You may never have heard of--let alone bought--a product labeled aNYthing, Barking Irons, or the Hundreds. But Rob Walker says each of those brands has a few things to tell you. And lots of stuff to sell you.
Writing in the July 31 New York Times Sunday magazine, Walker (who is not on the paper's staff but who writes the magazine's regular "Consumed" column) shares his observations about "the brand underground" represented by aNYthing and its ilk. These "tiny streetwear brands" are turning the notion of "counterculture" on its head, says Walker. Once upon a time, subculture communities expressed themselves through art, literature, films, or the politics of protest. Today, says Walker, the brand itself is the expression.
Just like their big corporate brethren, these micro-brands--let's call them branditos: tiny brands with a touch of the bandido about them--are all about marketplace success. But there are a couple of key differences: The branditos' marketplaces are comparatively minuscule, and their genius lies not in product development (most of their products are ordinary T-shirts) or problem solving but in the symbolic value of their logos.
Who's behind the branditos? Guys (all guys in Walker's story) in their 20s who spent their formative years skateboarding, tagging graffiti, and marinating themselves in consumer culture. They see right through the branding messages of, say, Nike and Wal-Mart, but their cynicism hasn't caused them to disdain commerce. On the contrary, writes Walker:
Perhaps the first lesson of the brand underground is not that savvy young people will stop buying symbols of rebellion. It is that they have figured out that they can sell those symbols, too.
(For more background and commentary, see Walker's blog, Murketing.)
In their way, branditos are yet another manifestation of Chris Anderson's Long Tail, which describes an economy and culture shifting "away from a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits' (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail." Thanks to technology and cheap manufacturing, anyone with a computer can created "branded" merchandise; just look at Zazzle and Cafe Press for hundreds of examples.
I'm all for self-expression and entrepreneurship, I advocate branding, and I believe people have the right to spend their money on any sort of crap they fancy. I think "aNYthing" is a very clever brand. I'm glad its founder, and the founders of Barking Dogs and the Hundreds, didn't have to go business school to make their mark. (The Hundreds guys actually went to law school, but they both flunked the bar exam.)
But is anyone else just a tiny bit saddened that this is what "counterculture" has come to? That with everything else that's happening every minute--not just global warming and militarism and rampant religiosity, but also bad schools and too much cheap junk food and on and on--that in the face of all this, so many smart young people are obsessed with putting logos on T-shirts so that the people who buy the T-shirts will have the sartorial equivalent of a secret club handshake? "Does shopping for weird new stuff make you subversive?" asks one of the cover lines on the Times magazine. Nope. No, it doesn't. Not a chance.