Perhaps the first lesson of the brand underground is not that savvy young people will stop buying symbols of rebellion. It is that they have figured out that they can sell those symbols, too.
In his 1934 memoir, “Exile’s Return,” Malcolm Cowley asserted that by 1920 the bohemian “doctrine” of Greenwich Village could be broken down to eight key points. Several of these remain fairly timeless markers of counterculture: liberty, living for the moment, protecting one’s individuality from the common fate of being “crushed and destroyed by a standardized society.” Each person’s “purpose in life,” the codification states, “is to express himself.” Cowley wrote that the bohemians saw themselves standing in opposition to “the business-Christian ethic then represented by The Saturday Evening Post,” a mainstream valuing “industry, foresight, thrift and personal initiative.”
But that old-fashioned value system, Cowley argued, shifted to a consumption ethic of spending and leisure, and the bohemian doctrine, it turned out, “proved quite useful” to the new mainstream ethic. Cowley posited that bohemian ideas about the primacy of self-expression and living for the moment “encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match.” The shift, he wrote, happened shortly after World War I. So for 80 years or more, the central problem of consumer culture and counterculture has been the same: it is very easy to confuse the two. Which is why, actually, Cowley was not so much praising the bohemian idea as scorning it.
They believe what they are doing has meaning beyond simple commercial success. For them, there is something fully legitimate about taking the traditional sense of branding and reversing it: instead of dreaming up ideas to attach to products, they are starting with ideas and then dreaming up the products to express them.