It’s easy to argue that logos and iconography are mere branding tools or distinctive imagery designed to stamp a visual signature. When these logos and iconography are released, appropriated and re-used, though, they gain a cultural context which transforms them into symbols loaded with history and context.
Some are lucky enough to be deemed instantly desirable, whereas others become intrinsically linked with bad taste and slowly disappear from cultural consciousness – a phenomenon most often seen in the fashion industry. There are four particular brands that demonstrate this ascent to cult status: Palace, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Supreme and Vetements. Although their differences are largely greater than their similarities, a common thread which links them all is an unprecedented ability to tap into the zeitgeist and an intrinsic understanding of modern youth.
Popular and obscure references alike litter their most famous pieces – Supreme have been known to incorporate nods to Bruce Lee films and battery logos in their designs, whereas Vetements’ most iconic pieces have borrowed imagery from Titanic and famously appropriated the logo of a parcel delivery company. Instagram accounts dedicated to unpicking these cult references have popped up, and it’s undeniable that those who understand these references feel a sense of camaraderie – these are branded in-jokes which, as a result, create a sense of kinship between loyal followers.
This sense of kinship goes a long way in explaining the appeal of Palace and Supreme, both of which are technically skate brands. For those lamenting a lack of modern subculture and an absence of youth rebellion, the idea of adolescent skateboarders as a 21st century style tribe has become completely irresistible – a love for these brands has drawn teens together in the same way that Vivienne Westwood’s "Bondage" trousers united disparate punks in the 1970s.
The lure of rebellion is also one of many chapters in the Vetements story. When the fledgling brand emerged in 2014, leader Demna Gvasalia and his various co-creators chose to remain anonymous. Tales began to emerge of a young Parisian collective trained under the legendary Martin Margiela; a man who, himself, built a cult reputation on his own anonymity. The designs were warped, exaggerated and vastly oversized, whereas the shows themselves took place in underground sex clubs and Chinese restaurants; it was a modern anti-fashion fairytale which basically wrote itself.
Throughout Vetements’ formative months, before the Justin Bieber slogans and "You Fuck’n Asshole" tees, Margiela was the only reference they needed – his name alone injected immediate cult credibility into a then-emerging brand, cementing its status as one to watch. Rubchinskiy, on the other hand, quickly became the poster child of the Post-Soviet movement which swept – and continues to sweep – the fashion industry. His designs were characteristically simplistic, emblazoned with Cyrillic lettering and slogans which made reference to Russian propaganda. His focus was, again, youth, and his message resonated quickly, attracting the attention of industry vanguards such as Rei Kawakubo.
It’s not unfair to say that these references imbue these brands with a significance which transcends mere aesthetics. Is it important to know the backstories of these labels in order to be compelled to buy into them? The answer is, arguably, yes. Gvasalia himself has admitted in previous interviews that he’d be unwilling to pay his extortionate prices; a contradictory statement which surprised many. He has often explained the title of his label (which literally means "clothes" in French) as a mission statement.
In a YouTube interview with The Minimalists, he argued clothing as his sole focus and explained that his explorations of "streetwear" come from the lure of its reality. “It’s something that happens every day out there, it’s what people wear: hoodies, bomber jackets, denim pants; it’s something real that everyone can connect to, so we work with those garments because of that.”
Despite these explanations, it seems tricky to argue that high fashion – Vetements in particular – is ever purely about the clothes. Prada, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Chanel; hungry consumers often squirrel away their spare cash to invest in these brands because their logos and references represent status. To argue that Vetements makes sense without its references is tricky. Their exaggerated silhouettes and warped proportions are the exact opposite of mundane, quotidian garb; they are, instead, imbued with a distinct high-fashion attitude, and that is precisely their appeal.
A similar argument can be made in the case of Rubchinskiy – his Cyrillic slogans and football references are firmly embedded in the modern zeitgeist, which is exactly why they create such hysteria. Without understanding Rubchinskiy and his background, his T-shirts become just another slogan – a 1984 tee can be printed in minutes for little to no money, so why bother queueing for three hours at Dover Street Market?
These brands are not just about clothing, and that isn’t a bad thing. Palace Skateboards’ founder Lev Tanju acknowledges this in a lengthy profile piece published on The Guardian, in which he explains the brand’s success as a byproduct of its authenticity and his own personal involvement in the skate scene.
The irony is that the various references littered throughout Palace clothing – Mitsubishi pills (a symbol for ecstasy) and Arnold Schwarzenegger are just two examples – pale in significance to the cultural impact of Palace itself. “The ’90s is having a bit of resurgence”, he explains, “And streetwear has had a massive effect on this trend. Even on the runway, you see clothes with logos everywhere. The fashion brands see streetwear brands doing so well, like Supreme, like Palace, which both have such a good following, and they want to do that.”
Ultimately, brands that built their success on cult references and key visual signatures are now becoming the reference points themselves. Vetements’ signature long sleeves and matte logos have spawned a slew of copycats, whereas Supreme are taking hysteria to the next level by announcing a collection of branded soup bowls, hot water bottles and, weirdly, bricks. These four powerful brands are slowly developing their own cultural context, spawning devoted style tribes and writing their own unique stories – a combination of pivotal factors which combine to explain their appeal.
It’s naíve to argue that the average consumer would willingly save £600 for a Titanic sweatshirt (especially when Gvasalia himself wouldn’t be willing) or drop a few hundred on a plain white T-shirt emblazoned with Russian propaganda, but that’s not the point. Palace and Supreme may be more accessible and therefore more likely to win over new consumers, but it’s undeniable that buying into these brands is often fueled by a lingering knowledge of their cult status. After all, they’re culturally inescapable.
Yeezy, Rihanna and various other megastars have been seen in Palace and Supreme; these celebrity endorsements are modern currency for developing brands looking to swing new consumers. The fact is that today’s generation is buying into the hype whether they understand the references or not, but those in the know are slyly saving for Rubchinskiy tees in the same way that previous generations would aspire towards a Chanel 2.55. These are the Chanels, the Vuittons and the Diors of today’s fashion industry; to argue that their appeal is purely aesthetic is to miss the point altogether.
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