>Fashion V. Clothes: Post #5: The Branding Game

29 Oct

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TEXT, VIVIAN KELLY
If you are a dyed in the wool fashionista, fashion is your religion. As such, you must abide by the fashion commandments. Perhaps the most important fashion commandment is: “Thou Shalt Not Over-License”. The danger that comes from over licensing is that it devalues fashion, whether it be RTW, belts, bags, and shoes and turns them into mere clothes and junky accessories.

The most glaring and well-known example of a fashion designer guilty of defying this commandment is Pierre Cardin, the subject of this column. [I’ll save Halston and the J.C. Penney debacle for another day].
I hadn’t though much about Pierre Cardin since High School, when one of my favorite pieces of jewelry was a gold plated “Pierre Cardin” necklace. Back then, I didn’t know much about M. Cardin other than: he was French, one could buy designer items from him at Bloomingdales’, and it was cheaper than the Gucci bag and LV monogram bags I lusted after.
Cardin products were so available, and even then, in the back of my mind as the sales clerk rang the register for that necklace, I wondered, ‘Is this really a designer item? Shouldn’t it be harder for me to get this?’ The supply and demand aspect of making an item exclusive fashion [or just clothes] is a difficult tight rope for designers to walk when they’re seeking to brand themselves.
M. Cardin will forever be remembered as the man who opened-up the Pandora’s box of branding. His empire included everything from haute couture to sardines, and boy, were they ever available! You could purchase Cardin designs anywhere and everywhere, from the Midwest to the Far East. In 2000, his empire was estimated to be worth$4.97billion and he had 190,000 people working in 840 factories. The amount of money his brand generated is mind-boggling. The obvious lure to designers to go the brand extension route is the huge amount of money branding oneself can generate. But then there’s that matter of exclusivity. As a designer, you need to ask yourself a few questions. 1. Am I over-extending myself to the point that I’m no longer creating fashion?’ 2.Have I lowered my standards to the point that I’m just cranking out mediocre products with my label slapped on it that will only sell to gullible duty free shoppers who will buy it as long as there’s a designer label slapped on it?
3. Is this how I really want to be perceived?
As a consumer, when shopping for say, a bottle of olive oil, I have to ask myself, ‘Do I really want to buy a bottle of olive oil because it has “Pierre Cardin” scrawled across it rather than a bottle of Sclafani or Bertolli?’ For that matter, last weekend I passed on a bottle of “Christian Audigier Vodka”,
even though it was on sale for $25 in favor of the tried and true Absolut. Also, what business does a fashion designer [or Donald Trump for that matter] have “designing” a consumer staple other than to make a buck? It’s not the kind of thing that earns you respect in the fashion business, nor does it have anything to do with fashion. I can’t imaging that fashion designers such as Duckie Brown will be coming out with a “Duckie Brown balsamic vinegar” anytime soon.
Availability kills the notion of exclusivity. Even back in the late seventies, I wondered why it was so easy to pick up a piece of designer – anything. Back then; the word “designer” really did connote exclusivity. The New York Gucci store closed its doors during the office lunch hour, because they didn’t want secretaries and sales assistants coming in to buy. The Ladies of leisure were actually lunching at that time, and had the rest of the day until cocktails to shop.

This past season, when Tom Ford tried to bring that concept back, I gave him a mental high-five. There’s a fly in the ointment though. While I love the idea of fashion being exclusive, I don’t love the idea of being excluded from the party. As I jokingly said to PR Paul Wilmot a few weeks after Tom’s show, “I did not make the list, nor did I expect to, but I sure wanted to be on it.”
Taking it beyond fashion for just a moment, Groucho Marx had a point in his infamous remark, “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. ”
While I could buy Pierre Cardin – just about anything – I don’t want to, because so can anyone else. A logo should mean something. A Birkin bag still holds that allure of exclusivity because you just don’t see a lot of them unless you happen to be walking on Fifth Avenue, up by Bergdorf’s.

“Logomania” put a big dent in designer exclusivity.
Logomania was that horrible moment circa 2002 that was dubbed thusly because of the inordinate number of logos consumers were encouraged to wear. The mantra was “the more, the better!”
Logomania represented the total opposite of what Mr. Ford was trying to achieve with his hyper-exclusive presentation. It was as if designers opened the door to what was once a very private club and invited anyone and everyone who could afford to pay the door fee inside. On the darker side, it also generated a huge wave of designer knock-offs. You’d be on the #6 subway going downtown, and every other woman riding was wearing something with a GG or LV or CC emblazoned on it.
I recall flipping through the pages of Vogue, aghast at this reigning trend. It looked “common” as the British so disdainfully put it. I continued to cringe as that particular fashion week, when fashionistas proudly donned designer logos on every square inch of their bodies. All those logos devalued the brand, what’s exclusive if everyone’s wearing it? The most heinous example was a long Louis Vuitton logoed coat. While I can’t recall who wore it, I sure remember the coat – ugh. It was Louis Vuitton but I couldn’t image a fashion icon who wore LV, such as Audrey or Jackie wearing this piece, not even on Halloween.

