Fashion’s branding clean slate is as much about erasing the past as it is about securing the future, argues John Whelan.
Most of you will have by now seen the meme doing the rounds recently, demonstrating in black and white how brands as diverse as Burberry and Balenciaga have converged on the same sans-serif font. Some of you might have read the articles that have followed in its wake, analysing this surprising image volte-face by the fashion industry. Commentators and the comments section have been divided on its aesthetic values (or perceived lack thereof.)
However, most are in agreement about the surprising uniformity of the rebrands, most of which have taken place in the last couple of years, suggesting a concerted effort by the industry to prepare for a radically different future. But what if the rebrand has little to do with the future and more to do with what the past represents today?
Hypebeast best summarised the conventional wisdom in an article last September. For those of you who haven’t read the articles, perhaps the most comprehensive to date was published by Hypebeast in September 2018. In it, branding specialists point to the practical benefits of what Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci has called the "modern utility" of sans-serif typefaces. Cleaner and more legible, they are suited to a variety of media and work particularly well online. The purity of these fonts allows the brands to be an empty vessel, ready to accommodate rapidly shifting trends and a variety of premium mediocre products that are coming to define the new luxury landscape. So far, so obvious?
For a global creative industry, homogeneity is dangerous.
While these prosaic explanations make sense, they leave the reader feeling unsatisfied, given the magnitude and uniformity of the shift. Particularly when Virgil Abloh, the designer of the moment, is claiming that we are "at the dawn of a new Renaissance." So what is really going on? He cannot be referring to a resurrection of classical aesthetics because all serifs, the symbol of antiquity in writing, have been banished. In this instance, there would appear to be a rebirth of the iconoclastic fervour of the Bauhaus Modernists who saw ornamentation as a symbol of bourgeois oppression. Significantly, Abloh goes on to say that "with the internet and today’s media, our opinions of the past are being reconsidered and each and every one of us can create their own destiny." Here, he is clearly implying that the past was a closed, undemocratic place where very few were able to create their own destiny.
It’s hard to argue with this point of view. The Christian names of the founders of the aforementioned luxury houses are Yves, Cristobal, Thomas, Alessandro and Pierre. Not necessarily straight, but certainly a group of white males, who might be considered a patriarchy in modern parlance.
Like Hollywood, the fashion industry has made it clear which side it addresses when it comes to the culture wars. Mark Parker, chief executive of Nike recently stated in the Highsnobiety Incomplete Guide that "consumers also want to know what you stand for as a company" and that it’s important to "speak out against inequalities."
No surprise that major luxury houses no longer want to wear the badge of a 'racist, patriarchal' era on their shopfronts.
If the past was indeed an unequal place where a black designer could not have risen to the position of artistic director of Louis Vuitton, it is no surprise that major luxury houses no longer want to wear the badge of a "racist, patriarchal" era on their shopfronts and might want something more gender neutral going forward. Given the sensitivity of this topic, it is also understandable why nobody has cared to mention it in those terms. Fear of offending is first on the agenda for all big businesses.
If these rebrands then are symptomatic of a conservative, corporate groupthink dressed up as social justice, what does that mean for creativity and competition? If the fashion industry wants to encourage a diversity of ideas, and not just “diversity” in Abloh’s trademark inverted commas, then it needs to think more carefully about buffing out all of the detail and individuality that these companies once had.
Perhaps the most awkward example is Peter Saville’s rebranding of Burberry. "London England" is retained, thereby seeking to retain the positive brand associations of that city and country, yet all local flavour has been erased. This is perhaps what Burberry wants to say, namely that "London England" could be anywhere in the world — a multicultural place freed from the shackles of local identity. And if that is the shared vision of all luxury houses around the world, it is no surprise that they should all plump for the international style of the modernist sans serif.
For a global creative industry however, homogeneity is dangerous. On the one hand, it stifles the ability of different cultures to express themselves in their own distinctive voice. On the other hand, it opens the industry up to possible challenge from newcomers who are less corporate, less conservative and willing to trade on the unique flavour of their local heritage. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the desire to strike a revolutionary tone in these rebrands is palpable. For the fashion industry however, hell might just be 50 shades of greige.
John Whelan is the founder and creative director of The Guild of Saint Luke, a design collective specialising in projects with heritage.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect our views.