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Vision Quest

Apparel and retail brands are devoting ever more thought and resources to their visual identities.

When designer Adam Lippes created a line of chic underwear basics for men and women in 2004, the name Adam+Eve seemed perfect for the start-up brand. Cute and catchy, the moniker evoked the clean, contemporary sexiness Lippes was aiming for.

However, after an appearance on Oprah exploded Lippes’ e-commerce business, he began to hear complaints that many of his potential customers were inadvertently logging onto the Web site of Adam & Eve, a prominent adult sex toy shop.

“We have great underwear—but not the edible kind,” says Lippes with a laugh. “I wasn’t really thinking about this when I named the company.”

To address the issue, about six months ago Lippes hired branding firm Lloyd & Co. to help create a new name and visual identity for the company—one that would produce less online confusion, as well as convey the label’s brisk expansion into sportswear. This holiday and next spring, the company’s new name—the simplified Adam—and new branding marks will be fully incorporated into its products and marketing.

“It’s a big undertaking and a big investment,” says Lippes of the change. “We’re working on new hangtags, labels, product boxes, stationery, a new Web site, shopping bags and signage for our store that opens in October. It really has to be a seamless identity throughout the brand.”

That kind of effort is mandatory in today’s multimedia digital age. Apparel and retail brands are devoting ever more thought and resources to their visual identities, which comprise the many graphic interfaces that shape a consumer’s impressions of a brand, from logos and labels to marketing materials, invitations, packaging, store signage and Web design. In an era where consumers are bombarded with countless marketing messages at every turn—and have become sophisticated interpreters of the semiotics of branding—a carefully integrated program of brand harmonization is vital for serious players in the fashion marketplace, where image and connotation are crucial.

“The tone of a brand starts with its name and logo,” says Doug Lloyd, founder of Lloyd & Co., who has also worked on brand identity programs for Gucci, Vitamin Water and Morgans Hotel Group. “It’s often the first thing someone sees, even before the actual product. It creates a lot of associated values for a company. When Frida Giannini took over at Gucci from Tom Ford, for example, we modified all the corporate identity materials and things like bags, gift wrap and garment bags. Frida had a new vision for Gucci, and they wanted everything to express that attitude: younger, fresher and lighter.”

This past spring, Saks Fifth Avenue also undertook a major overhaul of its logo and everything it appeared on, from advertising right down to store credit cards, employee badges, invoices and register tape. The luxury retailer jettisoned its former Art Deco-ish sans-serif mark and replaced it with a fancy white script contained in a black square, based on a historic Saks logo created by the legendary designer Massimo Vignelli in 1978. (Vignelli has created iconic branding systems for United Colors of Benetton, Bloomingdale’s, Knoll and American Airlines.)

Terron Schaefer, group senior vice-president of creative and marketing at Saks Fifth Avenue, oversaw the logo’s makeover with Michael Bierut of design agency Pentagram. “When I came here three and half years ago, the logo that was in place had no personality—it was neither feminine nor masculine, and it had no link to our history,” explains Shaefer. “This new logo is bolder, more classic and refined.”

It’s also markedly more feminine, which should appeal to the 80 percent of Saks Fifth Avenue customers who are women. However, the logo also lends itself to a unique design flourish: The ornate square logo is divided into a 64-panel grid, and the panels are then jumbled up to create an abstract pattern in black and white. “It’s like modern art. It creates a very powerful graphic identity for Saks,” says Schaefer. “When you see someone walking down Fifth Avenue with one of our bags now, they demand attention like a beacon.”

The new abstract pattern is being incorporated into the DNA of Saks Fifth Avenue in innovative ways. It’s used for the plush new carpeting in the eighth floor shoe salon, and women’s wear label Ellen Tracy used it in an exclusive capsule collection. Saks is currently selling private label neckties with the pattern and is in discussions with Vilebrequin to use it on swim trunks.

The most successful style brands today are often the ones that have most adroitly established a clearly defined and immediately recognizable house mark, weaving it expertly through their corporate identity, marketing materials and product design—such as Louis Vuitton’s monogram, Ralph Lauren’s polo player, Target’s bull’s-eye logo, Hermès’ orange boxes with chocolate ribbon, Nike’s swoosh, Burberry’s Nova Check and Tiffany & Co.’s robin’s egg blue color scheme.

