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An American campaign tee is trendy in Asia. Its popularity has nothing to do with the US.

The process of globalization and cultural exchange is sometimes clearer in the most outlandish examples.

a seated woman in a white shirt reading “Jesse Jackson 88”
The Malaysian brand Leella’s Jesse Jackson ’88 tee.
Leella’s Facebook

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.

The shirt was popular with celebrities and college students alike: Rapper Moonbyul, for example, wore the shirt in the music video for her May release, “In My Room.” 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.

Is the popularity of this shirt a sign of a broader Korean interest in Jesse Jackson’s historic run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1988? No, says Seoul-based social media influencer and beauty blogger Han Yoo Ra: “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.”

To her point, retailers of the shirts don’t explain the context of Jackson’s campaign to prospective buyers. The Korean fashion site Yuiiyuii, for example, recommends the shirt for its “smart color scheme” and “sensuous lettering” in “harmonized colors” that can be “mixed and matched like a stylish model.” The retailer NSmall models the shirt along with alternatives such as one with the Chupa Chups lollipop logo.

In other words, the Jesse Jackson T-shirt is sold as fashion — not as a political statement. And nothing makes this point clearer than when the real-life Jesse Jackson visited South Korea in July of this year and there wasn’t any major dialogue in Korean media about how local youth were embracing his 1988 campaign.

The absurdity of a Jesse Jackson campaign T-shirt becoming a trendy item among people who don’t know Jesse Jackson, however, is useful as a way to examine how fashions arise among youth in Asia. With many pan-Asian trends in fashion, beauty, and music, South Korea sets the rhythm for the rest of the continent. Han and other Korean sources couldn’t locate the exact origin of the Jesse Jackson T-shirt, but its popularity follows a common pattern.

Han explains: “Korean trends mostly start in the country’s underground markets, where everything is on sale for about $10 and the quality isn’t so bad. Even foreign fast-fashion brands like Zara can be too expensive for Koreans, so teenage girls and 20-somethings tends to buy these cheaper underground brands.”

Hit items first go on sale in Seoul’s gargantuan Dongdaemun Market, where the products come from fly-by-night brands that pump out massive numbers of garments. The few that have names are called things like Ossazi, D2GARMENTORY, and Retno. Internet-savvy young women purchase items from the markets for resale on their Instagram accounts, modeling the pieces in the styling trends of the moment.

Once these images hit the internet, two things happen. First, local garment-makers can check to see what’s selling and then create their own slightly tweaked versions. If a Jesse Jackson T-shirt is selling well, another brand can, say, remove the “e” from Jesse to offer an ostensibly “different” product on the same theme.

Second, online images allow the items to quickly go global. Chinese manufacturers scout Korean websites and social media accounts for hit trends and make their own versions. The Chinese and Korean manufacturers then distribute the shirts to malls and e-commerce sites across the continent.

And when Korean-manufactured items are sold outside of Korea, they are often sold as Korean trends. On Singapore’s Carousell, for example, the seller offers the Jesse Jackson shirt as a representative garment of the Korean Ulzzang look — a buzzword denoting the personal style of sharp-featured, pale-skinned Korean internet influencers. In accordance to the advice seen on sites like Fasheholic, the No. 1 way to be “Ulzzang” is to wear an oversize print T-shirt with English lettering.

This is a fundamentally different model from two decades ago, when Japan was the most important fashion market in Asia. Vintage T-shirts in Japan took on cachet from the importation process: These were “real things” from the United States, once worn by real Americans.

In the past, American political items found their way into Asian teen fashion mostly through Japan’s thousands of secondhand shops. These stores bulk-import vintage T-shirts from thrift stores and rag houses across the United States, and Japanese youth looking for unique items with English lettering can end up brandishing American political garments and accessories — such as Brock Adams and other obscure politicians’ campaign buttons and, in more jarring examples, “Rush is Right” baseball caps and pro-secessionist Confederate flag shirts.

The Jesse Jackson shirts in South Korea, however, are not an accident of bulk importation. They are all brand new garments, manufactured by a handful of local companies to be sold in Korea and the rest of Asia.

The current cachet for crisp, ersatz garments like Jesse Jackson T-shirts comes not from Americans but from the items’ association with trendy Korean women. With the popularity of Korean dramas, K-pop music, and Korean beauty brands across Asia, South Korea has taken the lead in soft power for the continent. And with Korean fashion being based around affordable casual clothing (that can be easily knocked off), less affluent Southeast Asians can easily import garments or buy a local version.

Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. This trend isn’t really about him.
Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis via Getty Images

The question remains, however: Why specifically did a Jesse Jackson ’88 campaign T-shirt, of all things, get sucked into the Korea-driven Asian trend system? 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.

But this kind of speculation misses the point: The Jesse Jackson ’88 “content” is the least important aspect of the shirt. In today’s globalized world, items can jump between cultures, but they mostly succeed in other places because they take on completely new meanings upon arrival.

The United States has long enjoyed an influence on the world’s pop culture and style, and Americans hardly bat an eye to see major American brands like Nike, Supreme, or Polo Ralph Lauren sold across the world. But they are often only popular because local trendsetters breath new life and meaning into the specific items. Consumers buy them because they’re legitimized by local influencers, not by country of origin. But when we don’t see that process, we Americans read the trends as more proof of our nation’s “soft power.”

This truth of globalization is easier to see in these absurd examples, when something incongruous takes off, such as an old campaign T-shirt from a failed primary run. In this particular example, the “Jesse Jackson ’88” part of the T-shirt may have its origin in the annals of American history, but the shirt caught on because of its exalted position within the Korean casual fashion system.

Jesse Jackson, or even America, has little to do with why Jesse Jackson ’88 campaign T-shirts are popular. Instead, it’s South Korea’s incredible cultural power that makes things cool in Asia — even American political nostalgia.

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