Big, bold and brash, logos epitomised the flashy Eighties spirit. But now they’re back – with a millennial twist. Stylist reports on how branding yourself became cool once more
Words: Clare Coulson
Versace. Lacoste. Chanel. What are the first images that spring to mind when you hear those names? If it’s Medusa’s head, a crocodile and a (rather chic) pair of interlocking Cs – congratulations! You’re a logo connoisseur.
Perhaps not exactly the legacy designers had in mind after all those years climbing the atelier’s ladder, it’s true. But this instant recognition isn’t surprising when you consider how popular logos were in the Eighties and Nineties, imprinting them on our cultural memory. Back then, wearing your first logo was a veritable rite of passage, signalling your entry to the world of grown-up cool.
In fact, ask anyone who grew up at that time what the first logo in their wardrobe was and from the misty-eyed recollections of Tommy, Ralph or Calvin that ensue, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re talking about a first love. Logos were – literally – the ultimate style statement, saying, “I get it, I’m in the know,” and, most crucially, “I’m with the gang.” After all, there was one for every tribe: from the graffiti-style tag of Stüssy that made even straight-A students feel like couldn’t-give-a- f**k skater kids; DKNY’s bold typography on a plain T-shirt, which miraculously elevated the wearer to smart fashion insider; to the iconic Adidas stripes – shorthand for street, whether to you that meant Snoop, All Saints or Oasis. Hell, Calvin Klein even persuaded us to sport logos on our knickers and made it seem cool to flash them at every opportunity (with a little help from a certain Kate Moss). Why pay for billboards when customers will walk around and do the advertising for you?
But as we approached the new millennium, the tide turned and flashy logos became more than a little naff on both aesthetic and ethical grounds. In 1999, activist and writer Naomi Klein wrote the international bestseller No Logo: Taking Aim At The Brand Bullies, arguing that while many logos were marketed as representing a desirable lifestyle, the garments themselves were often made by exploited workers in the poorest parts of the world. Brands were forced to radically rethink their approach as a new social conscience emerged. By 2003, displaying such slavish devotion to labels was so out of fashion that the protagonist in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition – a branding consultant – had the buttons on her Levi’s ground smooth to make them logo-free. And in 2004, bars in Manchester banned anyone wearing Prada Sport’s red stripe for being “the wrong sort”, while Burberry’s signature check became so ubiquitous (often appearing on fake goods), that the brand curtailed its use in the same year. Shouting about your status, social group or wealth (which, let’s be honest, is essentially what wearing a Chanel T-shirt did) suddenly felt cringey rather than cool. The mood was now far more sophisticated than the boom years of the Eighties, with a minimalistic aesthetic to match. “That’s not to say fashion lovers didn’t want others to know they were wearing Chanel or Céline,” says Stylist’s fashion director Alexandra Fullerton. “It just required a lot more insider knowledge to spot the signature silhouette of, say, a Dior jacket.”
The new retro
But now logos are back – in myriad guises. The early signs came a few years ago when nods to the Eighties started trickling back into collections. By s/s 2016, catwalks were rife with slogans, logos and iconic brand monograms, although this being fashion – the industry of reinvention – all with a distinctly modern twist.
“All trends are cyclical,” explains Fullerton. “The anti-logo movement was a natural reaction to the bling that had come before, so it’s no surprise that the edgiest, most avant-garde brands are now appropriating the logo and making it cool once again. And despite starting as an inside joke, something a bit ironic, it’s been taken on with gusto by all the fashion fans.”
Whereas before, festooning yourself with branding was little more than a brash bid to have your style knowledge taken seriously (“It stands for Donna Karan New York, darling”), the message we’re conveying in 2016 is a bit more complex.
Take Vetements, one of the coolest labels du jour, who have been putting logoed streetwear at the heart of their disruptive collection since spring 2015. While they seemed unlikely trophy pieces at first look, the label’s idiosyncratic reworking of retro items such as the Champion hoodie or Nineties Juicy Couture tracksuit perfectly fitted the classic fashion formula of “so out, it’s in”, and quickly gained a cult following.
