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Come On, Baby, Do the Logo Motion

Fashion is strutting back to the consumption-mad 1980s with houses such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel and Dior flooding runways and racks with status monograms.

March 14, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

From the runways of Paris to the sidewalks of countless cities, logos are once again making alphabet soup out of fashion.

The spring collections now in stores herald the latest revival of status monograms. We're not talking red-white-and-blue flags or swooshes. The Tommy Hilfigers and Nikes of fashion aren't what's hot in Logoville. It's the expensive stuff that's once again proudly screaming, "We've got MONEY!"

The granddaddy of designer initials, Louis Vuitton, is trumpeting the message to fans of the famous brown-and-tan LVs. In his spring show, Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs printed the logo in a small, repeating pattern across trench coats, caps, sandals, bags, belts and more, allowing customers to create an entire wardrobe of the privileged print.

Rapper Lil' Kim took the idea a step further. Posing on the cover of Interview magazine last year, she turned herself into the ultimate billboard: Her nude body was airbrushed all over with the LV monogram.

John Galliano may be the concept's biggest new fan. His spring Christian Dior collection cut boots and shirts from a signature Dior scarf print. For the fall Dior collection shown in Paris last month, Galliano put the Dior logo across sheer dresses, bracelets and necklaces in an homage to the hip-hop style of new fashion icons Mary J. Blige and Lil' Kim.

The look of logos may change, but the meaning varies only slightly. They're still about aspirations, about identifying with the brand or designer that they represent.

"Logos try to say, 'I have taste,' " said Ruth Rubinstein, an associate professor of sociology at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Wearing logos and monograms used to be "a kind of personal communication." The latest round of logomania, she said, signals that conspicuous consumption is OK.

There's no aspiring for the class of people who can afford Dior, Chanel, Gucci and Fendi logos.

"Now if you have the money to spend, you can show you can buy it," Rubinstein said. "I call it 'pride in personal success.' It says, 'Hey, I can afford to buy this.' If someone doesn't recognize what it means, it doesn't matter because they don't matter."

That logos have returned isn't unusual. That they ever left is. After lying low in the minimalist early '90s, logos began to creep back into fashion in 1995 when Gucci's Tom Ford plastered big, bright and shiny G-logo belt buckles on sleek leather belts, flashy bags and simple pumps. The look was just this side of crass, which made it all the more delicious to fans of fashion irony. Imitators rushed to mimic the style and the floodgates haven't closed yet.

"We live in a showoff-y age. Fashion reflects the age we're in," said Maggie Murray, a costume historian at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. "The economy has something to do with it. Vuitton is very expensive and uglier than sin, in my opinion. But it does say 'wealth.' "

Using a logo is a way of attracting--and separating--customers, according to Rubinstein. Vuitton stamped his initials on his canvas bags nearly 100 years ago in order to distinguish his product from those of imitators. Decades later, marketers seized on the idea for other products.

"It started with gasoline in the early '60s. They gave out labels to put on your car to show that you were using that gas," Rubinstein said. But fashion had remained fairly free of the concept.

"Actually, logos in the United States were gauche to use until the '60s or '70s, when the designer became important. Until then, the manufacturer put his name on the label. When it became important who was the designer, then putting your logo on gave the clothes an identity. It became a status symbol."

American fashion hadn't really exploited the status monogram until the 1960s. The earliest American example of a detail that became a status symbol is probably the distinctive stitching and copper rivets that Levi Strauss put on his canvas pants in the 1840s, Murray said.

In the 1980s, Americans became obsessed with status logos.

"Manufacturers discovered that the name was selling a perfectly ordinary product, like a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans," Murray said. "Then designers realized that people liked wearing clothes that were identified with the upper class, even if they [the consumers] weren't."

And that's the irony. Fashion, in all its power to say who we are, has taken an idea that was once gauche and tacky, and revived it as a symbol of taste and, better, accomplishment.

Don't fear that we're in for a reprise of 1980s logo overload, when even the fakes and knockoffs had the power to persuade others of your good taste. Even though many of the recent fall 2000 designer collections backed off on status logos, chances are that statusy monograms will infiltrate fashion at all levels for a while to come. After all, looking successful--or trying to--never goes out of style.

Valli Herman-Cohen can be reached at Valli.Herman-Cohen@latimes.com.

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