By  on July 11, 2007

Even if the labels and logos were covered up in ads for fashion brands, consumers would still recognize a few of the top apparel names, said Robert Passikoff, president of marketing consultant Brand Keys. Names noteworthy in that regard include Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Chanel and Brooks Brothers.

The bottom line: Fashion brands matter less than they used to, but the ones that do mean something to people matter more.

In general, however, fashion brand names are not staying in the public's mind, said Passikoff, who disclosed to WWD Brand Keys' annual list of people's favorites to wear.

"At this point, only a handful of fashion brands have a place in the consumer's mind," he said. Most of them simply represent "a name and a position as upscale or downscale."

As it turns out, the brands with most easily identified ads were also among the ones with the most cachet, based on the consultant's second-quarter poll of 7,500 adults. The 3,750 women and 3,750 men collectively chose Ralph Lauren as their second favorite, followed by Giorgio Armani. They ranked Chanel sixth and Brooks Bros. seventh.

The connection between readily identifiable ads and a desire to wear the names featured in them might seem a no-brainer, but as marketing experts like to point out, good advertising can kill a bad brand faster than just about anything, as it can lead the way to a disappointing product.

Designer brands dominated people's choices — particularly those preferred by women — yet the name of a fan's sports team was the most important label to wear, overall, perhaps a reflection of the casual lifestyles of many Americans. Licensed team wear, as well as the names of Lauren and Armani, appeared in the top 10 picks to wear for all six segments of those surveyed, grouped by gender or age.

Many of the country's 80 million Millennials have grown up in times of abundance, if not outright luxury, and early in adulthood they are exhibiting a taste for designer labels. Often, they're buying such pieces to suit their personal sense of style, rather than dressing in prepackaged looks. Aspirations stoked in the booming Nineties by the prestige of top names and the allure of designer advertising live on for young adults in a post-9/11 era, noted brand strategist Peter Levine. "Young people go out a lot and like to be seen in these things," he added."A young audience is always looking for ideas that help them form their identities and personalities," said Marc Gobé, chief executive officer of Desgrippes Gobé, a brand-image firm. "They could associate themselves with a fashion statement that helps define them powerfully."

For example, Gobé said when prompted, once-conservative Lacoste has injected youth appeal into its brand with "new colors, better styling details and very fitted [looks]." Kate Spade, he suggested, "is creating a visual vocabulary that is different than what you'd expect; it has consistency between the products, the logo, and the advertising graphics and images. It helps people who want to stand out."

The 2,500 participants ages 21 to 34 surveyed by Brand Keys identified Lacoste and Kate Spade as among the 10 names they find most significant to wear. Each was selected by 15 percent of that group.

Even with the long-running casual bent to American lifestyles rolling on, consumers' penchant for some of the biggest names in easy living appears to be ebbing. Notably, J. Crew and Target fell off the top 10 picks of the 21- to 34-year-olds; L.L. Bean and Diesel were no longer among the 10 favorites of men, and Nike was jettisoned from the brands women consider most important to wear, a list comprising nine designer names. The monikers of women's favorite sports teams were the lone exception, ranking third.

"The existence of a real designer creates a bond between people and the things they wear," Gobé observed. "When there's a designer, they can find out about them, the origin of a brand, the history of the clothes. It's almost like a dream come true. Ralph Lauren's reality is something you can fit into by buying his clothes."

Levine said a brand's allure was increasingly fueled by people's lifestyles — casual, outdoor, fitness, health, clubbing — rather than by fashion cycles, or hot brands, or dressing for a time of day. As a result, he expects the introduction of more items that will appeal to the growing number of women in their 20s and 30s who are opting for "transitional clothes — things they can wear to school and to the mall and to work.""They love fashion but they love comfort as well," Levine added.

Even as many leading-edge Baby Boomers, now in their 50s and early 60s, are adopting more casual lifestyles, the Boomer contingent polled by Brand Keys listed seven designer names among the group's 10 favorites to wear. Apparel brand names may mean less to people, and to Boomers in particular, than they did a few years ago, but when members of the most affluent generation ever are thinking about what they'd prefer to wear, Passikoff said, Boomers "are considering more upscale than downscale clothing."

From thousands of apparel names in the marketplace, the people polled by Brand Keys cited 54 they consider "important" to wear now, compared with three years ago. The 54, chosen without a list by the participants, marked an increase over the 46 identified in 2006. In almost every case, though, no more than half of a survey group's 10 favorite brands were mentioned by at least 20 percent of those participants.

"If there's something losing efficiency," Passikoff noted, "it's the label as differentiator."

Ralph Lauren
Georgio Armani
Favorite sports team
Donna Karan
Teri Jon
Kate Spade
Isaac Mizrahi

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