In fact, unlike the pack mentality of the original logomania, wearing a logo today has far more to do with individuality and irreverence. But then in a world where fast fashion allows anyone, regardless of budget, to fill their wardrobes with near-identical designer-look items, it perhaps makes sense that the quest for originality will take on ever more inventive routes. “Ten years ago, if you could afford to buy designer clothes you were one step ahead of everyone else trend-wise, but not any more,” agrees Fullerton. “Those who feel their style really defines them will always find innovative ways to showcase their individuality, and resurrecting a trend that was – until recently – thought of as the height of vulgar is the ultimate way to do it.”
But this isn’t just a niche celebration of street style. Much of the logo’s re-emergence is down to the global luxury houses, where a new generation of creative directors is bringing fresh vigour to branding that’s decades – or sometimes centuries – old, and rebooting it for a new generation. Jeremy Scott at Moschino has emblazoned T-shirts, cotton dresses, leather caps and biker boots with its house logo, while brand names were splashed across sporty holdalls at Louis Vuitton and spelled out in a rainbow of coloured stones at Loewe.
Plus, logos are big business for brands. Just think of the edgy new identity (and fresh swathe of customers) high-street stalwart French Connection instantly spawned when it rebranded as the far more provocative FCUK in 1992. For designers, too, it’s a chance to make a permanent mark on the fashion landscape. “Designers have long enjoyed playing with the codes of fashion houses, and the logo lies at the very root of a brand,” explains Mark Tungate, author of Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara. “It makes sense that an incoming designer like Nicolas Ghesquière would enjoy taking the Louis Vuitton logo and putting his stamp on it, just as a director might reboot a movie franchise like Star Wars by adding a few personal flourishes.”
But if any brand crystallises this fresh fascination with logos, it’s Alessandro Michele’s reinvigorated Gucci. An unknown designer who had worked at the Florentine house since its Tom Ford glory days, Michele was installed as creative director at the start of last year.
The brand, famed in the Nineties and early Noughties for its sexy, high-octane glamour, was dramatically reinvented as Michele introduced maximalist old-world style spliced with Seventies lamé, glitter, ruffled blouses, turbans and geek-chic glasses. And the Gucci logo, it turned out, slid nicely into his new exuberant mix ’n’ match looks.
Originally created in honour of Guccio Gucci, who founded the label in Florence in 1921, Michele gave the GG logo a retro update especially for this season. He even commissioned New York street artist Trouble Andrew to spray paint the GG logo as a print that was used on biker jackets, while leather totes were spray painted to create the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Real Gucci”.
Now there’s a personalisation service, so classic logoed pieces can be adorned and embellished with your choice of embroideries, trims and crystal monograms. “I saw it as a rebirth of the double-G logo,” says Michele. “In the past, Gucci has been a bit ashamed of its logo, but it should be proud of it as an emblem of 95 years of history. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the logo. It’s like drawing on the Mona Lisa.”
All of which sounds like brilliant Instagram fodder, but does anyone actually want to wear them? Yes, says Natalie Kingham, womenswear director of Matches Fashion, noting the rise of stylists currently sourcing vintage logos from Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Céline. “If you look at the way some of the brands and houses such as Balenciaga do the logo now, it’s always in a cool, retro way,” she explains. “And it’s definitely engaging people. These pieces are in a way future-vintage, too.”
What’s more, Gucci’s Marmont shoe (that block-heeled loafer in suede or leather, topped with retro GG hardware) has turned into a sell-out over the past year. At Matches Fashion, they could barely keep it in stock – especially once it had been road-tested by early adopters such as Alexa Chung back at the start of spring.
So why the u-turn in tastes? Perhaps it’s a sign that after a long phase of cool, understated minimalism, ushered in back in 2009 when Phoebe Philo took over at Céline, fashion is ready for a more eclectic, fully loaded look. After all, if Philo’s resolutely spartan clutches defined the early years of this decade, then Gucci’s monogrammed shoulder bags adorned with pins, jewels and monograms define the right now.
