By approaching brand building like the stages of a love story, each extract from Philippe Mihailovich forthcoming book argues that luxury branding is more about human relationships, passion, desire, love, trust, family, kinship, honour and heritage than the mass market theories often used by companies today. The fourth in his monthly series helps shed some light on how to balance creators’ fame with brand heritage.


The earlier extracts highlighted key stages that add value to the luxury brand and showed how these relate to simple questions that we may ask when entering into any relationship. Who your family is, your interests and beliefs, what you have done in the past and whom you may have been with in the past as well as the present may add further value. For instance, if you have been born into a family of watchmakers, you may gain a certain instant credibility, but when you are the first to enter your field, you need to earn your reputation. Step Three concluded that without real roots the brand remains vulnerable. Here, the notion of apprenticeship could add huge value and even bring pre-launch fame. Cardin built his name at Dior before starting out on his own. Dior became part of Cardin’s Brand Image DNA.

The best creators are often found working under great mentors first. They may at some point dream of breaking out independently when the timing feels right. Star watchmaker Francois-Paul Journe first worked for his uncle as an apprentice in Paris and attended the horological school there where he learnt most of his horological cultures and skills. He feels blessed to have seen most of the beautiful vintage pieces being restored by his uncle and when he finally received public acclaim for the design and the technical implementation of a self-made tourbillon that he wore, it gave him the confidence to start his own brand that was presented in an AHCI booth five years later. As visitor reactions were very positive, he took his own booth at Basel-2000 and found 20 people willing to put down deposits to order his tourbillons. He now had sufficient seed money, pedigree and a budding reputation from his own creations.

For new brands, heritage counts. Swiss watchmaker, Franck Muller, known for creating complicated timepieces is a case in point. He claims to design the mechanism of every watch by himself. His timepieces are famous for their fusion of “modern” style and traditional Swiss watch manufacturing and are worn by various celebrities, among them: Demi Moore, Robin Williams and Elton John. After graduating from the Ecole Horlogerie de Genève, he began repairing top-quality pocket watches and before becoming responsible for handling watches from the collection of Patek Philippe. Muller studied under Master watchmaker Svend Andersen – famous for creating the world’s smallest calendar watch, the world’s first perpetual secular calendar, as well as erotic automaton wristwatches inspired by the escapades of Bill Clinton, and even the Academie Horlogere Des Createurs Independants from where many watchmaking greats emerged. Franck Muller is clearly a talented man but the Svend Andersen background gives him a blue chip heritage.

What when fame precedes talent? When the press announced that Dior Homme’s designer Hedi Slimane had left Dior Homme after Dior and Slimane failed to agree on a way to support a new label under Slimane’s own name, comments started to pour in on fashion blogs immediately. Some were:

“Very good move of Dior, I’m happy that they listened to some people. Hedi Slimane is an overrated person, I shall say it very kind I’m not a fan of him, and I’m not alone in this world. Maybe we are a minority but a very important minority. Let’s see what Kris Van Assche can bring to the house of Dior, I give him all my blessings for the coming time. Ciao”

“Oh yes, Hedi Slimene is very overrated! No V you’re certainly not alone in this world who loves to see him go. I’m not mild at all. He’s over-overrated. So. I love to join that important minority. Kris van Assche has my blessings as well. I love him already. And well I’ve a weak spot for the charming Belgiums. That small country is big when it comes to designers with guts and a spark of fun”.

“Sometimes I do wonder what the master, Christian Dior, would think himself…his career was far too short but so important to fashion. So HIS house and name needs real interesting designers. Kris van Assche is such a designer. Hedi Slimene isn´t. Well he can always go on and design for rockers as Pete Doherty!”

“I love Slimane ‘cause he influenced men to become skinnier. It’s so nice to be skinny, i love skinny men, i am a skinny man and he influenced men on wearing skinny jeans, so he’s just really cool.”

“I’m very skeptical about Van Assche, it’ll be interesting to see what he does though i highly doubt it’ll be anything as revolutionary as slimane’s work. LVMH wants a return to form for Dior menswear? So be it. But Van Assche will be gone in four seasons or less…”

“Actually you do the same as which you accuse us of, you don’t give Van Assche even a chance to prove himself. As you know he was the longtime assistant of Hedi Slimane, so give this fellow a chance.”

The total comments drew the following result:

For Slimane
• 100% Dior
• 35% Skinny Jeans
• 35% Menswear
• 15% Influential (inspired Lagerfeld to lose weight)
• 15% More quality than style

• 100% Dior
• 20% Menswear
• 20% Designer not creator
• 20% Muse: himself and Doherty
• 20% Only ‘inspired by..’
• 20% Overrated

These are presented in a ‘Brand Image DNA diagram’ below to try to visualise a collective image in the bloggers’ minds:

‘Guesstimate’: Hedi Slimane’s DNA to bloggers


The really big issue facing Slimane at the time of his Dior departure was that he was not considered ready to be accepted as a creator.

