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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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