Great branding = quality + mythology

Fashion Brand Stories, by Joseph H. Hancock II

5 minute read
Book cover: title appears like a huge billboard on a city street. A woman, silhouetted from behind, faces it.

You don’t have to follow fashion to enjoy Joseph H. Hancock II’s Fashion Brand Stories. From Pierre Cardin to Gap, the book traces brands that became well-known by creating appealing stories that make people want to buy. Reading feels like strolling along a sparkling shopping corridor as Hancock explains how retailers gain prominence, revealing the strategy and mythology behind what we see in the windows.

Hancock, who teaches at Drexel University and edits the journal Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, has worked in management, merchandizing, and branding. He originally wrote Fashion Brand Stories for students of fashion merchandizing to explain how some brands wield cultural influence far beyond their customer base. Now in its third edition, the book has become a cross-disciplinary resource.

Buying a feeling

Levi Strauss & Co. has thrived for 150 years by marrying Western nostalgia to the American penchant for challenging authority. Young companies like eyeglass maker Warby Parker and watchmaker Shinola emphasize quality and social responsibility, doing good as they do well. Each of Hancock’s chapters examines a single brand’s myth-making, describing how specific characteristics, memories, and sensations are fused to cultivate consumers’ positive impressions.

Early on, Hancock dissects his attachment to Coach backpacks. Founded in 1941, Coach has achieved “a strong sense of American historicism” while being forward-looking. He credits not only quality and design, but the pleasure of in-person shopping, enhanced by attentive, welcoming staff.

Hancock is also a big fan of Shinola timepieces. The Detroit company was founded to make excellent products in America while providing opportunities for workers displaced by the auto industry decline. Hancock observes, “Not only is the product high-quality, but the packaging is phenomenal. This company has left no stone unturned. Shinola understands how to make each customer feel important, both in and out of the store.”

Successful branding produces customer loyalty because purchases represent more than transactions; they’re satisfying experiences.

Style on the edge

Sidebar interviews with industry experts focus on brand visual identity, positioning across platforms, predicting consumption trends, and other topics. Jessica Strübel of the University of Rhode Island noted the impact of small groups on style:

“Designers frequently look to subcultures when they want to create new and shocking looks that can be mass-produced.”

She might have been describing Vivienne Westwood, whom Hancock considers “the godmother of punk style.” Westwood, the ultimate outsider, died at 81 in late 2022. Published before her death, the book includes several pictures of the designer protesting, well, lots of things. She grips microphones, is hoisted onto fellow protesters’ shoulders, and perches in a giant birdcage. Westwood injected countercultural perspective into her designs. “Using everything from leather and rubber fetishism, punk rock, and sexual bondage to a blatant embrace of homosexuality, she incorporates themes into her designs [others found] just too risqué,” Hancock explains. “Her success has been based on understanding and signifying those who are underrepresented … She brings together all the outcasts of society by saying, ‘you are not alone.’”

A less extreme example of style trickling into the mainstream from unlikely places is denim’s transformation from workwear to protest uniform, exemplified on film by Marlon Brando (The Wild One, 1953) and James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), and in real life by 1960s activists.

Creating and courting customers

The next time you stand bewildered by the choices in the beauty aisle, think of Madame C. J. Walker. Early in the 20th century, she became the first self-made female millionaire on the strength of health and beauty products she sold in her salons and door-to-door. Walker created a market by educating potential customers on the need for, quality, and value of her goods. As a Black woman, she understood the difficulty of finding specifically designed hair products, and made them a specialty. She also established schools and training programs for young women selling her products.

Like Walker, Estée Lauder was an astute marketer. Her company, founded in the 1930s, relied on retail department stores and fashion professionals. Lauder was hands-on, conducting demonstrations to ensure that sales staff and clients thoroughly understood product attributes. She was alert to new clients’ needs, in the 1990s acquiring the Canadian firm MAC (Makeup Art Cosmetics). Hancock writes that the brand was favored among film and fashion professionals, as well as people of color and LGBTQ customers. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, MAC created the VIVA GLAM brand, which continues to donate proceeds to combat the disease, which in the 1990s devastated the gay community. By early 2021, the campaign had raised $270 million.

It’s a lifestyle (whether or not we know it)

Surprisingly, Ralph Lauren isn’t a designer, but a merchandizer. Lauren curated a sophisticated sense of style into a lifestyle brand that reaches across age, class, and ethnicity. Essentially, he turns practical garments into symbols of America. In the 1970s, his menswear inspired costumes for films such as The Great Gatsby (1974) and Annie Hall (1977). Hancock describes how Lauren broke accepted advertising formats to stand out, and exploited details others missed, such as launching fragrances to reach new customers, and incorporating rap and hip-hop culture into less expensive lines to attract the young and consumers of color.

Vera Wang once worked for Ralph Lauren. She became a designer out of frustration at not finding a wedding gown, and was soon on a path to her own eponymous brand. Initially, Wang designed everything associated with weddings, from clothing to crystal to table-wear, then branched out. Her genius, Hancock writes, lies in identifying production partners able to “ensure that the line maintains … the true Vera Wang style—sophistication, simplicity, and perfection.”

No matter how little we care (or think we care) about fashion, we can’t avoid its effects. We are the target of its branding, and would do well to be more aware of how it affects, consciously and subconsciously, what we admire, what we value, and what we buy.

What, When, Where

Fashion Brand Stories. By Joseph H. Hancock II. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2022. 196 pages, paperback; $35.95. Get it from Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

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