Shopping: The label is the message

... and you can't get away from it, says Jane Furnival
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The Independent Online
It's a well-guarded secret in the rag trade that a plain white T-shirt bought wholesale for pounds 1 can be sold for pounds 30, with a logo across the chest.

We are a nation of shop-wearers. Parading expensive designer names such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren is understandable, if vulgar. But the distinctly non-snob Next and Sweater Shop? Why?

The couture houses invented the visible label, and are now worried that they have created a monster that may destroy them. In the Eighties, T-shirts, belts and key rings subsidised loss-making catwalk clothes. Now sales of such trinkets are falling because the next generation of buyersgrew up with French designer logos on their Babygros, and will pay just as much for clothes endorsed by rap stars and sports heroes.

Enter Tommy Hilfiger. He was just another designer of casual wear until he stuck his red, white and blue flag logo on the gear. He is unashamedly mass-market. "Littlewoods catalogues agreed to carry him, so Harvey Nichols pulled out of their deal to stock him," chortled one relieved upmarket menswear supplier.

"He's a hugely successful Seventh Avenue clothing manufacturer - nothing high-fashion, jeans and jackets," analyses Lou Taylor, professor of dress history at Brighton University. "It poses an important threat to couturiers if the under-25s grow up as impressed by a Hilfiger label as by a Chanel."

As soon as a child is out of training pants, he or she is introduced to the world of labels. In this "soft" stage, the bait is usually Disney. The latest choices from Marks and Spencer include 101 Dalmatians, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Buzz Lightyear, Taz, Batman and Superman. Mothercare offers Action Man, Spiderman, Rugrats, Lady and the Tramp, Thomas the Tank Engine and many others.

Sport and skateboard culture starts at about age eight. By 10, socially you're nuffink without Nike. Label culture culminates in the sad, poor single mums who spend three weeks' child benefit on a pair of trainers for a child.

Perhaps the most hideous motif is the Lacoste crocodile, the daddy of all labels. Who wants a pounds 60 cotton polo shirt with a crocodile on it? Loads of Loadsamoneys in Liverpool and Manchester, it seems.

"In four years, we've doubled our sales," says Peter Coulstock, Lacoste's sales director. "The crocodile doesn't mean `you're buying a fashionable, expensive product', but `it's the best quality'."

Really? So if buyers care about "quality", why do they pay pounds 10 for a fake Lacoste?

Hawkshead, a mail-order company, is one of the few T-shirt companies that sell unnamed clothes. When I asked why they were so restrained, they confessed to putting their logo on some new T-shirts. "Putting a logo on it lifts something to a new sphere," rhapsodises Paul Clarke, merchandising director.

The rip-off sphere, presumably. Ask any clothes company and they will say that their fashion is "customer led". But I have never heard customers begging to pay extra to be moving billboards.

"They wear labels," thinks Dr Halla Beloff, an Edinburgh social psychologist, "to demonstrate to their rivals that they can afford to spend more than the clothes are worth." Patron saints of label-lovers are Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke's vulgar TV couple: "I couldn't help noticing that we have more money than you".

Wayne Hemingway, founder of the trendy British fashion house Red or Dead, refuses to put a plain logo on a white T-shirt. "Overpricing plain T-shirts with logos is immoral," he says. "We play around with our logo, put it into rude shapes or whatever."

Will there be an anti-label backlash? Tom Chapman, who sells branded names at his shop Matches in Wimbledon, says many customers ask for the name to be removed.

Pierre Cardin was the first to devalue himself by over-franchising his name. Couture companies, haunted by this, are actively looking for substitutes for labels.

When Karl Lagerfeld took over Chanel, he put a stop to the famous double- C logowhich had come to mean "dead common". Instead, models in his most recent collection wore diamond camellias worth pounds 10,000 each.

There's labels and labels. "I'm proud of the fact that my kids don't want Armani on their arses," says Rita Britton, of Pollyanna in Barnsley. "My son will wear a sweater from me, but scour the second-hand shops for a pounds 10 army jacket or an original Levi's jacket." So some labels are acceptable, as long as they're 30 years old.

Fashion victim labels:

For men: Adidas track suit, pounds 49.99, Sports Division stores.

For women: Moschino Cheap & Chic T-shirt, from pounds 69; D&G jeans, pounds 85; CK jumper, pounds 85. All from Harvey Nichols, London SW1.

For both: Evisu jeans, pounds 250, from Browns of South Molton Street, London W1, and Pollyanna, Barnsley, Yorkshire.

Trainers: Nike Triax in beige leather, pounds 49.99; Caterpillar Bold in brown leather, pounds 69.99, both from Sports Division.

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