We’re Everywhere – Contemporary Branding & the Symbolic Life

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As counter-intuitive as it might initially sound, fashion and branding have a conflicted relationship. The pushing and shoving of fashion’s artistry and the accounting department’s balance sheets has cultivated intriguing approaches to the capitalist dilemma with regards to how one can create a “product” and yet still produce a paragon, and how those two spheres can operate within such proximity.

For some, undoubtedly, the work is done. A brief look at a large fashion label such as Louis Vuitton or Chanel can reveal straightforward solutions that have served their masters well. Both brands’ unique and tailor-made symbols have, over time, come to represent their singular labels in such a way that their significance only takes full form once placed upon a product of that brand – anybody can draw two overlapping C’s but unless that symbol is accompanied by genuine Chanel product it is unlikely to turn heads for long.

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Brands such as these, however, also have decades of heritage and history on their side. For those in the 21st century, an age of perpetual ubiquity, carving out one’s niche often proves much more challenging.

Fordist production describes a model of production based off of the Ford Motor Company’s manufacturing process in the early 20th century. The model describes a system wherein a few small companies produce similar products on a large scale to meet the requirements of all customers, as is the case on a car-manufacturing conveyor making one Ford Escort after the next.

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As we progressed into the 21st century, a new model began to emerge described as ‘post-Fordist’ wherein manufacturing now divided into smaller groups producing more niche-tailored products that would meet the specific needs of consumers. In all corners of production we now see micro-brands and micro-industries popping up and disappearing overnight – even a collection of streetwear memes can be embroidered onto a polo shirt and turned into a brand, however flimsy, and sold to customers. These types of qualities embody post-fordist production models – reflexive, fragmented, reactive production processes as opposed to fashion houses organising season samples twelve or eighteen months in advance.

In the world of “fashion proper”, a comparison could be made with the rise of Zara, a High Street Brand whose centralized business operation in Spain – employing a large number of small factories abroad – allows it to make reflexive changes to its output and production numbers dependent on specific store requirements and trends. Similarly, contemporary small-scale fashion labels such as Nasir Mazhar (below), Wil Fry and Off-White have managed to expand onto the world stage with a fraction of the resources of some of the multi-million dollar brands that they’re competing with, giving further support to the idea of a collection of micro-industries emerging in the face of an old world of LVMH and Primark.

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But a question arises, particularly in the face of such ubiquity; in a world where everyone’s at it, how does one carve a niche? If everybody needs a symbol or a mark, how can you risk putting faith in a symbol only for it to fail and find yourself knocked back several months if not out of the game completely?

The emergence of young rap cliques A$AP Mob and Odd Future in 2011 was an impressive refresher on the power of self-steered brand-cultivation, whilst their affiliations with certain clothing labels highlighted new relationships between clothing and culture that seized those brands from their roots. Pyrex’s commandeering of unwitting street staples Ralph Lauren & Champion – both distinctly Fordist in their production – emphasised the broader cultural significance that those brands possess, but also served to elevate both brands via this significance into a post-fordist, micro-cultured form – a bargain bucket plaid shirt becomes a $500 masterpiece via La Maison Abloh. Raf Simons and Rick Owens, similarly, were not the same labels to a large group of customers once their names were dropped in a video shot in Harlem.

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What interests me, however, is the subsequent direction that parts of menswear have taken. Many brands now live in an interesting relationship with branding, and the significance of bold, eye-catching labels has become an omni-directional movement – at the same time that the newspapers are buzzing about “normcore”, #Been #Trill and Hood By Air are dominating the knitting circles with hyper-branded clothing that exploits symbology, ubiquity and the kitsch to different ends.

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To begin, Nasir Mazhar’s elaborate shellsuits and club-gear. The east-London designer’s reinvention of British street fashion has absorbed many aspects of the norm – tracksuit bottoms and crop-tops are paired with nylon windbreakers and zip-up hoodies, giving subtle tips of the hat to late 90s street and club fashion. Similarly, HBA’s choice of graphics and imagery – from Marilyn Manson to pink fluffy poodles – makes similar use of the benign, often dismissing original meanings to create a new meaning within. The plain black t-shirts are elevated to high fashion by their quality graphic prints, but only to serve up more portions of the mundane.

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Logos, too, become exhausted. Take HBA, Cav Empt, DeTToK, KTZ, Raf Simons and so on. Often their insignias are presented as if typed and print-screened from a new document on Microsoft Word – plain, inoffensive sans-serif offerings that do nothing more than announce their sounds. The arrangement of letters – HBA, C.E, KTZ – almost has more significance in the digital age than the way these letters are formed on the page. The revival of classic brands such as Moschino, Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY gives more light to this strange devolution of symbology, and it is devolution of symbology that I believe has been conducive to this shift.

