It may be the age of the short-term rental, from Airbnb and city bicycle schemes to Rent the Runway and Armarium, but the same isn’t true for the big luxury brands. For them, it’s all about ownership. They want to own color, a style or — in the case of Bally — vast swathes of Earth.
Riccardo Tisci has repeatedly stated that Burberry “owns” beige, while Paul Andrew, the newly named creative director of Salvatore Ferragamo, said before the fall 2019 show that the brand wants to “own” color. A few hours later, Bally’s chief executive officer Frédéric de Narp talked about Bally “owning” the mountains.
These brands are certainly an acquisitive bunch, although many would argue that ownership is critical to a brand’s survival, from an image and revenue point of view.
Ownership pays dividends, say industry observers, and helps a brand cut through the noise in the market. It’s also a calling card, and a safe one, at that. The color beige can’t get drunk, unruly or arrested like a celebrity brand ambassador might. Ownership also helps to fortify a brand’s identity; if a brand loses its focus, and stops protecting and promoting its signature color, style, pattern or silhouette, someone else will be quick to steal it.
De Narp believes that taking ownership of an authentic thing or idea is crucial, especially for a heritage brand like Bally, which was founded in Switzerland in 1851 and has long been known for its handsome, sturdy footwear and history in sports and exploration.
It was Bally that supplied the footwear for the Swiss Olympic team in 1948, while its boots were used in the Mount Everest expedition in 1953. The brand also worked with NASA on the soles of boots worn by Neil Armstrong when he stepped onto the moon in 1969.
“A brand needs to define its territory, its uniqueness and point of view. It cannot be all things to all people. Bally can’t own the beach, but it can play with the idea of the mountains. Bally can do that in the summer, when there’s no snow, and in the winter — and we can be the best at it,” he said.
The phrase “taking ownership” may not exist in Italian, but that has never stopped brands such as Versace and Giorgio Armani from embracing the idea from the get-go. Both brands created signatures, took pride in them, rethought them over the years, and — crucially — didn’t allow anyone to steal them.
“The deconstructed jacket is often seen as the symbol of my fashion, so much so that the association between Armani and the jacket has become almost automatic,” said Giorgio Armani. “For me, it was a starting point on which I built all my work. Removing all stiffness from this outfit, uncovering an unexpected ease, was almost a revolution.”
Armani removed the padding, changed the placement of buttons and, over time, modified proportions, transforming the jacket into “a comfortable and light piece, sensual also in its construction.” For women, he looked to create “simple but soft shapes” that allowed freedom of movement, and “a second skin. I think I made the jacket into a versatile must-have, which can be worn in any occasion. In a way, I transformed it into a kind of increasingly lighter blouse.”
Who else out there could say the same? No one.
Donatella Versace has spent years playing with the brand symbols and signatures that her late brother Gianni developed — the Medusa heads, bondage details, gold medallions, baroque swirls and, of course, the safety pin. A supersized gold one dominated the catwalk of Versace’s fall 2019 show last month, just in case anyone needed reminding of the punk pin’s ownership.
“I am very lucky because the image of Versace was created around some very specific iconic elements that keep coming back, always different, but at the same time always recognizable,” said Donatella Versace, pointing to the Medusa head and the Greek chain as examples.
“They have been the symbols of Versace since the beginning. We did not invent them, but Gianni gave them a completely new meaning. When I was starting to work on the Tribute collection [in 2017, marking the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace’s death], the first thing that came to my mind while looking through the archive were the prints, their colors that never fade, their unique designs. You can tell a Versace print from a mile away. And then there are codes that were introduced with the various collections and made famous by iconic moments, such as the safety pin and the bondage references.”
Versace reintroduced them in a new way in the brand’s pre-fall collection shown in New York in December and on the runway in Milan last month. “Versace is recognized by so many unmistakable elements with which I can play every season without ever feeling like I am repeating myself, because they are so universally meaningful. I can always reinterpret them using the language of today and making them relevant for that moment,” said the designer.
