You can’t step foot on campus without seeing at least one person clad in Greek life apparel inspired by pop culture. Hoodies in the vein of Travis Scott’s Astroworld merchandise, but with “Alphaworld” instead. Bape-inspired T-shirts that say “A BATHING AEPI.” Sometimes Greek Letter Organization (GLO) apparel is so smoothly designed that at a glance, you can’t tell it’s not the original — what I thought was a Champion reverse weave hoodie actually said “Delta” on the left-chest logo.
The branded nature of Greek life shouldn’t come as any surprise: The University of Michigan might be the world’s most heavily-branded school, and fittingly, its student body is very brand-conscious in their choice of apparel.
Part of me detected a nefarious capitalist invasion on our identities pervading campus. I’m reminded of the fashion world’s favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. In it Calvin wishes his shirt had a logo on it — “It says to the world, ‘My identity is so wrapped up in what I buy that I paid the company to advertise its products!’”
At first, I thought brand-inspired GLO apparel was the fucked-up final form of this phenomenon. I myself am a Greek life outsider, and I initially saw people whose personas were conflated with companies to the point that they couldn’t make the choice between representing their Greek org or their cultured (read: wealthy) taste for expensive brands. There exists a widely-held belief that Greek life is full of silver-spoon white people with no perspective on reality — something that quickly falls apart when you meet someone in Greek life and find out that they’re real people — but nonetheless, it exists. Seeing students with a Greek letter Supreme box logo imitation feeds into that image.
I say at first because I’ve checked my ego since then. Really, I’m no exception to the rule: I too live for clothing brands. There are some companies I adore because they are minimally branded — Uniqlo comes to mind — but I love having Nikes on my feet. It’s a sad day for me if the waistband of my underwear doesn’t have “Tommy Hilfiger” wrapped around it.
Not only that, but some of these designs are actually super clever. My older brother, a devout Sigma Pi at Grand Valley State University, once came home for the summer with a T-shirt that had the van from the deluxe edition cover of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City photoshopped in front of their fraternity house. There I saw the potential in these pop culture parodies. For every shitty Supreme bogo knockoff, there was a brilliant parody. I sometimes even wish I was in a fraternity as the apparel chair, so I could come up with something clever for my brothers to wear. Has anybody made a Greek life hoodie with the Quaker Oats logo yet?
But the question is: How are these t-shirts born? Where does GLO apparel come from? That’s what this B-Side’s curious editor asked, smelling a vast conspiracy underneath all this merchandise mimicry. Her request for an interview with Underground Printing turned up short; according to them, the company managing licensing for GLO apparel — more on that later — has strict guidelines and “Generally speaking, they do not allow (those) imitations and parodies.” But that couldn’t be the end of it, could it?
The case went cold, and I was prepared to do a deep-dive on Greek imitations based on my own speculation and suspicion. Frantically I texted my older brother, begging him to tell me where the hell those clothes came from. Then a friend of a friend of a friend led us to Greek Dressing. At last, we found it: An apparel company that seemed to specialize in just the kind of merchandise on which I’m writing about now. Tuesday afternoon, I caught up with the brains behind the operation.
LSA senior Everest Guerra laid the groundwork for Greek Dressing in the early part of his college career. “Freshman, sophomore year, I noticed my fraternity was making a lot of apparel,” Guerra said. “Like a lot a lot of apparel. Like $30,000 a year in apparel.”
That may sound like a stretch, but some napkin mathematics told me that number was very realistic. For bigger fraternities, with 150 or more brothers each dropping $200 or more on clothing over a year, that $30,000 number is right in sight. Now multiply that $200 figure times 4,200 students involved in Greek life. The University of Michigan alone has a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar per year Greek apparel industry. That’s a lot of design work, a lot of transactions, a lot of logistics. That’s where companies like Greek Dressing come in.
Guerra saw those complications in his own fraternity’s apparel production. “The designs weren’t that cool … the process for ordering was really hard … there just wasn’t a really good system for it. And I kinda saw an opportunity to improve on the system we had.”
