This Font Has Designs On Your Mind

How the Engravers' Gothic typeface became a men's fashion superfont

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The Model As Font
You may not know the name, but you definitely know the face.

This particular face, which belongs to the French fashion model Clément Chabernaud, is significant. Ranked No.2 on Models.com’s list of Top 50 Male mannequins, 25-year-old Chabernaud has, in recent years, been the poster boy for advertising campaigns by Jil Sander, Gucci, De Fursac, Balmain, Lacoste, Trussardi and many other marques.

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His is a fizzog that stimulates appetites and articulates aesthetic desires, yet it’s an unusual one. There’s his sculptural jawline, his razorblade cheekbones, that perfect long nose, the overall proportionality of the composition: so far, so Zoolander. Chabernaud’s face is all fine edges until you focus on his puckering, wavy lips and those marsupial eyes which peer out diffidently from beneath his bushy eyebrows, dissolving his stern inscrutability into something much softer, dreamier, something a bit more feminine – something, in the contemporary argot, “epicene”.

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In the nowness of men’s fashion, Chabernaud’s celestial features are the most now of all – a face which telegraphs this era of mild masculinity in the way Fabio Lanzoni’s did the beefcake Eighties and David Beckham’s did the peacock Nineties. So unified in its edges and curves, it’s almost as if Chabernaud’s face was designed using Adobe products in a Zürich studio rather than merely developing on the front of his head. His is a face that’s so graphic as to be beyond telegraphic, to be actually typographic. It’s face like font, and a beautiful one at that: the font called Engraver’s Gothic, to be exact.

Models and fonts are both cyphers, things with nothing of their own to communicate. Models annotate aesthetic eras, and fonts articulate them, but the ubiquity of Engravers Gothic in the kind of classy communications targeting men like you means that it is today’s superfont, just as Chabernaud is its supermodel: significant in itself, as well as in what it does.

It speaks of time of hushed exchanges of business credentials, of reliable service and discretion, of unshouty knowingness and contained confidence – a kind of businesslike rectitude. Despite being up to 150 years old, no other typeface transmits austere, flat-white modernity as Engravers Gothic, and its gradual rise to popularity today began with its use as head- and strapline typeface in Fantastic Man, the fashion magazine launched in 2005 by Dutch art director and editor duo Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers which, coincidentally, often runs shoots featuring the model Clément Chabernaud.

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Popularity is putting it mildly, because since the revival of Engraver’s Gothic in that magazine, it’s become ubiquitous, a kind of stylish typographic virus present everywhere from the high-end to the high street and far beyond. It’s there in the wordmarks (logos consisting solely of type) of Marc by Marc Jacobs, Strenesse, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Carven, Reiss, Kurt Geiger, Zara Home and Vertu, all of which strive to talk, in one way or another, to male inhabitants of Fantastic World.

It’s also there in the CI of many more concerns you’ve probably never heard of, even if their owners wish you had: Italian prosecco brand Scavi & Ray, the European estate agents Fantastic Frank, or the Tromsø, Norway-based industrial group Odd Berg, not forgetting the latest redesign of women’s fashion mag Rika, bits of J. Crew branding, pop singer Jessie Ware’s new logo, the cool photographic agency M.A.P, French erotic lingerie maker Patrice Catanzaro, even the wordmark of cosmetic colossus L’Oréal, and so on.

Closer to home, Engravers defines the graphic syntax of menswear e-tail site Matchesfashion.com and most obviously of all, its competitor MrPorter.com. In less than a decade the Engraver’s typographic style has migrated from the underground to the mass market to become a default signature of modern urbanity and discernment.

The Font As Era
Engravers (along with related typefaces such as ITC Blair, Sackers Gothic, Sweet Sans and Burin Sans) is a style based on a templates used by professional engravers in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, since digitised for desktop publishing; Engraver’s Gothic BT was published in the early Nineties by Boston-based type studio Bitstream.

It’s a sans serif, meaning it has no curly bits on the end of characters, and combines the industrial and the romantic in its combination of hard straight lines and voluptuous but (never florid) curves: look at that barrel-chested, straight-backed capital R, for example.

It’s provenance, according to type expert Paul Barnes of font studio Commercial Type, is in social stationery produced by professional engravers “as opposed to letterpress or lithography. It shows you have money and class.” You don’t have to be a fontophile to notice the generous spacing between characters in wordmarks using these fonts, or that the individual characters themselves are rather wide.

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“Wider is better than condensed on the landscape format,” says Barnes, “and is the direct opposite of advertising typography where normally condensed to make things as big as possible would be the standard. So you are literally saying I can pay for the space around the letter.”

According to notes on Fonts.com about Jim Spiece’s ITC Blair typeface from 1997, “Engravers conveys a crisp, formal and objective tone,” which could just as easily be a description of Clément Chabernaud’s fabulously obtuse expression in, say, the De Fursac SS'14 campaign.

What’s in a font? Quite a lot, as it happens. According to editorial design expert Jeremy Leslie of Magculture.com, Engravers Gothic embodies an “idealised aura of refinement and maturity, something between masculine and feminine. It’s not laddish, its stylish but not poncy.”

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When van Bennekom and Jonkers use it at Fantastic Man, Leslie argues, it is as part of an elaborate, ironic joke. Their magazine is irreverent. It does not take itself or its subjects entirely seriously.  “Fantastic Man were using Engravers the same way they over-egg their respect for the people they write about, always talking about THE FABULOUS so-and-so. You know there’s a tongue in cheek, and that typography was the perfect personification of that sense. And then Mr Porter did it seriously.”

