They say “if you obey all of the rules, you miss of the fun”, however, rules, by their very nature are prone to exceptions. And Shephard Fairey’s OBEY clothing line is certainly the exception to this old maxim. Despite its imperative brand name, the label which was established in 2001 is fun, expressive and full of boisterous mischief and doesn’t shy away from political messaging. In fact, the brand’s name finds its origins in irony and sarcasm, as it seeks to steer people towards self-expression and independent thought, by ignoring the bourgeois propagandists.
OBEY clothing evolved from Shepard Fairey’s hugely popular 1989 “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker campaign. The campaign was a type of phenomenological experiment, designed to concentrate on the objects of direct experience and human consciousness. The sticker, which was initially distributed amongst his skateboarding clique, became hugely popular and transgressed into mainstream Americana. Subsequently, OBEY Clothing was born out of the campaign’s populist ideology.
The brand is all about “variety and experience” and over the years, OBEY Clothing has taken inspiration from a host of different mediums, from popular culture and street art, to politics and marketing. The classic white t-shirt emblazoned with the brand’s name is intended as a type of “Do It Yourself” message – perhaps a sharply sardonic comment against capitulation to capitalism. Nevertheless, its philosophical outlook is certainly tinged with some canny marketing, as the OBEY logo has become a popular fashion accessory for hoards of trendy teens and twenty-somethings.
At the end of the day, behind all the socio-political iconoclasticism, there is actually a clothing line, and a very cool one at that. Some may see the items as only pseudo-Hipster must-haves, but the majority of the pieces are subtly-designed and stylish, rather than fashionable and fleetingly trendy. The collections are rooted in military structures, but at the same time, each piece is casual and comfortable. Over the years, OBEY Clothing has become huge with celebrities, with everyone from Channing Tatum to Viggo Mortensen wearing it. Even Barack Obama’s famous 2008 “Hope” campaign sticker was designed by Fairey himself and featured on many of the brand’s t-shirts.
For a clothing line, OBEY Clothing might seem overly political and philosophical, but really, it’s what fashion should be all about. It promotes self-expression, individuality and a sense of carefree abandonment. The ironic and paradoxical brand name is a nice tribute to its central adage – “the medium is the message.” And aside from its almost Saussurean semiotic tendency towards hyperreality, I just think it’s a really cool clothing line. Bet you never thought that your OBEY snapback could also be your thinking hat?!