On a recent afternoon, the Hot Topic store at the King of Prussia Mall, outside of Philadelphia, teemed with teenagers, 20-somethings and stroller-pushing parents. The shoppers sifted through racks of “Harry Potter” plush dolls, “Riverdale” sweaters and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” jewelry, seeking the perfect physical manifestation of their — or their child’s — fandom.
Demitri Benton, 19, of Reading, Pa., had come to browse the shop’s “Deadpool” offerings. “It’s usually the first or maybe second place I come to,” he said. “It has so many things that you probably wouldn’t be able to find in any other store as far as, like, anime, video games, TV shows.”
Former mall goths, punks and emo kids may remember the store differently. In the ’90s and early aughts, one did not so much enter as descend into Hot Topic. The suburban shopping center staple was dungeonlike, with hellish gates that led shoppers into a dark commercial corridor.
Inside, a wall of T-shirts emblazoned with the names of rock bands and irreverent sayings was flanked by piles of studded belts and rubber bracelets. Manic Panic hair dye could be purchased in a wide range of parent-infuriating hues. Often the shopping experience was set to a blaring soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails and My Chemical Romance (whose frontman — fun fact — once worked at Hot Topic).
The massive T-shirt display is still there, and so is much of the infernal darkness. “Literally I have seen people run to the door, and their parents steer them away and say, ‘They worship Satan, we can’t go in there,’” said Alexis Monkiewicz, a key holder at the King of Prussia location.
But these days, the store known for inciting parental panic is also home to a dizzying array of obsessions. There’s merch for die-hard fans of BTS, Billie Eilish and Black Sabbath stocked alongside collectibles designed for those who love My Little Pony, Care Bears and the Disney princesses. They’ve even turned the lights up a bit.
Though Hot Topic has not publicly disclosed its financials since the private equity firm Sycamore Partners acquired it in June 2013 for about $600 million, the brand’s endurance in the narrowing market of juniors apparel suggests that the brighter, broader inventory is selling. (Sycamore Partners declined to comment for this article.)
The company’s sustained brick-and-mortar presence may also indicate its health amid reports of record-high mall vacancies and closures. Hot Topic currently operates 676 stores in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, up from 662 locations in 2014, in addition to an online store where one can buy goods from hundreds of entertainment franchises.
In a 2018 report, the youth marketing research firm YPulse found that Gen Z and millennial shoppers deemed Hot Topic the top retail destination for “unique styles,” with Nike coming in second.
“What Hot Topic has managed to do really amazingly — and quietly — is to pivot their products and their brand perception to cater to the next generation and what they’re most interested in,” said MaryLeigh Bliss, the vice president of content at Ypulse. “They have completely kept up with what young consumers want.”
Steve Vranes, the C.E.O. of Hot Topic since June 2016, said that he had watched the company’s evolution “from afar” through his work in retail before he joined the company. His résumé includes the children’s clothier Gymboree and Urbio, a design company that manufactures vertical gardens.
“I knew it had changed a little bit and had gone from being considered solely as more of a goth brand to really evolving to be a much broader set of products over time,” Mr. Vranes said. “It’s kind of organically continued to change all the time, and I think that’s part of why we’re successful. We continue to question every single year, ‘What do customers want that they’re not getting anywhere else?’”
What they want, it seems, is merch, and Hot Topic has plenty. According to a company representative, more than 75 percent of Hot Topic’s products are the result of agreements with intellectual property owners, including record labels and entertainment studios, to license their official merchandise.
That means you can buy an Ariana Grande “Sweetener” T-shirt on the artist’s website, if you want. Or you can buy it on hottopic.com, where you won’t get a digital album download with your purchase, but you’ll spend less money.
Hot Topic has always been home to affordable fan gear. Orv and LeAnn Madden, who started the store out of their Southern California garage in October 1989, sold “The Nightmare Before Christmas” stockings and “South Park” stickers when those franchises had but nascent fandoms.
Hot Topic was also among the first youth retailers to offer plus-size options, which sold so well that the company started a plus-size label, Torrid, in 2001. Seeing a growth opportunity, Sycamore Partners spun off Torrid into its own company in 2015. (Such investments have been key to Sycamore’s success — and caused the ire of some interested parties. Hot Topic Inc. bondholders sued Sycamore in 2017 for what they described as an “insider scheme” to profit from the company’s “crown jewel.”)
Hot Topic’s wholesale catering to fans likely began around 2004, said Ed Labay, the vice president of merchandise. That was the year “Napoleon Dynamite” became a cultural phenomenon — Hot Topic’s “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts flew off the shelves — and when, Mr. Labay said, “we really started to see these pop culture moments hit in a much bigger way than I think they ever had before.”
