by Alexander Freeling

Borrowed branding has a strange appeal. The most egregious example might be Franklin & Marshall: not the small liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but the Italian clothing brand of the same name, which for years produced athletic clothing with unlicensed Franklin & Marshall logos, before finally going straight and cutting a deal with the college. Their hoodies, sweatpants and tees sold well outside of the United States, and low-end fashion retailers in the UK are still trying to shift boxes of them. For the rest of the world, it was a believable heritage logo with a dash of New England money and collegiate athleticism. In the US—where business was decidedly less successful—it was just someone else’s gear. 

This illustrates a more general point. If uniform is sufficiently obscure, borrowing becomes playful rather than posturing. My favorite piece of sportswear as a kid was a rugby shirt I found in a small (and now tragically closed) factory shop in a small English village. It was stuffed with seconds and new old stock for minor sports teams and school clubs, and for some reason, old replica kits for minor international competitors. This is how I ended up with a Romanian national team shirt in canary yellow. Not the kind of rugbies that fashion brands sell to preppy Anglophile poseurs, with hard plastic buttons (unlawful in the professional game), but a real, rip-stop, rubber-button, cotton jersey. Well, a real replica, let’s say. 

My brother, meanwhile, developed a taste for the kind of fake soccer shirts that you might find in any southern European resort town during the summer. Not mere knockoffs, you understand, but the kind of fakes that are scarcely believable, because of either how obscure the team is or how ludicrous the printer’s errors are. It’s not far from the things that excite philatelists

The best of these borrowings resemble a broken hyperlink: it points to something that no longer exists or was never there. Old political campaigns, long-gone bookstores, bankrupt and fraudulent financial firms and commemorations of victories that never came to pass.

OPG offers a kind of inverse nostalgia: it’s charming because it represents the lives you haven’t lived and those you have no intention of sampling. This is why I can find no joy in Zara’s “BRITISH COUNTRYSIDE” slogan sweater (thanks to the caprice of fast fashion, that link may already be dead). It’s also why there’s something missing from fake graphic tees advertising imaginary diners, sports clubs, and holiday destinations. I’d rather wear a cap repping an unknown but real agribusiness than an invented horticultural club.

Crucially, OPG should never be used to enhance status. For one thing, it never works. Using branding that you are entitled to is bad enough (because who wants to look entitled?) College cufflinks for Gen X and “clever” tote bags for millennials are common offenders here. The honorable exception might be school t-shirts at the gym, where educational paraphernalia impresses no one. The episode of The Office where Dwight proudly wears his Cornell sweater (as a prospective applicant, not alum) in order to enrage Andy, who’s convinced that his status as a Cornell man proves his superiority, is a study in the petulance of both the entitled gear wearer and illegitimate OPG. The most objectionable form might be militaria: if you’re patriotic, wearing a uniform you’ve not earned is an insult to the ideal of service; if you’re not, it’s the worst kind of hollow nationalism.

It’s true, there are many ways for the whole game to turn sour (caps with sportscar branding are like fragrances from fashion designers: they exist to sell a cheap taste of the real thing at ten times the margin). But at its best, OPG is a seductive cocktail of referential fun and obscure collecting. And in the unlikely event that you meet another fan of that Albanian spa or second-division Colombian soccer team, you’ll have an instant friend.