The power of the personal brand

Peter York in clothes by Ralph Lauren (with a Hackett pocket square). Ralph Lauren clothes were supplied by Harrods

I’m close to Ralph. Very close. You could say he’s all over me, particularly in the torso area. I’m wearing his jacket (made in Italy of British fabric and perfect, like its predecessor). And his pully, crewneck British racing green cable-knit cashmere. Delicious. And his Oxford cloth button-down.

I’ve actually only seen him once, at the Goodwood Concours d’Elegance, a very Ralph sort of place, but I feel, in a manly and hygienic way, that I sort of know him. And there he was at Goodwood, exactly as I expected, compact, silver-haired, Sag Harbor-tanned, all that.

I have to admit I’m not that keen on his little ponymen logos but I do love the shops, particularly his robber-baron mansion on Madison Avenue, and his escapist advertising, evoking everything from the Gilded Age via Gatsby through to those new upstate log-cabin looks. And the interiors, the website, the packaging, the lot. I feel I know a bit about his backstory – how it all started with ties – and his family – some of them work in the business. And, before you say it, I do realise that it might seem odd for a Brit who knows his Jermyn Street and his Norwich men’s outfitters to pay a premium for such apparently familiar homegrown styles reworked in America. But there are a lot of us Ralph-loving Brits about.

I like Paul, too. Who doesn’t? I’ve followed him for years – from when he first arrived in London from Nottingham bringing a lot more than clothes. Sharing his enthusiasms with us, cultish books and toys and all sorts, displayed in architectural salvage cases from demolished Northern drapers. In the mid-1980s, when I first went to Japan on business, I went with some introductions from Paul and realised he was very Big In Japan, a sort of humorous, whimsical rock-god British ambassador. Through hard work – and making them laugh – he’d managed to involve senior Japanese salarymen in those unlikely enthusiasms.

Jeremy is quieter than Ralph or Paul. But you can trust his feel for things. We’ve seen his nice knocked-back house in the Independent on Sunday. He used to sell good, dead men’s clothes in the King’s Road before the supply ran out and he had to find the cloth suppliers and makers who could still do it properly. So you don’t worry that it’ll look silly or lurch into Brideshead parody.

Ralph Lauren, Sir Paul Smith and Jeremy Hackett are all eponymous brands, men with their names on the doors of their shops. Real live people who turn up in lovely magazines and quality newspapers embodying and dramatising their brands’ values and styles. Lifestyles even.

In Britain, eponymous lifestyle branding as we know it started in the late 1960s, with two fascinating families – the Conrans and the Ashleys – who in increasingly brilliant settings and catalogues sold rather different visions of what the new ideal upper-middle-y life looked like.

York in Jeremy Hackett (with York’s own tie)

Terence Conran and Laura Ashley were never out of the broadsheets, explaining their influences and their aesthetics, inviting you in their houses, telling you about their gardens. And their children were often in the shinys and the gossip columns. (I loved the fantastical idea that maybe my ingenious designer friend Sebastian Conran might marry Jane, Laura’s daughter and a photographer: the big question then would have been reconciling the marquee, the wedding list, the house and the photographs. The art direction.)

I’m thinking about this as I read a review copy of Charles Vallance’s and David Hopper’s The Branded Gentry: How a New Era of Entrepreneurs Made Their Names (Elliott & Thompson). It describes a new generation of eponymous British entrepreneurs, who have parlayed their lives and tastes into very successful companies, businesses where the name above the door means we are prepared to pay a premium for what they’re selling.

Ideally, these people – so like ourselves but so much better at it – become brands. For, brands, always important, have over the past 30 years achieved an extraordinary sacramental quality as lifestyle and luxury have become much more important, something almost detached from the underlying business.

At the same time, otherwise perfectly reasonable British people are now comfortable using the sort of marketing-speak – a “downmarket newspaper”, an “upmarket soap” – once considered beyond the pale. They even – it’s almost inconceivable, looking back – talk about their personal brands.

And then, when these added-value eponymous businesspeople move into the lifestyle and personal publicity area (little Fred and Freya photographed at the Suffolk seaside for the catalogue), they frequently meet media celebrities coming in the opposite direction, as Jamie and Victoria and Loyd, with their cookwares and clothes, sauces and Waitrose ranges, move into consumer branding in a big way. Then the whole thing becomes so very intense and involving. And, of course, annoying. And funny.

It’s the lifestyle element that gives certain brands their fascinating, uncomfortable, comedy side. Lifestyle brands are a staple of middle-class stand-up comedians, whose audiences love a bit of social taxonomy (or, as we market researchers call it, market segmentation) delivered through the delicious embarrassment of brands.

The grand theory of lifestyle brands is that in a world of shifting values – as religion and traditional politics, and old given identities of region, community and workplace fade – people increasingly look to brands to express themselves. Better-off people in better-off countries, of course, but remember the quite stupendous numbers of emerging middle-class people in emerging economies. In those countries, important western brand choices start by just asserting wealth and success – something better, internationally recognised and miles more expensive than the local brand. Then, as markets evolve, brands will say more complex things – you can just see the next generation of observant Asian comedians ticking off the Paul Smith suit, the Audi, the Smeg “retro” fridge and the B&B Italia sofa – as they start to define who and what they identify with, who they want to be.