Greek Dressing was born to solve those problems. The process is simple: Fraternities and sororities bring their ideas for apparel to their campus representative. An in-house design team renders a proof, and through an online feedback platform, the campus reps go back and forth with their client until a final design is produced. A private web store is constructed for the client where their members can purchase the clothes themselves. Then the garments are produced (usually by a local printer in Detroit) and fulfilled by Greek Dressing.
When I first read the local printer’s response to my editor’s interview request saying that Greek apparel imitating popular brands were not allowed, an image was conjured in my mind of GLOs working to produce clothing in the dark so that their rip-offs could survive in the light. But as it turns out, a sophisticated system underlies their production.
A quick peek at the Greek Dressing lookbook shows that pop culture references play a big part in their design philosophy. Guerra explained that they incorporate those references into their designs to set them apart from other companies doing a similar thing (as it turns out, there are many). Some orgs know exactly what they want, but others go through a sometimes lengthy design process.
“One of our clients is going to Toronto for a formal, and they just asked us to come up with a couple different designs,” Guerra said. “I think we’re on like design eight now. We got to eight, we selected one, which is really awesome. But for us it was like, OK, what’s important to Toronto? Drake is obviously a staple of Toronto, the Toronto Raptors are a pretty staple team, the Leafs, or anything like that. So we’ll think of pop culture references and try to build those into a lot of our garments.”
On the legal side, Guerra mentioned the same licensing company that the local printer did: Affinity Licensing, the governing body of all GLO trademarks. To produce Greek apparel, first a vendor needs to get licensed with Affinity, but it’s not a blanket license. A separate license is needed for each individual organization. It can be difficult for a small company. There are up-front costs associated with obtaining a single license. Every organization then has its own guidelines for what designs can be used. And of course, those organizations collect royalties on every design with their letters on it.
Whenever Guerra’s team makes a design, it goes through Affinity, who give it an approval or denial. This makes it a little easier on companies like Greek Dressing when it comes to the use of pop culture and existing brands. It’s a sort of legal grey area. I imagine their brand-based designs fall under fair use as a parody, or something similar. Whatever the technicalities are, the licensing company will give the thumbs up or thumbs down on each design.
“We made a cool Chance the Rapper tee and they were totally fine with it,” Guerra said. “But then we made an Off-White tee, and they were like, ‘No, you can’t use that brand.’” As his artists have become more and more familiar with what is and isn’t allowed, they’ve been able to anticipate when a design won’t get approved so they can advise clients to pick something different.
Designing apparel based on what’s trending is a tricky game because of how quickly things go in and out of fashion. “A Drake reference, that might work last month because Drake just dropped a new song, (but) it’s not gonna work in six months because that pop culture reference is played out, there’s going to be a million people who’ve already done it,” Guerra said. “We did an Astroworld one, and then we saw similar stuff coming out around the same time, so it’s hard to know sometimes who was first,” he added.
Interestingly, Guerra noted patterns among different orgs for what kind of references they like to use. “I’ve done enough University of Michigan organizations that I kind of know this organization is gonna be into more of the hip-hop pop culture references, this ones gonna be more into sports pop culture references, and this one just wants some crazy artwork, they don’t want any pop culture references,” he explained.
The conversation proved eye-opening: The underbelly of brand-based Greek life apparel was no conspiracy after all. Like all things Greek life, everything is written, set in stone under well-documented procedure. As for the designs themselves, they are the medium for a creative race, a rush among fraternities and sororities to come up with the trendiest, coolest and cleverest design. Services like Greek Dressing have found a comfortable place in that race.
Is there a conversation to be had about “the American way to express individuality”? Maybe, maybe. But Greek life apparel is not necessarily the “final form” of that thinking like I once imagined it. It’s another avenue upon which “the American way” manifests itself, but it’s a cool one, if I say so myself. Greek life has turned pop culture references into a new, distinctly American form of creativity.