The Life of Blackletter

This article was written in Spring, 2017 by Lucy Randal
Contributors: Tyler Watamanuk

Recalling Kanye’s creative conquests calls to mind more than his score in the music industry. Some praise him a fashion mogul; some praise him a rhetorician, and many praise Ye’ as an outright God. These same worshipers, though, likely refresh Hypebeast a minimum of 20 times per day to feed the Kanye-flame in the comments sections of posts—far removed from the man. Yet aside from the troll-fan masses, we cannot dismiss his efforts beyond music so soon.

The reach of streetwear culture and its merge into the high-fashion world trickles down to the low-end parodies. This is undeniable with most trends, and the sweeping of Blackletter across clothing is no different. Fashion is not usually so obsessive over a single font, so perhaps it is Kanye and Demna we give credit to for starting such type-hype.

Blackletter, otherwise known as Old English or Gothic, derives from the contexts of the typeface’s name(s). Old English is documented as the earliest form of the English lanugage itself, and Blackletter is literal in its meaning of black letters on a white background. However, the genesis of the typeface in popular culture dates before Kanye and Demna’s use.

The font is found in the gothic subculture, newspaper headlines, and has played identity in streetwear culture long before Kanye’s entrance. New York-based producer and writer Tyler Watamanuk recently explored the typeface’s significance to ’80s and ’90s gang culture in Venice, LA. Tyler notes that Blackletter’s use is too shallow to be problematic to its earlier use.

“I think something worth noting here is that it’s just a typeface without any deep cultural signifiers. While it does have some connection to Los Angeles’ Chicano culture, the typeface has always been associated with newspaper headlines and editorial design. Using the font within the context of fashion isn’t quite on the same level as when brands have appropriated culture in a more direct—and tasteless—manner: DSquared2’s “DSquaw” collection in 2015 and Marc Jacobs’ use of dreadlocks in 2016. The list goes on.”

Blackletter’s appearance spanned concert merch, streetwear tees, high-fashion labels, and Forever 21 imitations. The most noteable treatment leads back to Kanye West’s Pablo merchandise and Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements—although it’s Kanye who leads the pop culture front and font. Vetements certainly ledt more than a smudge on fashion last year; Demna was 2016 BoF’s Person of the Year—his designs disrupting norms and complimenting the political turbulence of 2016. Yet, high-end fashion houses don’t reach the same altitude as mainstream icons.

“The re-emergence was mainly lead by Kanye West and his Pablo merch. He may have released one of the most forgettable albums of his career but the staying power of the merch it spawned was undeniable. It had a certain meme-ability to it (just look the various parodies it spawned) and I think it opened the font style to a much wider audience,” says Tyler.

The typeface made an appearance with many, including: Vetements, TLOP merchandise, Gucci, Vic Mensa’s “U Mad” music video, Brioni Men’s collection, Forever 21, Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” merchandise, Rihanna’s “Anti” merchandise, and Second / Layer. Who produced the design first is arguing the chicken or the egg. It’s difficult to associate Blackletter’s rise to only two major influencers.

“I think they [Kanye and Demna] were just the two biggest megaphones for the font. As you mentioned, Gucci included similar designs in their runway shows and newcomers like Second/Layer. I think Kanye and Demna just have the most visibility.

The Blackletter fad follows the same wave of any trend that’s chewed up, and sit back out. Every trend has an expiry date. It can only take a year or so for another reemergence, but Blackletter’s complete oversaturation during 2016 may signal the typeface’s hiding, at least for a short while. Is it problematic in the over saturation, then, in terms of undermining the original use?

“Yes and no. When something like this gets picked up by mainstream fashion it can easily become diluted to the point of irrelevance.”

“Yes and no. When something like this gets picked up by mainstream fashion it can easily become diluted to the point of irrelevance.”

“Fashion has a storied history of tapping into underground culture so it’s not a surprise [that the style is picked up] at this point. I do think it’s important for designers to make a conscious effort to make it feel as authentic and doesn’t look cheap. This is something that happens time and time again in fashion but it’s an easier pill to swallow if the designer has a sincere interest in the style instead of just shallowly hopping on a trend.”

The cycling of trends remain constant, and the role of designers, whether fashion or type must be mindful of re-appropriation. The condition of reemergence replaces the condition of emergence because no trend is ever really new. Even if you’re Kanye West.