Rock Star Brands: Qualities shared by Rock Stars & Great ‘Fashion’ Brands
In memory of my friend Jay Frank
Heckler [yelling]: “Judas!”
Bob Dylan: [to Heckler] “I don’t believe you…you’re a liar!…
[to his band, off mic] Play fucking loud.”
Dylan’s interaction with audience member angered by Dylan’s ‘abandonment’ of acoustic folk for electric instrumentation, at a Manchester, England concert
May 17, 1966
Working as a marketer, I often wonder why some fashion and lifestyle brands remain relevant and grow while others either go in and out of ‘fashion’, fade from prominence…or go kaput. There are no easy answers, and there have been numerous renowned explanatory frameworks for great companies in general — the Seven Characteristics of “Good to Great” and Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” — but none I’m familiar with satisfactorily explain why brands like Louis Vuitton and Levi’s have remained in the public consciousness, albeit with high points, hiccups and dips, for over a century while other brands have a period of often outsized success, then flame out in less than a decade or so. Or never achieve a financial ‘escape velocity’ to self-sustain.
As a music fan who has spent years following ‘fashion brands’ (broadly construed), I have developed a framework that might help explain, and perhaps predict, fashion brands’ potential for enduring success. Here goes:
Fashion and lifestyle brands are like rock stars (by ‘rock’, I mean any artist — individual or group — creating popular music in any genre), and the brands that share more characteristics with the greatest, enduring rock stars are most likely to grow and maintain relevance. On the other hand, those fashion and lifestyle brands akin to one or two hit wonders follow a similar trajectory to such artists: a big bang followed by a flame out, facing diminishing audiences and, if fortunate, hitting the nostalgia circuit (a completely respectable, fine…and sometimes well-paying life).
So, what makes a great, enduring rock star?
Why have Dylan, Kanye, the Stones, Bowie, Jay-Z, Madonna, Prince, Beastie Boys, Santana, Paul Simon, and Beyonce (perhaps even Sinatra) had long, consistently successful careers? And why might they be different from talented, yet relatively short-lived artists like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ready for the World, Tone Loc, 98 Degrees, and Cinderella? [There is a small tranche of influential rock stars, like AC/DC, who continue to enthrall generations despite having not evolved their music far from where it started; this is a relatively small niche, and for what it’s worth, AC/DC saw declines in album sales post “Back in Black” while profiting on tours playing the classics from a 5 year span. Nevertheless, they share some of the below qualities of enduring stars.]
It comes down to 9 qualities:
- Are led by individuals with star quality
- Have a core talent that is differentiated and timeless
- Create innovative art leveraging said core talent
- Prize inventiveness and relevance without pandering
- Maintain tight control over their intellectual property
- Fuel their thinking and art with interesting, unexpected collaborations
- Reinterpret their older works driving profit from original forms
- Manage their image and brand closely
- Use imaginative live experiences to magnify their work’s impact
Let’s look at each of them with some examples.
- Are led by individuals with star quality
If you have ever looked at photos or watched video of rock stars in the years before they became famous, you can nearly always see that they are stars. Beyoncé or Whitney Houston in high school, Gaga pka Stefanie at 14, Prince when first signed to Warner Bros., the Beatles in Hamburg, literally every Bob Dylan photo, and so on. This doesn’t mean they are always the best looking people in the world, but you can see the ineffable star quality in their eyes — a confidence and focus. Woody Allen’s manager Jack Rollins once told his bespeckled client, “The audience doesn’t like you because of your material. They like your material because of you.” The best managers and record executives know this, and the ability to discern this ineffable energy is as important as having “good ears.”
Similarly, in fashion, renowned creative directors have the same unselfconscious confidence in virtually every photo, even before they became famous. They seem to know who they are: Coco Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Virgil Abloh, Kim Jones, Miuccia Prada, Raf Simmons, Hedi Slimane, etc. [Interestingly, there are creative directors who appear to lose this self-confidence by becoming too self-conscious and trying too hard to project an image, but I won’t name names.]
2. Have a core talent that is differentiated and timeless
What’s the one thing an artist or brand does that’s truly great and interesting? What’s the superpower that elevates he/she/ze/they beyond what’s in the ‘marketplace’ and enables them to go beyond existing art? The most famous, lasting ‘rock’ stars have a core talent that fuels their art. Many of these respective talents answer “What makes Artist X’s art great and different from everyone else?”. Here are some examples that I’m sure could be hotly debated, but I could defend:
Beyoncé — Independence and empowerment expressed in powerful vocals, image, and performance
Taylor Swift — Revealing, singable songs about being a maturing, respected woman (even when she was first starting out as a teenager)
Kanye West — Inventive hip hop with passionate themes and visuals
Bob Dylan — Insightful, poetic lyrics about the human condition
Jay-Z — “Flow” evocatively conveying “where I’m from” and ambition
Lady Gaga — Powerful vocals and provocative image in songs about fighting for love, independence, and respect
Aretha Franklin — Other-level gospel vocals in church-influenced music
Rolling Stones — Rebellious, hybrid R&B and country performed with F.U., yet playful attitude
David Bowie — Genre- and gender-bending songs, persona and performance
Now, what about some of the world’s greatest ‘fashion’ lifestyle brands?
