Whether you’re talking about high-end splurges like Chanel bags, or mass-retail staples (think the Nike swoosh), the designer logo has long been considered a status symbol. But, as anyone who’s clicked through pics of the Fashion Week collections — or even breezed through the mall recently — knows, the role of the ubiquitous fashion logo has been moving in the opposite direction.
Some brands have embraced minimalism. Louis Vuitton made news back in 2013 when it pulled back on the use of its iconic LVs in accessories. And, logo-less purses, such as the understated Mansur Gavriel bucket bags, have usurped the popularity of branded carryalls. Now, there’s a noticeable change happening on the other end of the fashion spectrum: Major fashion labels are flaunting the logos of brands other than their own.
Call it the Jeremy Scott effect. For his debut fall 2014 Moschino show, the designer sent models down the runway decked out in McDonald’s and SpongeBob SquarePants motifs. Scott’s throwback vibes continued for spring 2015, with a Barbie-inspired Moschino collection that was almost exclusively pink and plastered with the Mattel doll’s logos. Scott has been repurposing logos — both commercial and indie — for his eponymous line for years, and he’s not the first to do so, but following the financial success of his Moschino collections, others in the industry are rushing to get in on the business.
The trend picked up more steam this season with additional designers hopping onboard: Opening Ceremony showed tops printed with old-school Kodak branding, NYFW newcomer Bobby Abley debuted a collection featuring characters from The Jungle Book, and Joyrich referenced retro Coca-Cola logos in its pieces. David Melgar, creative director of Joyrich, explained the inspiration behind the logo-centric design: “Being that we are heavily influenced by ‘80s and ‘90s pop [and] street culture, I wanted to do something that reflected this time. I liked how the logo had a nostalgic, vintage feel to it and I felt that with the combination of the fabrications that we used, it would bring life to a whole new story.”
Inspiration aside, tapping into these instantly recognizable images is also a strategic move. Jeremy Scott is consistently one of the top-ranked brands on social media for both Scott’s eponymous line (its spring 2015 collection earned 650,000 likes, posts, and tweets), as well as Moschino, which essentially won the Internet last season with 1.5 million total interactions.
It’s smart for designers to capitalize on our nostalgia for other brands, but we have to wonder: How is this even legal? Turns out, there’s a line between nodding to another company’s logo and infringing on its intellectual property rights, and it all boils down to the message the design sends to consumers.
According to Christopher Sprigman, a professor at NYU School of Law, brands that evoke other brands’ logos must first negotiate licensing deals. “I had seen a report that there was a deal made between Kodak and Opening Ceremony,” he said. “If there hadn’t been one, it would raise questions in the consumers’ minds about whether the product was sponsored.” Not having a deal could have spelled major trouble for OC.
In this case, the partnership with Kodak was part of a collaboration between OC cofounders/designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim and the photo company. As the duo said in an interview with Kodak, “We’ve always loved Kodak’s logos and trademarks, and admired Kodak’s dedication to continuity. We think the capsule celebrates all [the] Kodak values we appreciate.”
Unsurprisingly, this type of licensing deal usually entails a financial transaction. “It’s a situation in which a brand like Opening Ceremony would say, ‘We want to use T-shirts with your logo,’ and Kodak would say, ‘Okay. Pay us money.’ The fashion industry is notoriously for-profit, so this would be typically a deal that exchanges a license for money,” said Sprigman. The goal is to define the relationship between the parties, and if a designer incorporates a logo in a way that might cause confusion about whether it was sponsored, he or she runs the risk of being sued.
The exception? When logos are used in a way in which there’s no risk of misleading consumers into thinking they’re endorsements. One example is using multiple logos. Sprigman cites the streetwear designer Heron Preston. Hissignature tees feature 17 logos splashed all over them, including Google, Nascar, Home Depot, and M&Ms. But, despite all the branding, Sprigman says the message remains clear: “If I had looked at this shirt, I wouldn’t necessarily think that any of these companies were sponsoring the shirt,” he said. “I don’t think the trademark law would require this to be licensed, because I think consumers would conclude that this is a commentary about brands as opposed to a T-shirt sponsorship.”
With London, Milan, and Paris still left in Fashion Month, these clearly aren’t the last of the logos we’ll be seeing on the runway. So, designers, take note: Imitation might be the highest form of flattery, but don’t forget to ask permission first.