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It’s a classic move in the fashion playbook when trying to signal a new direction or herald a new designer. But are shifting sensibilities leading more brands to reconsider the humble serif?
Logos carry a peculiar, almost paradoxical burden of both inspiring loyalty and conveying novelty. A good design stands the test of time, while maintaining the allure of the new; too new, and it risks a sense of betrayal.
Consider the City of New York’s recently announced, and widely panned, “We ❤️ NYC” logo, an update of “I ❤️ NY,” the beloved Milton Glaser design created in 1976. High-profile logo redesigns often incite emotional uproars — and increasingly, public discussions of the fashion of fonts.
When the British luxury brand Burberry introduced a new logo of its own last month, it seemed everyone in the fashion circuit had a hot take on typography trends.
Burberry joined two recently debuted serif logos from Ferragamo and Phoebe Philo, leading online followers to proclaim the era of serif typefaces in, and the era of “blanding” sans-serifs decidedly out.
For the uninitiated, serifs refer to the short marks, or “feet,” at the ends of a letter’s strokes (as seen in certain typefaces, such as the one used by The New York Times). A typeface that includes serifs is referred to as a serif, and one that does not, a sans-serif.
But for branding experts and design industry players whose daily work involves the detailed craft of custom typography and lettering, the hubbub was more a source of mild amusement.
“No one’s really having the conversation about whether the logos are actually well drawn or not,” said Grace Robinson-Leo, a founder and creative director at Decade, a branding studio that has consulted for Khaite, Banana Republic and Playboy.
According to Ellen Lupton, a design author and educator, the perceived binary of serif versus sans-serif is “really quite artificial” anyway. She noted that it “doesn’t exist in most other writing systems that are not Latin based.”
Michaël Amzalag, a founder of the art and design studio M/M Paris, described the fashion world’s preoccupation between serifs and sans-serifs as “a dichotomy established decades ago, since the 1940s,” pointing to the age-old rivals Chanel and Dior. His studio’s brand identity for the Spanish luxury house Loewe has stayed in use for a decade — a lifetime in internet years — and notably bucks fashion industry trends by pairing two contrasting styles: a stately serif along with an ornate, script-style letter L.
Broadly speaking, serifs evoke “a certain historicism,” said Michael Rock, a partner at the design consultancy 2x4, whose clients include Prada and Shanghai Tang. Serifs, as all typefaces, have always carried with them “the mark of a tool,” he said.
Originating in the Latin alphabet, serifs date back to Roman antiquity, when inscribers would first sketch then carve letters into stone, Mr. Rock said. As a matter of function, the serifs were added as a so-called stop cut to prevent the longer strokes of letters from chipping out, he explained.
These classical forms have persisted as formal references in type design, even as technology progressed well beyond the days of chisel and stone. Sans-serifs emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the industrial age and Modernist ideology inspired type designers to remove extraneous, ornamental vestiges of the past. Form follows function, as the adage goes, and serifs were thought to no longer serve a purpose.
“Now, we’re in an age where everything is produced by digital means, and that difference between modernity and classicism is less ideological and more stylistic,” Mr. Rock said. Still, the associations remain.
In the new serif logos of Ferragamo and Burberry, that subtle play for historicism may be key to winning back customer bases in an increasingly competitive landscape of newer brands. But at Daniel Lee’s first show as Burberry’s new designer, the new typeface — an about-face from the brand’s previous logo, a streamlined treatment created by Peter Saville less than five years ago — took a back seat to the revival of the brand’s turn-of-the-century equestrian knight design, a sort of heraldry that featured in a royal blue.
As abstracted, abbreviated signifiers, logos are but the tip of the iceberg for a large body of world-building creative work that forms a brand image, though they often attract outsize influence — an influence that luxury fashion brands have in recent years used to steer controversy and buzz around an incoming creative director.
“Letter forms are the smallest containers for meaning,” said Mathias Augustyniak, Mr. Amzalag’s partner at M/M Paris, with typography offering the potential for a second layer of authorship. But the more common trend for publicity-driven redesigns, he suggested, are “more about creating noise than a true design act.”
Fans of Ms. Philo, who led Celine from 2008 to 2018, still refer to Peter Miles’s design of the “old Celine” logo — which the brand’s current creative director, Hedi Slimane, famously altered upon taking the reins, removing the accent over the E, among other adjustments recalling elements of the brand’s 1960s logo. (Mr. Miles, who also created the mark for Ms. Philo’s coming namesake brand, said of the serif-versus-sans-serif question: “Both have a place, both permanently current.”)
Mr. Slimane also courted controversy during his tenure at Saint Laurent, where he dropped the Yves and replaced the previous word mark, created in 1961 by the French painter and typographer Cassandre, with a bold, all-caps sans-serif.
That, too, was an archival reference — this time, to the original logo for the brand’s ready-to-wear collection, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, started in 1966. (The brand has since quietly reverted to a logo set in Cassandre’s typeface, still absent the Yves, to form a mash-up that Mr. Amzalag referred to as “an amputation” akin to “cutting an arm off of Mona Lisa.”)
In 2017, Mr. Saville, who established his career designing album artwork for Factory Records in the 1980s and is now a fashion-industry favorite for logo redesigns (including the latest one for Ferragamo), updated the Calvin Klein logo when Raf Simons took the helm.
Copycats exist throughout fashion, as a popular meme shows, listing examples of luxury brands — Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Burberry, Berluti, Balmain — whose logos had gone sans-serif within the past five to six years.
Starting a new label with a blank slate, however, the new Phoebe Philo logo designed by Mr. Miles, set in all-caps Times New Roman — the familiar, default typeface of Microsoft Office — breaks from the pack with a sort of rebellious indifference.
Mr. Rock described it as “a typographic version of a studied blankness, what in Italian might be called sprezzatura” — a knowing and cool nonchalance belying a precise eye.
“Make no doubt about it, though,” he said. “This takes enormous effort to achieve.”
Ms. Robinson-Leo expressed an appreciation for the aesthetic created by Ms. Philo and Mr. Miles, though she said she could not quite put her finger on what exactly she admired about it. “When a logo is really beautiful and really well drawn, it really stands the test of time, and it often sets the tone for a kind of style or aesthetic that other people get excited about,” she said.
The online hive has quieted its parsing of Burberry’s new face, and it’s too soon to know how it will fare over time. It’s also possible that nobody will notice or remember.
“In the same way that social media is so immediate,” Mr. Rock said, “it also has really short memories.”