Louis Vuitton — Innovative, beautiful luggage for ‘modern’ travel (The innovation part is actually true.)
Hermès — Exquisite artisanal leathergoods and silks inspired by equestrians
Chanel — Apparel and accessories for modern women (Coco’s intention)
Moncler — High end puffer jackets for jet setters
Ralph Lauren — Idealized versions & visions of iconic American styles
Tom Ford — Apparel & accoutrements that ooze luxe, louche sexiness
Nike — Multi-colored, alluring athletic sneakers that look great on and off the track/court
North Face — Protective, colorful jackets for mountain-related activities
Levi’s — Rugged American denim
Of course, many of these artists and brands have extended beyond this core talent, but when push comes to shove, this is what drives their business and allows them to extend their art. Brands that lack this core talent — or “purpose” — typically fail to achieve escape velocity, because their POV is too diffuse and undifferentiated, and people aren’t excited and don’t want to pay a premium for the generic. A natural corollary to this is when brands and artists forget to connect their visionary, expansionist desires with their core competency, they lose their center of gravity and begin to decline, often precipitously. Ergo, regrettably, the great Terrence Trent D’Arby, whose incredible voice and inventive twists on classic R&B pre-date neo-soul by a decade. The shrinking and bankruptcy of several once-lauded and loved luxury fashion brands and creative directors likely suffered this fate: forgetting their core talent as they ventured forward, leaving the press and customers confused. (Again, out of respect, I won’t name names.)
3. Create innovative art/product that leverages their core talent
The examples in both categories are endless, but a few to elucidate the point:
Prince “When Doves Cry”: No bass, go-go swing beat, rock guitar intro, playing all instruments and singing all vocals
Madonna “Don’t Tell Me”: A pre-Lil Nas X use of country-esque melody and instrumentation in a dance club beat
Kanye West “808 and Heartbreak”: Melodic autotune vocals in stark hip hop
Beyonce “Homecoming”: Performance as provocative social statement and celebration
David Bowie “Ziggy Stardust”: Music performed as otherworldly theatrical character
Levi’s 501: Rivets, button flies, and denim that were both tough, yet comfortable for active workers, markedly better than its competitors
Vuitton Monogram trunk: Purpose-designed to endure transatlantic steamer travel and look beautiful
Nike Running Shoes: What did people run in before Nike? No one outside the industry knows!
Hermes Silk Scarves: Intricate, colorful designs printed on durable Chinese silk scarves
Ralph Lauren Polo shirts: Cotton mesh casual shirts in 17 initial colorways (many more than other brands had offered)
4. Prize inventiveness and relevance without pandering
In the mid-late 70s, as young people’s musical taste migrated to punk and disco and away from the country-inflected rock and soul of the early 70s, the Rolling Stones released Some Girls, an amalgam of modern styles intermixed with their classic sound, led by an anomalous dance track “Miss You.” Beyoncé executive produces and performs on a new Lion King soundtrack, featuring a broad diaspora of Black global talent, infusing the album and movie with a social consciousness…and some terrific music. Kanye leads a gospel-hip hop infused Sunday Service and starts a clothing line or two. Yves Saint-Laurent hires Hedi Slimane who drops its first name and evolves the brand towards Patti Smith-meet-Berlin-stick-thin-rocker. LVMH hires Virgil Abloh for LV Men’s and allows Kim Jones to reconceive Dior Hommes from its Slimane-era heroine chic rocker to a more global, playful Dior Men, while continuing to mine and mix the brand’s classic codes (logo lockups from the past).
5. Maintain tight control over their intellectual property
In the early 90s, Prince begin seeking control over his recorded masters, frustrated by executives’ throttling his output and paying a relative pittance in royalties (albeit giving significant advances). During his lifetime, despite any financial ups-and-downs, he refused commercial sync licenses and didn’t allow his songs to be used on compilations. For what it’s worth, Sinatra also had a similar battle with Capitol in the late 50s, but opted to keep his name and founded Reprise, which gave artists the option of owning their masters.
Similarly, the great apparel brands inherently know, or have learned the hard way, what happens when they give up control of their intellectual property — even their name — to drive revenue via licensing. Despite the strictest contracts, something gets lost, and what is gained in revenue profit is counterbalanced by brand destruction. I think “destruction” is the right word, because “dilution” doesn’t quite capture the consequent harm. (Though I’m focused on apparel, I would argue that this brand destruction often occurs via fragrance deals, which result in a flooding of the market, attracted by high margin quick dollars. Take a gander at your local CVS’ fragrance selection to see a museum of once-better brands.)
