Winter 2002

Mambo: good taste is fine for some

Mambo is crude, rude and a global brand. Can it remain subversive?

Surfing, suburbia, cows, politics, religion, frangipanis, sprinklers, music, football and thongs – the Mambo designer is generally obsessed with something that derives from, or connects with, the Australian experience. A sharp scatological wit infuses Mambo’s product line. The dizzying array of neon-coloured images strikes you first, but the joyous use of language is just as significant. The self-deprecating humour is often ironic, but it is never detached: Mambo’s irony reflects its deepest passions. Listening to the company’s founder and director, Dare Jennings, you get the impression that he is wary of any designer who is not in some way obsessed.

Mambo is not the place to go for refined, ‘less is more’ design. Its graphic language is populist and direct, in contrast to recent trends for dense, self-conscious graphic design. ‘If you want to know everything about Mambo, just look at the surface, it’s all there – there is nothing more,’ suggests a Warhol parody quote on the cover of Art Irritates Life, Mambo’s fictional self-promotional catalogue. As with Warhol, this is a game about nothing in particular, while being about a lot in particular . . .

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When a profit-orientated clothing company adopts a critical position, it invites a cynical response. It’s an issue that goes to the heart of the debates that surround attempts to encourage designers to act more for the social good, when much of their work is so tightly linked to the processes of commerce and globalisation. Mambo uses irony and self-deprecation – ‘We’re mad as hell and we make clothes’ – not to evade this dilemma, but to acknowledge it and make it part of the text. There is an inevitable paradox, though, in Mambo’s position and there may also be an echo of Benetton’s and Diesel’s use of political and cultural polemic for promotional purposes. The difference is that most clothing labels which use irony and political stances in advertising do so to bestow cachet on otherwise mute products. With Mambo, the product itself often does the talking and the cleverly designed aphorisms encourage buyers to engage in a dialogue. In the end, this is perhaps the most significant feature of the Mambo project: visual and verbal wit opens a conversational ‘space’ that is genuinely inviting rather than cynically strategic. As an early Mambo promotion put it, poking fun at the very idea of lifestyle design: ‘More a pair of shorts . . . than a way of life!’

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