Surveying my wardrobe during some recent spring cleaning, I thought about which items of clothing draw the most attention from random strangers. It’s not my pair of perfect midcentury French army pants, or the Needles mohair cardigan I somehow nabbed for an excellent price. Rather, it’s the deadstock Jackie Brown shirt I nabbed at a thrift store. Whenever I wear it, somebody pauses to (correctly) tell me that it’s one of Tarantino’s best films. The two runners-up in the category of “apparel most likely to result in a stop-and-chat” are my Seinfeld sweatshirt that looks like something Jerry would have worn while doing a table read in 1991, and a ball cap embroidered with the phrase, “A Film By Nora Ephron.”
I’m obsessed with such promo swag, and it takes up an ever-larger share of my closet. Some of it is vintage, like a supposedly authentic crew jacket from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But a good chunk is new, made by similarly obsessed fans who recreate or invent retro looks from, connected to, or influenced by big- and small-screen favorites. I jumped when the account Misc En Scene sold long-sleeve shirts printed with the title card for Joan Micklin Silver’s 1988 romcom, Crossing Delancey, and bought a hat, produced this year, with the logo from the 1985 Albert Brooks classic, Lost in America. If something looks like it could have been handed out at a 1996 Planet Hollywood premiere party, count me in. I call it auteurcore, and it seems to be everywhere now.
Eloy Lugo, who runs the auteurcore brand Human Boy Worldwide, feels the same way. The Los Angeles-based music publicist has long been obsessed with promotional swag and memorabilia, and much of the gear he and his wife Ali Koehler put out is a reflection of hours spent on eBay looking for old hats, jackets and other wearable mementos of various movies and shows. They made my Lost in America hat, but I’ve also copped their shirts for the 1978 film Girlfriends, as well as a Larry Sanders Show tee. They carefully curate hip, classic, culty, or nostalgic films and series for their if-you-know-you-know quality, but also duplicate an era-specific look and feel. “The idea is to replicate the fit of a vintage shirt,” Lugo says, ”as opposed to the modern fit where shirts are very skinny and long with tiny sleeves that only fit a specific kind of body.” Human Boy Worldwide designs shirts “so you don’t sacrifice the comfort while getting a more forgiving boxy fit.”
Auteurcore is a new niche for the authentic bootleg ethos. It isn’t necessarily a big moneymaker; the people designing, selling, or trading these wares often do it just because they want to see shirts and hats with their favorite movie or show logos on them. You’ll rarely read the words “authorized merchandise” on these offerings, turning Instagram into something like a Grateful Dead lot, but for cinephiles. The Instagram account Director Fits, which has sold shirts connected to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Brian de Palma’s 1984 classic Body Double, has lately detoured into auteurcore cosplay: they recently recreated and sold a USC Cinema hat like the one Steven Spielberg sported on set in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Even brands like Kith have gotten into the act: Their recent Curb Your Enthusiasm and Goodfellas collabs sold out in minutes. And the label Petrified Good recently unveiled a vintage Patagonia “crew jacket” on which they sewed a patch featuring the logo for the overlooked 1985 Martin Scorsese classic, After Hours — which you can pair with other Petrified Good-wear, such as a cap emblazoned with an old Apple logo, and some Baggies embroidered with a “Neil Young and Crazy Horse” emblem.
Promotional gear emerged during the box-office boom years of the 1980s, mostly made for people involved in making the show or movie, or junket press. The desire for that swag has boomed in recent years. Part of it seems to be the escalation of pop-culture geekdom: With movies dominated by cookie-cutter superhero franchises, some film and TV lovers want to showcase their obsessions with the smaller, niche things they love, most of which were probably produced ages ago.
It’s also just cool-looking: The site BAMF, which breaks down iconic screen looks, and Instagram account Night Openings, which highlights legendarily wacky premiere outfits from the ‘80s and ‘90s, remind us that fashion is circular, and wild celebrity dressing of that generation feels particularly in style right now.
While auteurcore is mostly a backward-looking phenomenon, A24 points it into the future. The reigning king of indie production companies sell their own films’ branded fleece and hats, but also dabble in movie-specific clothing that’s like current promo swag, but available to the general public. And it has proper fashion pedigree: A24 has partnered with cult tie-dye heroes Online Ceramics on everything from an Uncut Gems sweatshirt to long-sleeve shirts with a still from Midsommar teaser trailer that came out before the film was even finished.
Anything can be reproduced these days. Anybody can find something — an old business logo with a vintage font, or an iconic book cover — put it on a t-shirt, and sell it. But there is a sort of auteurship involved in the decision-making about which Hollywood promo swag to resurface. If there’s a downside, it’s in taking a niche, collectible hobby and turning it into a product that follows the twisted hype logic of streetwear. Lugo thinks part of his brand’s success is thanks to the “Letterboxd-ification of cinema,” wherein people are hellbent on watching as many movies as possible so they can talk about having done so online. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “But it seems to be helping us get comfortable niche shirts in the hands of the people.”