image: Gucci

image: Gucci

Imagine for just a minute that Chanel’s quilted bags did not have a double “C” logo placed right at the center. Consider a Goyard tote that was not covered in the interlocking Y’s of its signature Goyardine print. And, of course, try to think of a Louis Vuitton Speedy or Neverfull bag without the brand’s 100-plus year old Toile Monogram. Would the average consumer pay just as much for these logo-less bags? Probably not.

These prominent source-identifying elements are what draw in no small number of consumers and get them to pay thousands of dollars for these bags, as opposed to say, a fraction of that for one of the many Rebecca Minkoff or Michael Kors lookalikes. If we consider the emphasis on the branding of these bags, it is easy to discern exactly what fashion brands in the upper echelon of the industry are – and are not – in the business of selling: Fashion is not really in the business of selling clothes and bags.

Instead, fashion brands – the big, well-established ones, at least – are more realistically in the business of selling their trademarks. It is these names and logos (and the marketing tied to them), after all, that tend to distinguish mere garments and accessories – products that are defined by their function, their ability to cover one’s body and enable their carrier to easily tote his/her keys, cell phone wallet, etc. – from fashion. They are the same general products but ones that enjoy some heightened level of status in the minds of consumers.

While there are points to be made about the level of quality, and attention to detail and craftsmanship, and the consumer experience elements associated with high fashion or luxury goods, much of this can be attributed to storytelling, and what drives most consumer spending in terms of these products can be tied directly to the names and/or logos that are emblazoned on them.

As luxury business analyst Uché Okonkwo puts it, “Some common characteristics that consumers seek in luxury brands today include high perceived prestige … and their association with fashion and an affluent lifestyle.” These elements are conveyed by way of brands’ aesthetics of choice and their oft-very-elaborate marketing efforts. But they are also communicated to consumers directly with a name or logo – if brands’ creatives and business teams are doing their jobs in effectively positioning the brand.

This is precisely why trademarks – which refer to any word, name, symbol, or design (including logos, colors, sounds, product configurations, etc.), or any combination thereof – exist in the first place: To identify the goods of one brand and distinguish them from another. In reality, trademarks exist to make it easier for consumers to quickly identify the source of a given product. 

For instance, no shortage of the consuming public knows that a bag with an interlocking “G” pattern comes from Italian design house, Gucci; earrings in the shape of a double “C” are Chanel; and shoes with red soles are Christian Louboutins.

With trademarks, however, not only comes an identification of the maker of a product but also the notion of goodwill, which refers to the reputation of the brand at issue, as well as its relative position in the market, and the specific and proprietary messages that it embodies and emits. For the design houses noted above, this comes in the form of associations of luxury, quality and a level of “fashionability,” so to speak.

This is – to a large extent – what consumers are buying when they purchase a product. And with this in mind, the product at issue, the one on which the logo or name appears, and the story-telling associated with those elements, is arguably only secondary to the brand, itself. This is something Lazaro Hernandez, co-founder of New York-based brand Proenza Schouler, spoke to recently at the French-American Chamber of Commerce in saying that “the idea of what is luxurious is changing; I think it’s about brand rather than luxury.”

Quartz’s Marc Bain elaborated on this point, noting, “More often today it’s the brand—the image, and the storytelling—that attract [consumers].”

Brands’ large-scale reliance on logos – paired with the fact that most fashion brands’ business models rely heavily on lower-priced items (compared to runway garments) as main drivers of revenue (most of which are heavily-branded items, such bags and t-shirts, licensed fragrances and eyewear, or some other variation thereof) – ultimately means that while brands spend significant sums on bi-annual runway shows and ad campaigns to showcase their newest creations, fashion’s most established brands are not in the business of selling fashion, per se, but, instead, of leveraging their wildly valuable intellectual property on garments and accessories.