Parallel lines

Janet Fitch finds that new books on fashion labels Red or Dead and Diesel, provide a fascinating insight into the creation of two highly successful brands

The Cutting Edge series of books profiles contemporary designers “who matter”, to quote the publishers. So far this has included names as diverse as Alessi, Georgina von Etzdorf, April Greiman, Patrick Cox and Philippe Starck. It may not be everyone’s list, but they had to start somewhere.

The two latest books, Diesel: World Wide Wear and Red or Dead: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, juxtapose two companies with philosophies – or is it marketing strategies? – which are both based on young street style with a dash of humour, yet both are idiosyncratic and very different.

Wayne Hemingway started Red or Dead in 1982. The name refers to Hemingway’s ancestry – he is the son of a legendary Mohawk chief who is now a politician in Quebec. The book traces Hemingway’s early interest in dressing up, and the market stall, selling second-hand clothes, started by Hemingway and his wife and business partner Geraldine. Red or Dead is acknowledged to owe much of its success to being the first retailer to sell the Eighties footwear phenomenon Dr Martens.

The text is easy to read, with quotes from Hemingway about the company’s progress, the collections and famous images – the Trainspotting dirty toilet, space babies, the watch shoes worn by Bros, the banned T-shirts sending up famous logos and a refreshing admission that Red or Dead may have gone too far with the (rather rude) teddy prints.

Author Tamsin Kingswell’s text rattles along in an easy-to-read, lively fashion. She endears the reader to Hemingway as an idealist who wants to challenge the fashion elite and uses fashion to make political points, to such an extent that cynicism sets in and it’s a relief to read that “at the end of the day, you’ve got to make money, you’ve got to sell clothes”. How true. There is a chapter on “Nice”, which Red or Dead approves of and does very well, illustrated with some of its lovelier prints of fishes, Russian dolls and love hearts.

Diesel is based on a similar premise to Red or Dead – “to operate in an independent instinctive manner – from the heart more than the head”. The company was founded by Renzo Rossi in 1978. “Welcome to Diesel planet”, as the introduction begins, is how the telephone is answered at Diesel Industries, not, as many expect, in the US, but in Northern Italy. Author Ted Polhemus leads us through the early days of making US-style jeans in Italy, and injecting fashion with fun. Diesel’s bizarre and irreverent humour, says Polhemus, was Post Modern before most of us had heard the term.

The book discusses Diesel’s award-winning advertising, or rather, “we don’t do advertising, we do communication”. Polhemus tackles the Diesel method of communication masterminded by director Maurizio Marchiori, questioning whether it outshines the product, but concluding that it is not possible to separate product from communication.

The text is more academic and lengthy than in the Red or Dead book. Post Modernism, Marshall McLuhan’s global village, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s prophecy that the world will become a giant theme park – a heavy artillery of words to describe casual clothes which are meant to be fun.

Both books are well produced and well illustrated and are useful references for anyone fascinated by the process in which a brand of clothing can become “must-have”.

Red or Dead: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly by Tamsin Kingswell and Diesel: World Wide Wear by Ted Polhemus are published by Thames & Hudson at 9.95 each

Costa di Caprica by James Hutchinson

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