The company experienced another surge in 2008, when “Twilight” fans were treated with in-store events and merchandise around the first film’s release.
But even Edward Cullen couldn’t inoculate Hot Topic against the retail apocalypse that has roiled physical stores and shopping centers since the Great Recession. That same year, the company announced a music discovery platform, ShockHound, which never took off and cost the company at least $3 million. In late 2010, The Los Angeles Times reported on a financial dip at Hot Topic that led to staff cuts and store closures.
“Hot Topic was not immune to the broader consumer spending slowdown during the recession,” Mr. Vranes said.
Ultimately those losses were cause to think bigger, not smaller. In 2012, Hot Topic began a partnership with Her Universe, a women’s wear company for “fangirls,” then acquired it in 2016.
In 2015, Hot Topic Inc. founded BoxLunch, another chain offering licensed and unlicensed fan merchandise. The brand also established a presence at Comic-Con in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York. For years, Hot Topic has been a sponsor of a “geek couture” fashion show at San Diego’s Comic-Con with Her Universe.
The company still relies heavily on in-store sales. In a recent credit analysis, Moody’s projected that Hot Topic would see “modest” revenue growth in 2019, in part from the uptick in its e-commerce sector, its reasonable prices (the average cost per item is $12) and the promotional surges surrounding big-ticket movie releases.
The expansion of Hot Topic’s mandate has helped keep the company afloat in an uncertain retail landscape. It is also evocative of a cultural shift: Now people can be a part of many fan communities, even seemingly divergent ones, and be taken seriously.
“When we were in our early teens, you had to label yourself as something. You were a punk, or a jock, or you listened to hip-hop. That was your whole identity,” said T.J. Petracca, a founder of the roving party Emo Nite, which licenses some of its merchandise to Hot Topic.
These days, he said, “if you like Drake, you can also like Panic! at the Disco. There’s not as much separation as there used to be.”
The specific density of objects and apparel within the stores conveys that, too. Mr. Labay likened Hot Topic’s layout to the inside of “a teen’s mind,” or a constantly updating social media feed.
Mr. Vranes said that the store “is a reflection of all of the changes from a content perspective, and all of the access that fans have to these different properties and bands and artists and shows.” (His fandom of choice is “Game of Thrones.”)
The internet, especially Tumblr, has helped bring these worlds together. It has also changed the meaning of community for fans across the pop culture spectrum.
The ability to connect over the internet, said Susan Kresnicka, who runs the business anthropology firm Kresnicka Research & Insights, changed “what made you feel like an outsider and slightly abnormal in a previous era” into a means of connecting with other obsessed fans.
“If you can go online and find that there are people all over this world that are fans of this one little idiosyncratic television show that you happen to love with all your heart, you don’t feel quite so weird or not mainstream yourself,” Ms. Kresnicka said.
For teenagers who don’t have the money to attend concerts or Comic-Con, and particularly for those who don’t live in urban areas, Hot Topic’s stores function as critical meeting places.
“The presence of Hot Topic in malls is related to the presence of convention,” said Louisa Stein, an associate professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College. “There’s a place you can go and kind of have your fan identity acknowledged in physical space and see other fans in that space with you.”
The company also frequently holds contests where people can submit T-shirt designs for movie and TV merch. The winners’ artworks are sold in stores nationwide.
The conversations between fans and Hot Topic can be highly specific. In the fall of 2018, the retailer caused a stir by listing a T-shirt on its website as “Destiel”: a portmanteau of two “Supernatural” characters, Dean and Castiel, whose onscreen chemistry is the subject of much fan fiction, as well as contention.
(The dedication of the “Supernatural” fandom is largely what has kept the show on the air for 14 seasons despite poor ratings, and the show’s writers have been known to make cheeky references to fan theories in scripts. “Supernatural” is now set to end after its 15th season.)
Hot Topic was seen to be taking a side in the dispute by naming the shirt Destiel, and fans feverishly discussed whether the show would pursue a more explicit Destiel story line, said Rachel Aparicio, a media and gender studies scholar at Kresnicka Research & Insights, and a “Supernatural” fan herself.
“It definitely signaled a shift to me in watching how the company is engaging with fandom, and doing it at a level that is very insider with something like that,” she said.
To wit: On one “Supernatural” episode, Castiel buys a younger character a plush toy and says, “I got it at the Hot Topical.” Hot Topic then began selling shirts that read: “I got it at the Hot Topical.” (Hot Topic has since pulled the Destiel shirt. When asked, Mr. Labay said he “cannot confirm or deny” that he knows anything about it.)
Some may call it a niche reference. But for fans, that’s the whole point.
By PAULA MEJÍA