Prada in Chinatown: are logos no longer off limits for streetwear brands?

While some labels are adamant about copyright infringement, others welcome the fresh perspective

Chinatown Market’s workshop at Sole DXB, in which visitors could customise hoodies with various logos. Courtesy Puma

Double Gs, interlocking Cs, L intertwined with V: many purveyors of luxury buyers can rattle off their favourite fashion brand logos faster than they’d fare at a spelling bee. Designer monograms and symbols, ­especially in the brand-loving city of Dubai, dominate the outfits and conversations of most fashion-conscious millennials. To some overexposed viewers it may be an eyesore, but logomania is a long-standing trend coveted by all manner of shoppers – not only those with deep pockets.  

When logos decorate every­thing from luggage sets to leather belts and lipstick tubes, it becomes difficult to differentiate between the real ones and the fakes. And yet, the latter category seems to be losing its stigma, thanks to international athleisure designers for whom our obsession with logos serves as inspiration for designs that are original in their own way.

Rather than losing their appeal upon being flaunted by the masses, famous logos employed in a tongue-in-cheek way by streetwear labels have millennials lining up. Chinatown Market is a case in point. The logos and typeface – of other labels, that is – are a defining feature of the brand (the name is an ode to the New York neighbourhood notorious for selling designer knock-offs). Apart from Chinatown's signature range, which features smiley face emblems, popular T-shirt designs over the years have included one spelling out "Mom", but in the style of the MCM logo, another scrawled with Nike's "Just do it" motto with the famous swoosh sign, and a third emblazoned with the words "I'm so Prada you".  

The label's founder, Mike Cherman, was at last month's Sole DXB fair as part of a collaboration with Puma to create trainers with a range of detachable strip patterns (the stripe-like element on the shoes). The designer's DIY aesthetic came into play at a workshop where visitors could use heat-press machines to customise hoodies, T-shirts and shoes with a range of ­embroidered patches, ­flaunting the bold logos of Puma and Chinatown Market. "Our mantra of how we interact with consumers is to let them leave here feeling empowered," says Cherman, who lists creativity and accessibility as key ­components of his company.

Accessible luxury sounds like an oxymoron, but it's a phenomenon that's starting to define the reality of the fashion industry today. No longer is Chanel synonymous only with haute couture; after all, there's a tennis racket stamped with its legendary logo. Fellow couturier ­Balenciaga now creates baseball caps – plain and ­traditional, save for the brand's lettering across the brim. Luxury labels that were once accessible only to the elite have begun ­catering to younger, less wealthy ­consumers under the purview of the tremendously trendy streetwear retail category.

Some high-end labels are achieving this through ­collaborations with sport brands. "We're seeing this now with Prada doing an Adidas collaboration, Dior doing a Nike collaboration and Rick Owens with Birkenstock. These worlds are no longer separated; I believe they're becoming one," says Cherman. "A lot of times, [today's] kids are not connected to these big brands. A Dior is so disconnected from a consumer, from a kid [who] can't spend $2,000 on a pair of sneakers."

The next best thing for consumers addicted to the appeal of designer goods, but lacking the finances to support their desires, is a bootleg. And while knock-offs are part of a thriving black-market scheme, Cherman's Chinatown Market pieces are not cut-and-paste fakes – he sees them as "works of art, which promote creative, out-of-the-box thinking". They also make for popular Instagram content, such as a collection of limited-quantity Band-Aids he decorated with colourful designer logos. "It's more for you to have fun with it. We make these things for inspiration and to put it out there, because we want kids to say: 'I can do it too.' Go buy a pack of Band-Aids, and go draw on them and have some fun with it," he says. Chinatown Market's logo-adorned creations sell out swiftly upon launching, dare we say before big brands have the chance to serve cease-and-desist legal notices. Yet, while some labels are adamant about copyright infringement, others welcome the fresh perspective. 

Take the popular Gucci Ghost collection as an example. This was the brainchild of Trevor Andrew, a graffiti artist who was using the brand's logo long before he was ultimately invited by creative director Alessandro Michele to officially collaborate.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 14:  Musician Trouble Andrew AKA Guccighost attends the GucciGhost Global Launch Event on September 14, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for GUCCI)

In similar fashion, Ava Nirui, known by her Instagram name @­avanope, was crafting sweatshirts embroidered with brand logos before being scouted for a collaboration by Marc Jacobs. When it comes to self-made streetwear, the ethical lines seem to be blurred as luxury designers embrace the artistry of urban creatives, even though their logos were seemingly used without legalities in mind.

Chinatown Market itself has become the collaborator of choice for brands such as Crocs, Converse, Cole Haan and Asos, in addition to Puma. The cult label also attracts ­celebrities; American musician Erykah Badu was recently spotted in a mixed-print design by the designer, featuring Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Fendi logos, stating: “You don’t even understand the power of the bootleg in the hood.”

It's no longer that you understand each other culturally; it's more that you're both 'in the know' enough that you bought that.

Trends propagated by the fashion industry, magazines and social media often ­emphasise the allure of logos, and are ultimately to blame for consumers’ fascination with them. But Cherman says the appeal runs deeper than mere aesthetics. “I think back in the day, it was like being part of the so-called boys’ club,” says the designer, who explains that strangers branded with the same emblem felt they had something in common when they passed each other on the street. “Nowadays, with social media, it’s not so much the same; it’s about wanting something that no one else has, or that a celebrity has, so you can feel part of this special cool club. It’s no longer that you understand each other culturally; it’s more that you’re both ‘in the know’ enough that you bought that.”

So when do the spin-offs become more appealing than the originals? Consumers of streetwear brands that feature parodies of logos often care not for the mere aesthetic of the logo itself, but for the deeper ideologies that the bootlegging brand represents. "Streetwear has always been about democratising things and bringing them down to earth," says Cherman. Plus, some fashion enthusiasts are simply unable to pay thousands of dirhams for a plain cotton T-shirt stamped with an appealing designer logo. ­Cherman's solution? Get a marker and make your own.