In The Branded Gentry, Vallance (an eponymous brand-man twice over as a founder of the advertising agency Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest and child of a dynasty of vanished Yorkshire electrical retailers), and Hopper profile 13 brand men and women. All rich, some famous, and five – the core of the argument for me – eponymous life-stylists. For, although the authors say what different backgrounds their eponymous subjects have, they mostly strike me as pretty upper-middle. Relaxed and reasonable. Happy and friended-up. I could easily imagine Paul Smith and Johnnie Boden in the same wardrobe, Emma Bridgewater’s china and James Dyson’s appliances in the same kitchen.

York in Paul Smith (with a Hackett shirt and his own tie). Paul Smith clothes were supplied by Harrods

At first glance, another recently published book, Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System (Collins) by Harry Wallop, seems to be selling the not unrelated idea that you are what you buy. With one bound, if not one purchase, consumers can remake their lives and form new groupings through their brand choices. And the more upmarket and lifestyle-y those brands, the more they help. Though Wallop’s book wanders around a lot of familiar brands and the horizontal clusters and new classes they represent – so far from the old brutal vertical class hierarchies – in a cheery, approving way, we bred-in-the-bone marketing-speak brand types were taught early on that a correlation is not a cause. Rather than these lifestyle brands heroically creating social mobility, more prosaic factors such as the expansion of university education and clever new jobs in clever new industries have created markets for new, more expressive brands.

The eponymous brand – the name on the door – isn’t, of course, new, rather the opposite. Lost giants of coal and iron, railways and agricultural machinery bore their founders’ names for decades until they were taken over, merged or modernised – their brands renamed and redesigned to appear modern, high-tech and global. The new science of renaming and rebranding made the world’s biggest businesses into strangely abstract things. Corporations that owned familiar brands – some formerly eponymous or fake eponymous – put themselves above all that, floating free as Xstrata or Aviva (the corporate branding fashion of the past 20 years has involved a lot of “a”s).

In the 19th century, according to Vallance and Hopper, “heavily whiskered industrialists challenged the landed gentry for social ascendancy”. Later and into the 20th century, new consumer markets created a kind of consumer-market plutocracy, people with big chains of shops – WH Smith and Marks and Boots – and people who made branded chocolate or soap or soup – Cadbury, Cussons and Crosse & Blackwell – to sell in them. The implication is that these nice people – Johnnie and Emma, David and Paul – are somehow the latest development in this onward march of consumer marketing. And so, taken together, they are.

But all brands, whether high-ticket luxury ones such as Cartier or Rolls-Royce or “masstige” ones with luxe-y overtones but altogether more affordable, all want to grow. Even brands that may have started in a modestly niche design and lifestyle fashion can find themselves under pressure to go global or to sell out at the top. And eponymous brands aren’t that popular with analysts and investors now. You can only take an eponymous brand with a living figurehead so far, they argue. What happens when they grow old and die? What happens when they misbehave and go seriously off-brand?

York in a Boden jacket

The fashion is for brands with allusive and amusing names that work in any language; not parochial references and local tribes. Brands named after fruit (Orange, Apple) or jokes (Johnny Loves Rosie, Yo! Sushi), or children’s words (Lush).

All that aside, some British eponymous brands have worked around the world. Sir Paul Smith still sells a particular kind of Englishness across Asia. Sir James Dyson’s idiosyncratic technologies have driven his vacuum cleaners to market leadership in the US and other markets (though the manufacturing is mostly done outside the UK now). Jack Wills, an invented British eponymous lifestyle brand, built around the funny idea of Prince Harry-style students at nice universities such as Durham and Exeter, seems to be selling in America.

Some celebrity brands do get to critical mass as real businesses. People seem to like buying from Jamie O, his products and restaurant chains seem to flourish. Gradually, those who came to mock Victoria B are starting to say, “By God, she’s got it,” with her smart expensive clothes. US-born Loyd Grossman, now a sauce king, is Britain’s own Paul Newman.

Brands that power up from interesting, enviable real people with backstories and lots of aesthetic attitude are particularly delicious and difficult, valuable but vulnerable. And the people themselves, with their collecting and their causes and their funny kind of fame, are the stuff of novels.

Early in my working life I had an eponymous British brand as a major client. The shoemakers Clarks of Street, Somerset, founded in 1825, were, and remain, a privately owned family company. And a giant in the fragmented British shoemaking industry. It wasn’t exactly a lifestyle business in the Paul Smith way but there was always a distinct and rather admirable Clarks-y style to the company’s business culture. High-minded, Quaker, collaborative, paternalistic (like the original Cadburys and Rowntrees), Clark family members always worked in the business – still do. It was and is a very distinctive way of doing things.

‘The Blue Riband: The Piccadilly Line’ (Penguin) by Peter York was published earlier this month

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