Young US designers co-opt fashion logos to create their own statements

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 8:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 8:23pm

There are 17 logos on Heron Preston's signature long-sleeve T-shirt: M&Ms and Trix; Google and Remington; Home Depot, huge, on the back; Nascar, upside down, on the front.

Looked at one way, these are 17 advertisements, 17 declarations of loyalty. The function of a logo is to advertise and these are established images, familiar, eye-catching and effective.

I’m taking the idea of being marketed to and turning it on its head

And yet Preston's shirt has the air of anti-promotion to it. The logos compete with one another for attention, ultimately privileging none. They become denatured.

But can a logo ever truly be subverted? In fashion, logos are the simplest way to turn a consumer into a billboard, and we are all inexorably branded now. With each passing year, it becomes more difficult to live out of the reach of corporate influence, and each successive generation has less of an idea of what life was like back when opting out was more of a possibility.

So, maybe it's not a shock that this time is also seeing the arrival of the logo as a forward-looking fashion staple, a William Gibson and Milton Glaser fantasy come to life.

This is happening in the hands of a group of young designers who accept the ubiquity of logos and who work within that framework to turn their purpose and effect on their head. The logo becomes the canvas, whether it's their placement on a garment, the juxtaposition of several of them together or a rendering with an unconventional treatment. In all cases, the logo becomes a graphic element that can be mined for its familiarity, but is at least in part stripped of its corporate purpose.

"I think about the logos, but not so much," says Preston, whose T-shirt was one of this year's signature downtown fashion items. You see a similar energy in the work of Wil Fry, who works with grey-scale prints made from scanned labels from 20 or so high-end designers, or Peggy Noland, who uses puff paint to create logo mash-ups on one-of-a-kind pieces.

You see it in the T-shirts from Hood by Air, with their bold, original logo treatments. It's there on the racks at VFiles and Opening Ceremony, in the work of a second-wave gaggle of even younger designers building on what they're seeing this group do. And it's even crept onto the runway, in the hands of Alexander Wang.

The recent rise in logos is in part a response to the mass anonymity of the American Apparel-Uniqlo age, and taking a longer view, a rejection of the anti-capitalist, grunge, no-logo 1990s. But that same era also saw the rise of hip hop and streetwear as a consumer force, and as style influences that imprinted deeply on many of these young designers.

Of these, Shayne Oliver, of Hood by Air, has stuck out by creating a line premised on his own logo, not repurposing others.

Preston began making his T-shirts at the beginning of this year. Initially, in order to build mystique and deflect legal snoops, he passed off the design as a factory defect he'd stumbled upon. But eventually, you couldn't go to a certain kind of party without seeing one or two of them. They began to take on a tribal quality, which was the point.

"People look for communities and families to belong to," says Julie Anne Quay, the founder of VFiles. "They're saying, 'I identify with that.' It's like wearing a football jersey."

At VFiles, which is ground zero for this movement, the racks teem with logos, from '90s rave and streetwear revival brands like X-Girl to the pieces by Preston, Oliver and Fry.

Opening Ceremony, too, has been vital to this moment.

"About four or five years ago we had a conversation," says Humberto Leon, co-owner and creative director of Opening Ceremony, referring to Carol Lim, his business partner, "and we said, 'OK, it's time to bring logos back.'" Both grew up in the California suburbs in the early 1990s, where among young people, he says, "the logo or the brand was what created these mini-communities".

That's become part of the Opening Ceremony project, Leon says, whether it's the revival of Vision Street Wear or the store's collaboration with Donna Karan.

Where Preston's logo choices derive largely from Nascar culture, Fry and Noland tackle fashion pieties head-on - Fry by creating a pastiche of designer labels and Noland by rendering logos in puff paint, giving them a childlike air.

"It's all a critique," Noland says. "I'm taking the idea of being marketed to and turning it on its head." Fry, too, refers to his work as "a satire".

Sometimes, however, fashion bites back. Parody is protected speech, but the legal implications of repurposing the logos of companies with eager legal departments and no sense of creative irony are less clear.

Logos are also beginning to creep onto the runway, most notably in Wang's spring ready-to-wear collection. If it was done as a critique or satire, it was tough to tell. It was, however, a reminder that logo culture remains strong, even in the face of misuse and challenge.

The New York Times



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