What’s in a brand? That which we call a label
By any other namesake would look as chic.
Shopping around online today, we have a billion different options for clothing. The longer you look, the more things start to blend together. This shaped bag with a red lining and a silver clasp. That shaped bag with some gold zippers in snakeskin. How do you keep it all straight? Enter brand names. You see brands everywhere, on bag clasps and on the side of a shoe. Embroidered on the breast of a t-shirt or stamped on a button. But what do these names mean? Do they do anything?
More than any other time in history we are label obsessed. Starbucks cups and iPhones are status symbols. We could just carry around a Target shopping bag, it has the same functions as a Chanel Boy Bag. Shopping bags cost a nickel, and Chanel bags cost $7,000, it seems much more economical to carry something cheap and utilitarian. If this were the reality of things, a $400 Billion fashion industry wouldn’t exist.
If I had a dime for every time I heard someone muse as to why a Chanel bag costs upwards of $12,000, I’d have - well, I’d have a Chanel bag. It’s a lump of fabric, leather, chains, and zippers, a beautifully handcrafted lump, but a lump nonetheless. Most prices of consumable goods are based on the sum of their parts. The price of each individual piece of leather and trim in a Chanel Bag does not cost anywhere near its retail price. And the labor? Yes, it is handmade, and yes it is intensive, but this still does not account for maybe 9 out of the 12 thousand dollars you can spend on a bag. So what are you paying for? You’re paying for those little double c’s stitched into the lining and plated on the clasp.
Again, what do these little c’s do? Well, nothing. On the surface, it really just lets people know where you bought the bag. Digging a bit deeper, it signifies something much less palpable.
Brand names have not always been a staple in fashion. In the Victorian Age, clothes were not mass produced. If you were aristocracy, you ask your girlfriends where they got their bustier, or inquired for recommendations for a new milliner when your own seemed a bit dated. There were no use for labels on the inside of clothes, why would there be? Word of mouth carried a Couturier’s reputation better than something you couldn’t see on the inside of a shirt. No one was even looking in there (except for maybe that dashing nobleman’s son with the wandering eyes, ladies am I right?). This near anonymity resulted in designers having little control over their ideas. It also ensured a sense that fashion was like other parts of nature: it just simply changed on its own accord. Fashion was in the eyes of those being dressed, not those designing.
Not until Charles Worth, one of the forerunners of Haute Couture, did labels appear on the insides of garments. By labeling his clothes, Worth told his customers that he wanted unquestionable ownership of his designs. His brand became a story he was telling. This allowed him to differentiate himself from his competition, thus ushering fashion into an age similar to what we see today: designers influencing trends and creating new styles of dress. Designers can own their ideas, their influence, and their story. This was key in the competitive world of couture, and was invaluable after the introduction of ready to wear clothing.
The House of Worth did not enjoy lasting success past the Great War, but the Worth family set a foundation for fashion even until today. Owning a style of dress as one’s own is the cornerstone of contemporary fashion. It creates the “haves” and the “have nots." Everyone can have jeans, but not everyone can have $1,000 Versace jeans. Labels can signify quality and allow manufacturers to raise the prices on their goods. But this does not capture the true power of a logo or a brand.
A brand is a story that is captured on the side of a bag or on a coffee cup. There are book uncountable and college courses innumerable about this, but it’s really very simple.
As children, we gravitate toward stories because they’re exciting. They have conflict, strife, or comedy - the best have all of the above. We relate to the characters; we want to be as brave as the prince, as cunning as the princess, or as devious as the villain. Whatever the angle, we enjoy stories, they are part of our humanity. They teach us lessons, warn us of the world, and give us a taste of glory. As adults, these stories shape who we are as individuals. They teach generations of people how to think. They guide cultures through constructing a way of life.
But the beauty of a good story is not in its heavy-handedness, but in its simplicity. On the surface, we see a beautifully heart-wrenching tale of two lovers torn apart by their families, unable to live the lives they want to lead. But beneath this mask are lessons about pride and greed and love - and ultimately death. The details of the story may fade with time, but the lessons stay with us, they might even become a part of who we are.
Brands have the ability to capture everything that we love about stories and allow us to become characters in that narrative. We can actively participate in a story that continues to unfold before us.
A Chanel Boy Bag isn’t just a bag, it’s the story of a French peasant girl whose talent and ambition brought her overwhelming success. It’s a quiet orphan turned international superstar whose contemporaries included Christian Dior and Elsa Schiaparelli. It’s a woman who was courted by some of the most wealthy men of her time. It’s the fragrance that was touted by so many famous women and became a symbol of femininity. It’s the jacket that symbolized reckless disregard for formal societal customs. It’s the celebrities who made the brand popular then and the fame that is drawn to the name to this day. It’s the bag your first impossibly fabulous boss wore when she took you out to a drink in Paris. That bag isn’t just a bag, it’s a representation of the reputation that Gabrielle Chanel won in life, and the image that was curated by designers and marketers after her death.
When you capture all of that emotion and heartbreak and triumph, a legacy can become the brand. And when we see a small pair of c’s or a L and a V or a Medusa head we get a glimpse of that living legacy and we know we can be a part of it. That is harnessing the true power of a brand.
The best brands tell us a story, and we’ll pay a lot for a good story.