Where is the boundary between theft and craft? Though accepted as an artistic device, paying homage or alluding to meanings is not always taken in good nature, at times leading to lawsuits or scandals.
We thought we were rid of it, but it’s back. Branded logomania, the fad of flaunting a designer’s logo on your wardrobe is just another on a long list of retro trends making a comeback. Logos were very big in the late 90s and early 2000s, before quickly going out of style as counterfeits flooded the markets and everyone suddenly realized how tacky the look really was. Styles went to the extreme opposite, favoring minimal accessories and footwear, trying to forget the gaudy looks we had previously embraced.
But as easily as it had gone out of style, the trend came back—and with a vengeance. The trend’s rebirth signifies a new meaning: as we all agree that the look is tacky, so they bring a sense of irony. We’re wearing logos not because we truly believe it’s fashionable to advertise, but because we’re leaning into the kitchiness. Their element of nostalgia allows logos a deeper implication than just a name.
We’ve leaned so hard into the logomanic trend that luxury designers have even begun borrowing fonts, emblems, or full-blown logos from other brands, incorporating them into their own pieces.
In their most recent collection, Nicopanda showcased logo-clad looks left and right: blending their own emblem with that of grunge-band Nirvana, then taking it a step further by assimilating prints of the Tommy Boy logo as well as the words “New York” spelled out in the same font and style as New York Magazine.
In a similar sense, Moschino has a repertoire of plays on fonts and logos of other brands. The impish label has offered its take on trademark symbols from the Playboy bunny to the beloved Barbie logo, or the illustrious Vogue logo to household items. Moschino has even blended images of cherished cartoon characters into its clothing.
Streetwear brand Supreme built itself up through a borrowed logo concept. Postmodern artist Barbara Kruger developed her signature style in the 1980s by printing slogans over found images in large, billboard-sized formats, in turn making statements on feminism and consumerism. In creating their logo, Supreme opted for the same font and color scheme that Kruger uses in her works.
This choice ultimately boiled over for Supreme, when the label sued another brand, Married to the Mob, for using the same white-on-red Futura Bold Oblique scheme in their logo, despite the fact that Supreme hadn’t invented the look to begin with. When finally asked her feelings on the situation, Barbara Kruger responded: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”
Just as the revival of a trend is a reference to the trend’s original significance, the incorporation of an existing logo alludes to meanings set forth by the work’s original use. Nicopanda’s use of the New York Magazine logo brought notions of a classic New York institution to a collection themed around New York, just as Moschino’s riffs on household cleaning brand Ajax provoked a comparison between common necessities and luxury items. The red-on-white Futura Bold Oblique font carries Barbara Kruger’s anti-consumerist statement, so Supreme’s application of the logotype holds this meaning. The streetwear brand’s signature mark is a play on the very notion of consumerism that the brand itself represents.
In art, the use of pre-existing symbols is an accepted approach—the designer uses one meaning to illustrate another. But the real question is: when is the incorporation of a logo art, and when is it appropriation? Where is the line?
Supreme has a past filled with legal run-ins; in addition to the discrepancy with Married to the Mob, the brand’s use of existing logos caused them to receive cease and desist orders from the NCAA, the NHL, and even Louis Vuitton prior to the infamous collaboration last year. Is legality what defines the line between art and appropriation?
Now that the streetwear label has notable standing within the fashion realm, Supreme collaborates with other brands rather than utilizing existing work and receiving cease and desists. So the notion of consent is clearly the accepted line between art and appropriation. But it would have been difficult for Caravaggio to Virgil Abloh’s use of his Baroque paintings in Pyrex Vision t-shirts, as the painter died in 1610 and Abloh printed his shirts 400 years after.
Maybe the line is legality; it’s okay to utilize existing work as is until someone sues. But doesn’t it show more creativity to allude to other work, but add a twist? Moschino uses fonts and styles of other brands’ logos, but writes out their own name as a way of carrying an idea but making it their own. And Supreme did the same thing in creating their logo, only running into trouble when they tried to claim ownership of it. Maybe the line between art and appropriation is in the treatment of the pre-existing work. If the designer acknowledges that he is borrowing work, it is art, but if he pretends it is his own, that constitutes appropriation.