This is not to say that tasteful branding is not possible. Designers such as Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren have proven that theory out. Mr. Blass was the first to successfully put some “class” into branding. A few years later, Mr. Lauren started his empire, which is probably now the biggest fashion branding success story ever. [Mr. Lauren deserves an article all of his own, which I’ll be tackling later, after a visit to his newest NYC store.]
Mr. Blass “had it all”, and was responsible for helping lead the way for others such as Ralph and Tommy [Hilfiger] to create their multi-billion dollar empires built on “the world of [Tommy, Ralph]. A notable exception to outside logos “working” was Ralph’s RRL line. Somehow, wearing RRL to the gym was not…. Embarrassing, nor did he lose his fellow CFDA members’ respect for doing RRL.

Bill Blass had his fellow designers’ respect because he dressed fashion and society’s elite such as Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Harriman, and Happy Rockefeller.

His Bill Blass Collection designs
retailed in all the best stores: Bonwit Teller, Lord and Taylor, and Neiman-Marcus and he made money – a lot of it. Unlike M. Cardin, though, no one ever accused Mr. Blass of being foolish or greedy in his brand expansion.
On the more commercial [yet still fashionably so] was the beige Chantilly-lace dress he created for model Jean Shrimpton for a Revlon lipstick ad that thrust him even more in the limelight.
In 1968, he took the next big step and established a Rentner licensing and franchising subsidiary, Bill Blass Inc.
Unlike M. Cardin, he carefully picked and chose what he would design.
There were: shoes, hosiery, scarves, gloves, luggage, jewelry, and wristwatches, and a car. He designed the “Lincoln Mark VII Bill Blass Model” from 1984-1992. Back then, a Lincoln was perceived as an elegant Town Car. The Ladies Who Lunched rode in them to get from their Park Avenue homes to La Grenouille and Mortimer’s. When he added furniture to the equation, Blass completed the circle of “the world of”.
His own homes, the 22 acre estate in New Preston, CT, and Sutton Place pied-a-Terre, were familiar to the society women he dressed and entertained. Unsurprisingly, in 1997, he made a deal with Pennsylvania House, and introduced a 50 piece Bill Blass furniture collection. A few years before his death, he’d pared his licenses down to 42, before selling it all in 1998. His final presentation in the Bryant Park Tent was theatrical and the most memorable fashion show I have ever attended.

All of his “ladies” showed and proudly watched, rapt, in the front row. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, as we all knew this was Blass’s swan song. It there ever was a fashion moment; this was it.

Taking things back to the present, how about Pierre Cardin? When Assouline’s Mimi Crume sent me the digital version of Pierre Cardin: 60 Years of Innovation to review, I resolved to go and see the real book before reviewing it. My chance came during FNO at the Assouline Party at the Plaza.
Flipping through the book was like savoring a gourmet meal – it’s an experience that’s not to be rushed. Half an hour later, I reluctantly left to go uptown to Missoni, reflecting on some of M. Cardin’s groundbreaking designs.

The book was a fitting tribute and wonderful retrospective of a singular career. This is the part where the credits should roll and say “THE END”.
To my dismay, I read in WWD.com and I meanwhat.com that M. Cardin wanted to keep going and going…. And going.
Question: Who ITALS puts on a show with 200 looks?
Answer: No one in their right mind, that is no one who would like to keep their over-scheduled audience of editors and retailers from nodding off after look #50.

As Fashion Pundit, Abe Gurko
so aptly said, “Far be it from me to not have the utmost respect for the man who changed the industry. After all, he made pens chic. With his ground-breaking contribution to licensing coupled with his reputation for futuristic fashion, at a time when Cosmonauts were circling the globe, Cardin tapped into the zeitgeist of the 60’s and etched his place in fashion history.”

Silly circus show or not, I still want the book, because at that point in time, M. Cardin designed fashion, not clothes.
Pierre Cardin: 60 Years of Innovation, takes you from M. Cardin’s early years, working for in 1946, to the opening of his own couture house in 1950, and shows some of his most memorable architecturally futuristic fashion.
Prosper & Martine Assouline celebrated Pierre Cardin and the U.S. launch of his book Pierre Cardin: 60 Years of Innovation with a cocktail reception and book signing at the ASSOULINE boutique at The Plaza Hotel, on Tuesday. As I couldn’t make it, I immediately bought a copy online, to make sure I’d have one for my home office collection. Looking throught the book, I can take pleasure in viewing the designs that made M. Cardin one of fashion’s greats and forget about the olive oil and sardines for a while.

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