A black horse, painted on the side of a fighter plane. Letters glimpsed in a stained-glass window. A star marked on a picture postcard.
These are the things great identities are made of – in the slightly loopy world of the luxury sector, at least. Unlikely points of interest, plucked from memory by founders and visionaries. Among top-end fashion houses, motor companies, chocolatiers and the like, where heritage, dynasty and cults of personality often count for so much, these apparently random associations made by pushy personalities a long time ago are treasured and nurtured. We should all be thankful. In the city of brands, they make for a weird but wonderful neighbourhood – we should probably call it a ‘village’ – where, even if you can’t afford to buy anything, window-shopping the symbols is rewarding enough.
That’s not to say every logo in the luxury sector is fascinating or even worthy of attention. Most of them are simple monograms and logotypes, a lot of them apparently glorying in their own awfulness and lack of refinement. The randomness factor seems to increase in the upper echelon of luxury brands, which suggests that having a logo that bears little or no discernible relation to one’s name, products or brand baggage has, at the very least, no harmful effect on business.
The truth is, it adds to a brand’s mystique. Alongside other luxury brand assets, such as trademarked patterns and colours, enigmatic marks add a sheen of myth to brands, making them especially attractive as an adornment for daft, overpriced, upper-class merchandise.
For the rest of us, the stories of their creation, some of them deeply personal, present an irresistible contrast to today’s pre-programmed channels of brand development. How might a modern brand consultant greet a young Enzo Ferrari’s assertion that his new car company should make a prancing black horse its symbol, because he was told to by the mother of a first world war Italian fighter ace, who’d painted it on his fuselage for good luck?
There might be some shifting in seats around the meeting table if a master chocolatier called Joseph Draps ventured the idea of naming his new high-class confectionery company after Godiva, the earl’s wife who, according to legend, rode around Coventry without a stitch on, to keep down taxes.
Or if Burberry piped up about its recent trip to the Wallace Collection: “We saw this amazing suit of armour, and we were thinking…. Wouldn’t a knight on horseback be just perfect for us?”
How would Jeanne Lanvin fare, suggesting that the logo for her couture house should be a mother and daughter dressed in gowns and funny hats, based on a photograph taken at a costumed ball? Or the young Coco Chanel, proposing a double-C device that she’d glimpsed in stained-glass windows at the convent where she’d grown up?
It’s unlikely that Paul and Adolf Daimler would get very far with their three-pointed star idea, either. “Yes, we hear you. We called the company Mercedes after our star driver’s daughter. But when we were kids our dad sent us a postcard of the town where he was working, and he marked his house with a star. It was so cool. And we were thinking… if you put a circle around it…. What do you think?”
If only for their way of sticking with symbols whose origins could never be replicated or imitated, give thanks for the wacky world of luxury brands.