The back-to-school brand backlash: Don Pittis

Wearing brands on campus can be a declaration of status and makes you part of a "style tribe." But there are signs the air may be going out of the in-your-face brand bubble. For now.

New students may not have heard of Naomi Klein's book No Logo, but brands are hard to find on campus

Second year economics student Zena Xing and friends dressed in their frosh week colours: 'We're seeing a move away from ostentation now.' (Don Pittis/CBC News)

A study in the Journal of Business Research showed that wearing luxury brands to a job interview makes you more likely to get the position. That would likely horrify Naomi Klein, the Canadian author of the book No Logo.

But Klein, a well-known social activist and author, may be more reassured by a tour of Canadian university campuses this year where returning students seem to be in the middle of a new brand backlash. 

Klein's book, published in 2000 and winner of the National Business Book Award in 2001, was among other things a condemnation of international brands, especially clothing mass produced by sweatshop labour. Whether on shirts or billboards, brands crowd out orignal independent thought, wrote Klein.

In the years since, brands and the sometimes deadly factories that produce them, have not gone away.

Style tribes

Starting in high school, people begin to use brands to identify with a "style tribe" says Susan Roberton, who teaches graduate students at Humber College's Fashion Management program. On campus, that process of self-labelling continues, with subtle differences.

Whether at a job interview or just amongst friends, choosing to wear luxury brands signals the kind of person you are, whether or not you mean to transmit those signals, she says. It can also says something about how poor or rich your family is.
Shortly after Noami Klein wrote her book No Logo, Don Pittis bought a scarf in Holland, only later noticing its ironic brand. (Don Pittis,/CBC News)

"There's the assumption that wealth is intelligent, is capable, is successful," says Roberton. "And those brands will speak to people in that way."

Critics of the job interview research point out it was conducted in South Korea, where social analysts say brands matter much more than in North America.

Besides, says Roberton, depending on which style tribe your potential employer belongs to, sending the inappropriate signal can have exactly the opposite effect.

For instance, wearing Armani to apply for a software developer job might be a disaster.

"'I don't need to establish my credibility with you by wearing branded merchandise,'" Roberton quotes members of the anti-brand style tribe as saying. "But you have to be very conscious to do that because there's so much branded product out there."

Fashion cycles

Brands and branding go through fashion cycles. In the 1980s, in the era of "nothing comes between me and my Calvins," logos were everywhere. Then came "grunge," tattered, layered and brand-free.

Abercrombie and Fitch used to be everywhere, plastered across the T-shirts of young people who perhaps thought of themselves as slightly upmarket. But then, following a scandal that claimed the brand was deliberately discriminating against overweight people, Abercrombie stripped its logo off its clothing.

On a walk through the University of Toronto campus last week, the appearance of an Abercrombie logo seemed positively vintage.

The young man wearing it, commerce student Luke Hong, says he used to work for the company and watched as sales kept going down. Finding itself suffering at the hands of fickle consumers, Abercrombie has been losing money and recently announced it was closing 60 stores.
The once ubiquitous brand Abercrombie is almost missing from campus this year as the brand continues to crumble. This commerce student used to work for the company: 'Sales kept going down.' (Don Pittis/CBC News)

As a former employee showing the company colours, Hong was wearing his logo in a slightly different way, like employees of technology companies demonstrating their corporate affiliation or boasting of their profession.  

Showing the colours was all the rage during frosh week, and the most common things written on people's T-shirts were college or program names.

Less ostentation

Zena Xing, walking with two chums from Trinity College, said that wearing commercial logos was not as popular as it has been. None of the three had ever heard of Klein's book, but then neither were they wearing visible commercial brands. 

"There's a move away from ostentation now," said Xing, a finance and economics student at Rotman School of Business. But she says people often wear less visible logos, "to subtly show you're rich."

Sports brands, where Under Armour has become a new leader, are visible along with Adidas and Puma among what Roberton calls the "jock" style group, but not everyone athletic is wearing the standard brands.
Law student Hatim Kheir, who wears a T-shirt advertising a business that doesn't actually exist, says he's not crazy about being a walking billboard for big name brands. (Don Pittis/CBC News)

Law student Hatim Kheir wears a logo for a company that doesn't even exist, a T-shirt advertising Callahan Auto Parts in Sandusky, Ohio, that appeared in the cult movie Tommy Boy. He bought it for a retro costume party and now wears it as a workout shirt.

Students seeking 'fabiness'

"I'm not a big fan of brand names," says Kheir. " I'm not crazy about advertising product names on my clothing." 

Susan Roberton says her fashion-conscious students aren't enamoured of established brands either, searching out new looks created by local designers or creating their own styles, anxious to be trend leaders.

Like Abercrombie, many fashion retailers are moving away from obvious branding. And cheap unbranded "fast fashion" is also produced in sweatshops.

Roberton says the people at the pinnacle of fashion sense are the ones who can afford to ignore brands altogether and dress their own way.

"That's called style," says Roberton. "That's the ability to put things together in a way to show your uniqueness and your creativity. It's just that flare, that fabiness."

Once they are out looking for a job, even today's students may toss away their scruples and seek out luxury brands that give off an aura of opulence. But in a business world that depends on creativity and originality, perhaps a bit of fabiness will send a better message than slavishly donning the brand uniform.

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  • An original version of this story referred to a slogan from a Calvin Klein ad as "nobody comes between me and my Calvins." In fact, the direct quote from the ad is: "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."
    Sep 12, 2016 5:00 PM ET

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.