Dressed in a plain black shirt, sleeves rolled up, with black-rimmed sunglasses, Shawn Stussy cut an inconspicuous figure at Kim Jones’s recent debut menswear show for Dior. Not that it would have mattered much what he wore, at a show where most photographers would have had their cameras trained on attendees such as A$AP Rocky, Kate Moss and Skepta. And yet, for all their star power and influence, Stussy – founder of his eponymous streetwear brand, which he exited in 1996 – could claim to have had just as much impact on the current state of fashion as any of his fellow guests.
Since he had remained largely aloof from the world of fashion after leaving the label he launched in the early 1980s, it was notable that Jones saw fit to invite him. Perhaps it was a recognition of his impact. As one of streetwear’s founding fathers, Stussy provided the basis for the bold branding and cultural bricolage that has become such a feature within fashion design today. Not only was he one of the first to flip the logos of high-fashion brands, but he excelled at world building, creating the International Stüssy Tribe (a pre-influencer global network of DJs, skaters and club kids). Indeed, Jones’s start in fashion was at Gimme Five, the London-based sales and distribution agencyresponsible for launching Stüssy – along with several other brands, such as A Bathing Ape and Supreme – in the UK.
Stussy, now 64, wasn’t alone of course. Others could rightfully point to Erik Brunetti of the cult LA brand Fuct, which came up around the same time as Stüssy, or James Jebbia’s Supreme, which was launched in 1994, as trailblazers who should be held in similar regard. Between them, and a handful of other, lesser-known designers, they pioneered a style of communicative design that, spurred on by a sort of cultural flattening between disciplines and luxury hierarchies, has in recent seasons seen just as much emphasis placed on semiotics as silhouettes.
Today, look at Gucci, Balenciaga, or Off-White, helmed by Virgil Abloh, the new men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton. While there is still a focus on tailoring and garment construction, increasingly what turns heads – and what sells – are the garments with the biggest, brashest or most devilishly subversive logos.All of these were previously hallmarks of the work of Stussy et al. Fuct would nod to iconic movies such as Jaws, or American brands such as Ford Motors (a T-shirt launched in the early 1990s), and twist them into their own countercultural world. Seeing a titan of American industry’s motif declare “Fuct” was both a brilliant act of branding and political détournement. Fast forward to Balenciaga’s AW17 men’s show, just a handful of days before Donald Trump took office, where Demna Gvasalia proudly riffed on the campaign graphics of the left-leaning Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in much the same manner. The same collection also included hoodies emblazoned with “Kering”, the luxury conglomerate that owns Balenciaga, a clever nod to the worlds of corporate and “cool”, which the brand straddles.
Alessandro Michele at Gucci has employed similar tactics, with both critical and commercial success (Gucci saw a 48% sales rise in the first quarter of 2018). His Canal Street-bootleg-style T-shirts for Gucci have come to dominate street-style photos at recent fashion weeks. Knowingly ironic, and a nod to the high-low taste dynamic that has come to play a big part in fashion in the past couple of years, the T-shirts (which are among several other items that happily toy with concepts of luxury and notions of bad taste) are in the lineage of the Stüssy double-S motif, launched in the mid-1980s, which itself was a nod to the iconic Chanel logo.
And if anyone were in any doubt as to how much streetwear has come to impact on the upper echelons of fashion, one doesn’t need to look much further than Abloh, whose ascent from screen-printing Caravaggio onto blank Champion hoodies to being appointed men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton has been a masterclass in streetwear-informed branding. Despite, or perhaps because of, Abloh’s lack of formal training as a fashion designer, Off-White has grown rapidly since it was launched in 2012. Much of that is thanks to how he has excelled at branding his wares, taking the chevron-style signage seen on construction sites throughout the world and making it his own.
Abloh’s rise perhaps couldn’t have happened in any other era, where lines were strictly drawn between what was suitable for the catwalk and for the street, and where fashion wasn’t predominantly consumed on a screen – flat and without texture. But Instagram has radically transformed how we look at fashion, with branding and logos becoming the simplest way of distinguishing between brands. Such has been the shift that the recent CFDA Awards saw Jebbia named Menswear Designer of the Year – despite having never claimed to be one.
