Column: The Perceptive Consumer

Kyle Chayka: Apolis, Monocle, and the branding of the ‘Placeless Aesthetic’.

It’s hard to tell if LOT-2046 is real or fake. The minimalist fashion brand, which recently launched with an aggressively austere website, describes itself as “a subscription-based service which distributes a basic set of clothing, footwear, essential self-care products, accessories, and media content.” Paying $49 a month will get you one of a set of all-black pieces, from shirts and socks to a jacket and shoes. $100 a month adds a cosmetic item to the package. The most eye-catching offering is a monochrome tattoo gun.

The project went viral on tech-savvy websites like Hacker News as a kind of cyberpunk totem: an all-in-one lifestyle package so that you never have to think about what you’re wearing ever again. In fact, the company is real — it was launched by Vadik Marmeladov, a Russian designer whose earlier project, a studio called Lapka that produced high-design Internet of Things sensors, was acquired by Airbnb. Marmeladov left the larger company because he felt it wasn’t moving fast enough with its own internal design studio Samara and pushed forward with LOT and Ruki, a manufacturing incubator in Los Angeles and Shenzhen.

LOT-2046 is part of a larger trend of placeless fashion. Rather than advertising shoes from Italy, French linen, or an authentic work jacket that might be worn by a Tokyo shopkeeper, brands instead identify as residents of the world at large. In a recent Critical Shopper column, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times identified the Apolis store in Soho as another example, observing the demographic of a dishabille gentleman dressed all in black wandering the city at odd times of day as their core customer, “an anonymous cog in New York’s leisure wheel.”

Among Apolis’ “well-executed basics” is a t-shirt that says “Global Citizen” in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. Though the brand takes their mission to create ethically produced clothing seriously, the t-shirt comes across as rather glib. Is it meant to inspire world peace? Its air of superficial globalism becomes an obtrusive brand logo in itself. Not content with being from Los Angeles or New York, where its stores are located, it must be from nowhere.

What it all suggests is that mobility and rootlessness have become aspirational qualities in and of themselves, qualities that brands are piggybacking on.

Caramanica describes this aesthetic as “a lookless look.” Like LOT-2046, it is meant to adapt to its surroundings, providing the wearer an acceptably stylish outfit wherever they go. The clothing produced by Monocle magazine fits in to this category as well: The products might be made from Swiss fabric or on vintage Japanese machines, but it’s designed for moving between places.

Lifestyle products are getting in on the same placeless game. See Mexican designer Geraldo Osio’s “Nomadic Life” project, a kit of luggage and objects meant to make the traveler feel at home wherever they go (echoing Airbnb’s “belong anywhere” slogan).

What it all suggests is that mobility and rootlessness have become aspirational qualities in and of themselves, qualities that brands are piggybacking on. These projects have in common a certain luxurious blankness that seems well-adapted to the needs of the jet-setting creative, who must often be a stranger but also always shifting to suit their circumstances.

The trend fulfills a prophetic outfit that the novelist William Gibson etched into his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. The character Cayce Pollard is a marketing consultant and coolhunter so attuned to changing trends that she can’t bear to wear anything that registers as more than anonymous and meaningless. Her monochromatic outfits are called Cayce-Pollard Units, or CPUs.

Yet the paradox is that Gibson goes out of his way to list every element of the outfit along with its provenance, from black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes to a skirt from a Tulsa thrift store and Buzz Rickson MA-1 jacket. The brand still matters, but only to the wearer. Of course, Buzz Rickson eventually worked with Gibson to turn the fictional ultra-anonymous jacket into a covetable product.

Placeless fashion takes its meaning from the authenticity of the “non-place”, the French philosopher Marc Auge’s term for anonymous spaces like airports and malls. Perhaps these days, we identify more closely with the ambiguities of these spaces than the easy geographical definitions of specific countries or cities. Our clothing is evolving in turn. Bonus points for the first company to call the anti-fashion capsule collections “CPUs”.

A friend of mine, the client director for a boutique technology-focused creative agency, recently admitted that he signed up for LOT-2046 as soon as he saw my tweet about it. He’s the kind of consumer fashion brands should be going crazy for — spending on Helmut Lang and Patrick Ervell but looking for something new and different. The LOT package appealed to him as much for its convenience as its radical post-brand branding.

The friend doesn’t need another logo to identify with. Rather, the cool factor that he’s drawn to comes from supply chains, factories, and delivery systems linked across the globe, an acknowledgement that fashion is less a one-time widget to purchase than a process that we participate in. I subscribed to LOT, too, and will happily report back on its progress.

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