ARTICLE NATASHA STAGG
A NEW ERA OF FASHION BRANDING HAS BEGUN, AND COCA-COLA MIGHT GET IT MORE THAN ANYONE ELSE
Kate Dwyer, head of Coca-Cola’s global licensing, is responsible for all the high-fashion collaborations you may not have realized were actually endorsed: the subtle stripe on a Marc Jacobs S/S ’14 sweatshirt, a sequined brand name on an Ashish S/S ’14 top, remixed vintage pieces by Dr. Romanelli for Opening Ceremony, and beginning in June 2014, a collection of colors for nail polish line OPI. With Coca-Cola Red standing out as the only name that even references the brand, a row of seemingly mismatched colors, designed with OPI co-founder and Executive VP Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, stand beside me as I unfold my hands towards a manicurist just before my interview with Dwyer. “What’s this one called?” I ask, lifting a peacock-green. “That’s my favorite! I think it’s Sprite,” she tells me, turning the bottle upside down. “Green On The Runway,” she laughs. “Okay.” Sure, silver could be the top of a soda can (called My Signature is “DC”—meaning Diet Coke), metallic orange glitter (Orange You Fantastic!), bubbles rising after a Fanta is cracked open. But the pinks and purples, apparently inspired by Vanilla and Cherry Coke, look a little off-brand. And off, or at least unexpected, is exactly what Dwyer intends to accomplish with the massive retail push she started with Dolce & Gabbana in 2010. The collaboration included the most blatant of branding, and ended up looking so outrageously paid-for, it couldn’t possibly be (it was). Dressed in the aforementioned Ashish tee, one red nail on each hand painted with a signature white ribbon, Kate Dwyer is even more cheerful than my manicurist. An avid follower of fashion in all its forms—“I love it,” she tells me, “any fashion magazines, I get probably ten to fifteen in the mail every month, and go through all of them, all the blogs, I just love it”—Dwyer clearly understands the importance of giving a designer complete creative freedom. High fashion has a trickle down effect, after all. “Since [Dolce], we’ve done JC/DC, Ashish, Marc Jacobs, Jack Spade, we’re about to launch with Joyrich… and those are the top-tier fashion designers for the most part, but then what it does, is retailers like Uniqlo or Forever 21 end up carrying just our basic T-Shirts. It helps us stay top of mind.”
Even if it does help with relevance, many brands as stable as the Coca-Cola Company don’t necessarily want to get involved with something as see-sawing as individual fashion designers. But: “Interestingly enough” says Dwyer, “teens and young adults spend twice as much on fashion than any other product category.” So, a core consumer group for Coke is spending more on clothing than they are on, say, iPod cases. And as we all know, the youth are evermore informed when it comes to what they’re wearing, and how it will look online (meaning forever). What Dwyer has tapped into is a projection of clothing-nostalgia that she knows, from personal experience, is extremely effective. “The [Coca-Cola] rugby shirts that were big in the mid-eighties were actually designed by an unknown designer at the time, Tommy Hilfiger. So, I owned one of those and, you know, fashion and Coke to me have always made sense.”
Coke already had a leg up in the way of blending into our American seams before fashion got involved: It was inadvertently product-placed in the Pop Art of the sixties, pre-empting the paid-for bottles of vodka and Beats By Dre Pills in every music video premiered on Vevo. OPI have obviously banked on the much more genuine sixties association, decorating the temporary salon-space where we’re sitting with Roy Lichtenstein-inspired logos. “Thinking about Warhol’s art… whether Coke or Campbell’s Soup, I do think that that kind of mash-up has come in and out and had a bit of a steady impact.”
The way Coca-Cola has found its way into the hearts and blogs of teens was anything but a straight shot. For example, Streetwear labels have always stolen from the layered look of excessive advertisements like the scrolling LEDs in Times Square, and can now take away from a windowed internet world. Appropriating the enemy, so to speak, anti-establishment types throughout Coke’s lifespan went from patching up their jeans with the label in a show of protest against it, to admitting they might, after so much exposure to it—like to drink it. The unflinching red and white font became a neutral backdrop for all things needing a brand: If you’re going to be sponsored, why not make sure it’s by something innocuous? That way, as with Dolce, the takeover could be mistaken for sarcasm.
Fashion fanatic Dwyer sees that fine line and can’t help but want to walk it. Plus, her focus may come from a personal love, but the feeling is clearly mutual. About that Coke cameo at the S/S ’14 Marc Jacobs runway show in New York, “At the time we were really busy and I joked with my team, ‘We can’t take on any new projects right now, but if Marc Jacobs calls…’ and then he did. We were like, ‘Yes, yes!’” More discreet in its market message than perhaps any other Coke-endorsed garment, the simplicity of the branding represents a new era of logo-mania: the secret sell-out. On some of London design house Ashish’s branded garments, the logo sits below Arabic text, looking like, more than anything else, a knock-off. A first look at these shows indeed spurred some incredulity: Instead of, “How did they get Coke on board?” we asked, “How did they get away plagiarism?” But this time, big business was on the side of mom-and-pop fashion. And how they came together is about as organic as it gets. “I’ve got a girl who’s in the Europe group,” Dwyer explains. “She identified Ashish as somebody that we would want to partner with. I think he just did a beautiful job with the collection, he was very easy and nice to work with, and I think that’s where, for us, the sweet spot is. Finding people who, one, their brand is more optimistic and happy, but they also authentically love our brand.”
This, like any successful strategy, can’t stay exclusive for long. A few weeks ago, Narciso Rodriquez announced a collaboration with Bottletop and Pepsi: a collection of handbags, commemorated with a sleek, limited-edition can. The competition doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer, who cites a Diet Coke bottle by Karl Lagerfeld back in 2012, and another by Marc Jacobs in 2013. We’re far past the days of Generation Next and The Pepsi Challenge now, and that’s all thanks to Coke’s pointed targeting, particularly of the young and the spendy. “We have more than a billion dollars in retail sales of our licensed merchandise. About 65%, roughly, of that is in the fashion space.” So, it seems we’re past the days of Coca-Cola Christmas ornaments being the brand's biggest merch department, too.
What’s next? More collaborations, more beauty (like OPI, and, as I’m sure you all remember and still love, Lip Smackers), and more fashion. “What we’ve done over the years is we now have equity in that space and we built credibility. I think it’s so rooted in what we do and even within the fashion community, we’ll continue to focus and drive collaborations and partnerships in that space.” My manicure, Green on the Runway with a ring finger accent in Orange You Fantastic!, doesn’t necessarily speak for Coca-Cola, but just as the brand’s spokesperson would want it—it speaks for itself, a tiny example of only seemingly inadvertent advertising, that quietly creates the styles we—all of us, whether we want to or not—wear.