Brands and labels
Brands developed as a means of commercial distinction within the marketplace in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. The process of branding begins with the attachment of a name to a business, product, or a family of products, and involves the creation of an image for that business which sets it apart from its competitors. Brand image is usually disseminated through advertising, but the value of a brand generally resides in its reputation and the level of loyalty or desirability it can generate amongst consumers. In the fashion industry, a desirable brand name allows companies to bridge the gap between expensive, high-fashion garments and affordable mass-market goods such as perfumes, accessories, and ready-to-wear diffusion lines.
The emergence of brands is closely linked to the establishment of copyright, patent, and trademark legislation in the nineteenth century, as this allowed companies to legally protect their names, and seek redress from their imitators. Many other factors affected the emergence of modern brands, such as the growth of new distribution and retail networks; the increased dominance of fixed-pricing, the concomitant growth of the advertising and packaging trades, and the shift from local to national (and international) markets for consumer goods.
The fashion industry can seek legal protection for designs through patents legislation, which protects the unauthorized use of original designs for manufacture. It also benefits from complex trademark legislation, which protects the words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that are used to distinguish goods and services. Effectively, this covers the use of a company’s logo and brand identity from both counterfeit and “look-alike” goods, where the visual identity of brand is suggested rather than exactly copied.
One celebrated early example of branded clothing is Levi Strauss and Co., who incorporated many trade-marked features into their garments (such as rivets and stitching) and gave proof of authenticity in the form of a patent and trademark “certificate” with each garment (later to be sewn on as a label). Authenticity is a central promise of branded goods, and the fashion industry has used it to generate high cultural value in a world of rapid turnover, fluctuating consumer loyalties, and the seemingly incessant demand for novelty. Fashion branding has become synonymous with a late-capitalist consumerist culture where it is the experience rather than the product that drives demand.
Many fashion houses developed as brands through the practice of franchising and licensed copying. In the period 1880-1914, couture businesses such as Worth and Paquin sold through an international network of department stores. In their attempts to cut down on illegal copying, they also sold reproduction rights to private dressmaking salons. The copying of models was a fundamental part of the nineteenth century fashion trade, and designer “names” such as Worth would produce models specifically for copy by retailers in both Europe and America, in order to gain some financial benefit from this practice. By the 1860s it was necessary for Worth to incorporate a house label into products, carrying the Worth name and address either stamped or woven into garments (labels were in turn copied by counterfeit producers).
This two-tier system of couture models and more accessible ready-to-wear lines bearing the same label was exploited by successive generations of designers, including Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel, who used it to build their international reputations. The “signature label” became a defining characteristic of twentieth-century fashion, allowing fashion houses and named designers to attach their names to goods including fashion, perfume, cosmetics, and even household products in order to give these goods distinction. In this way, fashion branding moved beyond the “naming” of a product into the creation of desirable lifestyle scenarios, which could supposedly be replicated by consumers purchasing even the smallest named item. During the 1930s, most of the major couture labels including Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel, and Jean Patou successfully marketed their signature perfumes well beyond the market for couture.
Franchising became a more widespread activity in the postwar period. Designers such as Dior used the success of franchise agreements in the1940s to underpin the more risky business of couture. In the 1970s and 1980s designers such as Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren capitalized on the value of their brands by franchising their names to the producers of house-wares, accessories, and beauty lines. Some labels quickly became debased by the lack of quality control, and crossed the fine line from exclusivity to down-market ubiquity. Now that the practice is more commonplace, it is also more heavily controlled by the presence of major global conglomerates such as LVMH and the Gucci Group. Many brands, such as Donna Karan, have successfully created a family of brands or diffusion lines, each of which has a specific character and target market (Donna Karan and the various DKNY lines including Kids, City, Sport, and Pure).
Aside from the diversification of fashion houses, brand culture has also been driven by the expansion of the sports and leisure sectors into fashion. Despite its claim to be motivated only by the needs of athletes, the global sportswear brand Nike has become synonymous with street fashion since its diversification in the mid-1980s. Nike’s phenomenal expansion was also due to its direct appeal to a sense of personal achievement through its “Just Do It” slogan and highly emotive advertising. It also fueled overt brand loyalty on the part of its wearers. The popularity of branded goods amongst closely defined “style tribes” has resulted in a profusion of goods where the logo is prominently displayed.
By the twenty-first century, investment in brand building has reached unprecedented levels, with many familiar brand names reinventing themselves by the hire of celebrity designers and radical company overhauls. Fashion and luxury brands have been most affected, as brands known for a particular product category (such as leather goods) launch couture and ready-to-wear collections. With a combination of business acumen and designer credentials, brand “auteurs” such as Tom Ford have transformed the fortunes of a company such as Gucci in a few short years. Many individual designers now work in several capacities at once: creating their own couture and ready-to-wear collections, producing a collection for another fashion house (John Galliano and Alexander McQueen have both held this post at Givenchy) and perhaps acting as consultant to a department store’s own label (Betty Jackson for Marks & Spencer, Jasper Conran for Debenhams in the United Kingdom). These designers may risk their individual reputations on the success of named collections, but the companies behind them are now multinational conglomerates, each with a huge portfolio of brands.
Clifton, Rita, and John Simmons, eds. Brands and Branding. Princeton, N.J.: Bloomberg Press, 2004.
Mendes, Valerie, and Amy de la Haye. 20th Century Fashion. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Pavitt, Jane, ed. Brand New. London: V & A Publications, 2000.
Troy, Nancy J. Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.
White, Nicola, and Ian Griffiths, eds. The Fashion Business: Theory, Practice, Image. Oxford: Berg, 2000.