For some Yalies, brand is key

Taken in by the cultural legacy of a name and a logo, and willing to shell out big bucks for some hazy promise of a higher-quality liberal arts education, a Yale student is what it means to be brand-conscious.

Short of resorting to a red-hot iron rod, we could not be any more branded than making sure our favorite four-letter word is emblazoned across every piece of cotton we own. Yale students by definition are willing to pay more for a name with some cache — we are brand-savvy, elitist and judgmental, and we wear those traits like the second skin they are.

First, let us get straight to what brand-consciousness at Yale is not. It is not, according to Zahra Alleyne ’07, the same as brand-consciousness in her Caribbean home, where “brand-name” means a logo as big as the shirt itself.

Such a fashion faux pas on campus would be like admitting up front that you went to Yale, instead of beating around the bush with a suitably abashed “um, somewhere in Connecticut.” But that does not mean brand-consciousness is any less pervasive here; it just might be a little more subtle, says Jennie Hansen ’08, a Pi Beta Phi sister who says she picks her Sevens and Citizens over saving her greenbacks any day.

“Let’s face it: You look at peoples’ butt pockets when you’re walking to class,” Hansen said, referring to the emblematic stitching that looks like a classier version of the Aerosmith logo.

And having matching butt pockets, says Hansen, can sometimes mean you are in tune to other things as well. It means you want to convey a similar image and that you care about some of the same things (and, of course, that you are from an upper middle-class background, “upper” enough to warrant $100 pieces of denim). Hansen says she can spot a Pi Phi sister or wannabe if she recognizes enough of the articles of clothing on them.

Ting Ting Yan ’06, whose proudest possession is her Prada handbag, says everyone makes at least a little bit of a snap judgment when they recognize somebody’s outfit.

“If a girl’s wearing stilettos, I’ll think she’s sexy and empowered,” Yan said. “You can even tell someone’s major — you don’t see a lot of science majors walking around in designer clothing.”

If sneaking a glance at someone’s butt pocket is the equivalent of coming across their online diary, dressing yourself means pulling a Wonkette. Yan, for example, will not wear Banana Republic, because it gives off too casual an image; she prefers to alternate between a feminine look and what she calls her “sexy Gucci mama” vibe.

Second maybe to the music you pretend to like on thefacebook.com, the fine print on the tag behind your (popped or unpopped?) collar is about the most straightforward shot you get at picking your image. The right brand names can make you athletic, punk (though the question of just how rock ‘n’ roll it is possible to be while plastered in logos ought to be the subject of another article) or preppy.

(Actually, if you have not heard, Yale is a J.Crew outlet unto itself, so Hansen says she now categorizes preppy as the “anti-statement”).

“It’s an image that basically is the mainstream,” Hansen said. “Clean cut, golf shirts … I guess it used to make a statement about socioeconomics, but now it just says Ivy League.”)

According to Yan, brand-consciousness is about seeking out the middle ground. In other words, balancing the pounds the perfect pair of jeans hides against the weight your wallet really will lose when you lay down the money.

It is worth it for Alleyne because buying by brand is a shortcut: She knows she is getting clothing of a certain quality and a certain fit, and it saves her a few hours of “wandering into random stores.”

“Thanks to my freshman-year roommates, I now know what Gucci and Sevens look like,” Alleyne said. “But I don’t see them and think, ‘Look how cool they are.’ I see them and think, ‘Look at that other girl wearing the same thing.’ I’d say two or three brands dress two-thirds of the campus.”

The brand-name-as-cool fad started for Yan in high school.

“Basically, I was a huge nerd,” she said, “and I just wanted to copy what the popular girls were wearing, and noticing the brand name was a way to do that.”

Hansen, by contrast, is definitely nostalgic for the days of high school fashion one-upmanship.

“I remember when everyone was into Abercrombie and Hollister,” she said, recalling her suburban Pennsylvania classroom. “But then people moved on. Our taste just got more expensive.”

But according to Robert Rutledge ARCH ’79, who is now the design director for Neiman Marcus — the primary distribution channel in America for Armani, D&G, Chanel and Prada — it has almost nothing to do with moving up in the dollar hierarchy.

Rutledge went to school with what he calls the “aging hippie” generation, whose members were “very anti-brand,” he said. And even though laying claim to thrift-store holdovers was the ultimate social currency, he says that even in the pre-Abercrombie days, “we still looked just like each other.”

“We still bought the same things as each other, even though we were anti-brand and anti-conformity,” Rutledge said. “College is just a place where you want to fit in.”

But ask Sezgi Bice ’06 about college-age bluebloods’ brand-name fixation, and she will tell you that at least there is a guarantee of quality backing up most brand names. In Turkey, brand-name fetishism has reached such heights that knockoffs of famous logos are about as common as the actual imports.

“Go to Istanbul,” Bice said. “Now that is brand-consciousness.”

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