Something to get behind in times of war (and at the Olympics), national flags have an ambiguous role in pop culture and fashion. They transcend their original meanings and come to represent much more abstract ideals, myths and aspirations.
The Union Jack has had its moments: from Morrissey causing a national scandal in the ’90s after wrapping himself in it onstage, to David Bowie in that Alexander McQueen jacket, to the entire COMME des GARCONS Spring/Summer 2006 collection. American stars and stripes, appearing on endless bikinis, jeans, sweaters and beach towels, have become a true sign of globalization. The combination of red, yellow and green is a stoner commodity well beyond Jamaica.
But today, fashion kids have a new obsession: a ring of yellow stars on a blue background, otherwise known as the flag of the European Union. In times of Brexit and the global rise of the far right, the iconography is painfully politically relevant, but is it the only reason?
“Eurotic is Europe’s unofficial souvenir store. The online based store offers an ironic approach to nationalism beyond borders and souvenirs to keep for future generations,” reads the description on the site of Eurotic, undoubtedly the most hyped EU-related fashion project of the moment. Launched by photographer Lea Colombo and Valter Törsleff last month, the brand offered a small range of T-shirts (€40) and hoodies (€75) — both come in the classic blue colour, or in red (the so-called "Eurasia" edition). There are also scarfs (€35), doormats (€40), lighters (€2.50) and condoms (€2). Following the collection's launch, the hoodies and novelties are all sold out, but a few T-shirts and scarfs are still available.
Unlike your average souvenir store, Eurotic also comes with a visual identity: lo-fi portraits of the many faces of Europe’s diversity, from young hot clubbers and artists to shop keepers, taxi drivers and kebab sellers. What’s poignant is Eurotic's stance on the EU as a symbol of values which the young generation should hold on to.
“For us the EU flag represents togetherness and unity across borders. The “Eurasia” colour, for instance, is a reference to the Vietnamese and Chinese flag which feature a yellow star on a red background — it’s a play on Europe beyond its borders,” Eurotic's founders commented. It’s by no means just for cool kids, either — to the question of who would they like to see wearing these garments, Eutoric simply reply: “Anyone anywhere”. And what of the brand's future plans? “We are in the process in further developing and decoding the European identity. Eurotic is expanding its range with the launch of its leather goods that are coming this Fall. ”
The case of Eurotic, however, is not the first time the EU flag has popped up as part of the fashion discourse. Based between Paris and New York, Études has been using the EU logo in their collections for over three years. “Back in 2012 we thought, lets highlight the EU star logo, thinking how regularly the USA flag and iconography is used by brands and in fashion" Études commented.
"We knew it was going to be a strong statement. We first did it with a white star on a black sweatshirt, since then we’ve been designing new color options each season. We finally ended up doing the original colors ‘yellow on blue’ for our current SS17 collection. It is only now, since last year, that we see a few other brands using it in fashion” they added.
“For us it represents union, exchange between people and being open to each other. We see multi-culture as a great source to create new opportunity. With Études we like to be engaged for causes, we like what Europe represents and we wanted to support it”.
But it’s within the last year that the EU flag has become a truly hot topic in fashion. In Vetements' FW17 collection, a pastiche of a homeless man walked down the runway, dressed in a blue hoodie with the EU stars. British designer Christopher Shannon turned the EU flag into a shredded face mask for his FW17 collection.
Berlin-based König Souvenir, a project run by the team at König Galerie, released a collection of similar “EUnify” blue hoodies — with a broken EU circle and a missing star representing UK. A striking gang of youths posed beneath a blue flag with all the stars ripped out leaving gaping holes, a sight both enchanting and horrifying.
UEG, a cutting-edge streetwear brand from Poland, has also released its own take on the EU symbol, but with no blue or gold this time. Black and white starts are scattered around the garments, alongside the dystopian slogans “Neuropa” or “Finis Europae”.
“There is a growing gap between the political elites and societies. We must realize that this is the end of Europe as we know it”, reads the collection’s manifesto. To some extent, it looks like a meditation on Europe’s imagined worst fears: Arabic script standing for refugee crisis and the expansion of Islam, and this is coming from a Polish label, from the country of those who come from the fringes of the EU to supposedly steal all the jobs (as the right-wing press would have you believe).
It’s not an accident that the interest in EU iconography is on the rise at this very moment, in the midst of a major political crisis. The terrifying perspective of Brexit is looming on the horizon, isolationist and nationalistic political parties are on the rise worldwide, and the example of southern european countries like Greece pose a question of whether the EU model is, in some ways, a reinforcement of economic inequality. We could indeed see in our lifetime a dissolution of the EU and its utopian vision (here’s when Eurotic’s “souvenirs to keep for future generations” start to sound truly worrying). Are we equipped to deal with it? And will EU hoodies help?
“Against the blue sky of the Western world, the stars represent the peoples of Europe in a circle, symbol of unity. Their number shall be invariably set at twelve, the symbol of completeness and perfection.” That's the way the EU flag, designed in 1955, was conceptualized by the Council of Europe. Today, hardly anyone could hear “the blue sky of the Western world” without cringing. The use of the EU flag in fashion might carry similar idealistic values but it’s also clearly ironic, a bit of a gimmick, a bit like posting a picture of Angela Merkel on Instagram. Inherent to today’s meme-infused visual culture, irony is our life blood — but maybe this time we should finally go beyond it?
So why are fashion kids so obsessed with the EU? Because fashion doesn’t shun politics anymore. Today fashion is known for commodifying the political struggle: it happened, notably, with the most recent wave of feminist activism which quickly translated into Topshop “feminist” sweatshirts.
On the other hand, symbols are a good way of knowing what you stand for. Equality, diversity, freedom of movement — yes.
But it’s also a question of survival, and sadly if we stopped our political activity at just wearing an EU-inspired hoodie, we would soon be left with nothing but souvenirs.
Now read what British members of the Highsnobiety team think of Brexit.