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As the digital age has granted broader and broader access to communication and symbology, so too has our relationship with communication and symbology expanded. In the early days a smiley on MSN Messenger was good for MSN Messenger. In 2014, the emoji is quickly becoming everyday – a symbol that can even be communicated outside of its symbology both verbally and visually (*praying hands emoji*). What about the Playboy bunny, a logo that now has countless meanings depending where it appears? This ubiquity becomes significant in the shadows of Been Trill, a brand whose success is built off of the hijacking of ubiquity to create niche product.

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Spiders webs, radioactive symbols, skulls, hearts, hashtags, spooky dripping letters – all kitschy, everyday symbols that have all but lost their original meanings, and yet all symbols that were “acquisitioned” by Been Trill. Harmony Korine’s collaboration with Opening Ceremony for Spring Breakers took a similar approach by plastering the clothing with strangely conformist dollar signs and weed leaves – for a film about teenage rebellion and independence!

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The more I look over certain scenarios – such as Opening Ceremony’s collaboration with DKNY or the rise of contemporary trap music and its accompanying ‘Damn Sons’ and ‘Reeeeal Trap Shits’ – the more I see similarities between normcore and the world it supposedly rejects. In the age of Ctrl+C > Ctrl+V, a brand is whatever appears on the screen. When people are looking at reams of information every single day, even the strongest logo in the world could become ubiquitous. From the times when Donna Karen’s fiercely emblazoned clothing was deemed obnoxious and ugly, external branding has entered overdrive with labels and logos stuck on every free surface.

The logo as a concept in itself has become ubiquitous. The logo is the mundane, the benign. How does one elevate above the benign if the elevated itself has become benign? Is it possible to elevate the benign? Is it possible to make the ubiquity part of the brand? Can I make my normality the thing that sets me apart from the normal?

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From this we see the emergence of a new fashion, the pursuit of the norm – Nasir Mazhar’s shellsuits come emblazoned with the designer’s name over and over, accompanied with hearts and clubs and spades and diamonds. C.E collections are typically awash with telephones, anonymous white women and found-media. The visual appearance of ‘HBA’ says more of Shayne Oliver’s brand than any one of his pieces ever could. Opening Ceremony’s DKNY collection also reveals a strange nostalgic feeling for the brand’s original in-your-face creations, but the washed out sporty pieces now just feel part of a landscape that has adopted this as the standard.

This pursuit of the norm, however, remains captivated by the power of the brand. Normcore brought back socks and sandals, but this trend was revived in turn by adidas Originals with the #socksnslides trend – slides good, three-stripes better. Beyond this, a quick search on eBay will reveal Supreme versions of the kitschy seaside shoe selling for upwards of £60, raising questions as to what the pursuit of normality actually represents. One of the cruxes of Pyrex’s initial storm was the fact that, genuinely, any individual could go and buy a discounted Ralph flannel and print ‘Pyrex 23′ on the back and – provided they got the correct ink – have the exact same product as Virgil sold for hundreds of dollars. The next question however, who would want to do that?

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Where this leads is to a new form of branding that incorporates mundane ubiquity into its objective. Been Trill’s brand is not just some dripping text, nor any one of the mundane hashtags that it exploits, but the essence of the mundanity that it proffers. Likewise, Pyrex’s humble beginnings hijacking Ralph Lauren and Champion has birthed Off-White, a label that now has kids interpreting any arrangement of diagonal stripes that they see as Off-White branding. Raf Simons’ latest collection made heavy use of kitschy vintage advertising to revive and redefine one version of mundanity. C.E has ferociously dominated the digital-culture corner to make the contemporary point of cultural output – the internet – an essential part of their brand and in the case of Bacon, a small group of creatives from the other side of the planet managed to turn one actor’s joke about his own ubiquity into the backdrop for a tongue-in-cheek brand development revolved entirely around the symbolic value of Kevin Bacon as a mundane, ubiquitous symbol.

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This creates a form of branding that transcends the brand to incorporate culture and the everyday. Brands can establish themselves not just through style and product but by also assuming presence through the ubiquity of external symbols. If my symbol is specifically crafted to my brand then you will think of my brand every time you see that symbol. If I can hijack the symbolism of other signifiers to relate to my brand then I can make you think of my brand even when I’m nowhere around. It’s good if people think of Nike every time they see the swoosh. It’s better for adidas if you think of them every time you see some old dude wearing socks and sandals. That’s the thing about branding. It’s EVERYWHERE.

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