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Fashion’s branding crisis

Logos in fashion are dead. Long live logos!

Fashion’s branding crisis
[Image: Céline]

Goodbye Céline, hello Celine. The LVMH-owned fashion label unveiled a new logo over Labor Day weekend, and the internet is very divided about the typographic facelift.

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On Monday, weeks ahead of his debut collection for the brand, incoming creative director Hedi Slimane brashly announced the start of his era with a ceremonious Instagram purge that wiped the entire official @celine account clean, replacing it with a threepart post announcing a newly refreshed brand identity. In short: The accent over the E is now gone, and the letter spacing has been finessed for visual consistency. Fashion insiders and stans alike promptly went into mourning over the former look of the luxury fashion house. Users griped and ranted that “The new Celine sounds cheap and tacky,” and “NO ACCENT NO CÉLINE,” while another simply proclaimed: “R.I.P. Céline.”

The fashion house’s newly unveiled logo (below) edits the previous rendition (above) by omitting the accent over the E and adjusting the letter spacing. [Image: Céline]
Beneath the three identical posts, which feature a shimmering gold curtain as a sort of prelude to his splashy entrance, Slimane, who has been noted to hold a particular passion for typography, architecture, and industrial design (he’s a Dieter Rams fan), detailed his rebranding moves. Set in the 1930s modernist font Futura, “The new logo has been directly inspired by the original, historical version that existed in the 1960s,” the caption reads, further explaining that the accent was removed to hearken back to the brand’s minimalist 1960s era and “enable a simplified and more balanced proportion.”

This would be the second time Slimane, who most recently headed Yves Saint Laurent, upset the apple cart by tweaking a legacy logo design. Then, he retired the famous YSL mark, originally drawn by the painter Adolphe Mouron Cassandre in 1961, by trading its serif strokes for Helvetica and shortening the label’s name to simply Saint Laurent.

While it may seem odd and even a bit surreal to hear the fashion crowd get their garments bunched over topics as arcane as kerning, diacritical marks, and vintage typefaces, logos hold a heightened role in the luxury fashion world, and for good reason: They’re often the face of accessories, the cash cow of the luxury goods industry. Plastered on handbags and accessories, packaging for beauty products, and lower-end tees and products that drive the bottom line, the blueprint of a heritage logo seemingly upholds the aura of authenticity for luxury fashion brands, even as it feeds the aspirational beast that spawns poorly botched imitations and counterfeits. If you’re spending thousands on a luxury item, you’re bound to know the real thing—down to the embroidery, buttons, seams, zippers, and, yes, logo—to a tee. For some items, including Celine’s own infamous $600 plastic bag that trended this spring, an authentic logo is what mostly distinguishes the item from a plain ol’ pile of PVC.

Beyond product, logos today also need to operate across a plethora of distribution channels. As Chris Wu, a partner at the design studio Wkshps, explains, this means an apt logo “needs to be no-fuss and bulletproof. It can appear on a tiny avatar and still look clear and sharp; it needs to render well and remain recognizable in the background in a video or 1-second animated gif,” he said, and it even “needs to be easy enough for fans or haters to pull out and create internet memes and in a distorted and unconsidered setup.” For Wu, the removal of the accent over the E strategically acknowledges a more global demographic. “I see a clear nod to the intrinsic nature of digital communication and globalism. A brand today not only needs to be recognized, but also discussed, shared, and eventually, typed out. I wonder how many people ever deliberately type out the accent é when they share their new Céline bag in a social media post.”

For longtime collectors of Celine wares, news of the logo redesign both egotistically dates last season’s bag to a pre-Slimane era, and aims to generate hype for a demographic of shoppers frenzied over Instagram feeds. (A video of the same golden curtain also features on the brand’s site celine.com, with the addition of a small countdown clock to Slimane’s show at Paris Fashion Week in 23 days, measured by the hours, minutes, and seconds.) It may be that monograms, long regarded as the lifeline and currency of longevity for some luxury fashion brands, are an old-fashioned signifier of rarified exclusivity that’s less relevant to today’s digitally driven culture, where the quest for continual newness trumps tradition, and the notion of buying a future heirloom seems a little quaint (and perhaps even naive, because #latecapitalism).

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British designer Peter Saville, lauded for his album covers for bands like Joy Division, was recently criticized on social media for his redesign of Burberry’s heritage word mark and tessellated monogram; he also redesigned the Calvin Klein logo last year. And the cuttingly ironic collections of Balenciaga of late, led by Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia, sarcastically pepper garments with a sense of parody, aping and recycling the familiar look of brand logos ranging from DHL to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

For a visually saturated digital landscape, logos are but avatars teeming for our attention—even as they fall into an increasingly homogenized style. “The tighter letter spacing feels like an improvement from the original design, but we miss that bit of uniqueness and context that came from having the accent over the E,” says David Heasty, who runs the graphic design studio Triboro with his wife and partner, Stefanie Weigler, and has worked on campaigns for clients ranging from Everlane to Nike. “If seen in a cultural vacuum this logotype would be lovely, but Celine’s new logo falls victim to the current reigning typographic zeitgeist. Nearly every type of company, from start-ups to the largest corporations on earth, have now embraced geometric sans-serif type in their identities,” he adds—”a pragmatic choice for tiny screens.”

More than the logo itself, says art director Eric Hu, a former design director at SSENSE, was the drastic choice to scrub the @celine Instagram account clean. “Even if unintentional, it feels as if it was an attempt to be a revisionist with history. It’s almost as if Phoebe Philo’s archive was made invisible which I don’t think is fair. Modernism with a capital ‘M’ was partly about doing away with the past—annihilating history to build a new world. Such an attitude worries me in our current political climate,” Hu said.

Phoebe Philo, who preceded Slimane’s appointment with a 10-year tenure, championed women with its elegant, minimal-cool take on jolie laide—that very French ideal of a smart and understated, ugly beautiful—and the rendition of the Céline logo in her time, whether intentionally or not, could be seen as an extension of her ethos for a distinctly imperfect beauty. For a memorable and internet-breaking ad campaign in 2015, Philo featured Joan Didion, the sage intellect known for economical prose and fierce independent thought, as her style muse at age 80.

A few days later that same season, Slimane, then head of Saint Laurent, released a campaign starring his own elder muse, the musician Joni Mitchell, which both spoke irreverently in direct conversation to Philo’s Didion, and fell in line with his frequent enamor for figures from the pop and rock world: lithe, edgy figures like Sky Ferreira, Frances Bean Cobain, and Grimes, photographed in stark black and white. A strategically placed sneak preview of Slimane’s first Celine design—a stately leather handbag spotted on the arm of Lady Gaga roaming the streets of Paris last week—is some indication that the brand will fall into a similar vein.

Slimane’s official title is “artistic, creative, and image director”—an all-encompassing role of creative control he’s said to have pioneered for the contemporary fashion world—and he is certainly commandeering the last of those duties. And in true rockstar fashion, once he steps out from that proverbial golden curtain, the label may simply be known bittersweetly, for some fans, as The Fashion House Formerly Known As Céline.

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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