“‘Owning’ a specific element for the brand isn’t a strategy as much as it is an homage,” mused Andrew. “Salvatore Ferragamo was a pioneer and made his name through defining characteristics in his design ethos. I mention color because it was a hallmark quality of his original creations, as there were many other standout qualities I’m continuing to explore and pronounce as unique to the house. My hope is to celebrate these elements, revive them, reimagine them and, yes, in a way own them for the brand as a testament to their origins and timeless qualities as we glance backward while rocketing forward.”
Joanne Jong, a designer and the founder-owner of Yulan Creative, a London based strategic fashion brand consultancy, said ownership is by no means a new idea, but rather shorthand for brands’ attempts to carve a niche and protect the crucial parts of their businesses.
“Etro owns paisley, Max Mara owns camel, Michael Kors owns shiny metalwork and Agnès B. owns stripes. The idea has been around for ages, and it’s a way to draw attention to your brand in a crowded market,” said Jong, adding that ownership is also a survival tactic for many brands.
“You have to own your bread-and-butter business, otherwise you won’t survive. If you take your eye off the kernel of what your brand is about, someone else will grab it very quickly,” she said.
Will Higham, the London-based behavioral futurist who helps a range of big corporations attract and sustain consumers’ attention, would agree with Jong that ownership is not a new idea.
“It’s a classic marketing thing, but at the same time it ebbs and flows. What I think is happening now is that even luxury fashion brands are competing with everything. The space is incredibly noisy, so in order to stand out you need something, an easy symbol, that makes you different. You need your unique USP,” he said.
Higham added that taking possession of a color, style, idea — or even the landscape — is also a safe way of communicating, and an alternative to booking an expensive celebrity ambassador who may — or may not — deliver.
“It’s safer to ‘own’ a concept than it is to ‘own’ a celebrity, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper. If you are a very high-end luxury brand, it is much more dangerous to be involved in a celebrity scandal than if you are an ‘edgy’ brand. Mountains don’t get drunk, and you can’t really blame the mountains for something,” he said.
He added that brands have to choose carefully what they own. “I think color is interesting, although it is too broad, and beige is too narrow. You could say color clashing, or bright colors, maybe?” Higham also believes that while brands need to own certain concepts, they don’t necessarily need to communicate their ownership directly to consumers.
“I think it is fine to tell your advertisers and the media, behind closed doors, that you own mountains or you own color, but I think it would be a dangerous thing to start telling the public. They’ll think ‘Who are Bally to say they own the mountains?’ Also, I think the idea of owning something generally feels a bit passé.”
Others would argue that a brand can own anything it wants, as long as they handle their possessions with care. The key is to evolve, and not allow ownership to become a limitation.
“Ownership is important, but a designer must know how to manage and mix the identifying elements, being attentive to the zeitgeist each season. Focusing on heritage alone becomes limiting and it precludes the engagement of certain consumers who are different in terms of lifestyle and age,” said Armando Branchini, deputy chairman of the Milan-based consultancy InterCorporate.
He believes ownership can be successful “if heritage is handled well, representing one-third of the cocktail, with the rest made up by innovation. Companies need to find their North Star, but it must be real. A brand must have a specific identity, but it can’t be invented, as the consumer appreciates, and rewards, truth.”
Paola Cillo, associate professor and deputy director, department of management and technology at Bocconi University and coordinator of luxury business management FT MBA at SDA Bocconi school of management, believes successful brands have all built their identity by adopting certain aesthetic elements — the horse bit at Gucci, the red sole at Christian Louboutin — and giving them a unique symbolic value that’s now associated with the brand.
She added that those brands have also “evolved” their identities over time, while still working with those original symbols.
Branchini uses Gucci as a prime example, recalling how heritage was important to the former creative director Frida Giannini, while current creative director Alessandro Michele is pushing more on innovation. He noted that Michele riffs on certain heritage elements, such as the double G or the red and green web, and believes that 70 percent of sales at Gucci are derived from these heritage-aligned products.
Indeed, Michele may have come up with the winning formula, playing with just enough heritage to conjure the allure of the past, but making it all look fresh for a new generation, a generation that could just as easily rent the bag, the dress or the GG belt.