Cattle Asses & Hungry Masses – The Language of Brands

Over the past year or so I have developed an increasing interest in notions of representation and communication. When defined in its purest form, language is a concrete medium through which individuals can transmit intangible and abstract ideas for others to in turn process and decipher. However, if we consider other parts of life as a language more abstract still – such as clothes, music, film and iconography – they then become like any other text that is conveying a meaning.

‘Semiology’ is the study of signs and symbolism. If we take a basic object such as the rose and consider its symbolism for love and romance, we can gain a basic understanding of a human phenomenon that attaches complex and powerful emotions and messages to objects all the time, often with no discernible rhyme or reason. You may well struggle to separate the rose from those powerful emotions, but it’s not as difficult as trying to logically tie them together in the first place.

Roland Barthes, one of the founding fathers of semiology explained, ‘We do not see the power which is in speech because we forget that all speech is a classification’. That is to say, whenever we are choosing to call a cat ‘Cat’, we are drawing a distinction in our decision not to call it ‘Dog’. When we refer to something as ‘streetwear’, we are denying it identity as ‘lingerie’.

Likewise, the entire world is in a constant dialogue with each itself. The blue strips on the Newsagent’s window let you know that you can top up your oyster card. The men in black suits stood outside the noisy building let you know that you will need identification to get inside. The world is constantly talking to us and we are listening to that dialogue as we interpret the signals around us. But this is Breaks Magazine, and we’re here to talk about clothes. You’re probably sat there, all “he’d better have a fucking good reason for taking us down this road.” I do.

A recent conversation with an acquaintance got us onto the topic of Brands and their respective powers. Discussing British streetwear labels, it was asked how a relatively small UK brand could justify charging £32 for a simple t-shirt when so many other brands do ‘much more’ for ‘less’. I understood the sentiment – there’s only so much that a bit of ink on a strip of cotton can cost – but also felt as if it misunderstood a huge part of streetwear that has very little to do with cost-plus pricing – the brand.

Branding, much like speech and text, is a form of language, transmitting oft-complex ideas as quickly and effectively as possible. Like language, a good brand will dominate the landscape as the preferred means of communication and, like language, some dialects are a bit harder to understand than others unless you’ve spent some time in the neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, branding is often confused with fashion. Everything these days is a brand, from TV stations to Falafel shacks. Whether we realise it or not, every café-latté and chocolate bar that we buy actually makes a huge statement about who we are. Even more so, the companies in charge know that their product speaks, and they want you to speak with their words. Think about the people you see standing outside Starbucks outlets getting their photos taken, or the folks who queue for days outside of Apple Stores just to be the first to own the latest product. Brands want to define and speak for us and we want that definition. All that really matters is whether we’re consciously aware of the dialogue.

For me, the idea of actively buying from brands that I want to represent me has never that big of a problem. I was wearing Vans OTW and skate brands as soon as I’d strung the sentence, “Dad, I don’t fucking like football” together. I was never part of the ‘in-crowd’ at school, so never really felt represented by the ‘in-brands’ at the time like Abercrombie & Jack Wills.  You couldn’t have convinced me to wear the shit if you paid me, so I necessarily went in search of brands that I felt better represented my lifestyle and my identity. I wore Chuck His because I loved punk and hardcore shit like Link 80 and Five Knuckle, but I show up to school on non-uniform day and I’m getting shit from Spiceboy-Wanker-XYZ because mine are all beat compared to his? Fuckouttahere.

It was through this that I eventually discovered labels like Supreme, Carhartt and MHI, who touched upon so many of the things that had helped to define me through childhood. At 8 years old, having begged them for a Slipknot hoodie for Christmas, my parents put me onto The Clash and made me sit and listen to London Calling. I must have been bugging them for an Independent t-shirt for like 3 months straight. Discovering labels that spoke directly to this part of my character wasn’t just hype, it was genuinely fucking dope.

