Fashion Branding: How Fashion Houses use the Catwalk, Magazines, and Movie Stars to Create DemandPublished: August 09, 2006 in Knowledge@Emory
Exquisite design, sumptuous fabrics and craftsmanship don’t make fashion, claims Mark Tungate in Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara. Marketing does.
Not traditional marketing, which tries to answer a need, but a different kind. Tungate quotes fashion scholar Bruno Remaury to describe it: “Fashion is based on creating a need where, in reality, there is none. Fashion is a factory that manufactures desire.”
How then does a fashion house create this desire? How does it persuade a customer that she must buy her fortieth blue knee-length skirt or his twenty-first pin-striped suit?
According to Tungate, it does this by creating products that evoke a set of ideas that consumers want to interject into their lives. He calls them a house’s “story.” The story, which usually comes from a fashion house’s early history, evokes a lifestyle that is stylish, exclusive, and (frequently) sexy. Channel’s little black dress, the posh, well-traveled Louis Vuitton bag, and the Burberry trench coat all radiate these desired associations.
Although these stories come most easily from a fashion house’s glamorous past, designers can create a fashion brand out of whole cloth, so to speak. Ralph Lauren created his in the 1980s with lines of clothing and furnishings that suggest English estates and East Coast prep schools. More recently, the Italian house Diesel created an image that mixes Harley Davidson with 1950s science fiction for a look that its founder calls “anti-fashion fashion.”
Young houses must create a look and stick to it. They must create their brand.
Established houses often find they have to freshen their look, or even subvert it, without undermining their brand. John Galliano brought back the declining Dior by designing decadent and operatic garments for this house previously known for simplicity and quiet elegance. And designer Tom Ford resuscitated Gucci by “redesigning every aspect of the brand, from print advertisements to stores, ensuring that everything gelled to create an ‘ideal’ of what the Gucci name meant.” He gave the house a hard, sex-drenched look that consumers adored.
Galliano and Ford were also among the first designers to understand the economics of the high-fashion business: Only about 1,500 women, worldwide, buy haute couture; more can afford designer ready to wear, but the real money is in accessories. “The clothes a designer sends down the runway are worthless,” Tungate declares, “unless they increase sales of handbags, sunglasses and perfume.” Most Western women can buy designer accessories, and many will, as long as they represent a piece of a dream, a set of associations connected with a desirable brand name.
Hence the importance of fashion brands. How fashion houses resuscitate, strengthen and change their brands is the subject of Tungate’s entertaining and highly readable book. Fashion Brands explains not just how fashion branding works, but how the fashion industry works. It looks at men’s fashion, the urban-athletic style, fashion knock-offs, trend setters and observers, overseas sweatshops and the ways that computers are changing the shopping experience.
Exposure is everything, and fashion magazines are the best way to get it. Tungate, a journalist who writes on marketing and style, says that despite fashion venues on the web and satellite TV “fashion consumers are still addicted to those glossy pages; and fashion advertisers, too.” He describes the ways that fashion houses court the fashion editors—sometimes through gifts of cash, gifts and trips—and the primacy of advertising in setting editorial content.
Models don’t play the role they did during the era of the supermodel, but they are still needed to give a brand a face. Tungate quotes John Horner, head of Models 1, Europe’s leading modeling agency, who says models “are there to interpret and enhance a product. The more flexible their face or body, the more easily they can create a distinctive image for the client.”
Another way to draw eyes to a fashion line, says Tungate, is to enlist the popularity of movie stars. Many houses, particularly new ones, give actresses clothing to wear, not just to America’s Academy Awards but anywhere they might be seen and photographed. Stars, on the other hand, have to look after their own brand image, he adds. If they don’t maintain their look, they will be excoriated by the media.
Pity the upstart fashion house trying to make a name for itself in this expensive, advertising-driven world. Tungate outlines the difficulties new houses face in pushing their way onto store shelves. Generally 80% of a retailer’s display space is devoted to well-known brands, leaving 20% for the wannabes. Stores cannot afford to take greater chances with unknown designers because they must maintain their own brand identities.
Customers want to find a certain type of clothing at a given retailer, and they expect to have a certain type of shopping experience. This last expectation is leading some stores, particularly those devoted to a single designer, to turn their emporiums into “brand theme parks, where the architecture, demeanor of the sales staff, even food sold at the store restaurant all reflect a designer’s brand identity.”
The nature of a fashion house’s brand is usually reinforced or expanded in fashion shows, which cost between $40,000 and $200,000 to stage. Given the low sales of haute couture, are these spectacles worth the price? Undoubtedly. A show can generate as much as a hundred times its cost in free advertising. As Tungate says, “If a fashion show is little more than a live advertisement, then haute couture is the most spectacular commercial break of all.”
Not everyone, however, finds fashion brands compelling. Some find them corporate and coercive. Ignoring designer products and much of contemporary style, many style-setting young people are consequently assembling much of their wardrobes at second-hand stores. Do they herald the end of fashion brands? Only time will tell.