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All About the Brand

The topic at hand on a recent Thursday was high fashion. Professor Christie Byun quickly took her freshman tutorial students through 150 years of fashion history and its impact on society.

Luxury got its start through local craftspeople. Now, it’s global conglomerates and big financiers – a billion-dollar industry.

Byun used legendary examples of Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Louis Vuitton to open the discussion and quickly touched on fashion’s impacts on a post-World War II economy post-war, and quickly moved into the elaborate world of high fashion. A then-and-now comparison of the labels above and their landing pages today introduced the concept of accessible entry points – how to get people into fashion. Let’s just say that Louis Vuitton has come a long way from its trunk-making roots of the 1850s.

“Fashion, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship: How to Dress Like a Gentleman in the 21st Century” is Byun’s brainchild, and she, somewhat jokingly, explained after the discussion that the class had the “potential to be highly engaging or bomb miserably. So far, it’s been very, very good.”

Associate Professor of Economics Christie Byun (left) interacts with freshman tutorial students in class.

Some of that engagement was evident as the talk turned from haute couture to wearable fashion. “Is this fashion?” Byun asked. “Why, when it’s not wearable?” came the first reply, ushering in a discussion on creativity and art, ideas of pushing fashion forward, edits, plays against proportion, and even a Kardashian reference.

One student quipped, “She’s wearing a tablecloth,” thus signaling the transition to a new topic.

Talk continued of how high fashion moved from haute couture and the high-end elite to the aspirational middle market, or consumers who want to be connected to high-end brands. Such desire often leads to counterfeit goods, which is no surprise since the retail markup is roughly 10 to 12 times the production costs. Such a market is created when even the low-end bags retail for $1,000-5,000.

“This is kind of insane,” said a student who managed to summarize what most were thinking by the head nods. “It’s literally all about the brand,” came an immediate follow as the conversation steered toward intellectual property, copyright, and functionality.

Byun pressed the students to think about the differences between inspiration and a blatant copy by allowing the class to inspect a number of watches and handbags, some real and some not. Are they real or fake, she asked, can you tell by the materials, how it smells, what do you look for?

Students inspect a potentially counterfeit watch.

The answers came with robust certainty at first before wrong answers devolved into blind guesses.

Byun capped class by attempting to draw a consensus on where inspiration ends and counterfeit begins. “You guys are telling me that this is ok, but a knockoff bag is illegal,” she said pointing to an example on screen before deftly swinging it back to the students’ experiences. “How do we apply this to our own work? As in writing, it’s good to be inspired, but you have to make it your own.”