The other day I saw a guy on the street in a pair of heavily embellished indigo jeans and a baby blue T-shirt with more rhinestones on it than Amy Childs’ undercarriage. Both items were by French designer Christian Audigier in collaboration with the famous Californian tattoo artist, Ed Hardy. I am totally gutted for anyone who paid to have one of Hardy’s original designs etched on them permanently before Audigier rocked up and shat all over his image. They probably paid through the arsehole for it too, and now it’s associated not with one of the most celebrated tattoo artists of all time but with the kind of people who like to spit in public. This guy in the double-decked Ed Hardy didn’t even seem to care that he looked like a total tit though. In fact, he was swaggering down the street like he thought he was the dog’s bollocks. I’d like to think that if I tried to leave the house in such a state one of my mates would gently tell me to go and shove my head in the oven until I felt better, but clearly this guy didn’t have any real friends to diplomatically tell him he looked like a proper wally. The sparkly jeans were undoubtedly the most traffic-stoppingly vile part of the ensemble, but the T-shirt had one of the usual skull ‘n flowers combos splashed all over it and the bloke wearing it, who looked like one of those guys who lifts a lot of heavy things but also eats a lot of pie, was bursting out of it like a big sweaty floral disco ball.
It is bizarre to me that Ed Hardy has remained so popular – Audigier sold the franchise just over a year ago for $62 million – when everyone I know considers it so tacky and cheap. A quick search on Google brought up no full price items but dozens of discounted garments for under a tenner. Department stores were selling the fragrances in their 70% off sections. Ebay was flooded with items, not just blatant knock-offs but genuine merchandise with labels and proof of authenticity too. But here’s the thing: just because I think it’s cheap and nasty doesn’t mean everyone else does. In fact, judging by Audigier’s payout last year, that’s quite patently not so.
Of course, what is cool and what is not will always be a matter of personal taste. For instance, I think Ugg boots are the most repugnant footwear there ever was (except possibly Crocs and their rubbery ilk), but right now, as the weather starts to get cooler, millions of girls are rubbing their hands together gleefully and cracking out their sheepskin monstrosities. On the flip side, I love nothing more than a high, chunky-ass wedge boot, but one of my best friends is practically allergic to them and tells me it looks like I have a rare case of double club-foot. The Zeitgeist is a constantly changing thing, but as with art, writing and any other creative discipline, the those whose creations stand the test of time are those who show great talent, originality and an uncompromising, unwavering sense of self through their work. Fame is notoriously fickle and the road to obscurity is littered with fallen stars whose limited talents propelled them to short-lived celebrity before sending them plummeting into the black abyss of anonymity. First stop, the WHSmith bargain bin, next a desperate stint on some ghastly ‘celebrity’ reality TV show. Then nothing. Some go on university campus tours to pay the bills (this is how I drunkenly told Roy Walker, as twinkly-eyed and ruddy-faced as he was on Catchphrase fifteen years ago, that he was the backbone of my childhood and that I thought he looked marvellous for someone old enough to be my granddad). Perhaps they’ll get an obituary one day in a small-town newspaper or a gig handing out prizes for the local under-thirteen’s swimming gala, but basically the party’s over.
Anyway, the point is that the best designers do not need to emblazon their logos all over their clothes; the cut and quality speak for themselves. Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, the heavyweights of American casualwear, may be fantastic designers as far as their shareholders are concerned, but their genius lies in commerce, not design. There is of course nothing wrong with this – they both cheerfully admit it – and they produce good quality, practical clothes that people want to wear. I’ve even got some myself. But the reason why these designers need to brand their clothes so heavily is because their designs have no distinguishing features to identify themselves; indeed, it’s usually the same styles in different colours year after year. To the casual observer, a Polo Ralph Lauren cable knit sweater without is eponymous polo player motif could have come from Gap at a third of the price. That little piece of embroidery tells the world that its wearer can not only afford to spend £129 on a sweater, but is a self-declared member of the perceived elite lifestyle the brand represents. In fact, if Ralph Lauren’s standard polo shirt logo is too subtle for you, or you’re trying to impress the small slice of the population who suffer from visual impairment, you can pay an extra £35 (a 37.5% increase!) for an identical shirt emblazoned with a logo so enormous that Helen Keller couldn’t miss it.
So branding is important. Why do students buy university hoodies? In my experience they are ill-fitting (mine is a unisex size small and could be worn as the world’s most hideous, ill-fitting knee-length dress) and, in retrospect, ugly, unflattering and just generally awful. Under no circumstances should I have been allowed to wear it outside. But I did, even though hoodies have never been my thing. Why? Because it represented part of my identity as a student. Now that I’m no longer at university, it doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest, probably because like the rest of the grown-up (!) population I despise students and wish they’d all get jobs (if you are still at university this will happen to you too within two weeks of graduating. I think a significant part of it is bitter jealousy.)
Ultimately, successful brands sell lifestyles, not clothes. Sometimes it’s hard not to be seduced by the clever marketing – I wrote here about how I decided not to buy a Mulberry handbag because I didn’t want to look the same as everyone else, but I still bought one from another equally popular designer. I still spent my entire bus ride this morning shamelessly leching on one girl’s gorgeous, soft dove-grey Mulberry Alexa shoulder bag. But although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with buying into brands and their ploys if you actually like them, I think it’s lame to be a total devotee. You can spend your money on beautiful clothes that look expensive just from the way they’re made, if that’s what you’re going for, and you won’t look like a total fashion victim. It’s much cooler to cultivate your own personal style, not just sell yourself as a walking billboard for someone else’s. We should buy garments we love because of the colour, cut, fit or style…not just because of the label.