A Conversation With Director of Design Eric Hu

A Move Toward a New Identity at SSENSE

  • Interview: Tony Wang
  • Photography: Thomas McCarty

In case you haven't noticed, things are different on the site. The logo, typography, front-end design — it's all been changed. While our identity remains the same at its core, the act of changing our branding clarifies and builds on our fundamental belief that identity is a fluid construct. None of us have to be who we were yesterday, tomorrow. In other words, be whoever you want to be.

Our redesign is the result of a collective SSENSE effort, lead by our Director of Design, Eric Hu.

Born and raised in L.A., Hu is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and holds a MFA from Yale University. Dividing his time between New York and Montreal, Hu is also part of the global art collective Eternal Dragonz, whose diaspora-influenced experimental electronic music is made by members in Sydney, Los Angeles, and Zurich.

As Hu knows well, designers face an Atlas-like responsibility when tasked with a branding project. Because they are expected to understand the brand better than anyone else, their goal is to distill the essence of a company into a visual language. In the case of a rebrand, the standard for acceptance is far higher. You have a corporate history to reckon with, paired with inertia from fans who aren’t ready to move on. A rebrand is a self-instigated public spectacle, where armchair design critics reign supreme.

This is where Hu’s ethos plays a determining role. More than merely pushing the limits of what design can achieve, Hu reorients his audience’s point of view. There’s something sneaky going on his work, ultimately compelling readers — in this case SSENSE readers — to take a second look and interrogate established beliefs. Some changes, for instance, are so slight they might first appear like mistakes. Others are big: they demand your attention.

Tony Wang

Eric Hu

Authenticity is such a problematic term, especially in the context of corporate identity. So much of the branding I encounter today comes off saccharine and vacuous.

Authenticity has been weaponized. It’s a term that’s really been abused. You can almost say today’s society is characterized by an authenticity-industrial complex. We’re more concerned with appearing real than being real. The sooner brands acknowledge that performative authenticity is a flawed concept, the sooner you can have a real conversation with a brand.

Rebranding has become a contemporary corporate spectacle, and sometimes it backfires horribly — like when The Met and The Gap released their new logos to widespread backlash.

A lot of times a rebrand is a distraction. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. The truth is that the public is increasingly perceptive to these changes — they’re more visually literate and skeptical than ever.

So why rebrand?

The company was founded in 2003. You might think of us as a 14-year-old teenager trying to find our own voice as we grow. We want to find a better way of expressing ourselves as we continue to grow. There’s a natural restlessness that comes with time. Because of this, our rebrand called for a different design approach. I stopped referring to what we were doing as a rebrand, and instead started calling it a brand transition. I wanted to fill in the gaps of things we lacked, instead of changing the fundamentals.

Reality is the ultimate art director.

Eric wears Prada shirt.

So how did you go about the process of trying to transition our brand in a way that was real, instead of just appearing real?

I wanted our identity to be a mirror we could hold up to ourselves — to our audience and to ourselves. I wanted it to speak to the fluidity of millennials today who seek to defy classification. People who belong and don’t belong at the same time.

It’s pretty crazy, but the company has been around long enough that quite a few of us have a prior personal relationship with the brand. Growing up in the suburbs of the Bay Area, I had little interest in fashion. I associated it with soccer moms showing off their latest Louis Vuitton or Gucci handbag (real or otherwise), logo visible halfway across the school parking lot. It was a tacky form of status signalling. I discovered SSENSE eight years ago, during my sophomore year of college. Encountering brands like Comme Des Garçons, Gareth Pugh, and Rick Owens completely re-contextualized fashion for me, and sparked my interest in the industry.

I have a very personal story with SSENSE. My mother works in fashion; I grew up surrounded by it. But at the same time, growing up as an overweight Asian-American man, I felt disenfranchised from fashion. By the time I hit high school, I got the idea that I didn’t deserve to look good. The message magazines kept sending was that you had to be skinny and white to engage in fashion. I actually discovered SSENSE while I was in grad school through its SoundCloud account. I loved the mixes, and the artists they were featuring. At first, I thought the company was a music channel. Then I discovered they were an online retailer. They were trying to contextualize fashion in a way that spoke to me. It was the first time that a fashion retailer didn’t make me feel excluded.

