Naming Names for Fun and Profit
Once upon a time apparel manufacturers put their labels, logos and advertisements on the inside of garments. The principal way of telling what brands people wore was to grab their collars and turn them back. A recent alternative is to wait for the wearers to be nominated for Academy Awards so Joan Rivers can assault them with the demand to know: “Who are you wearing?”
The times they have a-changed, as Bob Dylan predicted and the folk admonition not to wear your heart on your sleeve is obsolete. The streets are full of folks who wear their hearts, names, gags, hobbies and innermost feelings on their sleeves and anywhere else they will fit. T-shirt publishing means that even pedestrians can have bumper stickers. Not all the messages are personal. Many proudly advertise the brand worn or a knockoff of it, or the college the wearer may or may not have attended or even seen. Gap, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch are plugged by walking billboards, usually at no cost to the advertisers. This makes shopping hard on us curmudgeonly non-cooperators. I remember spending a full day trying, and failing, to buy an unadorned cap. Luckily my wife, armed with an X-Acto knife and markers, has become a specialist in removing logos when possible, or blacking them out when not.
How and why did all this come about?
René Lacoste wearing the original crocodile symbol, 1927. (Fondation René Lacoste)
In 1927 a French tennis-star-turned-sports-shirt-manufacturer had an embroidered version of a green alligator, his personal signature icon, attached to the pocket. One might have expected consumers to be offended, but they were not. Men wanted the guy's alligator on their chests whether they played tennis or not, if only to establish how much they had paid for the shirts. Lacoste's company history boasts, “To the best of our knowledge, this was the first time that a brand name appeared on the outside of an article of clothing—an idea which has since become extremely successful.”
Well, if that is truly the best of Lacoste's knowledge, their corporate researchers didn't look very hard. In the 1920s Jantzen, a manufacturer of swimwear, used a diving girl as a trademark and affixed it irremovably to every suit they made. And much earlier Levi's had stitched its name on a trademarked leather square or a red-tag logo to be seen on the back pocket of everyone who worked for a living or pretended to, or just wanted to look western.
My own interest in the phenomenon began when, as a small boy, I put on a pair of boxer shorts and posed before a mirror, pretending I was lightweight champion of the world, which I may have hoped to become. The boxer shorts were close enough in appearance to the real thing for purposes of fantasy, but even as a child I knew that for authenticity they would have had to say Everlast. I even toyed with the idea of asking my mother to sew the logo on, but that would have entailed somehow acquiring one, and anyway she was already burdened by having to sew identification labels on all the clothing I took to Camp Kon-o-kwee. (Today the labels are all iron-on or stick-on.)
Tony DeMarco vs. Carmen Basilio, both in Everlast gloves, 1955. (Grey Villet / LIFE magazine)
In issue after issue of Ring magazine, which I read while my friends were reading The Wind in the Willows, I could see that what most boxers, amateur or pro, had in common was not build, muscle or a menacing stance, but the Everlast logo at the waist of their trunks and on the cuffs of their gloves. Although I had no childhood interest in marketing, I admired the audacity of a company that promoted itself on the outside of the product they had sold you. How did they get away with it?
It began in the Bronx in 1910, when Jacob Golomb, a swimmer dissatisfied with the short life of swimwear available at the time, set out to produce a swimsuit that would last. To drive the point home, he named it Everlast. I don't know how long the swimsuits lasted, but the company folded in a year, and Golomb, taking the trademarked name with him, opened a sporting gear business and was asked by a then-unknown boxer named Jack Dempsey to design a pair of gloves for him. In 1919 Dempsey, no longer unknown, wore the gloves when he won the heavyweight championship of the world.
Ring apparel in that era was apparently no better than swimwear was; boxers held up their trunks with leather belts. In 1925 Golomb designed trunks with an elastic waist, which was not only lighter and less cumbersome but offered an additional and more prominent place to put the company name, where to this day it maintains the brand's prestige, although the sport has lost its own. (The elastic-banded trunks had an immediate and significant spinoff. The men's underwear industry, adopting the idea, introduced “boxers,” thus making my childhood fantasies look realistic enough to pass the mirror test.)
Boxing's image—never exactly shining, since the profession was from the first associated with gangsters and fight fixing—has declined for good and humane reasons. But before the sport's image got worse, the image got better, having been literally enhanced when television came along desperately seeking content. The Friday night fights brought the ring into the living room, for a while making fight fans of millions who had never before seen one. The award shows may have brought the red carpet, where stars parade apparel and drop designers' names, but before the Golden Globes we had the Golden Gloves, a national competition whose stars performed on a plain, beige canvas. For viewers who could read, no naming of names was necessary. I once saw a fight in which both men wore Everlast trunks, not at all uncommon. The fight ended in a knockout, with the loser flat on his back, keeping Everlast visible to the overhead camera for the length of the countdown while his opponent, resting his arms on the ropes of a neutral corner, vertically delivered precisely the same message: Everlast. For the manufacturer it was the ultimate win-win situation. And the ultimate product placement.