The Era in Man
Slim, neat, light, austere and romantic, Engravers’ presence in our contemporary visual topography is all the more striking when compared with dominant fonts of previous decades, in particular the ones used to sell stuff to men like you and me.

Boldness and bigness defined the wordmarks of archetypally Eighties and Nineties, man-facing brands such as Nike, Absolut, Lucky Strike, Red Bull, Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein, many of which were based on variations of the Futura font.

During that supersized era, “giving it the large one” was a recognised activity while “bigging your chest up” was a similarly important social ritual, and in our world of mags and media, the superfonts of the day were fat, slabby ones just as the icons and supermodels were tuff and buff.

In mags like Loaded and FHM, muscular Impacts and lairy Futuras articulated the contemporary yearning to be large and livid; imperatives to live big were delivered in a typeface like Danny Dyer’s face. FHM even used one called Bureau Grot Ultra, as if in homage to its readers’ lifestyles.

“There was the feeling that you had to be big, red and bold to be masculine,” notes Jeremy Leslie. “The brashness of a previous era on men’s magazine was all red-eyed and gory, whereas Fantastic Man is simpler and calmer. It’s a matter of authority and confidence.” The new attitude, Leslie suggest, can be summed up as “I’ve got a gorgeous pair of loafers, I don’t have to shout at you”.

Fonts have always beefed up or toned down in parallel with the moods of fashion, and all the more so in the infinitely more competitive realm of womenswear and the mags that write about it. But back in the now, fonts have changed again because the world has too.

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Just was we’ve slimmed down from our Celtic-tattooed, six-packed Nineties selves to, austerity-toughened fashion brands, for whom form is function, have also been through a frantic de-cluttering and redefining – a brutal sans-ing of serifs, and hence the appeal of a font like Engravers.

Philosophically as well as typographically, they’ve been put on the same diet Karl Lagerfeld undertook to get into Hedi Slimane’s emaciated silhouette for Dior Homme a decade ago, and none more so than the house of Yves Saint Laurent, where Slimane’s scandalous rebranding first involved removing the “Yves” in 2011, and then re-rendering the formerly twirly YSL wordmark into an icy, blocky Helvetica. Saint Laurent’s sales have since gone through the roof. (In fashion’s new anti-serif epoch, perhaps many of the major houses have realised what the brand guardians of Chanel, the ne plus ultra of ladylike fashion, have long known: be as frilly as you like as long as your logo is as authoritatively, industrially sans as possible.)

But today there’s more in the Engravers style – more pull, power and attitude, even if that attitude is elusive and non-aggressive – because there is more in the new man-world to which it refers. When it launched a decade ago, Fantastic Man was the first title to encapsulate a new fussiness in men’s habits of consumption and expression, which was emergent then and is dominant now: the realm of coffee snobbery and robust grub, of menus chalked on blackboards, fixed-gear bikes and the broken suit (© Stefano Pilati for Zegna), of arty minimalism and design fetishism, informal formalism, beards and brogues, selvage with turnups, and handcraft and outdoorsiness, all of which seems simultaneously cosmopolitan, European and gentlemanly, but less rigidly straight or gay than any of his antecedents, the New Man, the Lad or the Metrosexual.

We could call him Man Serif, this fantastic chap you see sitting with a MacBook Pro, two slabs of reclaimed timber along from you in the window of the local espresso emporium.

He wants things clean but strapping, businesslike but simple without all the bollocks, pure to the point of austere, and always on a white background, as if in an art gallery. He likes fonts because fonty-ness is a key selling point today, when the lust for design as a thing in itself is so widespread. Hence the undecorated appeal of the Engravers’ style to men who aspire to do stuff with their hands – woodwork, baking or even engraving, for that matter.

Man Serif likes design, he collects and curates his life, he rolls his trousers up, and he buys stuff that comes encrypted in Engravers, from cardigans to candles.

Many more men are looking for more sophistication in the way they shop and consume fashion and goods,” says fashion historian and LCF lecturer Shaun Cole.

“They like the idea that something has been carefully thought about, curated. You could argue that Fantastic Man was a carefully-curated edit and Mr Porter took that editing and turned it into a form of curating of the retail space. The success of Mr Porter has trickled down another layer – it’s still quite exclusive in its price bracket, but the higher end of the high street looks to it as a kind of sophistication.”

Retail-as-curation has trickled down from Fantastic Man to Mr Porter to Reiss and beyond, and it has trickled down through the Engravers style, meaning that it’s a font in more ways than one: a typeface, but also a vessel and even, like the fonts one find in churches, a component of a religion.

It may be stating the obvious to suggest that fonts are as important today – sometimes even more so – than the things they are organised into selling, but it’s also hard to overestimate the symbolic and emotional value of nice type (by the way, in his recent ad campaign for Lacoste, Clément Chabernaud appears to be actually impersonating a font: straddling his legs to form an A character, performing a spinal rotation into a lower case d glyph, or crouching to touch his heel, miming a sort of π/Pi shape).

And it begs another question around brands, blokes and the stuff they blow their money on: what would happen to the value and appeal of brands such as, say, Glen's Vodka, the Exchange & Mart, or even B&Q if they all got the Engravers treatment? Can you imagine how beautifully aerated and pristine its franchises would be if Burger King rebranded in Engravers, or just how stylish and good looking its players would appear, the moment Millwall FC, sensing an attitudinal change in their fanbase, wisely re-rendered the lettering on the façade of The Den with generously-spaced, epicene type.

Who knows what the future of man-branding will bring. For now – and for now alone, because fashions never last – marketers would do well to heed the following design principle: to appear stylish and contemporary, use this font.

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