How Do Your Favorite Fashion Products Get Their Names?
The “Olivia” jacket? The “Devon” sandals? Turns out the personification of fashion goes deeper than you thought.
Over a decade ago, Coca Cola's "Share a Coke'' campaign took the world by storm, bringing us beverage bottles named 'Laura' and 'Sarah' and proving one key point: Everyone loves seeing their name on merchandise. In the fashion industry, the phenomenon of naming dresses, shoes, and handbags predates the famous campaign, and it's so ubiquitous, we've come to take it for granted; from the Olivia jacket at Urban Outfitters to Mara Hoffman's cult Sloane dress, it seems like most clothes say someone's name. But what's behind this insanely popular practice?
"In the 18th century, it was the early fashion magazines that started naming garments", says Kimberly Christman-Campbell, fashion historian and author. The news cycle or pop culture would often be the inspiration behind the names, Christman-Campbell says; "For example, there's a famous hat named after a battleship." Later, the couturiers of the mid-19th century, such as the British icon Lucille, started giving their creations memorable names in order to make them stand out, and the big names of the 20th century, like Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, continued the trend. Occasionally, the item would take on the name of a celebrity that loved it or inspired it, like the Hermès Kelly bag — renamed after Princess Grace Kelly, or the Birkin Bag, created by Hermès especially for Jane Birkin.
These days, certain designers have streamlined the process, extending the naming privilege to whole collections. "I pick a theme every season and name the styles accordingly" says Christian Juul Nielsen, the man behind AKNVAS, which Nielsen established in 2018 after years of working at Dior and Oscar de la Renta.
While to the unassuming consumer the names may appear random — or simply following catchy trends — they seldom are. For Nielsen, each collection has a theme, including "rock stars from the '80s, my own family, supermodels from the '90s," he says. "I choose the themes based upon the things I like and what inspires me." Currently, the latest offerings include a Sally dress, a Casey sweater and a Demi coat, the latter a recurring seasonal item. It's named after the actress Demi More, originating in a collection named after '90s actresses Nielsen admires. "I imagine the coat on Demi going on stage in the film Striptease with not a lot underneath," he smiles.
For shoe designer Sarah Flint, naming is all about paying tribute to certain customers. "I had many customers who were looking for a style between a flat and a heel," Flint says. "l spoke with one customer at length about all of the elements that should go into a shoe like this. Her name was Rosie, and her shoe [a loafer] was born a year and a half later." Flint doesn't name all of her styles; rather, certain styles have human names seasonally to highlight certain customers and their needs.
Sometimes, names are a way to celebrate the teams behind the product — such is the case at Akola, an ethical jewelry brand which, in its Spring 2022 collection, will offer bracelets and rings named Kalila and Sumaya, after the Ugandan women who helped make them. '"Each design should make our employees feel proud," says Sarah Reesman, design director. "If I can include them even in the slightest, I try to do so."
Aside from paying homage to important personas or empowering workers, naming is a good marketing strategy. According to Cieja Springer, fashion historian and host of From the Bottom Up, a podcast featuring overlooked fashion industry figures, brands give their garments human names in order to personify them and make them more desirable for the consumer.
"Brands like the Attico are picking what appears to be very arbitrary, but memorable names like the Devon sandal," says Springer. "It somehow just made sense, making consumers stop and think —'I need to have these, the Devons!'" Another example Springer points to is Bottega Venetta's Lido sandal. "The name is sticky and has 1,000% become synonymous with that particular style," she says, referring to the fashion powerhouse's sexy stiletto mules.
There are, too, practical considerations. "Imagine going into a store and having to always explain what the item looks like in order for the salesperson to assist — it's exhausting," says Springer. "People want ease especially with shopping; so naming things helps." This, of course, is also valid online, where searching for a favorite designer's "ivory embellished sweater" may yield dozens of unnecessary options, while typing in "Josie sweater" will lead you straight to Ulla Johnson's fabulous creation.
Naming also highlights a slightly more personal connection for designers themselves: "I form a relationship with each item," says Nielsen. "Rather than speaking to the press and buyers referring to each item with just a number, I prefer to use a name."
For the consumer, encountering a dress or a shoe that says their name can provide a jolt of excitement. Women with popular and trendy names — the Samanthas and Abbies of the world — may often stumble upon fashion items that are seemingly named after them, while others aren't as lucky. At the very least, product names are an entertaining guessing game; was this gorgeous gown named after a beloved fan of the brand, the designer's sister, a supermodel, or a character from a book? We may never know, but that's just part of the fun.