Small Business

A Label That Sticks


By Karen E. Klein Q: I have been working in the urban apparel business for six years and see a lot of potential in this field, but the problem is the longevity -- or lack of it -- of names or brands. I now have an investor to help start my own brand, and the hardest thing is coming up with a name. Can you give me suggestions about what strategy I should employ? -- D.L., New York City

A: You are right to focus on your brand. A successful fashion label will transcend your name, even if you name the company after yourself. "Figuring out which naming strategy will work best means first figuring out your brand positioning," says Jay Jurisich, creative director of Igor, a naming-and-branding consultancy based in San Francisco. Says Jurisich, you must "carefully define your attitude, your particular sense of style and fashion, and what sets you apart from the other labels."

A lot of fashion names come and go quickly because the clothing, brand, and name are dated to a particular moment in time, warns Steve Manning, Igor's managing director. "Don't pick a name that references or plays off anything in the temporal world of rap, hip hop, or pop culture," he says. A name that is linked to one of today's red-hot trends will become passar too quickly.

Anything goes in the world of fashion names, and the trick is to do something different and interesting -- but without going over the top. "Don't try to do anything too 'out there,'" warns Manning. "It's been done to death and comes off as desperate, a la FCUK." The urban apparel sector is already saturated with fanciful, made-up names, like Phat Farm, Kik Wear, G-Unit and Wu Wear. Notes Jurisich: "They have lost all power to shock or stand out from one another, making them a less desirable choice for a new brand."

RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE. Your naming strategy will likely depend on whether you position your brand as the product of a designer or not. In the fashion business, cults of personality are the norm far more often than in other industries. When both names of the designer are used -- Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Tommy Hilfiger -- the brand is strongly identified with the designer, Jurisich notes. When only the surname is used -- Prada, Versace, Armani, Gucci -- the brand can transcend that attachment.

There are some powerful fashion brands that don't depend on a particular designer, such as Nike and Fila, but such brands usually take many years and huge marketing budgets to build. Evocative, memorable words are a naming strategy worth pursuing to differentiate your brand from, on the one hand, the designer labels, and on the other, fanciful and made-up constructions, Jurisich says. "Torrid is an example of a line of clothes with a real, evocative word for its name that works especially well at positioning in its target niche, which is overweight teen girls," he notes. "And one of the hottest young New York designers, Wenlan Chia, recently made her Fashion Week debut with her label named Twinkle."

Going with a designer's name is probably the best way to transcend the styles of the moment, however. "When Daryl K [designer Daryl Kerrigan] started, she rented out a storefront in New York's East Village, riding the wave of creativity and notoriety that was oozing from that neighborhood in the '80s," Manning says. "Now, her brand is a fixture on Fifth Avenue and in SoHo, and the name still works."

SEW AND TELL. Jurisich agrees. "The thing I like about Daryl K is that it plays off the designer's name, but in an unusual way, with echoes of Kafka's character, Joseph K., giving it a dark, anonymous edge that piques my interest," he says. "So the name Daryl K not only alludes to the designer, but it becomes a character whose story can be filled in by the branding, the clothes themselves -- and, most importantly, by the mind of your audience, creating an emotional connection."

Give serious consideration to using your own name or playing off it, or else finding a memorable, evocative name based on a real word that relates to your style and audience. Then concentrate on creating great clothes that get noticed. "I can say from experience that when you find the right name - the name that best supports your brand positioning - you will know it because, suddenly, all the other names you were considering won't do it for you," Jurisich says.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.


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