An ex-Lehman employee with his company-branded satchel in Paris’s La Défense financial district during a job search in 2009, a year after the bank’s collapse © Reuters

When you think of the most coveted brand names in fashion, you may not think of Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch or Bear Stearns — let alone Enron or Bernie Madoff.

But dad-chic shirts, hats and duffel-style “banker bags” bearing the logos of these collapsed or consolidated companies are being snapped up on a vibrant secondary market by young millennial financiers, perhaps too young to have been on Wall Street during the financial crisis but old enough to have had their lives defined by the upending of the US economy by corporate greed.

Extinct businesses are the holy grail. Huffing the residual vapours of pre-crisis financial excess, collectors part with hundreds if not thousands of dollars for merchandise branded by companies whose Icarus-like rises and subsequent falls are now written into the American corporate history books.

The branded nylon gym bags, umbrellas and caps originally given to employees for free were a low-cost gesture of gratitude that doubled as effective corporate advertising. In their heyday — the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s — gear branded by a person’s employer communicated status and clout, a high salary and punishing hours. New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to walk through midtown Manhattan without spotting at least a few dozen different banker bags.

Today, sporting a Lehman duffel bag says you’ve got a handle on your pre-2008 Wall Street history and an evolved sense of irony. It also communicates status to those in the know, showing that you have something rare and have probably parted with a few hundred for it.

For collectors, the defunct corporate names may conjure images of a “sexier” time, full of unrestrained ambition on Wall Street. But the final chapters of these companies were dark ones. For some, re-glorifying these names, however knowingly, undermines the fact that these collapses had real consequences for real people.

But if Wall Street loves anything, it is value appreciation, and Enron T-shirts, Arthur Andersen hats and Bernie Madoff duffel bags retail for significant sums on eBay. One eBay seller, the former mentee of a Lehman employee, sold a vintage Lehman baseball cap for $260 including shipping a few days after the stock market bottomed out in March. Interested buyers wrote to ask him if he could ship to London or Paris. One Lehman hat listing for $325 had more than 20 people following the auction.

Popular Instagram accounts for “Finance Bro” humour, such as
@litquidity and @arbitrage.andy, hawk the vintage pieces and reproductions in their “Stories” to the social media generation. Resellers (and some former employees) say they ship all over the world to buyers motivated by notoriety, sentimentality or some hybrid of the two.

“The way people dress today is all about showing off your knowledge, your awareness of cultures and subcultures,” says Jack Carlson, the founder of Rowing Blazers, a manufacturer of preppy-chic, vintage-looking clothes. Four times a year the brand’s website sells a limited collection of vintage banker bags — 20-plus-year-old originals from the warehouse of the legendary inventor of banker bags, Warden Brooks — for up to $400 a piece. They usually sell out immediately.

A former Lehman Brothers employee exits his Manhattan office after the bank filed for bankruptcy in September 2008 © Reuters

Demand is driven by scarcity. “Especially for the firms that no longer exist — Lehman, Merrill [Merrill Lynch agreed to a takeover by Bank of America in late 2008, the same weekend Lehman Brothers fell, and was rebranded to Merrill] — people go crazy for that merchandise because they’re not making any more,” Carlson says. Other producers of corporate branded bags and merchandise say they receive constant requests for old samples they produced for now-defunct banks.

There’s an element of nostalgia, Carlson says, for the generation that grew up amid pre-recession excess but came of age after the good times stopped rolling.

Dealers say that the younger generation are less concerned with collecting to put in a frame and more interested in pieces they can show off in public.

“Millennials like items they can wear. It becomes more of a trophy than fashion,” says Darren Julien, chief executive of Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills. Finance has always had a thing for trophies, conversation pieces — and a macabre sense of humour. The Lucite statues bankers buy to mark the completion of yet another multimillion-dollar takeover are referred to as “tombstones”.

It’s the narrative of demise that makes these items attractive to buyers, says Julien: “The back-story is where the money is at.”

When the US Marshals Service auctioned off the private estate and corporate items belonging to disgraced Ponzi-scheme operator Madoff after his 2008 bust, it sold a Mets baseball jacket with his name on the back for almost $15,000. “It was to have a piece of the start of the stock-market crash, a piece of this man,” says Jennifer Crane, who works in the asset forfeiture division at the US Marshals headquarters.

Recently, the US Marshals Service auctioned off branded merchandise from the ill-fated Fyre Festival, a financial scam that has been the subject of two documentaries and has become a symbol of pre-Covid millennial excess.

The Marshals said it was one of its most successful auctions ever — drawing half a million clicks from a much younger demographic than it typically sees — and raising more than $30,000 for “victims” of the fraud.

There is a clandestine fizz that comes from showing off an item associated with scandal. “Tongue-in-cheek cynicism has become a lot more synonymous with being in the know,” says Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer psychologist at University College London. “They are a lot more difficult to find than brands with conventional logos from a famous fashion house”, and they invite interaction, he adds.

A former Lehman employee who still carries his bag to the gym says strangers in the locker room sometimes walk up to him to talk about their own experience at Lehman the day the music stopped — the trauma of having their professional lives evaporate around them in the space of hours.

In addition to authentic banker bags, Rowing Blazers also sells versions branded “Duke & Duke Commodities Brokers” and “Pierce & Pierce Mergers and Acquisitions”, named for the fictional firms from the 1983 film Trading Places and the 1991 novel American Psycho. They are produced in the classic style by Warden Brooks and retail for £130. “For some, it’s a badge of honour. For others, it’s a token of unearned privilege,” the website reads.

These bags are another “if you know, you know” financial fashion statement. The film and novel are social critiques of a culture that produces the type of people who aspire to carry banker bags.

Not everyone is in on the joke. One banker, upset when he was unable to secure a fake firm bag before they sold out, accused Carlson of “cultural appropriation”.

Collapses cause collateral damage — employees, debtors and, occasionally, the global economy. Yet Wall Street has always been pockmarked with spectacular rises and equally spectacular conflagrations.

Joan Gallagher, who founded Warden Brooks in 1978 when she spotted an opportunity to expand the world of corporate branded merchandise beyond the realm of British schoolboy ties (a smart bet, it turns out), says that when she started, “the only question was if we could manufacture fast enough to meet demand”.

She saw so many companies come and go, defaulting on their debts, that she only extended credit for purchases to the most established corporations.

Her team had to work quickly to deliver orders — often the classic canvas tote with the branded “ribbon” handles that define the banker-bag aesthetic — before that company’s combustion. “We have woven ribbons that tell the history of Wall Street,” she says.

One of her biggest clients in the late ’80s was Drexel Burnham Lambert. One day, her sales representatives returned to the office upset after learning how much their peers were earning at Drexel. “I just said, ‘It’s not real.’ And in a few months they were gone.”

“The last thing we did for them were coffee mugs that said ‘No Guts, No Glory’,” she says. “That’s the story of Wall Street.”

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