As the Vietnam War came to a disastrous end in the 1970s and optimism was in a state of collapse, the smiley face emerged as a bit of comfort. People began printing the logo on pins, T-shirts and trash cans. “It was a weapon in the arsenal of the general cultural depression,” says Robert Thompson, trustee professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. And now, it’s thriving again.
In January, Justin Bieber launched his fashion label, Drew House, with a round of unisex hoodies, baggy shorts and tees emblazoned with a modified version of the smiley: two dots, a yellow circle and a mouth constructed from the word “Drew.” At Alexander Wang’s fall 2019 show, which celebrated the American hustle, there were topcoats with smileys by contemporary graffiti artist KATSU. During menswear week in Paris, diamond-encrusted smiley designs by Japanese fine jewelry brand EyeFunny were a surprise standout that J Balvin and Dior menswear creative director Kim Jones bought into. Meanwhile, Nirvana hit Marc Jacobs with a yet-to-be-resolved copyright infringement lawsuit for his reinterpretation of Kurt Cobain’s smiley, which Jacobs incorporated into his nostalgic Redux Grunge Collection.
The smiley as irony — happiness in the face of unhappiness — figures heavily into KATSU’s work. For the artist, who typically spray-paints the logo with a drone, it represents “the human experience boiled down to a yellow stain. Some sort of prehistoric sign to understand our emotions. It’s like, ‘Life is fine, even [though] it really is not.’ ” His smiley is something entirely different from the blissed-out ’80s rave smiley, the mock ’90s grunge smiley and the campy 2000s smiley. It turns out that as one of humanity’s most simplistic symbols, the smiley has a remarkable ability to absorb new meaning. In today’s booming mens and streetwear markets, it just might be a genuine expression of success.
EyeFunny designer Jury Kawamura launched his company in 2003 with a patented diamond smiley, and 16 years later, his handmade pieces are finally finding commercial success. “I wore the COOOOL necklace [in Paris], and J Balvin said, ‘I want to buy [that] same one,’ ” says Kawamura, who sells the piece for $40,000 and is now planning to collaborate with the artist. (Balvin currently sells his own smiley face-inspired merch.) “The smiley makes everybody happy, right?”
Despite the many legal claims to the symbol — most famously, Walmart’s decadelong action against Belgium-based The Smiley Co., which owns the rights to the logo in 80 countries, generating $265 million annually — “the Drew House version [is] a distinctive entry in a cluttered landscape, so I doubt that any of the other claimants will bare their teeth at it,” says Susan Scafidi, founder/director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School.
For now, the Drew smiley is thriving on social media. Who needs a full-fledged ad campaign when Bieber’s wife, Hailey; Kanye West; Jaden Smith; DJ Khaled; and Travis Scott will rep the brand? Fame helps, yes. But scroll through Bieber’s Instagram account, and the mascot suddenly reveals itself as a savvy business move, too. “It’s as simple as a hieroglyphic,” says Thompson. “Stick a smiley face on a piece of clothing, and it is the ultimate in readability.” You can’t miss it.