If the price of a Ralph Lauren shirt falls at Littlewoods but it doesn’t have a Polo player on it, does anybody make a sound?’ – Me. Just now.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve worn branded clothing. A quick glimpse around my house makes it pretty clear why – from my Dad’s shirt wardrobe (yes, he has a wardrobe just for shirts…) containing 41 Ralph Lauren shirts and counting, to my Mum’s…well, I struggle to think of anything my mother owns that ISN’T covered in some Cath Kidston print or other, it’s pretty clear how I ended up like this. But why…?
A lot of trend whores claim they buy labels because the products are better made. Well, that may be the case sometimes, but I’m pretty sure that a few years ago ALL of us spent a night out listening to a friend complaining about the sleeves of his heather grey All Saints jumper fraying even though he’d only worn it once. Once upon a time I worked in a department store, and they had a whole rail devoted to those faulty jumpers. Equally, there are people who have gone to great lengths to figure out which high end products have high street equivalents that are made in the same factory. The rumour that if you go to ‘the right market’ in China you’ll find knockoffs that are actually better made than genuine products has been kicking around for years.
You might claim that people cling to brands and products because they define their identity. But, if that really is the case, why are such a high percentage of teenagers still fascinated by Abercrombie & Fitch even though you can’t walk down Regent Street for more than 30 seconds without seeing an overweight Persian man wearing one of their polo shirts? And how can Dr Martens simultaneously be the calling card of both crusty punks and pallid bloggers? Even if the latter DO claim to love The Clash…who, let’s be honest, weren’t all that great, and are regarded in many circles as a pre-Cowell manufactured boy band.
Plenty of writing has been done on branding (like Naomi Klein’s No Logo), but unless you’re an academic you probably don’t have time to read it. Also worth observing that Klein walks a really dangerous line of kinda being a fox but also sometimes looking a bit like my mother. My own stance on the whole thing is that brands permeate modern culture to such a degree that it’s impossible to avoid them or even define them for more than five minutes – Nike is trying to look like Timberland, Reebok is trying to look like Nike, Vans are trying to look like Rockport, and it’s hard to know what anything ‘stands for’ anymore. Topshop, one of the biggest retailers on the planet, has a section devoted to a brand that used to spend its days splattering charity shop denim with bleach but whose stuff is now starting to look more and more like…Topshop’s.
When Selfridges got in touch to tell me about their ‘Quiet Shop’, I was definitely interested. A thousand design students have removed the words from a can of Coca Cola and smugly been like ‘ahh, I bet you still know what this can is! That’s the power of branding!!!’, but (aside from a brief flirtation with the idea of ‘stealth wealth‘ <– Warning: Daily Mail link! If you’re not down with that, just listen to Gucci Gucci by Kreayshawn as the message is pretty much the same) I can’t think of any fashion brands that have ever gone as far as to remove their branding. In fact, in most cases the opposite is true – the Abercrombie moose and Ralph Lauren’s polo horse seem to have been getting bigger and bigger in the past few years, and I’m expecting them to have an apocalyptic battle a la Megashark vs Giant Octopus before long.
But it’s exactly what a number of brands, including Levi’s, Clinique and Heinz are doing for Selfridges’ No Noise campaign. Selfridges aims to encourage customers “to proactively seek out moments of peace and tranquility in a world that bombards us with information and stimulation.” I certainly like the idea of removing the focus from garish packaging and focusing on a product’s quality and function – I admit that I’ve previously found Beats a bit garish and showy, but this toned down cream edition is very sleek. It also sounds a lot better than my previous setup…which, admittedly, alternated between standard iPod earphones and a set of Sennheisers that only played through one ear. But still.
I expect that the campaign will actually be pretty divisive – I wonder what extent the cachet that brands have stems from their logo and, indeed, their very name. Will people be willing to part with their money for something that doesn’t have that? Just as with another brand involved, I think this is one you’ll either love or hate…