Earlier this month, I watched Pierpaolo Piccioli — Valentino’s celebrated creative director and poetry aficionado — go live on Instagram with Koreen, the former model and photographer behind the wildly popular, feel-good IG page @werenotreallystrangers.
During a lengthy chat, the two discussed their new Valentino-branded deck of playing cards — a riff on Koreen’s best-selling card game of the same name that, through a series of thought-provoking questions and statements, aims to drive connection with others.
According to the Italian Maison, the livestream pulled in over 4.5 million viewers. On giant billboards, street signs, and hand-drawn on walls around the world, statements including “THANK YOU FOR LOVING ME WHEN I DIDN’T FEEL LOVABLE,” “You Deserve the Empathy You Give Others,” and “You’re Comparing Yourself Again. Stop That” were displayed, serving as promotional teasers for the partnership. Text on text on text.
“The right words have the capacity to shape images in our mind, they can guide our creative process without interfering with it,” says Piccioli, who tells me that, ahead of each new collection, a final image of his ideal outcome is already pictured in his head. “I start with a vision and then through words, they become sketches, moodboards, collections, emotions that convey all the values I believe in.”
Back to text. Piccioli believes poetry “protects our humanity and allows inner explorations, it gives you the lens through which one can really touch nature and our most intimate feelings.” It’s why Valentino, under his helm, has worked with writers and poets including Yrsa Daley-Ward, Mustafa the Poet, and Greta Bellamacina; created a “Writers Roadmap” with Tomi Adeyemi that sponsors 50 aspiring authors; hosted a live performance in Japan by Rupi Kaur; dressed all poets during a bookstore poetry reading; and now, its latest, a deck of cards created with @werenotreallystrangers.
Valentino has worked with text artisans for over three years, but what about the more than a dozen brands who have experimented with different typefaces, font sizes, and words, over the past month alone?
In a bid to better connect with us, Prada recently pushed out text-heavy advertisements urging its audience to participate in a “dialogue,” while JW Anderson and Juergen Teller scribbled ambiguous sentences such as “Gold buckles and stones” and “Peach and cabbage” directly on its new lookbook. Virgil Abloh for Off-White™ launched “Imaginary TV,” a content-first approach to showcase the full 360 of the brand’s universe. Its “Ask Imaginary TV Anything” feature left me with more questions than answers. It told me that “Feeling Feels Real,” “To look is a luxury,” and “Similarities imply dissimilarities, join opposites, speak freely.”
Buzzy marketing aside, brands are most of all increasingly using text in the most simplified form by literally slapping a series of random words on garments.
Boldly printed on sweatshirts, Vetements will try to convince you they’re still provocateurs, by shouting, “Think While It’s Still Legal,” “Veggies,” and “I like long walks and sex before marriage.” Over at Charles Jeffrey’s Loverboy line, the London-based designer wants you to know his brand emphasizes “Community” and “Health.” Man in a mohawk at Phipps states “Red skies at night, sailor’s delight.” Dolce & Gabbana spells out “Pizza,” “Pasta,” and “Italia is Love,” in case you forgot the brand’s country of origin. “More Joy” and “Sex” at Christopher Kane cover night robes, sleeping masks, earrings, duct tape, sweatshirts, face masks, mugs, umbrellas, and door mats. Ah, and vibrators. Are you detecting a theme?
Of course, designers including Raf Simons, Jun Takahashi, and Vivienne Westwood have dabbled with the written word on garments and in their campaigns for years (Katharine Hamnett famously made politically charged slogan T-shirts her definitive signature in 1980s Britain). But en masse, the influx tells a more significant story of brands testing out new formats aimed to connect with consumers directly, at a time when the middleman (see: wholesale retailers, traditional media, and yes, even influencers) is increasingly being cut out.
Make no mistake, this goes beyond fashion simply running out of ideas. It goes as deep as understanding why brands like Louis Vuitton, Dunhill, and Byredo have recently enlisted poets like Kai-Isaiah Jamal and James Massiah to work with their brands. All evoke the question, why won’t brands stop talking to us? And what are they even trying to say?
The Antithesis of the Visual
We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. In the world of marketing, there’s a well-known stat that says 80 percent of people remember what they see, compared to 20 percent what they read. In the age of image overload, it’s exactly why brands want you to pause and read. Whether or not people actually care to do so is the question.
“People mostly don’t read language on shirts, the language just becomes more decoration. If you ask people what [the text] means on their shirt, a lot of times they won’t even know,” says Kenneth Goldsmith, the American poet, critic, and author. In his short paper When Text Becomes Image and Image Becomes Text, Goldsmith explains how a lot of language on clothing is actually used as an image, not meant to be read but to be seen. So, a study in aesthetics.
Where does that leave my Supreme Fall/Winter 2016 T-shirt that features an excerpt of Philip Larkin’s famed “This Be The Verse” poem? Surely that’s meant to be read?
“Supreme wouldn’t have chosen a Larkin poem without the word ‘fuck,’” he says. “Nobody would read it. They picked a cool thing and everybody sees your word ‘fuck’ on it. It’s never about the language in fashion, it’s always about some other thing that it’s connected to.”
If individual letters are meant to be judged not by their meaning but by their aesthetical shapes, and each word its own composition, brands are left with a case of having to rethink how they can turn text into art. When it comes to clothes, Goldsmith offers some advice as to what will grab people’s attention.
“If you look at the history of [text], (from the telegram to Twitter) you’ll find that there’s been a move towards the compression of language,” Goldsmith explains. “But if you ask me, concrete poetry on [clothes] is the future. When brands discover that, it’s going to work, because it says everything and it says nothing. It’s going to be neutral and clean, [because] there are no serifs that will catch the eye and slow the thing down.”
