It’s no longer news that Instagram has become fashion’s most embraced Internet tool. It has created a myriad of self-made, self-promoting starlets, turbo-boosted the rise of street style photography, and has fashion executives biting their elbows trying to come up with ways to market and sell products on the app. But, perhaps most importantly, it has influenced fashion design itself.
The most direct influence of Instagram can be traced to how graphic-centered fashion has become. Graphics – whether prints or logos – have been a part of fashion for a while now, but historically speaking they have been a fairly new phenomenon.
Graphics (embroidery aside) had little place in fashion until the late 70s. It is hard to pinpoint an iconic moment when that changed. One would probably be when Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood printed a pair of breasts on a t-shirt. Then came another British designer moment, when Katherine Hamnett wore a t-shirt of her own making to meet Margaret Thatcher. The t-shirt bore an anti-war message that read “58% Don’t Want Pershing.”
Westwood and Hamnett were iconoclasts, but they have unwittingly created new icons. Today, you can buy knockoffs of Westwood’s “tits” tee from a number of shops on the Internet. The main feature of an icon, of course, is that it’s instantly recognizable. Clothing is inherently semiotic – it telegraphs various things about the wearer, such as social status and cultural taste. It did not take long for fashion to latch on to this notion. The lowest common denominator of this phenomenon was the logo.
Not so long ago a logo was a signal passed along solely between the maker and the wearer, usually in order to signify the article’s provenance. Actually, up until mid-19th century clothes used to bear no tags at all, since a gentleman would know his tailor, and a lady would know her dressmaker personally.
Supposedly, it was Charles Frederick Worth, the first bona-fide fashion star, who began the practice of putting tags on his dresses in the second half of the 19th Century, in order to imitate artists who signed their paintings, and to let his clients know that he was an artist, too.
During that time, as department stores rose in prominence, muscling in on the direct client-tailor relationship, tags and logos became more important. Fast-forward to the end of the 20th Century and you begin to see branding triumph over design and garment quality, and logos creeping from the inside of the garment onto its front in a graphic form. Everyone seemed to like the arrangement – the clients were able to instantly telegraph their taste, such as it was, and brands received a form of advertising not for which they paid, but for which they were paid.
In the age of Instagram telegraphing has turned into broadcasting, and logos gave way to graphics that are a subtler form of communication. This partly has to do with a new generation of fashion consumers who are very comfortable with exhibitionism on social media and are very well informed.
Many of them are too sophisticated to wear logos outright – too easy and too cheesy. But, since their narcissism is aided and abetted by Instagram, they still want something easily recognizable. And because they have instant access to information and inexhaustible sources for gathering and sharing it, they no longer need something as obvious as a logo. They need something just a tad more complicated. Enter the graphics.
One of the first designers who, perhaps unwittingly, latched onto this phenomenon was Ricardo Tisci at Givenchy. He was doing fine as a designer, but Givenchy did not really take off until Tisci began to put instantly recognizable graphics such as a Rottweiler’s face on tees and sweatshirts. These were an overnight success, becoming first street-style photographer, and therefore Instagram bait. In essence, the Rottweiler became the unofficial Givenchy logo. The floodgates of graphic design were thrown open.
In the age where information travels so fast and consumers want to be just a tad more sophisticated, graphics are the new logos. Instagram’s hashtagging mechanism provides a quick way for identifying the graphics to new audience. You don’t have to dig deep, the way a true fashion fan used to, in order to recognize that the Rottweiler is from Givenchy, the vampire embroidery on a varsity jacket is from Saint-Laurent, and that “Live Free, Die Strong” is from Comme des Garcons.
Graphics are also more ephemeral, because they can be changed the way logos cannot, and thus they provide potentially infinite, ever renewable avenues for branding. Givenchy, for example, has quickly expanded from the Rottweiler to Bambi to religious iconography. Gosha Rubchinkiy’s silly “СПАСИ И CОХРАНИ” sweaters shown during this past Paris menswear week will undoubtedly be a commercial hit on the fashion hipster circuit.
That is not to say that logos are dead. There is a still a contingent of customers willing to be walking advertisements of the most direct sort and labels like Vetements and Undercover do well selling their logoed garments. Undercover is a noteworthy case, as Jun Takahashi’s brilliant graphics have always been an essential part of his work. Yet, even he evidently feels that putting his logo on the outside of the garment is a smart move. Because that’s what a designer has to do today in order to sell to the Instagram generation.
(The original version of this article appeared in issue 009 of Them Magazine in Japan)
Photography by Julien Boudet