Examining my own purchases and brand choices further, what I feel becomes clear is that brands often serve as a negotiation towards the image that we want rather than a word-for-word representation. My three favourite brands (I know, yikes, but not really, but we’ll go with it) are Neighborhood, WTaps and Fuct SSDD, whose identities allude to motorcycles, military culture and Americana respectively.

I don’t ride motorcycles. I’ve never fired a gun in my life. I’m British. At a first glance, my choice of brands is open to a lot of ridicule, but then I understand that I am more drawn towards the sense of outsider-ship and rebellion that underpins the fundamental narratives than the literality of the origins. These brands represent not only a culture, but also a way of being and a state of mind that I am able to relate to, and it is this that makes them my choice. It is the clothing of outsiders, and as somebody who has never felt part of the mainstream, it is that which turns me on. Why would I spend £200 on a pair of jeans? Simple, because the £40 pair on the rail in the high street was designed for accessibility, and I view myself as necessarily ‘out of reach’ of the mainstream.

Unfortunately, branding is a double-edged sword. Whilst the primary branding mechanism seeks to draw distinctions and stamp its individuality, many brands work clockwork to convey the idea that they’re anything but a brand. What this means for brand-savvy people is that you get conceited gits in Topman t-shirts scoffing at your £120 trainers while they ramble on about how cheap their plimsolls were. While this might seem clever and valid (don’t worry, it isn’t), it conveniently ignores the mechanisms that dragged matey-boy into ‘High Street Store X’ over the charity shops. As Kevin Spacey would say, ‘The greatest trick that Topman ever pulled was convincing the world it didn’t have an identity.’

See, your man walked into that shop because he had in turn bought into the idea that he was a young lad on the get-up-and-go who wanted to look good and not spend too much for the trouble. He’s a guy that doesn’t want to care too much about brands and countless companies have tapped right into that market with quiet, unassuming product that presents itself more as a question, seeking definition, than as a distinction that finds the right place for you. Many people shop brandless to avoid being ‘suckered in’ by brands. I guess you could say that people necessarily use Primark to say ‘Dog’, to avoid being defined as ‘Cat’.

Once you understand that brands come down to the subjective experience and each individual’s desire to be represented, the subjectivity of fashion and aesthetic in general is clearer. Language is a canvas that we then use to create meaning. Some people write beautiful poetry, whilst others chant in football stadiums. Simple words can make complex messages and vice versa. Some people have a lot to say, others keep their thoughts to themselves.

Just as how every word is distinctly unique from another, a brand comes down to who wears it, at what time, and for what reason. I’m not crazy about Obey or Hype clothing, but the message that their brands convey are clearly relevant and valuable to a lot of people. What their brands ‘say’ might not necessarily be complex. The wearer’s analysis might not go to great depth. But then, isn’t that kind of like everything in life?

Some people listen to music for life-changing lyrics, while some people just want music to dance to. Some people watch films to be taken on a journey and to have their perspectives challenged. Others get tickets to the latest Friedberg & Seltzer. The fact remains, they had the choice of watching Bridget Jones’ Diary and they didn’t. For them to have said ‘Dog’, they must necessarily have refrained from saying ‘Cat’.

The world is a text, and we are in constant dialogue. There will be aspects of life where we don’t feel like talking. There will be others where the words are bursting out of our chests before we can even work out how to end the sentence. I loved Mark McNairy’s Spring/Summer 2014 collection at New York Fashion Week. I feel like the sarcastic collision of catwalk pomp with ballsy beer-chugging yank-fever was McNairy’s most powerful season yet, and became even more powerful after Kanye West’s statements to Zane Lowe about taking high fashion and making it something widely accessible to real people.

That being said, I don’t follow a football team and don’t think Arsenal will ever say anything about me. My mate can’t talk about Arsenal without saying ‘We’. And you know something? That’s just fine. That’s his brand.

GregK posts regularly on his own blog, Fuckin Yeh

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