Creating An Icon
Now in its 25th year, clothing brand Bench looks to the future with creative partner FreshBritain.
FreshBritain’s co-founder Bob Sheard has overseen successful projects involving Arc’teryx, New Balance, Nike ACG, Levi’s and much more. FreshBritain’s reputation as brand gurus precedes them. They unearth the truth of a brand and then employ that truth to define the brand’s future. The latest name to enlist their help is British clothing brand Bench.
Founded in Manchester, UK in 1989, Bench could have easily tapped into the rich musical heritage of the North West. Instead, it first made its mark with graphic T-shirts inspired by BMX and skateboarding culture. Making its start as a streetwear label, Bench has evolved into more of a mainstream brand, where they’ve since taken on the guidance of FreshBritain.
“Brands need to have one foot in the present and another in the future. It has to project who we are and what we do, but also who we could be and what we could do,” explains Sheard. “Its job is to understand ‘tomorrow’ and project that into ‘today’. We know that in 2020 that 50% of the world’s population will live in cities, and 50% of that population will live alone. This population will lead a 24-hour existence. It is an existence where active meets casual, works meets play, security meets freedom and individualism meets the community.
The logical conclusion is to position Bench at the center of those intersections, an icon of our increasingly 24-hour life.”
How a brand delivers its vision is just as important as the vision itself. While some brands like Bench seek to be its own entity with no set allegiance to any scene. Instead, it allows the consumer to define who or what they are.
“Some brands are totems of specific musical genres and you’ll wear that brand to represent that you’re part of that genre,” states Sheard.
“In the ‘90s you’d choose to wear a pair of Converse All Stars to show you’re a part of the grunge thing; then in the noughties, you’d wear a pair of neon Doc Martens 1460 to show you’re part of the nu-rave thing.”
“Many brands such as Kickers, Dr. Martens, Lee, Ben Sherman, and adidas try to reflect the musical and cultural choices of their consumers – they are all rushing towards the same door. If you all rush at the same time you diminish your chances of getting through. In this rush, brands are missing the point. Music is why we buy music. Music is not exclusively why we buy brands.”
“To be a cultural chameleon, a brand cannot ascribe or prescribe a specific cultural allegiance. Of course part of that life is music, but life is also social, artistic, cultural, political, economic and creative.”
While brands like Bench have been associated with music in the past, they haven’t aggressively pursued it. It was born in Manchester during an era with strong musical and cultural associations, but as a brand, it can’t lay claim to those associations. What it can do though is seek out its historic associations and tap into a culture where it sits more at home.
When a brand strive to seek out its strengths, it often finds itself trying to associate with a ‘scene’ or strand of culture in order to remain relevant but all too often this is a transient, slightly desperate move which inevitably fizzles out. With the best brands though, it’s a genuine thing which endures. Brands who seek to coexist with a certain culture are usually the ones who succeed.
The challenge we face when examining a brand is to unearth its truth. We need to try and strip back all the different layers that have been associated with the brand – rightly or wrongly – over the last 25 years. You have to get back to its fundamentals. Bench would observe how consumers would wear the big performance brands of the 1990s and re-purpose their products for city living. Bench simply formalized this process and at its heart was the iconic hoody.”
The hoody is what Bench does best. While the mainstream media would have it that hoody wearers are pariahs, the reality is it’s an everyman product. It crosses social and economic boundaries to provide people of all classes and incomes with a comfortable item of clothing which enhances their life in one way or another.
“The hoody itself has become part of the vernacular of city culture. If worn by someone listening to Eminem, it represents hip-hop. If it’s worn by someone watching Kasabian, it will mean rock. The meaning of the product is ultimately defined by the consumer, not the brand. Undeniably, it is a multi-purpose product and that is where Bench’s authority is,” explains Sheard.
“You’ll see people maligning hoody wearers as a caricature of the underclass. In actual fact, if you go to Notting Hill on a Sunday morning you’ll see women going to the gym in their hoodies. This happens in New York, LA, Munich or Montreal.”
“The hoody is a much maligned product. You should judge the person not the product. It’s much the same as 501s in the ‘50s. Whenever anyone wanted to complain about rebellious teenagers they complained about jean wearers. They’re complaining about the jeans not the wearers, much the same as now.”
Fame can be a powerful tool for a brand even if that fame is infamy. Once harnessed, infamy can be a resource that can be converted into a positive attribute. Sheard thinks that the hoody can be used as a Trojan horse.
“At the heart of the brand is multi-purpose city clothing in the shape of they hoody, and this automatically defines the brand’s essence.”
The product is an icon of multi-purpose design and the brand is an icon of 24-hour life.
“Neither message defines the brand culturally. We leave that to that consumer and that is the secret to creating an icon.”