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The Current Rage In Branding: Fake Authenticity Is Now A-Okay

Faking an authentic experience is now lauded, and companies such as J. Crew are exploiting the trend, writes Michael Raisanen.

A haircut should cost less than 20 bucks and be over in under 10 minutes. That’s my opinion. A couple of years ago, I came across a storefront in the West Village with an old-school rustic sign complete with spelling error announcing a barber shop—a perfect signifier for a fast and inexpensive cut by perhaps an older foreign gentleman who views his trade as a craft as opposed to an art. It turns out I misread the subtle cues of hipster branding. The barbershop in question belongs to a chain of three shops called F.S.C. Barber, which in turn is part of the Freemans brand, including at least one New York City restaurant and a men’s clothing label (custom flannel suits made in Brooklyn). It’s neither cheap, nor fast.

On its website, Freemans lists how far from NYC each item was made.

"Limited-Edition Wood-and-Canvas Canoe"

Freemans is a pioneer in a trend that we have seen happening for a while now, striving for a sort of refined, woolly, arts-and-craftsy, anachronistic Americana feeling. Think taxidermy, hand-cobbled brogues, and cocktails made with rye. The common denominator in this trend seems to be a yearning for the "authentic." Interestingly, things don’t need to actually be authentic as long as they feel authentic. In fact, they can be completely fake. Take Hipstamatic or Instagram, apps that let you simulate the look and feel of different types of old film photographs right in your iPhone, transforming your life as seen through Twitter and Facebook into a French new wave cinema storyboard. People have the ability to edit and broadcast their lives, and a lot of them are choosing to do so through an idealized analog retro filter in which they candidly appear as if they weren’t aware of being watched.

Perhaps a postmodernist would call this inauthentic authenticity.

But is inauthentic authenticity more than a mere nostalgic trend? A cycle in the speeding pendulum that swings between the futuristic sportswear made of high-tech fabric and the retrospective L.L. Bean limited-edition wood-and-canvas canoe? Or is there something real in the zeitgeist: Are people reacting to an overproduced reality in which Hollywood fake is held up as an ideal? I think it is too early to tell.

Just $7,500 while supplies last!

But it is interesting how different levels of irony, meta-commentary, and self-awareness conflate into one weird mix. In Portlandia, the IFC television series, the show’s creators, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, have built a whole universe around satirizing inauthentic authenticity. And yet, they freely admit that they have a lot in common with the characters and lifestyle they are making fun of. So it seems possible and permissible to live a cliché while simultaneously making fun of it. Or is it merely a defensive attitude, to poke your own balloon before anyone else does?

J. Crew Goes Full-on Faux Antique

So in terms of brands and branding, can we glean anything significant from this trend? I think as with any trend, it favors some brands over others. However, there are some interesting lessons to be learnt from J. Crew; they have managed to harness the trend and take inauthentic authenticity to the next level, to mainstream America. The narrative they put forth for men in catalogues and advertising is a composite of the following:

•outdoorsy, classical, New England, early ’60s collegiate
•oaky, duck hunting, landed gentry, sheep dog
•waxed mustache, axe-yielding, self-sufficient, eccentric woodsman

The common denominator is, of course, authenticity and nostalgia for a time when things were "real." J. Crew has been uncommonly smart in leveraging this trend without having to alienate their core customers by changing the brand and products too much. Instead, through an ingenious strategy of co-branding, they have extended their offering and brought in outside brands that possess that singular patina and heritage that we yearn for.

The J.Crew "Liquor Store" in NYC. Via A Continuous Lean
Via A Continuous Lean

These brands range from Timex (a stealth Waspy way of saying that expensive watches are vulgar and thus avoiding having to buy that expensive watch you want but can’t afford) to Barbour (hunting for ducks on your property), and Sperry Top-Siders (summers in Cape Cod). This strategy is smart, because it gives J. Crew a cost-efficient way to stay constantly relevant through a curation of brands and products. So when Minnetonkas become passé, the company can simply replace the moccasins with something else.

