On February 3 this year, the fashion brand Ralph Lauren announced the departure of Stefan Larrson, its operational director, after a disagreement with the creator Ralph Lauren. Larrson suggested that he would not be able to turn-around the business – which is in bad shape – unless he had some influence on the collections. And this was a no go for the founder of the brand, who still runs everything having to do with style.
The stock exchange reacted to the announcement with a share price drop of 12%, suggesting shareholders understand one truism: fashion brands are, well, brands.
Fashion brands, granted, live and breathe by the magic ability to create, season after season, hundreds of pieces that reinvent the same spirit, the same style. You can spot a Chanel, a Hermès, or a Lacoste silhouette and recognize the brand instantly – whether it’s from Summer 2012 or from Winter 2016. It’s as if each piece of garment had a soul of its own, an unfathomable essence that reflected some common dispositions.
That magic is no magic. It’s branding, and branding is simple.
It’s recalling the spirit of the original creator of the brand, or to the myth of their original creation. It’s understanding what, in the context of the time, was unique in the designs that were crafted at the very beginning. Understanding how the creator, through the way she lived and created, brought a unique idea to life.
It’s meeting with the people who use the brand today, daring to talk them intimately and understanding how, in their world, they capture some of that original idea and keep it alive. The “how” of the people a brand serves may sometimes surprise the people who manage that brand.
It is, finally, separating this original idea from all the extra ‘stuff’ added to it over the years – the beliefs, the principles, the layers of executional habits – to crystallize it into its simplest form; defining how it can be brought to life through a set of simple markers: a way to use colors, an approach to fabrics, a few unique codes, an attitude…
So that through the store experience, the advertising, the packaging, the merchandising, the collection design, the license strategy, the entire company can then do one job: bring that unique idea to life.
Branding, in the world of fashion, sometimes sounds like a dirty word. It feels as if marketers were taking over from the artists, as if the magic and elegance of creation was defiled by the filth of commerce. However, this would be forgetting that the creators were the ones who invented branding in the first place.
Coco Chanel was not just a gifted designer. She lived and breathed the belief that the freedom of women could be conquered within the rules of a male society. She transcended the straightjacket of feminine style so that by being totally classic, you could be totally yourself. Chanel, today, still lives by that idea.
In the very same way, René Lacoste was not a fashion designer. His invention of the polo shirt was not “style”. It was his expression of the belief that achievement and elegance should go hand in hand.
Lacoste, a tennis champion, wanted to free movement, to let everyone move forward in his own way without ever breaking the rules. Putting elegance in movement, through a different fabric, a different cut than the one the tennis players then used, was a call to a different life. Today, when you speak to the people who love Lacoste in France or in Japan they – amazingly – describe that same idea. Felipe Oliveira Batista, the creative director at Lacoste, just like the entire team that designs everything you see bearing the Lacoste logo, identify their job as giving life to that idea every season, beautifully.
The mythology of a young Ralph Lauren, coming from the Bronx to design and sell the ties he wanted to wear, climbing his way up into America’s aristocracy, embodying the American dream, is a legendary story. This is the creation myth many brands would dream to have, the base for an idea that can then be of immense relevance in the deeply unequal world of today. Reduced to “style”, however – to warm knitwear, striped shirts and navy blazers – the brand is stripped from its soul. I don’t know what will happen to Ralph Lauren tomorrow, but the struggles the business is going through today teach one lesson: fashion is not style. It’s soul. It’s branding.