Picking away at labels

At the Connecticut private school where I spent some time 20 years ago, Brooks Brothers Oxford shirts were about as key for social acceptance as No. 2 pencils were for the SATs.

Cotton, for that rumpled look.

Were they straighter-stitched or more durable than, say, Arrow shirts, which came in the same lovely pastels? Nobody cared.

It was a label thing.

Today, "Abercrombie" is more than just shorthand for the clothier Abercrombie & Fitch. It's practically a caste in some suburban schools. Urban kids tend to favor FUBU ("for us, by us").

Youths may be the most malleable inhabitants of our brand-label nation. But many adults get pulled in too - at least some of the time. We know who we are.

Of course, brand loyalty can be justified. Some companies hand-build their reputations for quality. (These can hold up even long after new owners or cost-cutting has hollowed out a founder's vision.)

Brand warfare can be fun. At the end of tours at their Vermont facility, Ben & Jerry's employees have been known to jest that the ice cream they reject gets shipped over to Hagen-Dazs - a Euro-sounding product that hails from plain-spoken Minneapolis.

But label confusion can have shady overtones. Major garment manufacturers were recently scolded for stitching technically correct "Made in USA" tags on clothes sewn cheaply in Saipan, a US commonwealth in the Pacific.

More often, in the life of the average mallgoer, labels are trivial. (Let's see: Old Navy is basically a cheaper version of The Gap, itself a cheaper version of The Limited.)

But that trivia hits your wallet.

And that explains the need for the kind of label-consciousness our lead story explores.

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