Written by Payge Cassidy Temple

The OBEY Clothing company was founded in 2001 by street artist Shepard Fairey, with a bold logo and powerful message behind it. It is likely that many of us would recognise the company’s logo and perhaps even own a product or two but how many of us have an understanding of the aims and meanings behind it all? And does this result in the ultimate failure of OBEY’s revolutionary message?

In a video interview about the company’s roots, Fairey cites the 1988 film ‘They Live’, written and directed by John Carpenter. For anyone unfamiliar with the film, it follows an unnamed drifter-type character as he discovers the hidden messages, like ‘OBEY’, and the ulterior motives of the upper classes behind the advertisements around him. The film then spans off in a bizarre sc-fi direction and portrays the capitalist leaders as aliens from outer space… but that’s beside the point. The core of the film revolves around the exposure of the hidden messages beneath the advertising of mass media products.

From the ideas behind such revolutionary projects, Fairey and co. created a line of fashion products that displayed the word ‘OBEY’ and other similar politically-focused images. In one sense, the process of selling these items links closely with the Marxist desire to wake the working class from its ‘false consciousness’, in which the working classes are wrongly mislead by the higher social classes. In other words, the clothing company’s use of thought provoking fashion logos could potentially make their customers more aware of negative capitalist motives. However, there appears to be a large problem within all of this. Surely, the fundamental act of printing the words ‘OBEY’ on any mass media product ultimately defeats the point of their anti-capitalist endeavour? The moment that any logo becomes a mass media marketing tool, it also becomes a chain in the wider capitalist machine. 

If, for instance, the clothing company were instead an alternative-looking man, donning dreadlocks and blaring out his psychedelic-punk-experimental fusion mixtape, selling only five limited edition ‘OBEY’ tops in Camden Market… Then perhaps, the message may have succeeded in its Marxist intentions. But, what person would sacrifice a huge profit and worldwide recognition for revolution? Can we really expect this priority of such a popular brand? The company’s founder does, however, have deep roots in activism and I’m sure that many of us can at least admire the ambitious anti-capitalist message that his clothing designs incorporate. 

Whilst I would like to conclude that the company’s roots and powerful logo are commendable and effective in combating capitalist ideals, there is another fundamental problem with the communication of its messages with its audience. It seems that the vast majority of people who wear the company’s clothing are unaware of its roots and aims. If we are buying the products with no or little understanding of the meaning behind the look, then the meaning ceases to exist at all. This debate is far from achieving a clear-cut answer, and the more of us that read further into the design choices of our favourite clothing companies, the more such powerful messages may go beyond the artist’s manifesto. Such debates and research are rewarding and can prompt us all to question the extent to which the founders of clothing industry giants are able to maintain creative authority over the reception of their products and the wider cultural issues sewn within.