On any given day, a thirty minute walk around New York City can yield at least a few NASA logo sightings. They’re on backpacks, t-shirts, sneakers, hats, sweatshirts, phone cases, tote bags and jackets.
Once you start noticing them, it’s hard to stop.
There have been several trend pieces about the phenomenon in recent years. And NASA’s multimedia liaison, Bert Ulrich — who oversees the use of NASA logos in film, TV and on apparel — confirms the demand for NASA branded apparel is far from petering out, at least based on the number of logo deals he’s been approving. He’s been in his role for more than two decades, so he’s seen the trends ebb and flow. (Mostly flow)
Some of the latest sales boom can be traced back to a surprising place: American luxury fashion house Coach, which debuted a line of NASA-branded apparel in 2017, Ulrich told CNN Business.
Coach originally approached NASA to ask if it could use the “worm” logo, the retro design that the space agency used from 1975 through 1992. NASA, which had barred the use of the worm after it was retired in the 90s, changed its opinion on the matter, allowing Coach to use the logo, Ulrich said.
After the line of Coach apparel came out, things blew up.
“Before 2017, we did five or 10 [logo approvals] a week. It’s now come to the point that we get out on average 225 a week,” Ulrich said.
Last year, there were “over 11,000 requests,” he said — an all-time high.
Not all of those requests get approved, Ulrich added. But the reason there’s so much interest in slapping NASA logos on everything from Vans sneakers to trucker hats may have something to do with the fact that these companies don’t have to license the logo. It’s all free of charge, and NASA doesn’t make a dime off it.
It’s not typically how licensing deals work, but, because NASA is a government agency, much of its assets — including photos, logos and even technology designs — are in the public domain. If a company wants to print NASA logos on t-shirts or coffee mugs, it just has to send an email to NASA’s merchandising department, per the legal requirements. Usually, it lands in Ulrich’s inbox.
Ulrich’s job is just to ensure that the logo is used in a way that’s consistent with the space agency’s approved aesthetic guidelines. No using unapproved colors, for example. And, of course, NASA wants to make sure its brand isn’t used for any untoward purposes, such as in a way that suggests that NASA endorses a company or product. If a company misuses the logo, NASA’s legal office will often send a cease and desist letter, Ulrich said.
After Coach released its line of NASA apparel, high-end designers including Heron Preston and, more recently, Balenciaga, released their own lines. Pop singer Ariana Grande had a song and an entire merchandising line about NASA. There was also Adidas, Swatch, Vans and countless others within the past decade.
Through this lens, it’s possible to explain the phenomenon through what we’ll call the “Miranda Preistly effect.” Remember that scene in 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada” in which Priestly, Meryl Streep’s character, verbally dresses down her young, fashion-inept intern? She explains that the blue sweater she’s wearing is actually “cerulean,” and it’s as much a product of fashion-obsessed industry tycoons as anything on the runway. Essentially, Priestly argued, designers and the fashion media curate the trends, and even the least fashion-interested consumers are influenced by those decisions.
Before Coach, kids were buying NASA t-shirts from vintage stores because they loved the nostalgic feel, the wistfulness of a piece of classic Americana, Hall said.
“You start with kids in cities like New York buying like, old Disney product or old NASA t-shirts, and then suddenly some like ‘cool hunter’ in the fashion industry, like at Urban Outfitters, sees it and suddenly goes, ‘We should turn some NASA-branded t-shirts around,’” Hall said. “It’s kind of a reverse engineering of trends.”
It was probably only after the “cool kids” started wearing NASA T-shirts on the streets that designer brands picked up on it and sold it back to them.
Hall, the Brooklyn-based creative director, said, in his mind, donning the NASA logo is far more about brandishing what the logo represents than declaring one’s love of outer space.
It represents “that sort of quintessential American optimism that we can do anything,” he said.
It’s politically unaffiliated, he added, and can be marketed to young liberals and rural conservatives alike, drumming up that same nostalgia.
“The folks who work for brands like Heron Preston and Balenciaga are as enamored by the fantasy of space travel as anyone else. Nobody is immune from that level of nostalgia so it makes sense that these brands would want to build that into their own collections,” he said.
It’s happened with other logos and franchises, he notes, like Balenciaga doing projects with “The Simpsons” or Coach with Mickey Mouse.
“These enduring symbols speak to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Not everyone may connect with either Heron Preston or Target, but everyone gets the modern Americana of brands like NASA, Disney, Peanuts and The Simpsons,” he said. “Things like NASA sort of act like this magic equalizer.”