What Does a Brand Sound Like?
But brands using text on clothing, advertisement, and other marketing activations isn’t, and shouldn’t, be just thought of as decoration. Beyond the visual aesthetic of words and letters, the communication element of language can’t be ignored. Brands know this.
It’s why Vetements and Balenciaga are trying so hard to sound ironic and provocative, Prada and Gucci aim to come across as intellectual and poetic, and Valentino wants you to think its text-heavy everything will translate into you viewing the brand as compassionate and caring.
And the efforts make sense. We know what a fashion brand looks and feels like. Often also how one smells, and sometimes even tastes (Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and Ralph Lauren all have restaurants and bars). But outside fashion show soundtracks, the sporadic attempt at a branded Spotify list or podcast, and jargon-y press releases, what does a brand sound like now that the direct line of communication with its audience is becoming one of the most important company objectives? How does it read? What’s its tone of voice? With text, the opportunities for experimentation are endless.
“Language mostly isn’t copyrightable the way images are, so that’s a cost saver for the fashion industry as it’s much easier than dealing with an image,” says Goldsmith. “Also, images have gotten people into a lot of trouble with cultural appropriation in a way that language can slide around it.”
Fashion’s Race to Intellectualize Itself
And this is really just a peek behind the curtain of the brand-text love story. One of the bigger reasons they’re opting for text outside of its graphical aesthetic might be a lot simpler.
Over the years, fashion brands from Dior and Gucci, to Comme des Garçons and Loewe, have collaborated with fine artists on products and store installations, they’ve enlisted orchestras, created costumes for the ballet, designed entire wardrobes for cinema, built immersive sets for campaigns, and worked with the world’s best dancers. All with the single aim to build out a brand’s universe by intellectualizing the clothing itself, by associating with “high culture.” Because how dare fashion just be... fashion. Typography, literature, and poetry are next on the industry’s hit list.
“[Text artists] like Jenny Holzer really meant for their things to be read, but that’s in an art context where you assume people read; fashion and art are two totally different things,” says Goldsmith. “Again, I think [brands] want to be hip and want to be intellectual. So it’s about the affiliation with somebody that’s smart.”
For brands, endorsing and elevating talented next-gen wordsmiths is a clever play; that is, if the relationships with poets, authors, and text designers go beyond the slapping of sentences on clothing.
Last month, Virgil Abloh presented his sixth menswear collection for Louis Vuitton. The film featured powerful words from Saul Williams and Kai-Isaiah Jamal, both of whom also walked the show. The collection’s theme itself was based on James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village,” and featured phrases like “Tourist vs. Purist” on various accessories and clothing. Elsewhere, London poet James Massiah has worked with fashion brands ranging from Dunhill and C.P. Company to Martine Rose and Hunter. Most recently, laureate Amanda Gorman recited an incredible — and viral — poem during Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. She noticeably wore full Prada.
“Brands go to actors, musicians, public figures, and even models on the condition that they have a look, a public profile, and something interesting to say,” explains James Massiah. “It’s always a pleasure to receive recognition for the work that I do, but all the more when a company approaches me on the terms of what it is that I have to say about the world.”
Who We Are
Most of all, we today expect brands to represent more than just vendors of clothing. Like friends, we want them to be the natural extensions of ourselves, what we believe in, and how we want to be seen by others. And so, like Jenny Holzer, Lawrence Weiner, Barbara Kruger, Christopher Wool, Bruce Nauman, and Mel Bochner — artists who’ve used text as their main means of artistic expression — fashion brands are seeing the linguistic artform as a central communication tool to speak out on issues surrounding social justice and politics. They do so to repeatedly convince us, the consumer, they’re collectively on our side. That they get us.
“Before, just to say it was enough. But now, you have to say it, show it, prove it. The bar is always rising to do what’s right,” says Tessa Forrest, the self-taught American artist also known by her popular Instagram moniker @Subliming, which, through a combination of spiritual and motivational quotes and striking art direction, has become a wildly shared account that currently counts over half a million followers.
Forrest, who after leaving her role as a visual designer at Outdoor Voices continued as a freelance designer, says she regularly gets approached by brands wanting to collaborate on text-based design. “I guess it’s probably another part where they’re literally scrambling on how else they can show that they care, and aren’t just these major corporations ripping everyone off. There’s a part of me that hopes fashion brands are trying to normalize this level of vulnerability, [but] I’m not sure if that’s the actual case,” she says.
Goldsmith agrees: “They don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of social media and get Dolce & Gabbana-ed. They want to get out in front and support what’s progressive. They want to be seen as the good guys,” he says.
Unlike the pioneers of the art form like Holzer and Kruger, however, brands are often far behind on getting language and text right. Countless mishaps around text continue to occur, and as long as text remains an afterthought for most brands, they’re trotting on thin ice. Without the right people and strategies in place, or without a deep understanding of the various associations and meanings words have in different markets, using the wrong words in the wrong context can be disastrous.
Count Versace’s backlash in China, H&M’s “Coolest monkey in the jungle” and “unemployed” sweatshirts, and Melania Trump’s $39 infamous “I really don’t care. Do U?” Zara jacket, worn on a trip to a detention centre for migrant children, as just some recent examples.
“Text can be dangerous because it can be misread. You have to be really careful with that,” says Goldsmith. “Text either has to be socially good, or extraordinarily ‘be-known’”. [Brands] should really have good consultants on this stuff. They’ve got their work cut out for them.”