Branding in the Fashion Space – Where Do the Lines Between Leadership and Listening Overlap and Diverge?

After all, most artists don’t go around proclaiming, ‘I want to be a commercial success.’

– Bernard Arnault, LVMH chairman & CEO

Seemingly every moment of the day is filled with a decisive fork in the road between what we think and what the external sources of information are saying will be the “right” course of action. Whether that’s for choosing a fabric supplier or your positions on cultural appropriation with your new line, the decisions can be mind boggling, overwhelming, and even paralyzing. One often ignored decision is the choice of formal branding. Large, corporate institutions have a dedicated marketing division to define, shape, and manage their brand(s), but most emerging designers simply don’t have this luxury.

While the practice of branding has become more sophisticated and understood, crafting your brand can feel like choosing just one tattoo that will “say it all.” Fortunately, unlike tattoos, brands are much more malleable, but the choice is no less daunting.

Fashion has continually been at the forefront of society, culture, and even branding. As the practices of consumer behavior, manufacturing and distribution, and media evolved, the fashion world has often taken those bold first steps that have opened the gates for the rest of the business world to follow. But, as the fashion influence grew, so did its integration with the business world. When LVMH was publicly formed in 1987, it pulled back the veil of the designer world to the demands of public funding. Along with those demands came revenue expectations, exposure to where monies were spent, as well as heightened demands for design directions.

The 1970s & 80s also saw rise to another critical factor shaping fashion brands. The recently departed Pierre Cardin seized the opportunity to expand his brand’s influence and exposure through licensing his name to somewhere between 800 and 900 different product lines in 120 countries, at his peak. Giorgio Armani referred to him as “the inventor of brand diversification.” Cardin was able to broaden his sphere of influence outside of apparel to housewares, cosmetics, home decor, and several other categories (including food!) without having to invest in manufacturing, distribution, and sales.

The impact of the designer boom meant that the designers now had to create standards for consistency to communicate to junior designers and licensees. Designers then had to stay consistent to these sets of paradigms created. To some, this meant that they could no longer have the freedom to change their perspective and design direction with each season. This forced these designers to clarify their voice, the perspective, and what they stood for. In short, they were forced to become brand managers.

The upshot of this is that consumers had a clearer understanding of what each brand meant and how wearing and owning these brands could shape each individual’s personal brand. For brands like Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Giorgio Armani, this meant that their consumers could more easily understand “the look” and emulate the brand. Fashion-conscious consumers divided themselves into brand “camps”; only wearing items from one brand or items that flowed consistently with that brand’s direction.

As designer brands evolved into corporate brands, so did their processes. In addition to branding, advertising, and product line management, market research became an integral driver of decisions. French jeans brand, Marithe & Francois Girbaud, was purchased by Blue Bell in 1983 (which was later acquired by VF Corp). In the mid-nineties, when their revenue was growing by 60% vs. the industry average of 4%, I worked as a summer intern during my MBA studies at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. In between working on projects, I was asked to participate in a market research test. I wasn’t really their target market, but having worn jeans for years and their products for the summer, I was allowed in. 

The purpose of this study was to determine the point at which I would notice the pockets had become shortened. On the one hand, this was an exercise in minimizing cost and maximizing material yields. On the other, this was a test to see how much could be taken away from a customer before they would be lost. It would have been interesting to see the actual savings this change would yield compared to the resources expended on testing, analysis, product change documentations, communications to manufacturing facilities, inventory management, etc. All of this to strip pennies from one of the hottest fashion brands at the time. By 1997, Girbaud and VF ended their agreement.

Market Research like any other practice, when done well can be extremely informative. At the heart, what is the question being asked and how will the answer affect the bigger picture? What is important to your consumer? What are their issues and how are they dealing with them? Through the pandemic, the question might not be about whether or not your customers are working from home more but how has working from home impacted their relationships with friends, spouses, and their children? How is that reshaping their values?

Poster, WilliWear, ca. 1987; Designed by M & Co. (New York, New York, 1979–1992), For WilliWear Limited (New York, New York, 1976–1990); Lithograph on paper; 104.1 × 71.1 cm (41 × 28 in.); Gift of Tibor Kalman/ M & Co., 1993-151-143

So where is the balance between the designer’s vision and listening?

