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The slow death of the no-logo movement

Abercrombie & Fitch’s decision to go unbranded completes the commodification of the DIY era

September 22, 2014 6:00AM ET

In late August, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries announced that the company would remove its once-ubiquitous logo from most of its clothing, thereby “tak[ing] the North American logo business to practically nothing.” The move comes after nearly a decade of consumer backlash, much of it generated by Jeffries’ exclusionary rhetoric about overweight customers and the company’s racially discriminatory business practices, on the heels of 10 straight quarters of declining sales.

That Abercrombie’s brand is toxic goes without saying. There are slews of essays criticizing the company, including one I published earlier this year about managing a store and being forced to remove an unattractive staff member from rotation. But Jeffries’ decision to join the ranks of minimalist, fast-fashion retailers such as H&M and Urban Outfitters deserves closer scrutiny. That one of the last of the voraciously logo-driven clothing companies is choosing to de-emphasize its logo underscores a profound change in the relationship between commodity-desiring consumers and the corporations that create and manipulate those desires — and signifies the death knell of the avowedly anti-corporate no-logo movement of the 1990s.

That demise has its roots, unsurprisingly, in the birth of modern consumer culture in the early 1920s. During that decade, according to (PDF) historian Stuart Ewen, a combination of nationwide communication networks, vastly improved systems of mass production and state-of-the-art advertising techniques transformed consumption from the humdrum acquisition of necessary goods and services into a transcendent experience; it was self-actualization through shopping.

By the 1950s, that transformation was complete. Corporate conglomerates provided the goods and services desired by family purchasing units, able to acquire newly “necessary” items such as dishwashers and microwaves at department stores and other retailers. With each passing generation, just-invented luxuries increasingly came to be regarded as necessities. Cellular phones, personal computers and athletic footwear all started as expensive novelties and quickly became line items in the average American family’s budget.

In turn, idealistic representatives ranging from Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s to the post-hardcore band Fugazi in the late 1980s reacted to the perceived sterility around them by attempting to forge alternative do-it-yourself (DIY) lifestyles: Kesey by traveling the country to spread the gospel of personal freedom through drug experimentation and Fugazi by maintaining exclusive control of the sale and distribution of its music. Such efforts met with some amount of success, as cultural critic Thomas Frank explains in “The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.” But Madison Avenue was a quick copycat, and all too soon the bohemian, self-oriented style such radicals pioneered went from “adversarial to hegemonic,” with hipness mutating “from [the] native language of the alienated to that of advertising.”

Unbranded, unadorned items foster the same sort of dependence on corporations that logoed items do.

The consciousness-raising efforts that characterized 1960s youth culture, though noble in intention, inadvertently spawned a new generation of consumers eager for ways to stand out from the crowd. All too rapidly, however, standing out merely meant a different way of fitting in — namely, achieving social cachet through the consumption of certain products — and marketers sought to capitalize on this phenomenon. Upon taking the reins at Abercrombie & Fitch in the early 1990s, Jeffries, a savvy businessman who earned an MBA from Columbia Business School and studied at the London School of Economics, sought to market the brand exclusively to the teenage in-crowd. “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” he told Salon in 2006. “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

In her 1999 book “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies,” social activist Naomi Klein harshly criticized exactly what Jeffries was doing: selling lifestyles to unwitting young consumers by affixing logos to cheap, factory-made products. By enclosing, as she put it, “our shared culture in sanitized brand cocoons,” corporations created the instrument of their undoing. She urged that individuals brought up in an atmosphere of intense consumerism renounce their brand loyalties and corporate logos and seize control of the global commons.

Abercrombie & Fitch has now gone no logo, as Klein hoped all anti-brand brands might. But its move, meant to shore up its flagging profit margins, is simply the latest example of how companies, bowing to the capitalist pressure to constantly reinvent their products, coopt the most marketable aspects of the counterculture.

The trend toward de-logoed clothing is thus anything but subversive. Unbranded, unadorned items foster the same sort of dependence on corporations that logoed items do. They offer the prospect of “freedom, ease and cool control of one’s environment,” musician Ian Svenonius wrote in a recent essay for Jacobin, even as they ultimately cause us to renounce “all thought, consciousness, history and agency” to corporations such as Apple, a maker of products that are instantaneously obsolete, or Ikea, which produces chic insta-items “created by the exploited that disintegrate or explode when moved.”

Svenonius’ view of corporate commodification as techno-futurist hell reflects the obvious fact that companies such as Abercrombie are waning in influence, clinging to an economy of cool that long ago moved on to the functional sleekness of the tech world’s constantly upgraded gizmos. The products have changed, but the new leaders of the pack are marketing the same holy grail of cachet through ownership. Logos may no longer be emblazoned on heathered cotton hoodies, but commodified cool is ever present. The logo is dead; long live the logo! 

Oliver Bateman is a lawyer and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs at the Good Men Project, where he is a contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter: @MoustacheClubUS.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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