LONDON, United Kingdom — When Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia sent designer Gosha Rubchinskiy down the runway in a canary yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the DHL logo last year, it sent retailers into a frenzy. The T-shirt was an ironic, tongue-in-cheek play on the power of branding, taking something from the everyday and turning it into a symbol that became cult, cool and coveted. To an outsider, it was a DHL T-shirt; only a select few would know that the garment's label read Vetements.
That the £185 ($248) tee sold out almost instantly is no surprise. But Gvasalia did more than create a sellout. He re-ignited the kind of logomania last seen in the 1990s, when everything from belts to bags and T-shirts was overtly branded by all luxury labels including Louis Vuitton and Prada. To the fashion industry, the DHL T-shirt was a refreshing antidote to the prevalence of minimalism being championed by brands like Celine for several seasons. “The logo of a delivery service — a courier — became a fashion statement,” Gvasalia told BoF backstage at his menswear show in Paris in January.
The logo also signifies a shift in consumer priority, where, in a social media-driven world, branding matters. “Today… everything is branded. Everything has a logo. That to me is the reality,” continued Gvasalia. Instagram is perhaps the ultimate enabler of brand visibility — the use of tags and hashtags has meant that brand names are now so much a part of the consumer vernacular that in some ways, slapping a logo on a T-shirt is the next evolution of this. It also allows customers the chance to buy into the cachet of the brand at an entry-level price point.
The logo is easily readable online. “For me, the visual is what matters really,” said Gvasalia. “It is to create a visual suggestion linked to something corporate and formal without necessarily hiding a strong message or meaning into it. It is really for the fashion insiders — for the people who know what’s happening behind the scenes, back in the kitchen." It’s essentially a status symbol. “Logo T-shirts are an easy way for brands to be recognised and for customers to be associated with them, said Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director at Net-a-Porter.
The reintroduction of logos at a luxury level also plays into ideas of taste: overt branding fell out of favour in the late 1990s as a wealth of designer imitations meant the logo became naff and tacky. Gvasalia’s use of the DHL tag was almost an ironic nod to counterfeit culture — it was a logo, but it wasn’t the Vetements logo. “Taking something démodé, slightly bad taste and making it cool again is part of the fun,” said Coco Chan, head of womenswear buying at Stylebop.com. “A simple branded T-shirt or hoodie can play with ideas of what's authentic and what is not. Can you tell the luxury item from its copy? Who's borrowing from who? And what point does it stop mattering?” she asks.
While this is adoption of brash branding is not new — Gianni Versace was the trailblazer of the designer logo T-shirt in the 1990s — the trend has “never been at this level of luxury,” said Chan. “In this, Demna does feel subversive: hijacking one of the most storied houses in fashion [at Balenciaga] and using the code of ‘bootleg’ culture in order to make pieces that are instantly coveted,” she said.
The success of the DHL tee was followed by logo T-shirts by brands from Gucci to Givenchy, and today, almost every luxury label has its own version. For Autumn/Winter 2017, logo T-shirts from Balenciaga, Vetements, Gucci, Ganni and Dolce & Gabbana made up five of Net-a-Porter’s top 10 best selling items of the season.
The fact is, they make good business sense. In the first six months of this year, Levi’s had sold over 3 million logo T-shirts, and its success was attributed to a 7 percent uplift in revenues in the third quarter of 2017. Net-a-Porter has placed frequent reorders of the ‘fake Gucci’ T-shirt after it continually sold out within days — the T-shirt is one of Net-a-Porter’s best selling garments ever across all categories. “I think logos will evolve and this has begun with unexpected brands embracing it, such as Loewe, which will continue to drive sales,” said Aiken. “I think it will simply become a mainstay in our wardrobes, like a classic vintage item.”
Such was the demand for Tommy Hilfiger’s retro flag logo, the label rebranded the denim line as Tommy Jeans, with the flag appearing across T-shirts, denim jackets and dungarees. “Consumers, especially in youth culture, have always used logos and graphics to make statements about their choices and express their individuality,” said Tommy Hilfiger. “It’s grown even bigger today in our digitally connected world where images and symbols circulate globally in an instant on social media. [The logo] is a staple at the heart of our classic American cool style.” That streetwear wunderkind Gosha Rubchinskiy reinterpreted the Tommy logo on T-shirts emblazoned with bold, Russian text, no doubt also increased the lust for Tommy among younger fashion consumers.
The spike in popularity of retro logos among Gen-Z is perhaps surprising — sportswear labels including Fila and Kappa as well as Tommy are experiencing a resurgence from consumers that didn’t experience such brands’ popularity the first time around. For these labels, it’s this nostalgia factor that is driving growth, acting as an acknowledgement from a younger consumer that they are tapped into the zeitgeist, in the same way that the DHL logo resonates with followers of Vetements. “It’s about authenticity, self-expression and the desire for something with a story or something that evokes a feeling of nostalgia, rather than just the logo in and within itself,” said Karyn Hillman, chief product officer at Levi’s.
Trend forecaster WGSN saw a 226 percent increase in the number of logo-heavy products available online in the UK this year; in the US, growth is up 67 percent. Globally, Lyst saw a 145 percent increase in searches for logo T-shirts this year. But the market for such tees is at risk of becoming saturated. "While the newness is increasing, the amount of out of stock products are decreasing, which points to an over-supply in relation to the demand,” said Francesca Muston, analyst at WGSN. Does this mean the trend has peaked?
Likely. In China, for example, the trend never really took off: Gucci does not wholesale to Chinese retailers, and only introduced e-commerce to customers on its localised site in July this year. While Vetements is available at Lane Crawford, the products stocked are not logo-heavy and much of the buy is made up of keyrings and magnets. In South Korea, meanwhile, counterfeit culture for branded goods is so prevalent that labels like Off-White and Supreme and don't even bother to set up official retail outlets in the region.
It's this market for imitation goods that is driving the trend towards its saturation point. Several companies are now cropping up on Instagram sponsored posts selling replica versions of designer T-shirts for £30 ($40), while versions are just as widely available on the high street: Lyst saw searches spike for Gucci-style T-shirts from retailers including Topshop, River Island and Missguided. The rise of replicas suggests the trend reaching its saturation point. As such, luxury retailers like Stylebop are turning away from the logo.
“The logo didn’t feel particularly new for spring,” said Chan. “Fashion naturally moves in new directions and we try to stay ahead with that fresh energy,” she said. Chan questions whether the current trend to stick a logo on a T-shirt is actually just lazy design, created purely to incite sales. “The current iteration [of the trend] maybe lacks some of that joyous and playful energy [seen in the 90s], instead feeling a bit more calculated.”
The fact that supply is currently exceeding demand, according to Muston, suggests that other retailers will follow in Chan’s footsteps and drop the trend. The more logos there are — whether genuine or otherwise — the less kudos they have. “Customers are more interested in things with immediate resonance,” said Chan. “They’ll become tacky once we’re over saturated.” The logo’s popularity therefore is almost signalling its own eventual death. However, “I'm sure in ten years someone will be scouring eBay for the most iconic iterations from now,” she admits. “That’s the perpetual cycle we’re in.” Fashion is nothing if not cyclical.