positioned myself for what would be a concert I will one day tell my kids about.
What was so incredible about the show was how intimate it seemed despite the enormous crowd of people who came to bask in Frank Ocean’s presence. Any fan of his music knows how intensely personal his art can be, and his live show reflected that intensity perfectly. It was a show so unlike any other that I can’t explain how great it was; all I can really say is “you had to be there.” That personal quality to his music and performance translated into the merchandise as well; like the show, this was unlike any other line I have stood in to buy a shirt from an artist. I and the others in the four hour traffic understood how unique of an opportunity it was to be there, how something as mundane as a t-shirt could be transformed into a deeper interaction between an artist and his fans. This is what makes Frank Ocean special. It was all part of the experience.
In the days to come I would sit back and think about that whole day, from choosing to wait in an extensive line to viewing the performance that made it worth it. The shirt made in the early afternoon at a music festival in Brooklyn now sits, slumped and still unwashed, on a chair in the corner of my bedroom in Tennessee. Like showing his music to first time listeners or playing his songs on the bar jukebox, this piece of clothing somehow represents me taking the Frank Ocean experience I experienced that day wherever I go.