The NYU Costume Studies program’s new exhibit “Gray Area; Authenticity, Value and Subversion in Fashion” raises big questions in an industry now trembling under the beady eyes of Diet Prada. While the accepted thinking is that bootlegs, riffs and counterfeits should bring shame, and possible financial ruin, on any opportunist encroaching on the intellectual copyright of our most beloved brands, the definition of authenticity begins to blur when confronted with many of the pieces that have been curated in this gallery setting.
Artist Stephanie Syjuco’s crochet Gucci purse, Peter Gronquist’s gold Gucci chainsaw or Ava Nirui’s hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Marc Jacobs” defy pronouncements of black and white verdicts, especially when we consider that Marc Jacobs entered into collaboration with Nirui after discovering her work, and Diet Prada sells products emblazoned with the words Kim des Garçons, a parody of Japanese avant garde label Comme des Garçons. Art and fashion have long enjoyed a camaraderie, possibly fueled by tacit acknowledgement of their own self importance, but what happens when the relationship sours? At the exhibit opening, FashionUnited spoke to one creative whose experience deep in the gray area has cost him thousands of dollars but put him dead center of a necessary conversation.
Ari Forman, graphic designer, experiential marketer, and sneakerhead became a wanted man after daring to address serious questions through the medium of sneaker design. In 2006, convinced that the top brands like Nike and Adidas could do more good with their power and inspired by Nigo and his label A Bathing Ape which infused sneaker designer with wit, he designed a limited run of his Menthol 10s, a sneaker whose design merged elements of Newport cigarette packaging with the iconic Nike Air Force 1 silhouette. Instead of the stars found on the Nike shoe’s front sole his Menthol 10s had dollar signs, as well as an interior which featured a print of the words Blah Blah Blah, a lining patterned like a cigarette filter, and a tag containing the words: “This sneaker is dedicated to the two brands who have taken the most and given the least. Thanks for the motivation…Now it’s OUR turn!!!” Only then did he realize how advocating for conscious consumerism over blind tribal acceptance has a price.
Tell us the story of the Menthol 10s
It’s so complicated that it’s boring. In short, it was a case study that was an art project, talking about the hypocrisy that exists not only with consumption, and perceived value, but in corporate responsibility. Every corporation, like every person, has positive and negative, good and bad. You can love brands and not love what they do. You can love the art directors and the ads they create, but hate tobacco. You can love Nike for its beautiful products, and how it fits your lifestyle, but also not like their bad business practices or disingenuous marketing. In my family there are smokers, drinkers and addicts which raises the same question: how do you love someone when you hate things about them? We learn to look past individuals’ faults and this is also true with regards to our relationships with corporations. But we need to hold corporations accountable in ways that we’re not going to hold people.
Why did you choose these two particular corporations to merge in this piece of work?
The people behind Newport were a rich tobacco family from the 1700s who became society folk in New York and were very philanthropic.The spinnaker logo was established in the late 40s, early 50s. Nike came along in the 70s. Legally you cannot have competing marks unless you agree to have competing marks. Newport didn’t object to Nike’s swoosh which looks like the spinnaker inverted. So I said to myself, I’m going to do something that’s going to make both of them object to me so that the three-way argument could illustrate the hypocrisy around corporate responsibility. They hold me to a standard they don’t hold themselves to. They’ll protect their interests over the interests of humanity. This was a way to create a discussion around anti-tobacco, corporate responsibility, perception of value, and about comparing authenticity and what is an original idea.
What happened when both companies became aware of the existence of the Menthol 10?
They both gave me cease-and-desist. Newport’s parent company, Lorillard, like all big tobacco, has a settlement with the federal government outlining the types of advertising they can’t do anymore which includes targeting children. Their impression was that a sneaker appealed to kids and so I was promoting tobacco, and their brand, to children, as well as the fact that I was obviously infringing. They thought I should have carded kids who bought the sneaker, considering it a tobacco-related promotional product. I said no, it is anti-tobacco. I come from a family rocked by cancer caused by smoking, and while this may appear pro, that’s how you have to talk to people, deliver something eye-catching, then drop the message behind it. You can’t come in as the enemy. It took years to develop this case study and then bring it to market, with all the moving parts coming together.
So your product hit the market?
Oh yeah, the sample run of 252 was manufactured––the boxes domestically (they carried the message General Warning: Get Off The Brandwagon), the sneaker in China. They sold out within an hour. Kids lined up for two days, slept out to get them. Then Nike came in with their cease and desist––they were great about it––but Lorillard said cease production, give us all you have, we need to talk legal details, I’m not even allowed to own a digital photo of the shoe.
Are you in breach of that now that the shoe is in an exhibition?
This is not mine. I’m not allowed to own it and I don’t. This is from private collections. Over the years people have come to me, asked me to sign something, but I’m not going to breach the arrangement. Talking about it is blurry but basically I can’t profit from it. There’s no money involved in dialogue and if anything I get to talk about what’s transpired from then as tobacco use has further affected my family, and it moves the dialogue down the road.
Would you say your story has echoes of Dapper Dan and his experience with Gucci, another David and Goliath pairing?
Of course! Growing up, I came into my own with hip-hop in the 80s when I co-owned a magazine called On The Go with a fellow controversial artist, Steve Powers. It was published until 1997 and heavily featured hip-hop culture and Dapper Dan. I’ve also designed logos and album covers within the industry. When I lived in Philly, we had our own local Dapper Dan and then we’d go to Atlantic City to get Gucci. Dapper Dan’s a legend. There are two ways for brands to handle the situation and Gucci did it the best way possible. There are many arguments around appropriation and taking advantage but it’s not for us to decide, it’s for Dan to decide. He’s no fool, he came through segregation and tough times so he’s not a man to sell out. Gucci owed him and they did the right thing for each other, in my opinion.
Are you proud to see your work turn up in a show like this?
I am. It’s been in some interesting situations over the years, in various contexts. Nothing that has been this clinical, I would say, but anything that has an educational component to it is exactly what I set out to do. That’s all it ever was. Everyone sees something different, some see this hip-hop thing, but it’s about the message. In every detail of this shoe, there are messages, in the tongue, on the manufacturing tag, about fake corporate credos and mission statements. So on the outside, sneaker, on the inside, subversion.
Ari Saal Forman’s work is part of the exhibit which runs until February 2 at 80WSE Gallery, 80 Washington Square East, NYC.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Images: FashionUnited, header image Aanchal Bakshi