Typeface and logotype can make or break a brand, especially in streetwear, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
WE’RE reading more these days. Needless to say, you’re reading right now. On paper or onscreen, facts, ideas and other constituents of human life are imparted through words that are put together from the letters of the alphabet. More or less everything we read in the English language comes from combining 26 characters.
While the message and meaning of those words take precedence, the form in which they are delivered is not to be scoffed at. A particular design of letters and numbers is classed as typeface, while font goes into the specifics of the typeface, such as size or style.
When choosing a font, you need to consider the practical side of things, such as readability. Office managers may espouse a certain font because it requires less ink, thus saving on printing and paper costs. And we all agree that a sentence in ALL CAPS is an affront, just like a person shouting.
Also, nothing in life is free. Typefaces have owners and creators, who may require payment for their use. Meanwhile, graphic artists and designers style and manipulate typefaces, to create the typography that we read from.
We like, dislike or feel indifferent to a typeface much in the same way that we feel about art, in that it is something visual turned into the visceral, leaving us – sometimes – at a loss to describe exactly why we feel the way we do.
FIND YOUR FONT
So as a medium that delivers words and their meanings, fonts carry their own meaning too, which may enhance or weaken the intended message.
“Typography is the vehicle through which we communicate tone of voice, age, gender, emotion – and it can be easily manipulated,” says freelance art director Shazwan Taib. “Visual characteristics of the font speak louder than words. It can completely change an intended message depending on how or where you use it.”
In fashion, typography plays a big role in representing the brand. It can even mean the brand itself, such as the way that some people recognise or value handbags with Louis Vuitton’s interlocking LV logo more than the clothes by creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere.
Typography is an all-time classic fashion trend. Through visible logotypes, an outfit becomes synonymous with luxury, a lifestyle indicator and an extension of the wearer’s personality, even if doing so turns her into a “walking, talking, breathing adverts,”, says Shazwan.
Logotypes are particularly evident in streetwear. A T-shirt is just a T-shirt, but slap a boxed Supreme logo on it and it becomes a collector’s item that can go for 10 times its retail price at RM3,000 in the resale market. Last year Supreme offered a brick for about RM130 and it sold out in minutes. (Yes, a brick, the stuff that you build houses from.)
LOW AND HIGH
Streetwear itself can be a bit tricky to define. Rooted firmly - though not necessarily exclusively – in men’s wear, streetwear has its roots in urban youth culture.
According to Complex magazine: “It’s connected to skateboarding, hip-hop and surfing. Streetwear is the relatively affordable provenance of sneakers, hoodies and T-shirts. It’s traditionally less about suits and ties than it is about sweats and caps.”
That said, Louis Vuitton collaborated with Supreme for its Fall/Winter 2017 men’s wear collection. For pre-fall, the luxury fashion house worked with the so-called godfather of Japanese streetwear, Hiroshi Fujiwara, through his Fragment Design company.
The Press release says: “This collection is based on the fictitious music band Louis V and The Fragments created by Fujiwara and Louis Vuitton, and uses a Fragment Design featuring preppy elements and fresh, bold embroidery and prints.
“The pop culture, graphic motifs, history of sportswear, and passion for men's wear design icons shared by Fujiwara and (men’s artistic director Kim) Jones are splendidly blended, and are expressed in leather goods, ready-to-wear, shoes and accessories.”
In streetwear, the font or logotype can make or break the brand. Conventional fashion designers play with cuts, patterns and silhouettes. But here, people tend to focus on the hoodies and tees, even though the label may have other things to offer.
“Streetwear fashion needs to look effortless,” says Shazwan. “So the same goes for font or type usage, whether it is a custom design or a ready-made font. But that’s not to say it is without substance. You see this in a lot of local streetwear brands where they use a typeface as their logotype, but lose the character or charisma of that type.”
You can’t claim to be an original if you use a typeface made famous by other labels, Shazwan adds. It’s a pastiche or a parody, or an homage, unless you take the idea to the next level. Even Supreme’s red rectangle design with the Futura typeface isn’t that original because it is stolen (OK, inspired by) from the work of American artist Barbara Kruger, he says.
EASY DOES IT
“Streetwear used to be a subculture, but now it’s the norm,” says Bryan Chin, founder of Malaysian streetwear website masses.com.my and magazine Masses, now in its ninth issue. “People used to dress this way to be different, but over the years it has changed such that you are not out of the norm, but you’re the standard which people strive to be.”
Chin wears a Carhartt camo T-shirt and a pair of Vans slip-ons from the Vault Collection. It’s head-to-toe casual, but with attention to detail. Carhartt started out making hard-wearing overalls for manual work (it still does) and Vans also has modest beginnings, but streetwear’s rise has allowed brands to expand their price point, customer base and design versatility.
“Stussy is the oldest, it’s the father of streetwear,” Chin adds. “It was born in the early 1980’s from the Californian surfing culture. Everyone then had the same coloured surfboards, and after you stuck your boards in the sand in a row, it was hard to identify.
“What Shawn Stussy did was sign his name on his surfboard, which became the Stussy logo. And his handwriting became the Stussy font. It appears on posters and other merchandise and is a big part of Stussy’s brand identity.”
Shawn Stussy resigned from his namesake label in 1996, by then a multi-million dollar company, apparently to focus on raising his family in Hawaii. Streetwear likes to carry itself with the swagger of independence and unconventionality, and Shawn certainly embodies that.
DO IT YOURSELF
Away from the Californian coast and in the suburbs of Putrajaya, is the Malaysian streetwear label Attack Apparel. Its designer Pekthong is more inspired by death metal than hip hop or surfing. His design process includes listening to bands like Iron Maiden, Mastodon and The Black Dahlia Murder, and he takes their album artworks as reference.
“Attack Apparel’s design identity is basically violence and death,” he says. “So I use a lot of gore strokes and skull-and-bone elements. Last year we did the Prison Weapons series, which had detailed drawings of knives, blades and sharp tools made from toothbrush and sharp instruments. The detailing is an important part of my artwork, which you can see in AA’s designs.”
He adds: “For a brand to decide on a font, you need to pick one that goes with your design and identity. It’s a lot of trial and error. I like to create my own typeface.”
To create his font, Pekthong starts by putting ink to paper in the alphabet style that he knows will work on AA’s merchandise. The dried lettering is then scanned and traced onto Adobe Illustrator, and converted into a vector image.
“After that, you can manipulate the letters, clean it them up, add colours or effects, enlarge them, whatever you want. The advantage is that no one else will look like you, because you’re the only brand that uses that font.”