c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

There are 17 logos on Heron Preston’s signature long-sleeve T-shirt: M&Ms and Trix; Google and Remington; Home Depot, huge, on the back; NASCAR, upside down, on the front.

Looked at one way, these are 17 advertisements, 17 declarations of loyalty. The function of a logo is to advertise, and these are established images, familiar and eye-catching and effective.

And yet Preston’s shirt has the air of anti-promotion to it. The logos compete with one another for attention, ultimately privileging none. They become denatured.

But can a logo ever truly be subverted? In fashion, logos are the simplest way to turn a consumer into a billboard, and we are all inexorably branded now. With each passing year, it becomes more difficult to live out of the reach of corporate influence, and each successive generation has less of an idea of what life was like back when opting out was more of a possibility.

So maybe it’s not a shock that this time is also seeing the arrival of the logo as a forward-looking fashion staple, a William Gibson and Milton Glaser fantasy come to life.

This is happening in the hands of a group of young designers who accept the ubiquity of logos and who work within that framework to turn their purpose and effect on their head. The logo becomes the canvas, whether it’s their placement on a garment, the juxtaposition of several of them together or a rendering with an unconventional treatment. In all cases, the logo becomes a graphic element that can be mined for its familiarity, but is at least in part stripped of its corporate purpose.

“I think about the logos, but not so much,” said Preston, whose T-shirt was one of this year’s signature downtown fashion items. You see a similar energy in the work of Wil Fry, who works with grayscale prints made from scanned labels from 20 or so high-end designers, or Peggy Noland, who uses puff paint to create logo mash-ups on one-of-a-kind pieces.

You see it in the T-shirts from Hood by Air, with their bold, original logo treatments. It’s there on the racks at VFiles and Opening Ceremony, in the work of a second-wave gaggle of even younger designers building on what they’re seeing this group do. And it’s even crept onto the runway, in the hands of Alexander Wang.

The recent rise in logos is in part a response to the mass anonymity of the American Apparel-Uniqlo age, and taking a longer view, a rejection of the anti-capitalist, grunge, no-logo 1990s. But that same era also saw the rise of hip-hop and streetwear as a consumer force, and as style influences that imprinted deeply on many of these young designers.

Of these, Shayne Oliver, of Hood by Air, has stuck out by creating a line premised on his own logo, not repurposing others.


“It represents power, a language, a mind-state,” he said, speaking of the strong HBA box logo, one of the most definitive marks of recent years. “But it’s a sense of commentary, too. An encrypted code.”

Like Preston, Oliver, taking what he calls a minimalist “Helmut Lang approach to logos,” also plays with unusual placement — at the top of the chest, on the lower sleeve — and sizing. (They both owe something to the Raf Simons 2003 Consumed collection as well, with its truncated logos splashed across garments.) The result is not just the refining of what are essentially streetwear ideas, but high fashion at its most legible and consumable.


Preston began making his T-shirts at the beginning of this year. Initially, in order to build mystique and deflect legal snoops, he passed off the design as a factory defect he’d stumbled upon. But eventually, you couldn’t go to a certain kind of party without seeing one or two of them. They began to take on a tribal quality, which was the point. (When New York Fashion Week wanted to make an official T-shirt for the spring shows, they turned to Preston, who made a version of his T-shirt with modeling agency logos.)

“People look for communities and families to belong to,” said Julie Anne Quay, the founder of VFiles. “They’re saying, ‘I identify with that.’ It’s just like wearing a football jersey.” (This phenomenon has been literalized in the recent T-shirts and jerseys made by Les Plus Dores, which feature designer surnames and birth years on the backs where a player name and number would ordinarily go.)

At VFiles, which is ground zero for this movement, the racks teem with logos, from ’90s rave and streetwear revival brands like X-Girl to the pieces by Preston, Oliver and Fry.

Opening Ceremony, too, has been vital to this moment.

