Three stripes or a Swoosh, maybe an italicized N; consumers are becoming more and more loyal to logos. UK football casual books – arguably the first subculture with a veritable obsession with sneakers – are awash with tales from childhood and the subsequent ribbings that would come with owning a pair of “two stripes,” an affordable homage created during the '80s. The implication, one which of course extends beyond that particular subculture, is that when it comes to what’s on your feet, there is a slightly tribal mentality.
But in recent months, that has been exercised in a much more literal sense. Vans have released sneakers proudly emblazoned with “VANS”, whilst their vulcanized adversary Converse has also taken a similar approach. For the recent Vans x The North Face collaboration, the American outdoor brand’s motif also featured prominently, and Nike has also dropped a number of releases of late which have harnessed the power of its own logo, including an Air Force 1 Low and an Air Max Plus featuring an overstated emblem.
This shift towards bigger and bolder branding may not necessarily result in better sneakers, but it is reflective of a wider shift within fashion. And, perhaps more interestingly, suggests a dominant creative practice is emerging between differing facets of fashion design, showing that logos often mean more than the designs themselves. While some of the most iconic sneakers have typically drawn from other disciplines – Nike’s Air Max 1 took from the architecture premise of Paris’ Pompidou Centre – or abstract conceptualism – the Air Max 97 was inspired by downhill mountain bikes and the Japanese bullet train – fashion is increasingly informing what appears on our feet. Even if that doesn’t mean we’re stepping out in the Balenciaga Triple S anytime soon.
Branding has always existed since the advent of mass-production, but rarely has it been such a powerful communicative tool in terms of individual self-expression. However, it makes sense for a generation that has become well-versed in visual sign-posting, as a reaction to an online landscape defined by immediate sharing, and providing instant-gratification. Spurred on by Tumblr or Instagram, a culture of curation currently exists, where one’s personal identity is often denoted through a series of shorthand cues. It's often said, brands are the new religion. What we like, who we follow, what we post, or how often, each action or inaction adds to a sense of one’s personal brand – and, as a result, harnessing the branding of more traditional entities has become an effective way of expressing an idea in few words.
A Supreme box logo, for example, communicates a lot about its wearer – what websites they visit, what they value in the clothes they wear, even their social status and where they hang out. Whilst not an exact science, it does allow us to communicate some notion of self identity through what we wear. Naturally, that has now extended to sneakers. This shift hasn’t simply been consumer-led, it’s the result of the relationship between would-be customers and some of fashion’s most savvy, switched-on minds. Balenciaga and Vetements, under the guidance of Demna Gvasalia, have both harnessed the power of branding and how it chimes with a young consumer in a way that it wouldn’t have in previous generations. For all that a lot to Gvasalia’s creations seem to riff on the work of Martin Margiela – where he previously worked – there is a crucial difference: Margiela was notable for his absence of branding, whilst Gvasalia’s work is underpinned by an unfettered embrace of it, whether it’s a Balenciaga riff on Bernie Sanders’ campaign signage or his hijacking of DHL’s ubiquitous logo.
Virgil Abloh’s recent foray into footwear design, in collaboration with Nike, also harnessed the impact of what the iconic Swoosh logo means to some. In his offset placement of it, he drew attention to its power, both visually and culturally – allowing it to contrast with the design as a means of celebrating it. But his approach here was also a continuation of many of the ideas he has been propagating with his label OFF-WHITE for some time. Unlike the faux-adidas two stripes of the '90s, the Chicago designer’s hijacking of a construction style motif is the core of his business – financially and aesthetically – somehow managing to own the signage style’s ubiquity.
It’s hard not to think that the approach of Gvasalia and Abloh – unashamed in a semiotically-led approach – has not seeped into the thinking of other designers. Only recently, another of their peers, Alessandro Michele of Gucci, took this approach, along with a wider shift in sneaker-design, to its logical conclusion, releasing the white Gucci Rhyton sneaker which proudly sported the house’s interlocking G logo. There was no nuance about this sneaker, it screamed “Gucci!” in your face – which was kind of the point. And there’s plenty of customers who will enjoy sharing similar sentiments.
Branding as design, it would seem, is here to stay for the foreseeable. It evidently resonates with a consumer who wants to say something as little ambiguity as possible with their sartorial choices. Who needs 280 characters for a tweet, when you can make a statement with a single logo?
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