To some, the term “branding” is a dirty word associated with big, sterile business, in sole search of making tons of money. In this Harvard Business Review interview, LVMH chairman & CEO, Bernard Arnault, said that, “After all, most artists don’t go around proclaiming, ‘I want to be a commercial success.’” He later adds the caveat that it’s those artists that also have a commercial sense who become the leaders in his organization.

Some companies are very marketing driven; they follow the consumer. And they succeed with that strategy. They go out, they test what people want, and then they make it. But that approach has nothing to do with innovation, which is the ultimate driver, we believe, of growth and profitability. You can’t charge a premium price for giving people what they expect, and you won’t ever have break-out products that way—the kinds of products that people line up around the block for. We have those, but only because we give our artists freedom.

– Bernard Arnault

Whether your organization is a one-person show or a conglomerate, finding that balance depends on two main factors; goals and speed. Where do you want your brand to be? Is your goal to be the next Gucci or Chanel? Or, is your goal simply to get your line into Assembly NY

Regardless of which path you choose, defining your personal brand is a crucial part of your foundation as you move forward. It should act as a means of self-reflection of who you are as an artist, what’s important to you, and what you’d like to become. While this might sound like institutional corporate marketing speak, because branding has evolved into a buzzword, the core fundamentals of branding come with years of academic study behind them. Like all rigorous works, how we interpret and put into actions will determine their value. Once defined, you can reference your brand definition as your guide post for decision making? “Are my actions consistent with my brand?” “Will this decision move me away from my brand?” if so, “Is this where I want to take my brand?” In this case, then it’s time to redefine your brand and put a new stake in the ground.

Without sending you down a rabbithole of understanding identity, positioning, differentiation, beneficence, and purpose (although that’s a good rabbithole in my world!), I like to simplify with either the attribute model of branding or the relationship model. Either helps you define what’s important to the core of your brand; whether that’s just you, your designs, or your company. 

In short, it’s about defining your voice and finding a way to express what that looks, sounds, and feels like. In the optimal outcome, when people hear/read the definition of your brand, they will guess that it’s your brand being described. The best developed brands share this quality, oftentimes because of their market presence and huge volumes of business. However, in these cases, their actions and our interactions with those companies define those brands as much as whatever positioning work the marketing department has done. The cheapest place to buy stuff – Walmart. Authentic anti-consumerism – Patagonia.

Before you have to worry about millions of people defining your brand for you, here are some tips to help you shape your definition.

  1. Your voice is undeniably unique – It’s okay if Tom Ford was your major influence when you were just starting out. That doesn’t mean that you’re a knock-off or that this is all there is to you. What matters more is the lens through which you viewed Tom Ford. For example, a kid growing up in North Carolina, eating Indian food, obsessed with the Sims, etc. What are the fundamental elements that make you or your brand who you are or what it is.
  2. Unique definitions – Perhaps the most challenging part of defining a brand is to utilize as few descriptors as possible without sounding generic or applicable to too many of your competitors. Fun/lighthearted is a term often used, but can you take that descriptor deeper to something more like, “breezy, lightly finding the amusing details that few others notice.”?
  3. Features vs. foundations – While sustainability is at the top of many minds, it’s not necessarily an appropriate brand element. This all depends on the role of features like this. Did you grow up repurposing friends’ clothing or experimenting with fruit dyes to save the environment? Then, yes, that’s part of your brand, but if you’re practicing sustainable guidelines because this is now a mandate from your customers, then focus on the other elements that define you.

Finally, here are two bonus tips.

  1. Let your voice guide you not restrain you. Trust in who you are and what you’ve developed – LEAD.
  2. Continue to keep your eyes, ears, and brain open – LISTEN.

Your paths of leadership and listening will constantly meander; often crossing, often overlapping, and often going their separate ways. The final destination might also be a moving target, but understanding why you strayed or followed will perhaps be the most crucial attribute of your brand.

Feature image: WilliWear_Showroom_04, SITE – James Wines, Courtesy of Smithsonian Learning Lab and Cooper Hewitt Education Department.  WilliWear brand – a good example of lead, listen, and innovation.