“About four or five years ago we had a conversation,” said Humberto Leon, co-owner and creative director of Opening Ceremony, referring to Carol Lim, his business partner — “and we said, ‘OK, it’s time to bring logos back.’” Both grew up in the California suburbs in the early 1990s, where among young people, he said, “the logo or the brand was what created these mini-communities.”

That’s become part of the Opening Ceremony project, Leon said, whether it’s the revival of Vision Street Wear or the store’s ongoing collaboration with Donna Karan on a series of reissued DKNY styles.


DKNY, which made its debut in 1989, was one of the first high-profile high-fashion diffusion lines — it’s block-letter logo was a quick symbol of accessible aspiration.

“This was before the deluge of mass fashion products,” said Karan, emphasizing that the goal of DKNY was to demonstrate that women didn’t “have to be a designer to wear designer clothes.” She added, “People thought I was wacko.”

But now, fashion isn’t an exclusive language, it’s a common tongue. Thanks to the Internet, never before has so much fashion information been so broadly available, but those objects of study and fascination still remain out of reach to many enthusiasts.


In many ways these young designers serve as gateways, bringing high-fashion aesthetics into accessible and relatively affordable clothes that have at least a little kinship with the high-end streetwear that serves as bridges for those who can’t yet afford designer pieces.

More than ever, these two worlds are speaking to each other, though often the conversation involves misunderstandings. See, for example, the recent dust-up over Reason Clothing’s Ain’t Laurent parody T-shirt, which prompted Saint Laurent to terminate its relationship with Colette in Paris, which was carrying them.

Logo mash-ups, particularly the work of Fry and Noland, feel like cousins to these sorts of logo remakes and parodies that are native to skate and streetwear brands. Where Preston’s logo choices derive largely from NASCAR culture, Fry and Noland tackle fashion pieties head-on — Fry by creating a pastiche of designer labels, and Noland by rendering logos in puff paint, giving them a childlike, naïve air.

“It’s all a critique,” Noland said. “I’m taking the idea of being marketed to and turning it on its head.”

The abundance of logos she uses in her work doesn’t necessarily imply an abundance of acceptance.

“I feel like it’s the opposite,” she said. Fry, too, refers to his work as “a satire.” His earlier projects included a Brooklyn Nets jersey overlaid with Givenchy’s Birds of Paradise print, a commentary on how ubiquitous the brand had become in hip-hop circles. His work, he said, “was always geared towards anti-fashion.”

Sometimes, fashion bites back.

First, working with other peoples’ logos is fraught stuff. Parody is protected speech, but the legal implications of repurposing the logos of companies with eager legal departments and no sense of creative irony are less clear. Preston says he hasn’t received any cease-and-desist letters, but several of the other designers working this turf have.


Plus, the success of this younger generation has helped to institutionalize bootleg culture. Noland stumbled onto a Korean retailer that had effectively ripped off one of her custom pieces wholesale and made a cotton T-shirt from the print, selling it for less than one tenth of her price. She bought several and stocked them in her store in Kansas City, Mo.

“I loved it,” she said. “It was so meta.”

Preston, too, loves the homage. Pulling out his phone, he rifled through his photos and showed off several he found on Instagram by young designers who took his multi-logo idea and repurposed it for themselves, a logo-laden knockoff of a logo-laden knockoff.


Second, in the way that fashion consumes all (even its detractors), logos are beginning to creep onto the runway, most notably in Wang’s cheeky spring ready-to-wear collection, his name splayed across tops and belts and laser-cut into leather. It was an unanticipated turn for Wang, known best for his chic, colorless drapey basics. If it was done as a critique, or a satire, it was tough to tell.

It was a potent reminder that logo culture remains strong, even in the face of misuse and challenge.

“It still glorifies every single logo on the jacket, the fact that I took a shot at them,” said Fry, who recently jokingly solicited logo ideas for himself on Twitter. “Maybe I’m the butt end of the joke at the end of the day.”