War of the Fashion Fonts: Cooper Black & Futura

The wallflowers of design are rising to the forefront, with fonts dominating the face of fashion.
But what exactly makes these typefaces fashionable? 

Every season, the fashion world decrees a series of fads for us to collectively lust over. Then there are the insider magnets, where if you were astute enough to pick up on them, you’re granted that sought-after stamp of ‘cool’. Case in point: Normcore was all about nondescript ways of dressing; a whispered luxury, if you will. 

In our age of Instagram, social media influencers have become part of the in-crowd. Social-media-friendly OOTDs (#outfitoftheday) are crucial, and these digital natives have unearthed the next big gem — slogan tees. But not just your regular collegiate t-shirt, these shirts have one thing in common: Cooper Black. 

Don’t know the font? It’s the rounded, heavily set font you find on Tootsie Rolls and EasyJet planes. Online style stars such as Pandora Sykes and Erika Bowes are rocking quirky quotes across their chests — “Land Of The Free Refills”, “Vote For The Cocktail Party”, “Hangover Club”, “Netflix & Don’t Touch Me” are just some of the catchphrases written exclusively in this typeface. So what’s the it-factor that makes a font so fashionable? How did a typeface like Cooper Black gain its style cred?

For starters, it wasn’t always associated with youthful streetwear. When it was first designed in 1921 by American typographer, Oswald Bruce Cooper, it was lauded as being “for far-sighted printers with near-sighted customers”. 

 

“It harks back to an earlier age," says Valerie Geiger, honorary secretary and curator of the Typographic Circle, a non-profit organisation for type enthusiasts and professionals. She dubs it “retro and nostalgic”, something the fashion crowd constantly craves. 

It wasn’t until the late 1960s where Cooper Black started infiltrating pop culture. In television, it reigned sitcom title sequences. BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, American sitcoms The Bob Newhart Show and Everybody Hates Chris, and Ricky Gervais’s Channel 4 mockumentary Derek all sport the font. 

But who helms the Cooper Black cult of today? British independent streetwear label Lazy Oaf is one of the few brands that stocks these shirts. “I love Cooper Black. It’s quite an easy font and sort of has a '70s feel to it,” says founding designer Gemma Shiel. “There’s just something really appealing and quite attractive about it.”

cooperblack-lazyoaf

When asked why she thinks Cooper Black is such a hit with the millennials, Shiel says, “You know what, I really don’t know! But maybe it has that nostalgic, familiar feeling to it. It’s quite non-threatening, and I associate it with ice-cream vans and fast food outlets.” Some of Lazy Oaf’s best selling Cooper Black t-shirts read “Bad Habits” and “Bollocks”!

It's an understandable charm if you think about it —  pairing blasé quotes with an innocent-looking font isn’t that much different from pairing a floral sundress with Dr. Martens boots. Similar to how anything in Comic Sans reads as satirical, anything in Cooper Black is shorthand for quirkiness. 

However, a quick browse at the wall of political posters in the V&A’s Records and Rebels exhibition will tell you it was a major activist-favourite first — which might come as a surprise given its babyish guise. In youth cult film Napoleon Dynamite, unlikely hero Napoleon dons a tee that reads “Vote For Pedro” in — you guessed it — Cooper Black. While American high school politics isn’t exactly political, there may be something inherently statement-making about slogan tees. 

Napoleon Dynamite  (2004)

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

“I think anything where you proclaim something on your t-shirt is likely to fall on the statement side of fashion, because it’s kind of like wearing a sign or stating your allegiance,” says Lauren Cochrane, fashion writer at The Guardian. She adds, “How important the font is though, is difficult to ascertain — is it about what you’re saying or how you’re saying it aesthetically? How important is the font in implicitly helping to state that case?” 

Fonts have everything to do with message, suggests Mark Wells, fashion multimedia lecturer at London College of Fashion. “A brand’s values and how it visually manifests itself are vitally important in communicating what it stands for. An important aspect of this is the style of the typography,” he says.

Chris Agius, art director of fashion magazine STREETS, concurs. “I always try to tell a story with the typography or the layouts that I choose. Seeing what’s out there gives me a better understanding of what my market is admiring.” 

Another typeface that has fashion head over heels is Futura. Unlike Cooper Black, its reach has extended far beyond slogan tees — from the gateway hipster flicks of Wes Anderson to artsy fashion magazine The Gentlewoman to trendy beauty brand Glossier. Fashion’s infatuation with Futura represents the minimalist camp, with its geometric, no-nonsense lines. 

It all boils down to the connotations, it seems. With Cooper Black, its heightened use in the late 1960s has tied it to hippie nostalgia. Futura, on the other hand, is “very serious and associated with fashion,” says Wells.

Supreme is a brand that takes full advantage of Futura’s subtle style points. Its logo makes clear reference to conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s work, known for its in-your-face captions that scream “rebel”. Therein lies Futura’s versatility — on Supreme it’s punchy and edgy; in the pages of The Gentlewoman it becomes quiet and considered. 

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David Preston, senior lecturer in typography at Central Saint Martins, says, “Futura has, generally speaking, been a popular typeface for over 85 years. There are peak and troughs, but it is a workhorse many designers depend on.” Sounds a lot like household favourite Helvetica, with the likes of Gap, American Apparel, NARS, Panasonic, and Microsoft under its belt — just to name a few. 

Is Futura the next Helvetica, then? Preston believes it depends on its accessibility, citing “the most undervalued factor being the availability to a wider user-group.” Both Cooper Black and Futura are readily available on most computer systems, making it easy for anyone to replicate design trends of the moment. 

“It’s exactly like fashion in that sense, where you’ve got big fashion houses that influence lower-brow designers who copy this and that. It’s a trickle down effect,” says Olly St John, committee member of the Typographic Circle. So who are the equivalents of Chanel, Gucci, and Balenciaga in the world of typography? Who decides what’s in and what’s not? 

“Designers are influenced by what’s going on in society around them, the same way fashion and music and other creative industries share similar kinds of influences and inspiration. There’s definitely a parallel,” says Geiger. For Preston, who also runs an eponymous graphic design studio, history plays the biggest role in his design process. Futura was designed with forward ideals in mind, with its nearly perfect proportions. 

Trendy typefaces, much like fashion, reflect a pining for something to transport us to another time. Cooper Black takes us back to the rosy idealism of the 1960s, and Futura brings us forward with its modern character. It’s easy to overlook typography, but like an accent, it punctuates what we say.

The age-old expression “You are what you wear” now extends to the font you wear — are you Times New Roman, or are you Comic Sans? That might sound like a Buzzfeed quiz you take at two in the morning, but it rings true as long as different fonts stick around. Be it cringeworthy church camp pamphlets riddled in Curlz MT, or unironic signboards in Comic Sans, type evokes an emotional response in many of us. It is, after all, what language looks like.

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