The Style Essay

Fashion Fonts

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It began with bestiality. And the donning of full-length smocks. Then there was all that incest. But regardless of Eric Gill’s unseemly lifestyle experiments and offbeat wardrobe choices (now the stuff of design student lore), it was his time spent at a monastery in Capel-y-ffin in Wales that put the typeface designer on the path to fame. It was here, in the Twenties, inspired in part by Edward Johnston’s fonts used throughout London Underground, that Gill began experimenting with a new, stark, sans-serif style of lettering. He wrote it out by hand in notebooks, and utilised it on signs to direct tourists around the monastery grounds.

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Shortly afterwards, he took on a commission for a shop front in Bristol, honed what he’d been working on, and the Gill Sans font was born — a sublime modernist invention that would go on to define not just the machine age of the early 20th century, but the 21st, too.

Today, Labour & Wait — the Shoreditch vendors of early 20th-century utilitarian homewares — uses Gill Sans for their prosaic, bookish branding. Like many designers, their big statement is that they’re not making a statement, because they’re so M-O-D-E-R-N. Which is why everything looks a bit like Labour & Wait these days — and not just because of the omnipresence of navy twill Française.

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Between variations on Gill Sans and Helvetica — the Fifties industrial font that went on to take over the universe — fashion has had a decades-long love affair with all things straight and narrow. Font choice adds another layer of meaning to a designer’s story, and many avoid flourishes that are out of synch with their clothing. Cathal McAteer, founder of the casual modernist label Folk, chose Arial after studying the work of graphic designers Milton Glaser and Paul Rand.

“Very clean and very simple” was the intention, McAteer says. “We are always inspired by the Charles Eames quote: ‘The details are not the details, they make the design.’” Arial is, essentially, Helvetica tweaked for the digital age: it appeared with Windows 3.1 in 1992; it’s mid-century modern, Microsoftened.

“I always use Arial Unicode Bold for my invitations,” says Rick Owens, who sends emails with caps locked, and gets the staff at his Paris atelier to do the same. “The typeface has a clean and spacious rationalism, like something that [furniture designer] Eileen Grey or [architect and designer] Robert Mallet-Stevens would have used. I always type in upper case because I like how it’s monotone, slightly robotic and ignores a lot of rules. I also like how everything comes out as a slightly ridiculous proclamation.”

The intellectuals of fashion use simple fonts with confidence and purpose: Margaret Howell’s aesthetic harks back to the Festival of Britain in 1951. Her stores sell classic Ercol wooden furniture and Anglepoise lamps, and her label and branding were developed by art director Michael Nash Associates in purposely spaced-out Gill Sans type.

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It is unlikely that Howell could ever “go out of fashion” because she is so trend averse, and her taste incorporates unfussy historical reference points: a perfect square will always be a perfect square, but paisley would be another matter. “Bauhaus-era vintage book covers and graphics” are what she says inspire her.

Some labels take a classic, retro font style and embroider and personalise it. It can create a unique look, or it can be a risk. A lot of time and effort goes into creating unique type sets inspired by the most credible of sources, but there is only so much water in the well of a font.

There’s the custom-designed cool of Acne’s Seventies serifs, and then there’s The Kooples, which borrows from the beauty of vintage copies of Nova. But The Kooples aren’t the only ones with a fondness for all things from the Abigail’s Party era — a very similar font, in orange, is synonymous in the public consciousness with no-frills flying.

Which is why so many brands play it safe. From the cookie-cutter Helvetica of the New York subway signs, American Apparel and Gap to the bespoke sans serif that Peter Schmidt cut for Jil Sander in the Seventies, there are a lot of stark letters out there to choose from.

This still pervading, minimalist, art gallery facade aesthetic first rose to prominence in the Eighties, when Rei Kawakubo brought Comme des Garçons to Paris and Joseph Ettedgui opened his stores in London.

Neville Brody — who rose to prominence when he designed the early incarnations of The Face, from 1981 onwards, complete with custom sets of type — may have been the king of the style press and the ad-world rebrand, but high fashion was justifiably wary of his work. Brody’s Eighties canon is now as definitively postmodern and dated as pink and yellow Memphis ceramics.

Instead, slick, upper-case, matter-of-fact lettering was employed to suggest a design ethos that was above high-street trend. In tandem, the likes of Factory Records restyled music with graphic images and machined simplicity.

The alternate stately and hand-written type that made fashion labels look elite in the Sixties and Seventies now looked passé — at the same time, fashion was geared towards all things noir, and had edged out the florid and feminine curlicues of couture. This would be a masculine utilitarian future, instructional and direct.

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The challenge has been, and continues to be, how to create a brand identity with some often literally quite thin — and overexposed — material. Gill Sans, Helvetica and their variants can’t really get much simpler, and there’s only so many tweaks you can implement before things go beyond individual, and become fussy. At the same time, what was chic, understated and the stuff of Penguin Classics now sells M&S biscuits.

For many premium labels, less remains more. But most of those names are so big already that they don’t need bevelled edges and backlit oversized capitals to set themselves apart or create a story. Maison Martin Margiela has moved away from blank white labels in favour of a number chart — each collection is identified by a circle and the number it’s aligned with — making the labels as pleasingly prosaic as laundry instructions.

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Back in the Eighties, Issey Miyake ditched his otherwise beautiful rounded lower case sci-fi lettering and had graphic designer Shin Matsunaga create something bold. One way to identify vintage Miyake treasure — including space-age men’s boiler suits — is via its pre-makeover labelling.

Last year, Yves Saint Laurent had a reboot. Boldly, the “Yves” was dropped in favour of Saint Laurent Paris and a new type adopted, but the stripped-back sans-serif logo is a thing of beauty. “It has a quiet monolithic quality,” says Damien Paul, menswear buyer at Matches. “It reflects the austere glamour of the clothes and has proved highly successful when stamped onto the brand’s leather goods.”