We are indeed living in an interesting age when it is socially accepted, even prestigious, to fake an authentic experience. We have come a long way from frowning at the Italian pavilion at Epcot center with all its fake kitsch. Today’s simulacra are tasteful and only kitsch as an ironic statement.

Very postmodern.

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  • Clydicus

    This situation has been getting worse ever since brands discovered that people would actually pay top dollar for fake thrift store t-shirts.  What could be more fake-authentic than a t-shirt from a fictitious summer camp that has been "broken in" at the factory to look like you might have actually attended camp wearing it. Gag.

  • Lee Milby

    If you don't know the source, then it's a new discovery. Your perception of it creates a brand new history and that becomes your reality- which adds to the collective reality that we live in, whether we like it or not. This type of revisitation is not nostalgia, the Hollywood fake is not fake nor ideal, it exists as a platform to create new trends.

  • AndrewHayden

    This kind of fake authenticity BS drives me nuts. All it does is train consumers that they can get "authentic" goods at a discount price. My wife - Lisa Stewart - and I make leather handbags and accessories, by hand, in our own studio. Our motto is "We don't use child labor, we don't use prison labor. We do this to ourselves!" Much of the work we do is custom and we work very closely with our customers throughout the design and construction process. They LOVE it. That is authentic. These corporations that decorate their stores with vintage posters (often reproductions) and antiques, but then fill their shelves with products made in the Far East and Latin America are frauds. 

  • Matt Halmy

    As a general trend, I'd say you're on to something. But these brands that J. Crew partners with are not inauthentic, and neither is peoples desire for a quality made product with a history to it.

    I think your barber shop and hipstimatic example is accurate evidence, because those are inherently inauthentic; their entire goal being to recreate something they are not.

    I'd argue that a jacket, dripping in "heritage" that costs $600 but is made in china is more of a faux antique than J. Crew distributing storied brands. Which one is more rampant in the fashion world??

  • Jeffrey Gregory

    Hasn't RL been peddling fake-authentic Americana for about half a century?  This doesn't seem revelatory.

  • Ayn Roberts

     Absolutely love the questions raised from this article and all that I can contribute to this lengthy discussion is that we are all reacting to something, I think the big question here is identifying what we are reacting to.

  • Steve

    Fantastic article! Your argument is sound, valid and identifies a very real layer of visual noise which is clearly configured to denote certain qualities.

  • Songweasel

    bingo! :) and the "nostalgia creep" into daily vernacular is interesting too..."neato!"

  • Craig Alan Wilkins

     So the 'joke' is many jokes are...

    Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

  • Marina Cascaes

    Great story. And I think it's funny people fell nostalgic for a time that, the most of them, not even lived on… And it's so true about the Instagram part...

  • Ricky Ferrer

    You know what never goes out of style? Making fun of things that are in style. See what I did just there? 

  • Jonerdahl

    "Are people reacting to an overproduced reality in which Hollywood fake is held up as an ideal?" Agency speak here I am afraid Michael since NOSTALGIA has never gone away. Plus have you looked at a Peterman catalog lately? Or over the last decade? This is why the Agency model is in trouble I am afraid.

  • Dave Taylor

    Agreed. The Marlboro Man was entirely synthetic as well. A study in the August 2009 Journal of Consumer Research showed that the way people assign authenticity has little to do with how authentic the brands really are and everything to do with how they feel about them. Here's an article about that:

  • Brian Leitten

    How can Fast Company continue to publish articles on Authenticity without acknowledging the seminal work of Pine and Gilmore?  Thanks to Rick Liebling for making reference to Joe Pine and his TED talk.

  • Catherine Hornby

    All Saints is one of my favourite examples of authenticity (or nostalgia) as window dressing. A collection of 10,000 antique Singer sewing machines used in 63 storefronts in multiple countries. Inside, you'd be hard pressed to find anything that hasn't been shipped in from an Asian factory. No more artisanal than MacDonalds.

  • Jamie

    I think this trend makes a lot more sense if we stop looking at it through a "postmodern" lens. We're actually at an interesting transition out of postmodernism and what some would call, an Age of "Authenticity." If you have the time, this article's an awesome read outlining what I mean: