Fashion makes us happy – it’s an effect, an emotion, a story. Despite its ongoing negatives, Covid-19 will hopefully usher in change for the fashion industry – already teetering with an almost absurd business model. The future looks slower, more genuinely connected to our well-being. Branding is essential to this, and it is not all fake news.

Ying Gao, Science is Fiction, photo: Dominique LaFond, courtesy of Ying Gao

Ying Gao, Science is Fiction, photo: Dominique LaFond, courtesy of Ying Gao

Ying Gao questions our assumptions about clothing by combining fashion design, product design and media design. She uses sensory technologies to allow garments to become more poetic and interactive. Her aesthetic is pure and ethereal. By stripping down clothes to their construction, she manages to analyse both their practical and their social value – the essence of fashion. By looking at her creations, the viewer experiences a sense of emotional well-being. Fashion is designed to make us happy, but is it always just a matter of design?

Happiness in fashion goes beyond aesthetic: it is given by belonging to a community, by feeling represented by a product and by fulfilling ourselves by buying it, perfecting our personality with a brand's identity. Niche brands and single designers usually have an identity that matches their true selves, but in large brands, this identity is strategically manufactured. This is called branding.

London Fashion Week, September 2020 – the year of the pandemic. Molly Goddard's catwalks usually sport a festive mood and Portobello Roadish party dresses. This season was no different. Despite everything, the designer still managed to pull off her signature, colourful, frilly outfits. The show was one of the most mood-lifting moments of the entire kermesse. "I hope it makes people happy,” Goddard said to the press – a casual declaration which, given the circumstances, felt like a statement. Unintentionally (or maybe not) the designer managed to release not just a spot-on collection, but also a practical lesson in branding.

Molly Goddard, Spring/Summer 2021, photo by Ben Broomfield

Molly Goddard, Spring/Summer 2021, photo by Ben Broomfield

Branding is all about 'Making people happy' because that is the way you make sales. A winning product must have a meaning that goes with it and that meaning is usually connected to happiness. But if "I hope it makes people happy" is simply what Goddard said at the end of her show, Nike’s "Just do it" is what a panel of experts came up with after months of brainstorming. While marketing is almost as old as fashion itself, branding is rather new; still, it basically defines the brand. Maria Grazia Chiuri's “We Should All Be Feminist” T-shirts were marked as 'cheap marketing' by the industry intelligentsia. However, given that they sold quite well, they might actually have been the output of a larger branding strategy aimed at positioning Dior as a feminist brand. The best thing to do to confirm both that and their price-worth ($750), would be to investigate how the brand treats women.

Large brands have entire departments dedicated to crafting their identities: "They create inspirational models that people will identify as their better selves, their emotionally fulfilled selves,” explains Jo Watson, branding specialist and lecturer at AMFI (Amsterdam Fashion Institute).  “When you see your better self consistently represented, you want to have a relationship with that brand. There has to be an ideology that runs through a business for it to be a good business and for the consumer to feel that. Patagonia has a really strong ideology about wanting to do business with no harm and you feel it's genuine because everything they have done, all of their actions, all of their marketing activities confirm that."

Campaign image of Entireworld's partnership with Nordstrom, photo: Misha Taylor, courtesy of Entireworld

Scott Sternberg, the founder of the brand Entireworld, was interviewed by the New York Times for a story that rocked the fashion industry: his well-designed basics had managed to increase sales while brands like J. Crew, Neiman Marcus and Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The commercial strategy and the product were good, but the branding strategy played a pivotal role: self-care, snugly outfits, inclusivity and, last but not least, a letter of honest compassion sent out to the brand's subscribers together with a promotion for one of the top sellers, a sweatsuit, which sold twice as much as it normally does on that day. "It's about the message being right for the time,” says Watson. “What is important for the brand though, is to navigate identities in time, so will Entireworld still be there in 20 years? What a brand has to do is make sure their identity and their message fit with an ever-changing culture."

Good branding makes the difference during hard times. During the first peak of the pandemic some brands unsuccessfully continued to push sales, others relied on their identity to create a sense of community: they made customers feel like friends and tried to do something, beyond selling, that would make them happy. Once again though, there is a difference between doing this genuinely and doing it to prevent a company from going bust – both purposes are legitimate, but the results come from different places.

Melampo, photo: Miriam Marlene for Melampo Diaries

Up-and-coming Italian fashion brand Melampo is the brainchild of Lulù and Anna Poletti, two sisters who grew up in a family of dressmakers, playing with fabrics and sewing machines. They are inspired by architecture and by photography, but most of all by their childhood – they tell everyday stories in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Storytelling is a key aspect of branding, but while large brands invent stories because they are by now detached from their founder, the Poletti sisters can draw from their own experience. The brand's latest collection, Camera View, was conceived during the initial lockdown and it features a series of versatile garments that can easily be accessorized for a rapid transition from private life (home) to public life (Zoom). During that lockdown, Melampo also launched a project called #throughthewindow, reaching out to friends and asking them to share quarantine thoughts and images. This is similar, on a smaller scale, to the strategy adopted by Gucci: Gucci created a sense of community by sharing opinion, entertainment and, ultimately, brand culture. But while Melampo's stories were first-hand experiences, Gucci had to reach a much wider audience, therefore its stories were, and had to be, well-manufactured marketing products. Running a large brand successfully is very much like running a communication agency. And this is – also – what the customer pays for.

Gucci is about hedonism, sexually provocative hedonism during the Tom Ford era, intellectual hedonism now with Alessandro Michele. This is perhaps why the brand is so successful: hedonism doesn't die out, it just needs to be fine-tuned – branding ultimately responds to what people want to be. But there is more to fashion than self-indulgence and consumerism is changing: having a good product and hip communication have started not to be enough. To keep 'making people happy' brands are having to adapt to the demand for high quality, timeless and, above all, sustainable products.

Audrey Louise Reynolds, photo: Damier Maloney Audrey Louise Reynolds, photo: Damier Maloney

Brands that come with sustainable products and strong environmental messages, like fashion designer-cum-artist Audrey Louise Reynolds, are gaining momentum: "Wear your morals. I like to ignite thoughtfulness, responsibility, consciousness and kindness,” states Reynolds. “I want people to know they're wearing something as harmless as that fruit juice they had with breakfast. And wear your vegetables! You could eat this shirt. What's the point of bad toxic design that hurts people? If you wouldn't put it in your body, you shouldn't put it on your body." Once again, this is easier for small brands even though it involves a significant sacrifice in terms of revenues.

"Large brands are finding it harder to navigate this era,” concludes Watson. “The expectations are very high. Nowadays brands should ideally know the soil that their cotton grows in to confidentially assure consumers, and this is a huge responsibility."

The fashion system has been broken for decades; might we be at the dawn of a time in which happiness just comes from doing the right thing?