Should Slimane decide to create his own Maison, he will be starting with a DNA that includes the prestige of the Dior brand and some reputation for menswear. He should obviously focus on building up his reputation amongst fans beyond his skinny look jeans. He does not seem to represent a unique Universe other than to have used the look of Doherty, and the Mods and Rockers of England’s past. One would expect him to develop a rock-star universe, enhance his menswear reputation and take more risks and truly innovate. He has to prove that he is not over-rated. His target must be to build his unique universe, more unique products and earn a grounded reputation, however this may be more readily achieved by working under a great master for some time first.

On the other hand, financial backers look for assurance and tend to be more assured by a Name than a non-name-with-talent. To survive, most designers are forced to take on investors and many have lost the rights to both their names and their archives as a result. It is often for this reason that they are reluctant to use their own names on the label and opt for a made-up brand name, but then it’s harder for us to feel the griffe and obliges their new company to build two names at once – the brand name and the creator’s name. The lucky few, such as Lagerfeld, Jacobs and Galliano can build their own brands as a hobby without investors and have a ‘day job’ working for a big label to make money.

American-born Tom Ford, still unproven in menswear, but a designer with an exceptionally strong DNA has major advantages over Slimane. He has been at the head of a few blue-chip fashion houses and has a solid pedigree and proven track record. He also has a major following and is already world famous. On top of which he has the over $100 million pay-off that he received from Gucci so has no need to earn an income out of the brand, plus due to his heritage, investors come knocking at the door. He has model-looks, so will use his face on ads. He has a top business partner that he worked well with at Gucci and together they have a wealth of experience. The strategy that he has chosen is unusual though. Unlike the designers before him, Ford began by cashing in on his fame – licensing his name to fragrance and eyewear companies to generate a passive income. In comparison, is Slimane really ripe for launch?

Clearly Slimane has not quite proved himself enough yet for backers to rush in to fund his personal label. His own griffe is still in the making. He needs to show that he has developed his own universe that he is not just ‘inspired by’ but actually represents something of his own, just as is expected of artists. With Slimane, it should still be a lot easier to get started than it would be for a made-up brand story and an unknown name. But for now his pedigree remains too limited to tell what his real potential is. He recently exhibited his installation art at an art gallery in Paris. The crowd was more impressive than the work.

Paris-based Brazilian designer, Anne Fonteine, has like others before her, shown that one can break into the fashion scene without having had an apprenticeship under a master creator. Her story is linked to her love story with her now husband who owns a garment factory and was prepared to fund her, however she had spotted a gap in the market for women’s white shirts for officewear and decided to create a spa in her clothing boutique for that woman to relax in. Her shirts were an instant hit, as was her spa and she has since opened a concept store in New York as well. The product as a star should always precede the designer as star. Slimane’s fame is considered to have been more hype, thanks to his journalist friends, than real substance.

The Ralph Lauren approach is quite different. The brand story is not supposed to change over time. Instead, like a film, it has already been written from beginning to end. It has no evolutionary growth and no depth. As such it may lacks authenticity but at least Lauren is honest about the fact that he simply creates brand stories. Did you hear the one about Gucci’s equestrian heritage? What equestrian heritage? We cannot question Hermès’ equestrian heritage. Honesty is critical to the success of a luxury brand today. Don’t lie! Don’t deceive. As in relationships, you can only lie once and once caught, you will never be trusted or respected again. You don’t have to pretend that your brand’s origins are aristocratic if they are not. Vuitton was a simple clothes packer to aristocrats. He was not an aristocrat himself. We like that story. Ironically, aristocrats who need to find ways to earn a living are now creating many of today’s new luxury brands.

As reputation, pedigree and authenticity are absolutely critical to creating and developing a brand, it is proposed that the brand DNA model shown earlier is used to try to understand your and your competitor’s brands. It may serve as a rough graphical resume of the brand’s development in terms of both mind and soul. We can then plan a Brand Identity DNA strategy to add rational and emotional value to that image, a strategy to win hearts and minds, to be respected as well as loved and constantly desired. In reality, when a great product is created with total passion and soul, we can feel it, and the strategy looks after itself. Without a creative soul or driver, it may simply feel like synthetic marketing, and sadly, often it is.


Philippe Mihailovich

About the author

Philippe Mihailovich

Professor and Brand Consultant