With such long and winding histories, it’s no wonder the course of a luxury brand rarely runs smooth. Fashion’s heavyweights rise and fall only to rise again as the trend barometer dictates.
Not so erratic, however, are the signature pieces these labels produce – those designs that become synonymous with a brand over years of constant improvement, design tweaks and fresh marketing efforts, which can breathe new life into decades-old pieces.
Here’s a primer on the ones you should know, and perhaps one day add to your wardrobe:
Gucci Horsebit Leather Loafers
Gucci’s undergone a renaissance. But as the brand has moved from Tom Ford’s slick sexiness to Alessandro Michele’s seventies-inflected romance, the loafer – the Italian label’s most iconic shoe – has remained the same. Probably thanks in equal part to the sheer versatility (loafers flit effortlessly between suit, off-duty and black tie) and the sheer volume sold.
Like so many luxury brands, Gucci began life in the leather goods trade. Inspired by the link between equestrian sports and the international jet set, Mr Guccio Gucci placed a horsebit on the elite’s favoured shoe. And from there, Gucci’s loafer became the footwear of choice for politicians, businessmen and celebrities worldwide – a success the label continues to enjoy, no matter its creative director (or whether it’s black G-strings or floral blousons that they’re pushing).
Available at Mr Porter, priced £410.
Acne Studios Black Ace Jeans
At just 20 years old, Acne Studios is still a toddler in luxury terms. But youth isn’t necessarily a disadvantage; the brand turns over $120 million annually.
Fittingly, it was jeans – the fashion industry’s universal symbol for youth and rebellion – that put the Swedish brand on the map. In 1997, co-founder Jonny Johansson made 100 pairs of jeans for friends and family. The simple double-stitched design of these jeans positioned them at the midpoint between luxury and Scandinavian minimalism, and they proved such a hit that the denim line grew into a wider collection of apparel.
Then came two shows a year in Paris. Then came the renown. Not bad for something that started as a family freebie.
Available at Ssense, priced £150.
Ralph Lauren Oxford Shirt
One of the founding fathers of American prep, Ralph Lauren made his name with a simple exercise in subtle branding: embroidering his brand’s logo on a classic Oxford shirt.
It’s proved the perfect example of logoing – bold enough to be instantly recognised, but not so brash that it comes off gaudy. No tacky slogans. No bizarre statements. Perhaps best of all though, it doesn’t distract from the rest of a man’s look, which is really what makes it a timeless and versatile menswear essential.
Available at House Of Fraser, priced £85.
Saint Laurent Leather Jacket
A bit of an anomaly on this list, Saint Laurent’s leather jackets have only recently developed signature status. Former creative director Hedi Slimane loved a healthy decibel of rock ‘n’ roll, so much so that he decided to fuse it with high fashion. And the applause soon followed.
From there, the leather jacket has come to symbolise Saint Laurent’s new direction. Less Parisian Left Bank elegance, more edge. Which is just as well for fans of versatile pieces – nothing spans smart and casual quite like a quality leather jacket.
Available at Mr Porter, priced £2,870.
Burberry Sandringham Heritage Trench Coat
France’s luxury labels might traditionally be known for their agenda-setting style, but Britain’s designer brands know a thing or two about quality. And few of them know more than Burberry.
Now over 160 years old, Burberry was the brand responsible for developing gabardine. Sounds like a Victorian painkiller, but is actually a water-resistant, breathable fabric in which the yarn is waterproofed before weaving – something that came in especially useful during WWI. Burberry created the ‘trench coat’ from the same fabric to battle conditions in the Somme. Once the war was over, the design became popular with civilians for its hardiness. The iconic check followed in 1920 and tally ho: a British staple was born.
Available at Burberry, priced £1,395.
Louis Vuitton Malle Courrier 110
Although plagued by counterfeits worldwide, Louis Vuitton luggage has never suffered any major blows for all its imitations. Maybe because the brand is responsible for modern-day luggage as we know it.
Long before the famous monogram print, Vuitton developed a square trunk in 1858. Which sounds obvious. But until that point most luggage cases were rounded to allow water to run off them and so were difficult to transport. By simply boxing the design and ensuring they were airtight, Vuitton reinvented the luggage game – easier to stack but still protective.
Fast-forward a century, some celebrity endorsements and a beefed-up fashion line, and it’s now one of the most profitable luxury brands in the world. All thanks to a suitcase.
Available at Louis Vuitton, priced £16,700.
Hermès Hand-Painted Equestrian Scarves
Hermès has enjoyed a long partnership with equestrian sports (what is it with rich people and horses?). But while modern-day racing might skew plastic pints and garish hats at Ladies’ Day, Hermès still maintains its old-school elegance.
What started as a bridle and harness workshop in 1837, Hermès soon expanded into other luxury goods. And while it strayed from the racetrack, the brand kept the equestrian focus – by painting grandstand scenes on Chinese silk scarves.
The design process remains the same today. Over 750 hours are spent engraving the silk screens, 27 distinct colours can take six months to be transferred and the silk itself is made from over 250 moth cocoons. Which all makes for a pretty expensive, but indisputably memorable scarf.
Open to offers at 1stdibs, priced £340.54.
Calvin Klein Boxer Briefs
Not quite the neophyte, but by no means an ancient, Calvin Klein is a fashion stalwart, one whose success fluctuated throughout the 1980s. But, just as the brand began to sink in 1992, its fortunes rose due to a below-the-belt invention.
It was all thanks to John Varvatos. Calvin Klein’s then head of menswear devised a new type of underwear, the ‘boxer brief’: a blend of traditional boxer shorts and tighter briefs. A pre-Boogie Nights Mark Wahlberg was drafted to front the campaign and thanks to strong design (and good arms), Calvin Klein was saved from bankruptcy.
Available at Calvin Klein, priced £36 for a pack of three.