Labels on the inside

As the market for designer labels starts to flag and its wearers become more fickle, Janice Kirkpatrick has spotted the new trend for subtle, yet stylish branding.

I hear that record numbers of sportswear retailers are going boom or bust overnight. Clothing retail is currently one of the most capricious industries where today’s favourite marques are no more than tomorrow’s embarrassing memories. Big brands have fickle followers and this week’s micro-seasonal configuration of polyamide weave and appliqué logo is an ephemeral code – a blunt instrument enabling like-minded tribes to find each other and lonely folk to kid-on that they have friends.

To dress for success you must first choose the correct brand. To really impress you must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of brand history, sub-brands and diffusion lines, top-stitching, lining material and zipper tag details. As logos move from the outside sleeve to the inside pocket-lining, brand values become more subtly expressed through structure and material.

The Belgian and Japanese designers and those in Savile Row have long understood the necessity for understatement, the need for tonality and restraint. It’s not who you are but how you construct and wear a garment that speaks most eloquently about what kind of person you are.

Flagging sales of designer labels have forced fashion designers to become devious. There is a limit to how much value you can add to a garment through a graphic mark. There’s much more mileage in milking the market at several levels simultaneously: patronising the proles with Day-glo disco marques and teasing the intelligentsia with self-coloured knicker elastic, woven-in typography and collectable selvages on the turn-ups of designer jeans.

Many customers are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of designer big-brand anything because it’s patently not pc or, at worst, a sad acknowledgement that clothes now fail to reassure with the same efficiency as monogrammed luggage and Rolex watches. Many customers prefer not to state their label allegiances overtly or wear their bank balance on their sleeve. Maybe customers have outgrown the simplicity of such obvious brand identities. Where once like-minded Versace wearers would have shared much in common, and maybe even found a mate, now everyone is wearing the same stuff and it’s more about money than personality.

Ideological fashion designers have exchanged niche-market poverty for mass-market cash leaving behind those for whom there are now no clothes through which to say who they are and what they believe in.

Levis, Wranglers, Converse, Dr Martin’s, Paul Smith – everyone’s got them and the mulch of global values they now stand for. It’s jolly hard work to discover what’s new and meaningful to wear and how and where to buy it. Vogue is no longer the fashion bible. ID, Arena, Wallpaper, Woman’s Realm, The Sunday Times and even The Big Breakfast now tell us how we should dress. It’s no wonder we’re confused and no surprise the clothing retailers always get it so wrong.

Not surprisingly, advertisers mirror the confusion in the marketplace. Nike says, “Just do it”. Just do what? Gap says nothing and prefers us to make up our own minds. Benetton likes to shock us but is careful not to mention the clothes. Paul Smith says, “Paul Smith”. John Paul Gaultier is too busy selling his fragrances to worry about clothes and Alexander McQueen is designing clothes which are logos in themselves.

Thankfully, some designers do manage to be both subtle and yet successful. They acknowledge that their customers are shy and lonely and want to be reluctant members of an almost secret club. Maharishi, YMC, Squire and 6876 do combine intelligence with brand-building, revealing design’s soft underbelly of subtle meanings. Their hidden labels, patterned pocket linings and tiny reflective trims reveal a secret aesthetic order which confidentially reassures and is easily customised. No one ever got chucked for wearing Marks & Spencer underwear.

I really do wonder if we’re about to see a revival of even more oblique expressions of brand identity – like Clark’s Wayfinders in the early-Seventies with their animal print soles and inset compass, or like Camper tyre tread soles.

To me it seems a more honest and enduring use of graphic design within fashion rather than merely applying a logo or an embroidered brand name to a generic garment. After all, it’s the impression you leave behind that really counts.

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