Who knew that Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign logo was a seminal piece of graphic design? The presidential run itself was historic. But 30 years later, why has there been a sudden resurgence in popularity for the memorabilia of the first black man to run for president—and why was that interest generated within the Asian market?
As Vox reported in a recent exposé of the trend:
In January 2018, a surprising clothing item popped up on the South Korean fashion scene: boxy oversize T-shirts with the logo of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 US presidential campaign. As the weather got warmer, the shirt became a staple for trendy women across the country. Some of the shirts read “JESSE JACKSON ’88 — FOR PRESIDENT,” while others said “JESSE JACKSON ’88 — BLESS YOU.” There was even a misspelled “JESS JACKSON ’88” line of tank tops for men.
After the Jackson shirts’ initial appearance in South Korea, they quickly spread to stylish women across Asia, sold in cheap shopping markets and on e-tailers from provincial China to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.
In case you’re wondering if this is some strange form of Asian political shade, it’s not. As Korean influencer Han Yoo Ra told Vox, “I think it’s just about the design. People may be aware of the English but they don’t know the deeper meaning or that it’s meant to be political. The word ‘Jesse’ is just cute. It’s nothing more serious than that.”
Uhh ... okay. Obviously, this kind of cross-continental appropriation goes both ways. Consider the popularity of Chinese calligraphy tattoos here in America, predominantly worn by folks who don’t speak the language—and therefore, have no idea what they’ve actually had permanently etched onto their bodies. That said, we’re not quite sure how Reverend Jackson would feel about not being taken seriously, or if he’s even aware of the trend. As Vox reports, when he visited South Korea in July, no one seemed to make the connection between the man and the viral logo tee, as no one even thought to ask him how he felt about his extreme popularity among Korean influencers.
Vox explains this as exemplary of how trends rise in the Asian market—particularly in South Korea, which has superseded Japan as the nexus of Asian trends, precisely because it is where pan-Asian trends converge to “[set] the rhythm for the rest of the continent.”
Decades ago, Jackson’s campaign tee might’ve initially found its way to Asia—likely, Japan—through the bulk importation of secondhand items from America, where vintage items exemplifying our culture once had cachet among Asian teenagers seeking the genuine article. But now, an American political tee being appropriated and reproduced isn’t due to our global influence, but is simply a facet of Korea’s knockoff-heavy, casuals-focused fast-fashion industry. Vox’s sources credit this to the selfie-inspired Korean subculture called “ulzzang,” in which trends catch fire via “sharp-featured, pale-skinned Korean internet influencers.” The current top fashion look? An oversized T-shirt with an English slogan—with little regard to the content.
But given the preference for Eurocentric beauty ideals amongst this set, how did the campaign tee for the first black man to run for president (the first time was in 1984) become a Korean fashion craze? Well, first of all, Jackson isn’t pictured on the tee, but as Vox reports, aside from the “cuteness” of his first name, within Asian culture the answer may actually be numerological.
A few sources close to the Korean pop culture suggest that the number “88” may be the driver. 1988 is the birth year of the “King of K-pop,” G-Dragon of the group Big Bang, who often wears a 1988 Seoul Olympics hat. And one of the more popular Korean dramas of the past few years has been Reply 1988, a nostalgic romance set in the newly democratic South Korea of that year. Chinese consumers, on the other hand, may be drawn “88” because it’s considered the luckiest number.
Whatever the reason, it’s not American might, but Korea’s own brand of “cool” that makes the trend attractive. While not nearly as viral a trend stateside, it has enjoyed a little traction here. Knockoffs of Jackson’s campaign tees from both his presidential runs can be found throughout the internet, as can the genuine article. A version was even worn by Viggo Mortensen in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film, Captain Fantastic.
But the sheer absurdity of this trend taking off in Asia got us thinking: were black Americans to seriously revive this trend for themselves, what Jesse Jackson campaign tees would we consider the most stylish?
Well, obviously, the ones with the black man on them.