How Brands and Logos Dominate Our Lives -- Like It or Not

What’s in a name? From a marketing perspective, everything. Since "Mad Men"-era New York, we’ve known about the power of advertising. But “branding"—increasingly used as a noun outside the livestock trade—has now introduced a conception of name and image still more powerful. From fashion to corporate identity to the aura of individual products, logos serve as a badge of cultural capital—and of capital itself. Today, we’re told by the New York Times and others, that we are in a “Return of the Logo Culture,” in which young designers use brand-names to play with, comment on, and subvert the traditional use of the logo. But while this attempt seems fashionable, the question remains: can a logo ever truly be subverted?


The Anti-Logo Logo

In 1999, Naomi Klein confronted the idea of branding in her seminal book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. In it, Klein discusses the negative effects of brand-oriented corporate activity, concluding with an analysis of various actions taken to fight back, such as Adbusters magazine and movements against sweatshop labor. She describes the transformation of branding during the late '80s and throughout the '90s toward what she calls the “anti-brand.” An appeal to youth culture, the “anti-brand” relied on a tongue-in-cheek understanding, and faux-rejection, of advertising itself—as, for example, in clothing brand NOLOGO’s explicit name.

Today, we find ourselves in an era of no-brand companies—which are distinct from or similar to “anti-brand” companies depending on their mission statement. Muji and Uniqlo (both Japanese companies) and to some extent American Apparel mass-produce their “basics” in every color. Within this context, designers like Heron Preston and Shayne Oliver, described in the Times piece, are bringing brands back.

Preston’s signature long-sleeve T-shirt features 17 familiar logos (M&Ms, Google, Nascar) all competing for real estate across one’s upper body. Oliver’s Hood by Air line’s box logo is positioned in unique places and sizes on the body (on the inner wrist, for example), creating a juxtaposition of streetwear and high fashion. “It represents power, a language, a mind-state,” Oliver told the Times, of his logo, “But it’s a sense of commentary, too. An encrypted code.”

From anti-branding to no-branding, companies have developed witty ways to place their products within the consumer’s awareness of market ploys—in part, to flatter the consumer that she or he is in the know.

Selling a Life(style)

Responding to the late '80s economic crash, corporations determined to market to younger emerging buyers, which often involved connecting the product to celebrity (or other culturally-relevant phenomena), Klein argues in No Logo. What we now recognize as lifestyle marketing—or “attitude branding”—grew, inseparable from the cult of youth, to create the banal “cool mom” marketing we’re so familiar with today.

Why do we wear what we wear? Beyond protecting ourselves from the elements, we express ourselves through our clothing, hoping to be perceived or feel a certain way (comfortable, capable, anonymous, sexy). What is now individual self-expression used to be legally codified. In the Western European late-Middle Ages, sumptuary laws existed to delineate social status by prescribing what nobility could (and common people could not) consume. Food, furniture, and especially dress were regulated in order to keep noble consumables exclusive. And while today social status isn't technically determined by one's place in the social hierarchy or by the antiquity of one's family, inheritance and generations of policy have still created disparities that are hard to overcome.

In other words, our modern idea of social mobility may have overcome these ancient legal determinants of hierarchy, but consumption is still encouraged as a sign of one's upward mobility and status. Logos indicate one's capacity for luxury (Veblen's "conspicuous consumption") and sometimes one's particular preference (or "taste") among consumables.

As Pierre Bourdieu told us in the late '70s, tastes correlate with social positioning: either where you find yourself or where you aspire to be. This is "cultural capital"—expressive not of the use value the object offers, but of the exchange value it has on the market.

From the company’s perspective, the purpose of having you wear their logo, of course, is to advertise the product. It’s the most basic translation of cultural capital to material capital and back again—the ultimate goal always being more sales. You decide, in that time between seeing DKNY across enough chests and putting it on your own, that wearing the name will make your life better in some way.

Fashion, High and Low

Fashion is an interesting medium, caught halfway between essentials and artistry, necessity and luxury. Like cooking, clothing can become a means of self-expression or enjoyment beyond everyday survival—just as it can be a social marker for class, status, taste and beliefs.

Wearing Preston’s 17-brand tee or Oliver’s HBA logo serves the purpose of social marking. But unlike wearing an unmarked Oscar de la Renta among those who would recognize it, Preston or Oliver’s work takes the DKNY model and turns it on its head, for their designs also stem from the model they seem to subvert. It’s notable that DKNY was one of the first high-profile high-fashion diffusion lines in the late '80s. “This was before the deluge of mass fashion products,” Ms. Karan told the Times, the goal being to demonstrate that women didn’t “have to be a designer to wear designer clothes.”

From there it has become fashionable to wear self-consciousness about the industry itself. Reason Clothing’s “Ain’t Laurent” parody T-shirt, and The Cut at SSUR’s "COMME des FUCKDOWN" (a parody of Tokyo-based company “Commes de Garçons”) are two examples of fashion-pun-plagiarism that, like Preston and Oliver’s work, carry a certain cultural capital of being in-the-know. It’s a post-modern cache, associated with hip hop and skate culture—both born in part out of a rejection of the mainstream—that is self-aware about its own industry, critically minded, possibly humorous, marking itself outside the boundaries of normative consumerism. 

But this new formulation of logos—while not selling in the same way—is still selling an idea of something (and, of course, is still literally selling a product).

