Imagine you’re in a Buenos Aires shopping mall. Where you might find and Abercrombie or a Hollister in the U.S., you’ll find a store called John L Cook. Same heavy wood furniture; same blonde models; same tween clientele.
But where Abercrombie decorates itself with moose and canoes and Hollister with surfboards and seagulls, Cook’s logo is the Confederate flag.
As South Carolina lowers the flag from its statehouse and Amazon bans Confederate merchandise from its stores, COOK treats it like any other piece of Americana.
Cook advertises in English. Its 2015 lookbook pairs white models with English phrases: “Coffee please!” “Let’s make out.” “Oh captain, my captain!”
It posts daily inspirational messages on Facebook and Instagram. Many of them quote Americans who resisted white supremacy.
Martin Luther King: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Maya Angelou: “I believe that every person is born with talent.”
Abraham Lincoln: “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” (#BeliefOfTheDay).
The flag adorns the bottom of each image.
Ramiro Fita, Cook’s founder, first picked up a rebel flag in Baltimore during a stint in the merchant navy, his son Emiliano, the brand’s current president, told me. Ramiro came back to Argentina and met his wife, who made clothes at home. They talked of opening a label together, sensing an appetite in the country for the cultural products of the United States. They picked out the name John L Cook, an American-sounding mantle of mysterious provenance. For its logo, they’d use the old flag from Baltimore.
The couple opened their shop in 1975, and over the coming decades, Cook took off. If Argentines recognized the flag at all, it was as the decal on the car in the popular U.S. TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” not as a contentious symbol of racial tensions.
Emiliano Fita, on his part, knows about the flag debate in the States, but doesn’t find it relevant. “It’s just the brand’s logo,” Fita told me. “It symbolizes the history of self-improvement and love in the lives of my parents.”
He didn’t respond to subsequent questions asking if he planned to change it.
Argentine teens love Cook. On Instagram, they post posed photos of themselves in flag gloves, drinking English breakfast tea and driving Mustangs.
Irina Bergman, a 14-year-old from Zarate, a small city in Buenos Aires province, posted a photo of a Cook flag notebook her mother had given her. “I like their clothes, I love their shirts, I consider the style fresh and ‘rocker,’” she told me. “The quality is good too. It’s good in every way.”
She’d never heard of the Confederacy. I told her that in the States the logo was controversial, that for many it represented slavery. “I think that if a person likes their clothes, then they like them,” she said. “The logo is just a logo and that’s that.”
Ariadna Dacil, a 28-year-old from Buenos Aires told me she saw the brand as geared towards young people with “elevated buying power.” She knew the flag represented slavery from watching movies like “Selma,” but said most Argentines didn’t. In the wake of Dylann Roof’s June 17 massacre at a historically black Charleston church, she tweeted at the company to ask it what it would do.
“The company doesn’t explicitly discriminate so much as through symbols not everybody identifies with,” Dacil said. “It resorts to North American symbols. Its models are blonde and tall, just like other brands, but it combines them with Mickey Mouse figures on its garments or the US flag directly.”
Ariadna’s friend Mercedes Larosa said she stayed away from flag clothing not because of the Confederacy but because the flag represented another form of white supremacy: the hegemony of the United States writ large.
“I’ll never use any symbol related to North America or England because those countries have hurt Latin America so much,” she said.
“For me those flags represent two countries that have done us so much harm. The IMF’s external debt brought hunger and poverty to lots of families in Argentina and in Latin America,” Larosa added, referring to the lender’s handling of the country’s economic crisis in the late 1990s.
“In general I don’t care about flags,” she said. “But it pisses me off that it’s stylish to use the U.S. flag when we don’t use those of Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, which are our brother countries.”
Larosa’s view is a popular one: a Pew poll found that less than half of Argentines held a favorable view of the U.S. But North American culture also holds powerful sway across Latin America. Cook sells the Confederate flag as a deeply fraught emblem of Americana.
Cook caters to white teenagers. Its models are white. It has draped itself a banner of Confederate white supremacy, whose symbolism helps sell the idea of rebellion and freedom. At the same time, its aesthetic espouses a supremacy of a different kind.
It would be absurd to suggest that the meaning of the banner is the same in Argentina’s context as in the United States’. But the power of whiteness relies on this freedom to shift, to dictate meaning.
Sure, interpretation is subjective and context-specific — but only some interpretations control narratives. At the heart of white supremacy is the assumption that one’s interpretations deserve attention— whether by blindly insisting that the flag means “heritage,” or by speaking to your customers in a language they don’t understand.
At home in the U.S., the flag has always flown for white supremacy. Abroad, as the logo of an Argentine clothing brand, it becomes an upscale mall label that sells the desirability of white bodies and the domination of the United States. Symbols shift in meaning and context. But even in translation, white supremacy thrives.