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Forward

Word-Weary Labels

April 02, 1999|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While trendoids scramble to buy logo-heavy looks from Gucci and Louis Vuitton, the truly fashion forward don't want to be labeled. New York magazine reported that Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy recently put Prada employees to work cutting out the labels sewn into skiwear she was buying, and the streets of London are full of brand-wary Britons wearing New Balance Trainers with the first "N" torn off. Stateside, streetwear designers are tagging their minimalist chic clothes with symbols instead of words, and stores are disguising house brands behind cryptic graphics.

Urban Outfitters, which has a corner on cool with more than 25 alternative clothing emporiums nationwide, labels house-brand shirts and sweaters with a simple "U" inside a circle. "It signifies Urban Outfitters without being overt," says creative director Susan Otto. "Using symbols on labels is a huge trend. It gives an image to a product that is stronger than words."

Junior-wear chain Rampage tags its private-label clothing with sun, moon and star symbols to disguise manufacturer names. "We don't want competitors to know who we are buying from, and these symbols are a cool way to label the clothes," says marketing director Monica Sanchez.

Plenty of kids are still going for the name brands, however. Abercrombie & Fitch did more than $815 million in sales last year in tees, sweats and shorts emblazoned with the "Abercrombie" name. "Our target audience is college students, who are often susceptible to peer pressure," a representative of Abercrombie & Fitch says. "They all want to be the same. . . . Lucky for us, having an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt on a 22-year-old is a walking advertisement."

But Urban Outfitters' Otto insists her company's customer is different. "Sometime buying a brand validates a customer's purchase. But that's not our customer."

With advertisers competing for attention on everything from billboards to fruit, we have become a graphically sophisticated culture.

Graphics and symbols are more accessible because of computer technology, which is the concept behind RGB, a junior line that uses blocks of color on its labels instead of words. The colors--red, green and blue--are the three colors used in computer system graphics. "Kids are getting tired of seeing Tommy and North Face printed on everything. It's graphics that are exciting--at least for cooler kids," explains designer-creator Cecilia Anton, 25.

New York-based techno-utilitarian line Illig uses the Chinese character meaning "hole" as a logo. "We still have a tag on our clothing, but on a more insightful level. It's more exclusive than Armani or Nike," explains sales manager David Alpern. "The next generation is not into being obvious. They are smarter, more savvy. They don't want to be force-fed."

Other clothing companies use cryptic labels to create intrigue. Three Dots sportswear is labeled with three heat-transferred dots, and T-shirts from Velvet have strips of velvet sewn inside instead of labels. "There is a lot of competition in the T-shirt business. We figured if our label didn't have a name people would be more curious," says Jenny Graham, who designs Velvet T-shirts.

"Subtle details like that stick out in people's minds," Alpern says. "The intent is the same as with a Polo horse or a Nike swoosh, but on a more streetwear level."

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