“That’s everyone’s dream—to create something that’s immediately identifiable and meaningful,” says Sam Shahid, president and creative director at Shahid & Co. He should know, as he’s worked on logos and brand visuals for Versace, Calvin Klein and Banana Republic. He also created the current logo for Tse, making it soft and sensual, just like the cashmere it markets.

Shahid’s signature work currently is for Abercrombie & Fitch, a brand he has helped turn into a cultural and business phenomenon. He recommended lopping the word “Company” off the original moniker to help bring it up to date (“too dry goods” he explains), and helped create the sexually charged imagery that propelled the brand into the consciousness of college student everywhere.

“The name Abercrombie and Fitch: You can’t get more WASP than that,” says Shahid. “It has the sound of the Adirondacks in it. The logo itself has a classic look that says it has a heritage.”

That brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and their attendant imagery have become such an influential part of the cultural landscape isn’t surprising. “Packaging is the very definition of Pop Art today,” writes Derek Johnston of prominent branding consultancy Landor Associates, in a recent trade article. “I think of Sainsbury’s and the Tate Gallery on a Saturday as one in the same: the opportunity to look at, play with and buy sophisticated visual stimulus.”

The marriage of artistic ambitions and fashion branding is apparent at one of New York’s hippest men’s wear stores, Odin, which caters to creative professionals. The store’s logo—more of a frame-worthy piece of art, actually—of a stylized raven is emblazoned on ultra-high-quality shopping bags, thick hangtags, business cards and oversized stickers that close the tissue paper wrapping of purchases.

“We didn’t think about the store as a brand at first, but now we do. It’s about standing for something, so we pay a lot of attention to details here,” says Eddy Chai, cofounder of Odin. “It’s about creating a total experience for the customer, from the merchandise to the bags.”

Perhaps the most stylish purveyor of a total brand identity today is not a fashion company but a computer maker: Apple.

“Their attention to detail and how they put everything together is amazing,” says Neil Kraft, founder of the New York-based branding agency KraftWorks. “From their stores and Web site to their packaging and product, everything looks and feels incredibly luxurious. All their branding is very, very consistent. Buying a computer was not an aesthetic experience before Apple, and now it’s almost magical. I think the apparel industry could learn a lot from them.”

Kraft had the opportunity to apply some of those lessons when he redesigned all of the packaging for Hanes underwear, from 12-pack socks to three-pack briefs. “There was so much product out there, and the look was so inconsistent, from men’s and women’s and kids’ to T-shirts and hosiery and underwear,” says Kraft. “Each division had its own ideas. This was an incredible opportunity to unify the brand. Our goal was to clean it up, modernize the packaging and make Hanes the hero on every package. Even though it’s in the mass channel, we didn’t want the package to scream. We gave it more of a fashion aesthetic, while making the shopping experience easier for the consumer.”

Kraft also recently revamped Joseph Abboud’s entire hangtag and logo program, adjusting the shape, feel and quality of materials used. “It’s about subtly conveying a look and feel of quality American clothing on that small palette of a hangtag,” notes Kraft

When Hermès launched its Wall Street store earlier this year, New York agency Laird+Partners created a marketing program that heavily utilized the French luxury house’s visual signifiers. In an insert in The New York Times, Hermes’ signature ribbon wrapped around a stock chart, while the paper’s Web site featured the Hermès horse-and-carriage emblem trotting around the page.

“Hermès has such iconic packaging and logo programs that are powerful symbols of the house, and we wanted to bring them to life in a tasteful way,” explains Trey Laird, president of the agency. “Hermès is very luxurious, but it also has a charm to it.”

Visual identity elements are central to several of Laird’s clients, such as DKNY and Juicy Couture. At the former, the current advertising campaign features New York street scenes inside the parameters of an enlarged DKNY logo—a longtime visual tactic that has helped inextricably link the brand to the energy of Manhattan. Juicy Couture uses graphics and logos and Gothic lettering in a variety of clever ways to convey its message of irreverent extravagance.

“Fashion is all psychology today,” sums up Shahid of the ultimate importance of creating strong visual identities for fashion brands. “Who needs any more T-shirts or cargo pants? You buy something new because you want to define yourself in some way. It’s all in the image and the packaging of that image—you’re buying that as much as the T-shirt.”