How superbrands create our designer desires

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Exactly what messages are my jeans giving off?

It was a question I was forced to consider while filming Secrets of the Superbrands: Fashion, a documentary which uncovers some of the secrets of the biggest names in fashion.

I've never bought a designer garment in my life - value for money's always been more important to me than a logo - and I'd always wondered how it was that a handful of clothing mega-brands had people flocking to them.

How is it that expensive handbags get some women so hot under the collar? How has Diesel built a £1bn business selling brand new jeans which already look worn out? And how has Nike managed to get into the heads of kids of only seven, who already want that tick on their clothes?

But back to my jeans. Style anthropologist Ted Polhemus told me that jeans communicate authenticity.

And nothing says "I'm one of the people" or "I've really lived" like a pair of worn jeans.

But when I visited a factory in Chennai, southern India, and saw rows of people sandpapering, grinding and tearing pristine jeans to make them look as if they'd spent years hanging off a hard working mechanic or cowboy, I realised that in the fashion business, if you can fake that authenticity you're on to a winner.

Pleasure centre

But what are you trying to say when you fork out £2,000 for a Louis Vuitton handbag?

Neuroscientist Professor Gemma Calvert of Neurosense tried to find the answer.

She analysed the brain of a designer-fashion fan in an MRI scanner, showing her pictures of £15 handbags from Primark and Asda, then pictures of expensive designer handbags from the likes of Gucci and Christian Dior.

The cheap bags didn't register but the expensive ones lit up our guinea pig's "pleasure centre", an area associated with reward, craving and addiction.

The results confirmed Neurosense's own research. We are fundamentally excited by high-value objects.

Buying and wearing expensive luxury brands signals to others that we're genetically fit, because we've accumulated so many resources that we can afford to waste a few thousand on something as frivolous as a handbag.

But what if you crave it but can't afford it? The desire for these bags is so strong that a company in Manchester is now actually renting them out to women for £100 a month. And there's a waiting list.

Coolest boots

Of course, sportswear is much more affordable, but that doesn't explain how sports superbrands have become among the biggest fashion brands of all.

Although in Nike's case, an annual marketing spend of over £1.8bn might just be a factor.

Image caption,
Many big-name brands are manufactured in developing economies

We spoke to 10-year-olds who'd never heard of Chanel, Diesel or even Levi's. But when it came to Nike and Adidas, they not only knew exactly who they were, but they also had views on which football boots were the coolest, and which footballing megastars were wearing them.

Endorsement obviously pays. But for a sporting brand to get really big it needs to transcend sport and cross over into mainstream fashion.

Gary Aspden's job is to make sure that Adidas is worn by the right kind of "credible" stars in entertainment.

He told me the reason why so many of today's so-called "grime" artists are hooked on the brand is that Gary spotted them when they were still playing small clubs and gave them free stuff.

Now they're having hit records, they're promoting Adidas as a credible brand to a new generation of kids.

Check mate

But just as having the right people wearing your brand is great for your brand image, if the wrong sort latch on to it you're in trouble.

Image caption,
Spot the fakes: Burberry is cool again, and attracts plenty of imitators

Like most successful luxury brands, Burberry cashed in on its kudos by selling more affordable products, like umbrellas, ties, scarves and wallets.

But their signature check became so popular, and so faked, that its cachet was severely diluted.

It's hard to maintain an image of refined British luxury when you see football hooligans on TV fighting the police in Burberry baseball caps.

After a relaunch Burberry is now cool again, but it's a salutary lesson for a super brand.

So what messages are my trousers giving off?

Well, after they'd been given the full grinding, whiskering, tearing and crinkling treatment in the factory in India, I think they were saying that I looked just a little bit ridiculous.

Secrets of the Superbrands is on BBC Three at 2100 BST on Tuesday, 24 May.

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