Fashion may have started out as the business of creating clothes, but we’ve long passed the point where a brand’s product grew beyond creating a physical commodity (clothing) and into the marketing of an ideal: we don’t simply wear a garment for its physical properties or its aesthetic appearance, we wear it because it says something about our personality, groups us with other similarly minded people, or represents an image of ourselves that we’d like to project. In essence, we often buy a brand’s logo, rather than its clothes.
At its core a logo is a trigger, one that dredges up a lifetime of brand messages, conditioning, and mental schema that companies spend a lot of money trying to construct and enforce. Their ability to make us feel a certain way, think certain things, and –if they work as they’re intended– fill us with desire for the brand and the products that they represent, give logos a certain hold over us.
It’s a power dynamic that a number of labels have played with recently by hijacking the logos of iconic brands and repurposing them: Palace’s tongue-in-cheek reappropriation of Panasonic. Jeremy Scott fracking McDonald’s for Moschino inspiration. Herron Preston’s logo-strewn Nascar tees. Gosha Rubchinskiy’s bootleg Tommy Hilfiger. OFF-WHITE’s “Blue Collar” collection, which added a dash of haute-couture to the uniforms of British mailmen and no doubt inspired Vetements’ now-ubiquitous DHL t-shirts.
But this isn’t a new trend: looking beyond runway fashion and away from recent seasons, logo jacking has been an often-used tactic in the arsenal of countless streetwear brands over the years. SSUR’s Commes de Garcons-ripping “Comme de Fuckdown” items, popularized by a nascent A$AP Rocky a few years ago. Obey’s Supreme-jacking box logo. Fuct aping the Ford badge. Cartier/Cuntier. Beyond simple trademarks, BAPE’s “Bapex” watches are no different to the Rolex knockoffs that you might get for suspiciously low prices from China-based eBay sellers.
The streetwear fraternity may have brought logo-jacking into the realms of fashion, but they didn’t invent it. Its roots actually lie in the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s, propagated by leading figures in the intellectual left such as author Naomi Klein, filmmaker Kalle Lasn, and his radically anti-consumerist publication, Adbusters.
Launched in 1989, the magazine combines scathing editorial takedowns of neoliberal capitalism and consumer culture with visually powerful spoof ads that could easily be mistaken for real ones. Adbusters took the aesthetic of advertising and subverted it, using it to push an anti-brand, don’t-buy agenda. It wasn’t the first to use these “culture jamming” tactics (the Billboard Liberation Front did the same in the ‘70s, as did Situationist International two decades earlier) but its use of mass media helped disseminate them in the public arena on a much larger scale.
The reasons why Adbusters and its ideological peers choose to hijack the aesthetic of brand communication were outlined in Naomi Klein’s debut book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. In short, logos and advertising are invasive, and ultimately a form of one-way communication: a brand and its message projected onto our mental screens whenever and wherever we encounter it. It’s an exchange that we’re unable to opt out of (at least until recently, with the advent of Internet adblockers), and one that dominates such a large portion of public space. By subverting logos and advertising, we reclaim some of the power that they have over us for our own use – particularly if they’re used in the public domain, turning advertising’s paid-for real estate and recognisability against it.
Although many clothing labels use logo jacking as little more than a visual pun, it can be just as empowering for brands as it is for left wing outliers. Fashion, more than most fields, places a concerted onus on desirability, and its logos and brand names exist to make consumers lust over them. There’s also a very clear hierarchy, with designer labels like Gucci or Saint Laurent at the upper echelons of desire, while fast fashion like Primark lingers down towards the bottom.
In streetwear, a subsegment of the clothing industry so often derided by haute couture, logo jacking mocks, demystifies, and rejects fashion’s ordained league table. By taking a brand’s visual form, transforming, say, Comme des Garcons into Comme de Fuckdown, it corrodes away some of the prestige from a much-protected trademark and SSUR claims some of Rei Kawakubo’s earnt desirability for its own ends. It’s like bootlegging, in a way, only more cerebral.
That’s not to say that all brands evade political commentary: Golf Wang’s most recent collection took the Celtic cross, a symbol used by white supremacists the world over, and combined it with the rainbow colors of the LGBT flag. Commercial brands aren’t at play here, but the methodology and effect remains the same.
Gosha’s Hilfiger-inspired line, with its combination of the Chinese and Russian flags at the centre of a quintessentially American brand’s logo feels like a comment on Western decline and the eastward shifting of political currents. The Guardian’s Lauren Cochrane, meanwhile, spots globalization in Vetements’ aforementioned DHL tees, writing: “it delivers to every country in the world bar Turkmenistan – so its yellow and red branding, worn by a 300,000-plus workforce, is familiar to all. But it has the grit of a working uniform, unlike a brand with the cultural pedigree of, say, Coca-Cola.” But subliminal messaging or not, let’s not forget that the end game is ultimately about sales.
It’s ironic that logo jacking, once an act of anti-consumerist insurrection, has itself been hijacked by the fashion industry to sell clothes. Much like punk, its edge has been commodified and its ability to disrupt neutered. It seems that, no matter how hard lefties might rage against the machine, there’s a futile inevitability that their rage will eventually be bottled, packaged, and then sold on at an exceedingly high mark-up. Rage, it appears, makes good fuel.