In logos we trust
That’s not to say that all you need to do is stick a logo on a sweatshirt and fashion fame is guaranteed. Brand heritage and nostalgia have also played a big part; over the past few years historic houses have increasingly delved into their archives to define their USP, a way to stand out in an increasingly congested luxury landscape. Logos are the potent nub of this. They’re a visual shorthand that immediately resonates with us, agrees psychologist Dr Carolyn Mair at the London College of Fashion, “Logos are attractive to us because they stimulate the visual system more effectively than the words they intend to portray.”
And in a world that’s currently economically, politically and socially in turmoil, we are increasingly turning to brands that have a feeling of permanence and heritage. “Right now we are in very weird times historically,” says The School of Life happiness consultant, Samantha Clarke, who works with companies including Harrods and Procter & Gamble. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty, a lot of dissonance and I think people are attracted to any way that they can find stability,” she explains. “It’s easier to cling to something like a brand that’s known and trusted, to something that feels coherent.”
That was certainly the thinking behind the first collection from Johnny Coca, Mulberry’s incoming creative director, earlier this year. Rethinking the brand’s famed logo was one of his first tasks. He decided to restore an original Seventies logo that he found in the archives. “The temptation was great for a dramatic change,” he says, “but I wanted to build on solid foundations and create something unique and timeless, representing the brand values. The mulberry tree logo is still a part of our branding, but we decided to add a circle around it to symbolically protect it. I consider the tree to be a part of Mulberry’s heritage and modernity always needs roots in the past. If executed well, a logo can communicate everything about a brand at a glance.”
The groundswell is no passing fad – a fact made all too clear by Selfridges launching a T-shirt shop this autumn to showcase logo-heavy skate and street brands including Champion, Stüssy, Katharine Hamnett and Boy London. “These brands are nostalgic for people who remember the Nineties,” says Selfridges’ womenswear buying manager Heather Gramston. “Vetements has played with that Nineties attitude, updating it for this season.” So does she think the appetite for Vetements’ logo-leaning pieces will calm down any time soon? “It’s a movement – not a moment,” Gramston replies emphatically.
Evidently, this time around logos are more multifaceted than in their flashy past, with even the underlying reasons behind why we wear them having subtly shifted.
“To an extent, logos in fashion have always been about status, and they remain so. But these new expressions appear to be more fluid,” surmises Tungate. “Now consumers appreciate a more subtle expression of a brand, as if to say: ‘I know this is a logo, but isn’t it being used in a smart way?’ They’re expressing their own self-image.” Logos that translate as individual intelligence? Now that’s a badge of honour we could get on board with.
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“If a fashion logo doesn’t work in black and white, it doesn’t work. To be recognisable from a distance, they should be highly simplified and very bold, which is why a monochromatic logo works so well. A luxury brand may have more of an association with colour – like Dom Perignon and dark green – but it’s a historic reference. Fashion companies would rather avoid colour because it would get in the way.”
“Fashion logos need to be versatile. In 2014, I worked on the Christian Dior logo. The brief was to create something that could work as a belt buckle or simply as part of a charm bracelet. Additionally, it had to be reversible, so if it was on the end of a lipstick it wouldn’t matter which way up you look at it. It’s not an easy task, but versatility is key when developing the perfect logo. This is, of course, what the Chanel logo does so successfully.
“Never underestimate the power of a logo. They’ve always been banners under which we define ourselves. And they’ve existed for centuries, in different forms. For instance, all countries have a flag. Tribes and families have historically used logos to identify themselves – even the Queen and the royal family have a crest.”
“The devil’s in the detail. Small changes in the width of a letter stroke, how wide it should be, the level of contrast you need on the shading or colouring. It needs to work just as well on the side of a building as it would on, say, a shirt or bottle. And then you need to think about how it will apply to the different materials it’s appearing on. These things have to be pretty robust.”
“Keep it simple. The most successful brands are recognisable from just their initials – Dolce & Gabbana’s D&G, LV from Louis Vuitton, and the F for Fendi. Iconic, memorable logos are the ones that are simplified to a point that they can’t be simplified any more – for instance, the Nike swoosh or the Apple symbol.”
“You need to create something authentic and timeless. Designers ask a lot of questions to brands about how they see themselves and how others perceive them. Crucially, we ask who they want to be as a brand in the future and what the competition looks like. What we’re aiming for is something that works long term, and connects with the brand’s customers.”