6. Fuel their thinking and art with interesting collaborations
What makes a collaboration interesting is debatable, but as a rule of thumb, the better ones involve some degree of tension between artists/brands — a “culture clash” of sorts. This list could go on for hundreds of pages, so here are a few to elucidate the point:
Run-DMC x Aerosmith “Walk This Way”: Out of the mind of the great Rick Rubin
Jay-Z x Linkin Park “Collision Course”: Not the first rap rock collab, but not one most would have expected…and it was great
Michael Jackson x Eddie Van Halen “Beat It”: Transformed the idea of what R&B was, and opened it up to a new audience
Daft Punk x Pharrell x Nile Rodgers “Get Lucky”: French electronic disco funk meets two of the greatest producer-artists of the last 40 years. When the trailer for this song’s video debuted at Coachella, the audience went totally nuts.
David Bowie x Nile Rodgers x Stevie Ray Vaughan “Let’s Dance”: Bowie certainly had dipped his whole leg in dance music (“Fame”, etc.), but this track with Rodgers’ hitmaker Strat riff and Vaughan’s emotive, relatively sparse blues solo was an unexpected joy.
Elvis Costello x (The Roots, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, etc.): I can’t really think of another artist who has collaborated with so many different artists in a range of genres. Few have resulted in hits, but they’re always interesting, so kudos.
LV/Marc Jacobs x Murakami: This might be the first ‘fashion’ collaboration that transcended into popular culture, reinvigorating LV and giving Murakami a global platform
Y-3 / Adidas x Yohji: Two players from different worlds join in a brand that endures
Champion x Craig Green: A sports stalwart encounters a menswear artist of the highest order (UK exclusive, Fall 2020)
Hermès x Apple Watch: Timeless meets timely meets time. A clash of modern innovation and classic modernity for an obsolescent product.
Ralph Lauren x Palace: Antithetical brands coming together to make alluring progeny that sold like hotcakes.
7. Reinterpret their older works driving profit from the original forms
Over 30 years, Prince toured with several different sets of musicians. With each new tour, he would toy with the arrangements of many of his biggest hits, often taking them far from their recorded versions. If one listens to his rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy” with his last band ThirdEyeGirl at the SNL 40th Anniversary party, the track is recast into a stomp rocker compared to its gospel rock rave original, making it interesting for him and the audience. Ultimately, this not only extends the art, it drives renewed interest in the original recording. Same with Dylan, Madonna and Beyoncé (“Homecoming” added new dimensions and instrumentation to her biggest hits [they’ll still play the original “Crazy In Love” at weddings, right?]).
Fashion brands leverage both reinterpretations of classics and collaborations to create buzz that drives sales of core product. Karl Lagerfeld’s endless playing with classic Chanel fabrics and patterns in new takes on jackets were amazing unto themselves, but likely resulted in sales of other core product: suits, bags, beauty products, etc. Moncler Genius collaborates with a range of global designers for innovative takes on puffer product, driving sales of…way more core puffer jackets; in fact, some Genius designs aren’t practical enough to be worn, as remarkable as they are.
8. Manage their image and brand closely
From what I can glean, Beyoncé (and her team) are highly selective and protective of how, where, and how often she shows up. Other outlets might provide endless glimpses of her life, but she is careful not to have her Instagram account become a Truman Show. This control aligns with her personal brand and core talent, which is about asserting power and control without going into Sex Pistols’ angryland. Prince was also a control freak to the point that he would rarely pose for pictures, even with other famous celebrities, or show up to “We Are the World”-type gatherings.
The greatest fashion/apparel brands are maniacal about managing their image. Even when a luxury brand like Gucci seems to let its guard down with behind the scenes footage and photos, it is with intention and viewed against the brand’s purpose and creative director’s vision. Everything matters and passes muster only when it qualifies as on brand and cool (idea, location, styling, lighting, photography, talent, etc.).
9. Leverage imaginative live experiences magnify their work’s impact
Again, the examples are endless, so here are a few to illustrate the point:
Every U2 stadium tour
Beyoncé at Coachella
Rolling Stones Exhibitionism exhibit and London store
Kanye Yeezus tour
Kendrick Lamar DAMN pop-up
Louis Vuitton Place Vendôme Flagship / Abloh’s LES Pop-up
NOAH Noodle Shop (I’m placing a bet on this brand’s endurance.)
Moncler Fashion Shows & Genius Pop-ups in NYC and Tokyo
Chanel Lagerfeld Fashion Shows & “In the Snow” Meatpacking District
Gucci/Guccighost 5th Avenue Takeover
In closing, I wrote this to provide a provocative framework as struggling (and new) apparel brands think about how to move forward beyond COVID. Though obviously not scientific and quite subjective, I hope it provides fuel for debate and conversation…and possibly inspiration for climbing out of the quagmire to terra firma and higher ground.