What do Google, Snickers, Coca Cola, Good Year, NASCAR and The Home Depot have in common? Nothing much. That is, nothing beyond the fact they’re all brands that trade less on a physical product and more on marketing. I’ve never watched a car race but recognise NASCAR from the PC game, I’m critical of corporations but addicted to Coke Zero, don’t live in the US but know all about The Home Depot. Thank you popular culture.
It’s doubtful I’ll ever forget these images – Mercury’s winged shoe on a tyre logo, the deliberately unthreatening green, yellow, red and blue font of a ubiquitous tech corporation and the white lace text of a drugged-up global soft drink. All of them are burnt in my brain and lined up on NYC designer and entrepreneur Heron Preston’s self-designed long-sleeved T-shirt; plucking and removing these images from their abstract connection to a product, representing and revealing them for what they are: brands.
As a contemporary art and fashion “high taste culture”, brand appropriation has gone beyond the ‘bootleg’ and into implicit critique of consumerism by becoming the trademark and revealing marketing for the performance that it is. Online examples include art collaboration-as-reapplied branding strategy, Shanzhai Biennial and e-commerce concept store Item Idem. Both are connected by artist and brand himself Cyril Duval who welcomes you to the latter’s “BIG BEACON! A take on mass consumerism appeal & bespoke forms of intrusive advertisements” as part of a work for Fred Snitzer Gallery’s DEATH BY BASEL group show in 2008. Beyond that, there’s the Vfiles shop and House of Ladosha’s Big Cartel – some suspiciously Nike-looking ‘NASA Slides’ and HORMONES Ramones T-shirts, included –as well as fashion one-offs like Eckhaus Latta’s Michael Kors print and website browser tab icon and London designer Samuel McWilliams’ Manchester City FC crew neck become ‘SAM MC Sharp Teeth’. At the tail end of cultural relevance is the likes of Freak City’s cross-platform ‘Fubu & Versace’ music video and clothing line, as well as reams of other pretty crude brand reincarnations like Brian Lichtenberg’s ‘Homiès’ t-shirts and ‘XANAX’ NFL jerseys (he may be getting sued FYI).
Although a relatively recent trend in Western underground ‘cool’, brand appropriation has its roots in the so-called “developing” world; the “developed”, blindly disregarding misspelled logos and absurdly misguided imitation products as misappropriation and unawareness, rather than the ironic resistance to globalisation it is. In China, original Shanzhai culture rose out of internationally owned factories, where workers recognised the incongruity between wages and profit margins, starting their own cottage industries, which simultaneously parody and parasite ‘brand power’ in its Obama sneakers and HiPhones; ‘Nice’ shoes in Egypt a tongue-in-cheek response to international competition from labels like Nike in its own home market. But these days, across Europe and the US, there’s a growing awareness that consumers are being exploited too. A resistance to that, similarly manifests itself in the knock-offs-of-a-knock-off ‘Givenchy by Preston Heron #BOOTLEG’ and replica Hood by Air #BEEN #TRILL collaborations. Except that the omnivorous appetite of Capitalist market generation means that a bizarre, though unhappily expected, twist happens.
Heron, after all, is a late addition to the #BEEN #TRILL design collective, which features photos of Miley Cyrus sporting their wears in instagram screenshots on their Tumblr. Core member Virgil Abloh is responsible for the ‘Pyrex Vision Religion’ hoodie –as worn by Pete Wentz, Chris Brown and Jay-Z –and is style consultant to Kanye West, whose shaky, anti-consumerist party line for the “New Slaves” on his recent Yeezus album reflects Abloh’s ideological levelling of classical art, Capital and Christianity by aligning ‘The Entombment of Christ’ painting by Carravaggio with Champion® sweats. After all, Abloh’s ‘Global Projections’ tees and ‘NOT FOR SALE’ mottos for Yeezy complement a record featuring an album cover simulation of a pirated CD. That perceivably reflects only a symbolic objection to the culture of consumerism that made Kanye West the media mogul he is today.
But that’s almost precisely the point. As Rihanna steps out in a House of Ladosha ‘2Pac Tattoo shirt’ –with a ‘CUNT’ where the ‘THUG’ should be –one wishes she’d opted for the ‘RiRi L T-shirt’ featuring RIHANNA where the NIRVANA usually is; a sad face taking over the smiley. Because if you’re anxious about the ethics of buying Starbucks coffee or wearing Monster Energy Drink®, you should just ‘Comme Des Fuck down’ because it makes no difference anyway.