We have, of course, seen bouts of deliberate “bad” design, unapologetic tackiness, bold logos and branding before. Tommy Hilfiger, aided by a glut of music artists such as Snoop Dogg and Aaliyah, enjoyed great success throughout the 1990s by slapping their logo on just about any item of clothing imaginable, and the early 2000s saw a number of luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Dior, revel in brash monograms and branding.
There remains an element of conspicuous consumption for anyone clad in a Louis Vuitton x Supreme hoodie today. But this most recent onset of logo mania seems also to be part of a wider cultural shift, with fashion branding merely becoming another communicative tool. We use emojis in lieu of sentences, DMs instead of actual text messages, and cultivate personalities online – by what we post, who we follow and what we like. Cultural shorthand abounds everywhere for Millennials. Even the seemingly inane, repetitive lyrics of the multi-platinum track Gucci Gang by Lil Pump, which is currently clocking up more than 700 million views on YouTube, are illustrative of a generation that prefers brevity, and of the idea that aligning oneself with a brand is enough to give you an insight into the person.
For a someone such as Pump, and fellow SoundCloud rap cohorts, brands such as Gucci and Off-White are merely gestural tools, part of a grander aesthetic or sense of self. For others, the impossible-triangle logo of Palace, for example, might convey an interest in skateboarding (or at least an interest in the cultural cachet skateboarding currently has). A branded, £535 Balenciaga “Kering” hoodie, meanwhile, is likely a tip-off that the wearer is not only savvy about contemporary fashion, but also self-aware enough to appreciate that it can be borderline uncool at times.
Embedded in this is an element of streetwear’s origins. “Before streetwear you often would wear something from your favourite team or band or sports brand. Or taking it a step further, a lot of kids would wear clothing from brands that didn’t represent them at all,” Chris Gibbs told me in an interview in 2016. Gibbs is the owner of the Los Angeles-based boutique Union (first co-founded in New York by Jebbia and Mary Ann Fusco in 1989), which stocks streetwear labels including Brain Dead and Bianca Chandon, as well as Comme des Garçons and Raf Simons.
An interesting development in the past 12 months is that we’re now seeing wearers not simply sporting one or two bold logos but several, creating a sort of communicative overload. Supreme, Off- White, a pair of branded Gucci sneakers or Balenciaga Triple Ss, all worn together. Clashing branding so blithely may suggest another, new paradigm in fashion’s love affair with logos. In a world of illegal data-sharing, Cambridge Analytica and targeted ads for things you’ve only ever mentioned out loud, never typed, this could be read as a form of obfuscation by Millennial consumers. Are all these logos and their implicit meanings actually rendered meaningless by the sheer number of them, and the access so many now have to these brands?
Which is part of the fun of this so-called logo mania. Some of us will project meaning onto certain heavily branded garments, such as a lineage from the work of Barbara Kruger through to products that seem to provide some form of commentary on late-capitalist consumer culture (like releasing a branded brick, only for it to sell out). For others, it’s just a hoodie with a big red “box logo” embroidered on the chest – and incredible resale value.
Notably, both Abloh and Jones – the latter being the man responsible for last year’s Louis Vuitton x Supreme logo extravaganza – eschewed heavy branding for their first showings in their new posts. At Abloh’s Vuitton, the iconic monogram of the brand was present on some pieces, but it was far from the graphic onslaught many would have predicted. Similarly, at Dior, branding was subtle – mostly appearing on jewellery created by Yoon Ahn of the brand Ambush, and industrial-looking belts created by Matthew Williams of Alyx.
It was a deliberate shift, acknowledged by Jones in an interview with The New York Times in the days leading up to the show. “I know what people are buying. You can see it when you look at sales reports. You can look at it when you go in the street,” he said of fashion’s current infatuation with streetwear, big branding and all. “But I think it’s nice to have something fresh like this. I think it’s important.”
The ironic logo flips and bold motifs may well diminish in the coming seasons. It is fashion, after all. But perhaps they were merely signifiers of a more fundamental shift, the visual markers of a time when the divisions between “street” and “luxury” were irrevocably demolished, and a wider rethinking of not just what a luxury consumer wants, but who they are. Often young, with money to spend – and just as enamoured with the work of Gvasalia or Michele as they are with that of Jebbia or Stussy.
Illustration by Charles Jefferey.