When Patrick Grant worked on the 2009 relaunch of 19th-century sporting tailoring company E Tautz, he mixed Gill Sans with extra elements. “We wanted a logo that felt like Edward Tautz himself could have created it,” Grant says. “We had all the early Tautz adverts, back to the first in 1867, which guided us. We used Gill Sans, keeping it clear and open. It has a utilitarian feel but this is softened by the asymmetric setting of the ‘E’, with the full stop anchoring it.”

The E Tautz label is made unique and modern by the addition of a hand-drawn fox and interlocking letters in the form of highly ornate whips and spurs. It’s freshened up a heritage label without any faux bells or whistles. Canali is another classic tailoring brand. It recently rebranded, subtly, adding a large stylised “C” and the year “1934” to its otherwise plain serif type. “We added a stylised needle intersecting the ‘C’, like a tailor’s stitch,” Elisabetta Canali says. “It’s a harmonious composition that recalls the soft fabric and perfect fit of Canali garments.” It’s also a smart way to tell a story with a typeface.

Often, the design of a label is as resonant as the garment or object it’s attached to. For the unsophisticated and suburban, the collegiate look of overly, and overtly, branded, pheromone-impregnated, all-American sportswear made in China is curiously appealing: a badge of belonging. But not all outwardly branded objects fall into the same camp. The type itself can become a credible part of the outer design.

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When Jack Spade launched its range of men’s accessories and clothing, it set out its stall as a very loft-dwelling New York–Soho experience (including the Downtown Greene Street address detailed below the name). There could be no fuss or curves, and its logo was going to be on show as part of the graphic arrangement of each item. “We used Trade Gothic Condensed,” says Cuan Hanley, Jack Spade’s brand director. “It’s a 1948 sans serif designed by Jackson Burke with a distinctively American and industrial feel. We are straightforward and accessible, with our roots set in a no-nonsense design perspective. The font is rare, so there is individuality as well as attention to detail.”

Older, more florid labels can have their own appeal. For the serious student of fashion, the Letraset-born gothic and heraldic shield of early John Galliano harks back to a revolution in menswear.

Long before Galliano menswear reappeared to become the stuff of Eurotrash, it was glorious, esoteric, influential and a real insider label. Likewise, the DIY stencil type of the Bodymap logo and the name “Gaultier”, slanted over “Jean Paul” in a typewriter font, were clubland badges of visual anarchy in the Eighties — ditto the richly ornate typeface of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End label. All were infused with a certain post-punk-era avant-garde aesthetic that continues to resonate strongly today.

Some of the most iconic label designs are based on a designer’s actual signature — a throwback to 20th-century couture houses, but subverted by the unconservative nature of the clothing itself.

The handwritten script on the Yohji Yamamoto label, with its large, expressive “Y”s, is one of the most distinctive of all labels. The nonchalant slant of the autograph seems casual and plays against the rarefied nature of the clothes. Although as anyone who has seen Wim Wenders’ film about the designer, Notebooks on Cities and Clothes, knows, Yamamoto can spend hours getting the signature “just so”.

When Rick Owens launched his label in Los Angeles 20 years ago, he perfected a signature for it by aping the style of a Jean Patou perfume bottle he’d seen in a Forties Vogue. “I was drawn to the label because it was calligraphic, kind of art deco, and had the exoticism of Arabic script,” Owens says. “Later, I asked tattooist Maxime Büchi to stretch the logo out, to give it a sense of glamorous languor.” The Owens scrawl appears to be fed through a filter of technology: it’s off-kilter but classic, like the Adel Rootstein mannequin logo, or the swish crayon of Melrose Avenue’s Maxfield, a key Owens stockist.

Typography has become its own distinct industry. It’s a part of popular culture, and it’s expanding: tastemakers talk about fonts in the same way they discuss composers and writers. Danish typeface designers e-Types opened a store called Playtype, in Copenhagen, selling fonts in the same manner as fragrance or beauty products.

Co-founder Rasmus Ibfelt has worked on projects with Mads Nørgaard and Levi’s, and believes that some of the most notable new designs of fashion labels are radical reworkings of previous logos. “Increasingly it seems like anything goes,” he says. “Humberto and Carol, the founders of Opening Ceremony, have revitalised Kenzo as creative directors. They have added a fresh touch to the graphics that make it appealing when it’s used as external branding on a sweatshirt.”

In 2004, Telegraph Magazine style director Tamsin Blanchard wrote the book Fashion & Graphics, analysing labels including YMC, Alexander McQueen and Armani. “Since then, branding and graphics have moved away from being so slick and minimal,” she says. “Now it’s more about showing provenance and authenticity. The hard, sans-serif face of modernity has been softened by something altogether more folksy or vintage in look.” In the case of a brand like Folk, the worlds have collided: the austere modernism of Arial on their labels has been softened by printing on matt cotton tape.

The stark art-house look of the sans serif is going nowhere. But there will always be an appeal in the whimsical flourish, as long as it’s anchored to genuine quality. That can mean the richly-embroidered gold landscapes on the huge inside label of a heavy twill piece of Le Laboureur workwear from France, offset with the red cartoon-naïf font that spells out the brand name; or the type on a suit made from cloth sourced from Ireland or the Outer Hebrides.

Mark Quinn is co-founder of the contemporary Shoreditch menswear store Hostem, but some of his favourite labels are infused with nostalgia. “When you see the traditional type on the label in a piece of Harris Tweed, it always gives me a great feeling,” he says. “It’s the security of knowing that you’ve got something really good in your hands.”

Taken from Esquire's Big Black Book: the style manual for successful men, on newsstands now.