I didn’t want to be anti-intellectual but I also wanted to make my work accessible.

Your point on being an outsider is important. Otherness has been such a strong narrative undercurrent to the company’s history. The company was founded by three brothers who emigrated to Canada from Syria as teenagers. They started a fashion technology company in a city that is neither a fashion nor technology hub. Many of the people working here don’t come from a traditional fashion or technology background. We’re more interested in independent cultures that operate at the fringes of society than in the mainstream.

SSENSE has always been interested in the broader world. It’s interested in heterogeneity, in multiplicity, and in contradictions. That definitely factored into the branding too. How do you make something elegant but also crude? How can you contextualize identity in a way that’s refined but also raw at the same time?

Eric wears Prada shirt.

What are others structures of power, and therefore exclusion, did you want to dismantle through your rebrand of SSENSE?

It’s funny. I went to Yale for my master’s in graphic design. It has a reputation for being a very theoretical and cerebral program. It’s actually a lot more craft-based than it appears on the outside but at times I felt this pressure to live up to that reputation. While it was great to work outside of a commercial context, the style of academic thinking and writing that figured so heavily into the coursework felt like a form of performative exclusion. It made design accessible only to a limited audience; I didn’t want to be anti-intellectual but I also wanted to make my work accessible.

The hashtag #nofilter has become such a banality.

So how does that all figure into the brand’s new identity? For example, the updated typographic system for the brand.

We wanted to take crude and raw materials and recontextualize them in a way that makes them elegant and refined. We wanted to come up with a typographic system that looked very harmless and boring at first, but as you look at it more, things start to reveal themselves. Our headline typeface looks like a system font such as Arial. But it only takes a few seconds to realize some things are off. The number “8” is upside down, the “r” is blocky, the “s” is tilted. But when you look at it as a paragraph, it’s very nice and clean. The secondary typeface looks just like Times New Roman — it’s the most boring font you could use. Everyone has it on their computer. But it’s not Times New Roman. It’s been thinned out from the original. Between the spectrum of “I could do this myself” to “I don’t get it,” we wanted people to look at the branding and say “Oh, I could do this myself, but not yet.” It engenders a different kind of aspiration.

Fashion is obsessed with constructing fantastical worlds that tend to reinforce white, heteronormative ideals. But, in today’s hyperreal age of technology, the images being created outside of fashion feel all the more real, yet unreal. You have kids playing Pokémon Go in Syria after a bombing and Japanese hologram pop stars performing at a sold-out concert. Reality today is more fantastical than fantasy itself.

Over the years, we’ve moved away from creating these fantasies with set design to more of a documentation style. We could work months on a detailed art direction for a huge campaign, then you have a fight in Parliament, and someone captures a photo that looks like a Renaissance painting. That’s going to look better than anything we do. Reality is the ultimate art director. In the age of 4K sports photography and high-speed cameras that can capture images at 2,400 frames per second, fashion can’t compete with our ability to capture the craziest things happening in the real world.

The artist Jon Rafman showed us that sometimes Google Street View is a better photographer than any of us. Why don’t we use a sports photographer to do a fashion editorial? Why don’t we embrace new technologies and augmentations? This is the new level of authenticity. The hashtag #nofilter has become such a banality. It’s insincere virtue signaling. It’s like when a man callously tells his girlfriend, “I like you without makeup,” without realizing she’s wearing makeup, it’s just natural makeup intended to make her look like she doesn’t have any on. Rather than appreciate the art or craft of her work, he put her on a pedestal. If you’re not in on it, you’re a chump.

Wouldn’t embracing inauthenticity be the most authentic thing for a fashion brand to do?

I think so. There is a way to communicate that everything is manufactured, while still caring about the world. It should give you the freedom to live the way you want to live, without searching for authenticity. The key is to encourage skepticism, but not cynicism.

There is a way to communicate that everything is manufactured, while still caring about the world.
  • Interview: Tony Wang
  • Photography: Thomas McCarty
  • Styling: Michael The III
  • Grooming: Soraya Qadi / Judy Inc.