Part of: Branded

Essay: People Power

by Nomzamo Majuqwana on 16 February 2016

Creative strategist Nomzamo Majuqwana debates who controls a logo's meaning and context, citing Versace, Louis Vuitton, Fred Perry and more.

Creative strategist Nomzamo Majuqwana debates who controls a logo's meaning and context, citing Versace, Louis Vuitton, Fred Perry and more.

Lil Kim by David LaChapelle, 2004

It’s strange to talk about any brand based on its logo alone; brands aren’t logos, they’re complex ideas. Apple is as much about Steve Jobs’ legacy, a string of iconic ad campaigns and pioneering products as it is the Apple label etched onto its computers. Disney is as much about Mickey Mouse, Disneyland and nearly a century of children’s storytelling as it is the man whose name is stamped on all these things. Fashion brands are no different. Bringing together houses’ histories, designers’ personalities, clothes’ aesthetics and seasonal campaigns, fashion brands are also complicated sets of ideas.

The most perplexing thing about all brands is that they’re ultimately defined by what people do with them. When (pre-Uber) Prius drivers drove slowly, Prius cars became lame. When Jay-Z rapped about Cristal, Cristal became hip-hop’s champagne of choice (a fact the brand’s owners were famously unhappy about). Because people literally wear fashion all of the time, fashion labels are most susceptible to popular reinterpretation. So when it comes to what idea any designer’s logo represents, the wearer has increasingly more power than the brand ever did.

In theory, designers decide what their logos symbolise. They control essential qualities like a label’s name, style, origin and price. Spending £500 billion on fashion advertising every year, designers and CEOs also invest hugely in ad campaigns that connect their labels to carefully crafted values and visuals. From signing celebrities as campaign models, to dressing hot-tipped Oscar nominees, to dolling out freebies to social media stars and recruiting chart-topping musicians as token creative directors, fashion branding is big business and for good reason. When it comes to the bottom line, brand building can pay. Even Calvin Klein, owner of one of the most iconic logos in the world, grew its market share by 3% just by promoting a different kind of icon, Justin Bieber, in its Spring 2015 underwear and jeans campaigns.

Whilst designers might be able to dictate how popular their labels are, they cannot control what their logos mean to the public. That’s people-made.

But when it comes to what a given logo stands for – what cultural concepts it embodies – it’s people and their use of it that gives it lasting meaning. Whilst designers might be able to affect how popular their labels become, they cannot control what their logos mean to the public. That’s people-made. Designed to work in stitches and on screen, most fashion branding looks the same: necessarily monochrome insignias in a limited set of fonts. It’s thanks to the multitude of ways in which people use these symbols that a few slightly different logos can have such vastly different personalities.

This gap between what designers want their logos to mean and how people really interpret them is growing. Whether with accessible sports brands or exclusive luxury labels, people have time and time again put carefully constructed symbols to new uses and given them new meanings in the process.

Fred Perry is a textbook example of a thoughtfully designed logo gone rogue. Founded in the forties, the brand adopted its laurel wreath as a mark of sporting excellence based on the original moniker for the Wimbledon Championships. During the fifties and sixties, London’s mod and by evolution Skinhead scenes made the brand’s signature polo shirts a telltale part of their uniforms. Come the seventies, Skinhead style and violent right-wing extremist politics combined. When notorious Manchester United football hooligans the ‘Perry Boys’ took the brand’s name for their own, people power turned Fred Perry’s wreath full-circle from a symbol of sporting prowess to a sign of social menace.

Fred Perry - Subcultured by Owen Harvey

The famous Champion ‘C’, the only colour on the brand’s ubiquitous grey hoodie, also took on a specific, if unplanned, meaning thanks to the penchants and pastimes of consumers. When unpicking the history of the hoodie for SHOWstudio’s Sportswear series, writer and consultant Gary Warnett explains, ‘the Champion hoodie became a hip-hop staple brand, even though it was not a brand that, at the time, sought out any connection with hip-hop…It never really acknowledged that hip-hop audience beyond, perhaps, some of the accounts it was stocked in. That youth crew connection still stands to this day. And if you wear a Champion hoodie, people still react. They’ve embraced that hip-hop audience of late. They released a hoodie called 'The Super Hood', which has a hood that is clown-like in its size. And, in a way, sometimes, when a brand acknowledges the audience, it almost breaks the wall that exists - it feels a bit crass. I think it's nicer when a brand just exists through re-appropriation.'

