Anyone who has been involved in the clothing business knows that if something seems to good to be true, it probably is. But even so, the FDNY sweatshirts trend gives some people pause: it’s taking a universally loved and acclaimed brand, and turning it into a product that anyone can sell. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if other brands did this — if anyone could label their dyed sugar water “Coca-Cola” without repercussions — but the FDNY sweatshirts business has been remarkably free of any of the problems one would expect. Why is this, and what should we do about it?
The first thing to keep in mind is that although every time feels unique, FDNY-branded sweatshirts aren’t the only product that takes a well-loved brand and commercializes it. Many holidays work this way, of course — nobody owns the rights to Christmas, so, like FDNY sweatshirts, many Christmas-related goods are mass produced and competitively sold.
But unlike these, FDNY sweatshirts took something that wasn’t yet a popular brand, and made it a sustainable trend.
One important element of this is that the trend is self-sustaining. Seeing a few people a month in FDNY sweatshirts is enough to tell you that the shirts exist, but seeing a few people each day tells you they’re a mainstay. As FDNY-branded sweatshirts became more popular among their original audience (people who were interested in displaying their fondness for the NY Fire Department through FDNY sweatshirts) to people who were trying to keep up with the latest trend.
It’s hard to spot when something like this is happening. Most of the time, it’s hard to create merchandise that is launched by a traumatic event — it feels too much like exploitation. FDNY sweatshirts get around this by being an existing product that was effectively relaunched when people radically reconsidered how they thought of the FDNY, and decided to share their feelings through clothing. They weren’t exploiting tragedy; they were reminding people that the brand name signified bravery and courage, not just another job.
It’s even harder to launch a trend like this. You’d have to spot the opportunity to turn a significant event, or a major change in perception, into a product. FDNY sweatshirts don’t seem to have come from a single producer — rather, many different clothing makers decided to create them, some out of a heartfelt feeling that this was what people needed, others more directly responding to consumer demand. To predict this kind of thing, and take advantage of it without serious missteps, is a frightfully difficult undertaking.
It’s probably best to be cautious about a trend like this. FDNY sweatshirts are established now, but it would be pretty difficult to create something similar to them. Unlike many other areas of fashion, it’s best to hang back and see what other people do, rather than make a serious mistake.
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