Who Cares Where a Brand is From?

I was minding my own business scrolling through Tumblr on a Sunday morning, and fifteen minutes later managed to find myself imbroglioed in a promise to write a blog post. The casus bloggi is this post from dirnelli, which led to an exchange on Twitter. To summarize, dirnelli got all #actually on GQ for calling Eidos an “Italian brand” though their designer is American and they do not currently sell in Europe; I got all #actually on his #actually since their designer is an American of Italian descent, and their factory is in Italy, and they are owned by an Italian company; this led to a discussion of whether brand nationality means anything, at which point I felt like 140 characters could no longer contain me. So here I am, taking to Tumblr.

My main point is that if you care about a brand’s nationality, full stop, you are prostrating yourself to the great god of marketing. Because you will perceive a brand’s nationality to be whatever they market themselves as. Eidos markets themselves as an Italian brand, with some justification, mentioned above. Meanwhile Ralph Lauren — considered a thoroughbred American brand — is also made in Italy. As is Huntsman, the doge of Savile Row. French luxury giants under the LVMH umbrella produce much of their goods in China.

Does this matter? Does Italian manufacture make RL any less of an “American” brand? Should you care?

Maybe you want to buy something made by workers who are treated with respect and paid fairly. The “Made In” label is a very poor proxy for that. I’ve written before about how slippery these labels can be, even under strict regulations. But even if you do know for sure where every step of production has taken place, there is a huge amount of variance in working conditions within each country. There are factories in China that pay decently, have plenty of space, and don’t overwork their employees. Meanwhile here’s a story about Amazon warehouse workers in the good ol’ US and A.

But I think most people care about brand nationality for what my friend Reginald Jerome de Mans calls that “frisson of impression” that we are getting a little bit of French je ne sais quoi with each Hermes tie or Dior belt. These are the people famed pitchman Vince Offer (Israeli-American, if we’re keeping track) is talking to when he touts his Sham-Wow as “Made in Germany — you know the Germans always make good stuff.”

We laugh at Vince’s transparent shilling for a $20 rag, but then wax poetic about all the style and elegance represented by the “made-in” label on a $2,000 rag. It reminds me of people who spend a week vacationing in Paris and come back telling everybody that “the French” do this or do that. Of course, the Germans do make good stuff. But not always. And if you’re assuming that any Italian garment will give you whatever it is you have in your head as “Italian style,” then you are begging to get suckered.

Part of modern life seems to be self-identification through consumerism — I buy such and such a thing, therefore I am such and such a person. When were we are from, both physically and culturally, matters less and less, people grasp for identity in what they buy. Imbuing products with some indelible national identity, and along with that the ethos of an entire people and history, seems to be a natural complement. Brands spend lots of money to emphasize their origin myths as a shorthand for their quiddities. But it is a cheap and facile sort of identification, and easily mimicked by unscrupulous profiteers.

So does it make any sense to care at all about a product’s provenance? Well, I do. I care about knowing the people who have had a hand in making my clothes. It’s not about the label, but my personal relationships with the people and places involved. Of course I realize that this is a time and money-intensive process, and not everyone has that luxury. But some brands and retailers care about it too, and try to bring you as close as possible to the people who make your stuff, rather than distancing you from it by re-branding everything with their store label, or hiding behind the need to safeguard industry secrets.

This in itself is its own sort of illusion. Everyone presents themselves how they want to be seen. But some stories are better to believe in than others. And these days, whether a brand considers itself, or even whether it should be considered, Italian, or American, or English, or French, is just not a big part of the story. Maybe there are some people who care about whether Eidos is “really” an Italian brand or not. But this conversation has gotten stale for me, and I think in the end, the focus on assigning to each brand a particular country’s stylistic identity only benefits PR budgets. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just spilled a beer and need to find my ShamWow. Those Germans really do make great stuff.

Originally published at ivorytowerstyle.com.

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