Peggy Noland, using puff paint to create logo mash-ups on one-of-a-kind pieces, calls her work “a critique.” In an interesting twist, she bought and sold bootleg Korean-made knockoffs of her clothes at her own store. (“I loved it,” she told the Times. “It was so meta.”) “Satire” is the word chosen by designer Wil Fry, who uses scanned grayscale prints of high-end designer labels, to describe his work.

But what exactly does satire mean in this context? For even though the democratization of fashion by brands like H&M and Zara (or streetwear-specific outlets like karmaloop.com) make fast-moving trends cheaply accessible to more people more quickly, and perhaps change the atmosphere of consumerism itself—still, a level up, prices are stratified. There’s a real difference between fashion and other more fully-democratized artistic industries (like music). The Internet gives us some access to higher fashion, but still few people can wear it.

The idea of “anti-fashion” or the high-low mash-up as satire (Fry’s example: a Brooklyn Nets jersey he overlaid with a Givenchy print, “a commentary on how ubiquitous the brand had become in hip-hop circles”) illustrates an interesting time in the higher realms of fashion: when a self-consciousness about its historic socioeconomic exclusivity creates new styles as new players enter the arena. Ideas of taste and value are scrutinized, played with, and repurposed.

For example #been#trill, an art direction collective/DJ crew created by Kanye West’s creative/art directors Matthew Williams, Virgil Abloh and Justin Saunders (and, notably, involving Heron Preston and sometimes teaming-up with Hood by Air) has collaborated with streetwear heavyweights and high fashion venues alike. In an interview from early 2013, responding to the question “What’s relevant in pop culture to you in 2013 and beyond?” Preston answered “High taste culture.”

The Times calls designers like Preston and Oliver “gateways, bringing high-fashion aesthetics into accessible and relatively affordable clothes that have at least a little kinship with the high-end streetwear that serves as bridges for those who can’t yet afford designer pieces.” That’s two steps removed from high fashion
“designer pieces.” But just as hip hop has undeniably become a central force in mainstream American popular culture, it’s plausible that as polarization between high and low fashion further dissolves, it becomes less a matter of affording out-of-reach “designer pieces” some day—and more of an organic shift in which high-end streetwear influences high-fashion, not just vice versa.

The “Return of Logo Culture” signals more than anything a moment when the line between streetwear and high fashion is self-referentially blurred—but in many ways the world of high fashion remains exclusive.

Race, Class, and Clothes

Surprisingly or not, Kanye West had something to say about this earlier this fall. West appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show to talk fashion, after the two had a Twitter fight over a "Kimmel" skit that had children reciting lines from a Kanye interview. In Kanye’s interview with BBC 1’s Zane Lowe, he’d been talking about frustrations working with the fashion industry.

Currently in fashion and the way the fashion world works, I mean there's no black guy at the end of the runway in Paris, in all honesty,” West said on "Kimmel," explaining the high-fashion industry’s classist and racist interaction with and exclusion of him. It’s been difficult for West to make partnerships with designers to this day, despite his ideas for and long dedication to the industry—something many mainstream followers perhaps don’t realize.

I agree with Cord Jefferson’s take that, although there are many reasons we might rightly criticize West, his rant on "Kimmel" is not one of them. West continues, “This classism is what they do to say, 'Well you’re a rapper, your girlfriend is on a reality show, so you’re not up here with us. We’re old money.'” 

Race and class are long tied, intimately and particularly, in American capitalism—making racism and classism sometimes indistinguishable. “I refuse to follow those rules that society has set up and the way they control people with low self-esteem, improper information, with branding, with marketing,” West continues. “This concept of luxury is improper to me,” West finishes the thought. His line of argument may dip in and out of confusing, but he’s getting at something important.

The “Return of Logo” fashion, in some of its iterations, may comment on this high-low gap in interesting and creative new ways. Meanwhile, West touches on the cult of poverty-blaming so central to these questions of taste, status-marking, inheritance and consumption when he mentions the two paychecks he saved up at 18 to buy Gucci slippers. “I care about cool stuff,” West said. “It means something to me and it means something to a lot of people who are like me.”

Membership in a group, as Tressie McMillan Cottom recently explains, requires more than just buying things to appear presentable. “Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols?” Cottom writes. “For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on.”

There are immeasurable instances of such access, gained and denied, throughout a life. We know that those who appear poor—or signal “nouveau riche” or are deemed not to be spending “tastefully”—will be judged by “old money” (often those with the power to judge) more harshly. The literal nobility is long gone, but distinctions live on in constructed categories of taste: rappers and reality stars are low culture, runway fashion designers high. It seems “high fashion”—the name itself broadcasting its elevation—is one realm where old ideas of social-cultural stature (as separable from the mobility of class) remain most notably explicit and rigid.

And so we advertise our value and tastes by consuming in ways we learn may be rewarded. The anti-logo logo offers its wearer the capital of appearing savvy and subversive in a market where that kind of cultural cred is valuable—while not rejecting completely the premise of the logo itself.

That said, is the “Return of Logo Culture” a subversion of the logo as we knew it? It seems difficult to imagine what a truly subverting logo might look like, barring the total removal of monetary exchange from the equation. The anti-logo logo certainly marks a shift in a new direction. Like Kanye West desiring to break into high fashion, the marriage of streetwear and high fashion constitutes a shift in the industry from the inside out—not necessarily a groundbreaking change in its fabric.

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