In 1964, the New York Times reported on a new trend of designers allowing their name to appear on products that they didn’t actually design. Sound familiar?
In the early 1960s, couture designers began releasing an array of specialized lines that put their name on a plethora of new products. Can’t afford a Christian Dior dress? Get the same satisfaction of buying “designer” for $2 with a pair of Dior stockings. Is Elsa Schiapparelli’s new line out of your price range? Why not pick up an umbrella with the designer’s signature? The names behind the biggest couture houses realized that they could make a pretty penny by leasing their names and some preliminary designs to an outside company to manufacture. Name-brand licensing was new to the couture world, but designers jumped on the idea and quickly began churning out hats, hosiery, furs, children’s clothing, home furnishings and underwear stamped with their fashionable seal of approval. The only problem, as the New York Times reported on this day in 1964, is that the designers had their names on products that they didn’t even recognize and wouldn’t create in a million years. One Paris designer quoted in the article is shocked to find his name on cotton gloves being sold in New York even though he “can’t abide” the things. Were consumers being swindled, or was this just the natural course of fashion as a business?
Either way, name-brand licensing succeeded and currently the practice is par for the course in the fashion industry. Looking back, the assumption that something with a designer label on it was actually created by that designer seems a little naive, but until the 1960s it was often true. Previously, the path from design house to store was pretty direct. If you bought a Lanvin gown, the dress was born in the house’s Paris atelier even if you happened to pick it out in New York City. Soon the demand for designer items was so large, however, that it made sense to expand the collections and to begin manufacturing them all over the world. A Dior bauble could have a long journey from a Parisian sketchbook to a German manufacturing plant to a New York retailer. The house still reaped the profits without having to do all the work. Not everyone thought that branching out was a good idea, though, and the government tried to step in. In 1963 the U.S. Federal Trade Commission ruled that Top Form Mills could no longer sell lingerie that they claimed was “designed, styled or created” by Parisian couturier Jacques Heim. The manufacturers defended their designs as an amalgamation of Heim sketches, but the FTC didn’t buy it and stated that “a look” was not enough and that consumers should be protected from sham designs.
Fast forward to today and it seems that “a look” actually is what matters, and furthermore, often just a name is enough. The licensing gusto originally focused on accessories, but eventually produced everything from Dior wigs, Marc Jacobs school supplies or Pierre Cardin toilet paper. Cardin got especially license-happy and went on to make over 900 agreements including a Pierre Cardin private jet and entire restaurants operating as “Pierre Cardin” establishments. At the beginning of the 21st century many houses like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent began to rein in their licensing deals in order to preserve the credibility of their couture names. The FTC had been right–consumers expected a certain quality from designer products, and with so many licensing deals some, like Cardin, were associated with shoddy or just plain silly products. However, almost every major house still licenses accessories (shoes, handbags, eyewear, timepieces), and few designers today would be shocked to find their name on something they had never seen. Nevertheless, it still begs the question: what are you buying when you buy designer? —Rachel Chambers
Photo credits: Top, Luis Vuitton; Bottom, the Yves Saint Laurent power adapter, only $450; photo by Jens Mortensen via the New York Times