With Style and a Touch of Normalcy

By: Alan Behr, Phillips Nizer Partner and Fashion Law Chair

The best words in any language were long ago vaccinated against easy translation.  I am German and I still struggle to explain Gemütlich in simple terms.  In my lumbering study of Italian (my pandemic at-home challenge), I came across sprezzatura, which can be roughly translated as a refined and carefully executed appearance of effortlessness.  If you see a man wearing perfectly coordinated clothes with every appearance of somehow having just thrown them on before leaving home—that’s sprezzatura.  (Rest assured: he spent a lot of time working on making it look like he spent no time at all.)

The look and the philosophy behind sprezzatura have characterized Neapolitan tailoring for generations. The result is a vibrant, instantly recognizable style that has been given a tactile presence by brands such as Mariano Rubinacci, E. Marinella, Kiton and the distinctly charming and playful Isaia.  Trademark law is about the legal protection of brands, and brands are about nothing if not story: the best trademarks tell stories, inviting you into joining in the telling of those stories by your patronage of the brands behind them.

I was reminded of that by Jason Green as we sat in the comfortable parlor portion of a sales floor of the Isaia boutique on Madison Avenue in New York, sipping espresso.  He opened by explaining that the brand’s distinctive logo represents the red coral of the Mediterranean—formed, according to myth, from the blood of the gorgon Medusa after she was beheaded by Perseus, her body thrown into the sea.  People associated with the brand wear the coral logo on lapel pins, and by custom, whenever they are asked for the meaning of the device, they present the one they are wearing to the questioner.

That touch of branding whimsy is right for our times, noted Mr. Green.  “My sense is that what is taking place in the mindset of people coming out of one of the most turbulent periods in recent history is a pent-up exuberance for the return of life as normal, he added.  “In my view, there will be a powerful resurgence in sartorial expression, which, at its basis, means that you want to feel great—to leave behind whatever is connected to this challenging period and reclaim something joyful that was taken from us for too long.”  That has brought on a resurgence, somewhat unexpectedly, of wedding wear and evening dress.  You may not always wear a suit to the office, but a hand-tailored Neapolitan jacket (the buttons haphazardly fastened in homage to sprezzatura, of course) may well be your first no mask/no worries treat for yourself.

As with other brands, Isaia has spent this quiescent period reaching out to its best customers—visiting their homes and offices, giving them as close personal attention as possible.  “It is big-box retailing that is dragging,” added Mr. Green.  “Big boxes struggle with that due to their size and the intrinsic geography of that business.”  In short, if your core business involves selling essentially the same inexpensive things on racks and online as your competitors, you can find yourself struggling to differentiate yourself enough to increase market share.

The trend toward specialized service will continue even in e-commerce, said Mr. Green, a channel often thought of as the nemesis of the personal touch.  “We are moving away from that broad platform of selling a catalogue of styles online to something that literally takes place within the confines of a text, something personal delivered in a beautifully curated point of view—not a global transmission but an opportunity for an individual edit.”

What is the biggest problem facing luxury retailing?  Mr. Green was quick to reply, “A shortage of good talent.  High caliber people who know how to treat your customers well are not afraid to move around if given the chance, so much of what we do is nurture our talent.  The same is true in the high-end auto and restaurant businesses.”

From a legal point of view, it comes down to protecting your brand and your trademarks, making sure your employment agreements are fair and up to date and, above all, approaching legal issues with the understanding that luxury retail has gone from being mostly about goods to being mostly about service.