Mass sports brands may seem especially vulnerable to popular reinterpretation. But luxury brands have just as little control over what their often-complex logos come to represent to people.

Louis Vuitton owns one of the most valuable brands in the world. Designed in the nineteenth century, the label’s renowned monogram and damier patterns are meant to protect against counterfeiting. Today, Louis Vuitton is ironically the most counterfeited brand in the world. In a similar style to how Burberry lost control of its signature check print – perhaps peaking in 2002 when Danniella Westbrook stepped out wearing it head-to-toe - Vuitton’s patterns took on a cultural significance of their own starting in the nineties. LV’s leather goods found their way onto the arms of pop culture’s most influential icons, and fans followed suit with cheap imitations of their own. As Sir Mix A-Lot observed in his 1994 track Swap Meet Louie, ordinary folk from Brentwood UK to Brooklyn USA were 'movin' fake Louis by the batch' in a bid to copy the style, sophistication and worth of the real deal. From the brand’s classic monogram to the modernised prints introduced during Marc Jacobs’ reign at the label, Vuitton’s real and imitation goods became almost indistinguishable. By the time self-proclaimed Queen of Brooklyn Lil Kim posed ‘nude’ in Louis’ monogram in 2004, a brand once infused with exclusivity had become loved instead as a mass (and often sham) status symbol.

Luxury brands don’t need to be copied at scale to take on new, popular meanings. In the same style as Fred Perry, people can respect a logo’s authenticity and still make it stand for something new. Whilst Louis Vuitton went mass worldwide, Versace took South London by storm for very different reasons. Originally designed as a mythical symbol of irresistible beauty and stylistic stamp of continental class, in the mid-noughties Versace’s Medusa logo appeared in the clubs of Vauxhall and Elephant & Castle for an entirely new purpose: as a symbol of belonging to London’s burgeoning garage scene. Garage was as much a lifestyle as a music genre. Fans dressed to impress, and luxury labels were king. Donning head to toe Versace (as well as Moschino, Gucci and, you guessed it, Louis Vuitton), garage fans transformed Versace’s visage from European chic to garage gauche – a symbol of indulgence, excess and competitive narcissism that defined a short but significant era of popular British culture.

Fast-forward to the present day and social media gives people more power than ever to dictate not only what logos mean but even what they say. From about 2010 onwards, logo appropriation has got a lot less theoretical and a lot more real, culminating in hugely popular parody labels like Homies, Cuntier and Commes Des Fuck Down. From Brian Lichtenberg to Conflict of Interest and KTHANKSBYE, whole brands have been built on people-made alternatives to fashion’s most exclusive labels. At the same time, luxury logos’ cultural currency is slipping. Many of today’s pop icons care less about popular logos and more about individual style. A play with Genius’ RapStats tool shows that even label loving hip-hop artists who once namedropped Gucci and Fendi as their threads of choice now count logo-less Margiela and aesthetic-led Balmain amongst their most referenced labels.

Still from A$AP Rocky's Goldie music video

Fashion brands are evolving in response. Some established designers already accept they can’t really control what their logos mean to people. So they’re wrapping their labels in less precious, more democratic, but equally iconic motifs for people to adopt as they please without diluting a logo’s traditional currency. Some houses have always led with motif. Paul Smith famously prides itself on a deliberately discrete logo, trading off signature prints instead. Those that once led with logos are changing. Givenchy, for example, now stamps shirts with trademark Rottweilers and other street-style friendly emblems such as throwback Bambis. A look at London’s emerging labels reveals a generation of designers who take their brand names a lot less seriously. From Nasir Mazhar’s ever evolving branding to Christopher Shannon’s chopping and changing of emblems, these designers don’t seem too attached to their logos at all – they’re experimental and playful, rather than precious, when it comes to branding.

I’m all for people power in most things, so I love that popular interpretation is so powerful in fashion - perhaps more so than in any other business. But I also respect authenticity, heritage and designers’ earned authority. Now that a balance is being struck between what designers want to stand for and what people want to say, I’ll be happy to see fashion’s logos revert to their original purpose: as stamps of origin, not meaning.



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