Simone Shubuck is an artist who loves fashion but avoids the latest It handbag. "They can be embarrassing," she says, "like wearing a price tag on your arm, some big $3,000 statement to the world." She would much rather own things that more quietly convey quality and taste: an Hermès scarf, a Goyard bag of linen and hemp, a slim-fitting Steven Alan button-down shirt. For Shubuck and others, distinctive flourishes by high-end designers have become, in their own discreet and inimitable way, increasingly important—a sort of secret code for fashion's cognoscenti."
We send signals to each other," says David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, which tracks global market trends in the fashion industry, "and certainly the right signal marks you as an insider in the social tribe you wish to belong to."
Simon Doonan, the debonair creative director of Barneys New York, believes most of us rather like the idea of having something few others have—and that fewer still even realize we have it. "Ultimately those embellishments become markers of prestige," he explains. "It's subtler than putting a logo on, but in the end it's the same. People respond to them because there is a certain knowingness in wearing them. It implies, 'I'm a connoisseur about my purchases because I've recognized this detail.'"
There is, to be frank, a certain pride taken in being one of those who can identify the leather tassel unique to a Balenciaga tote. Or smugly whispering "Narciso" as a dress with a zipper slit passes by. The educated fashionista can spot a Chloé Paddington satchel from a block away by its signature padlock. "If you know what it is, you're on the inside track," says Robert Burke, the former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, who now heads up his own luxury consulting business. "That is always important when it comes to fashion."
Fashion is, of course, cyclical, but at this point the emphasis is decidedly on understatement—the red sole of a Christian Louboutin shoe, the intricate weave of a Bottega Veneta bag, the ornate buckle of a Fendi belt, the cheetah-print lining of a Dolce & Gabbana jacket. "We're reaching the saturation point of overt ostentation," Wolfe says. "Overdesigned and overdetailed is on the wane. It's becoming a much more subtle game, with people at the top of the fashion food chain having to reinvent it for themselves."
These "logoless" brands are winning through various means, including embedding clues in colors, fabrics, and materials: Asprey's deep purple, Rolex's weighty platinum, Bottega's buttery leather. "Our signature elements are the make, the quality, and the craftsmanship," explains Tomas Maier, creative director of Bottega Veneta. "This is how our customer identifies us."
Other signs can be found in the detailed styling, such as pom-pom trim at Yves Saint Laurent and the reversed ribbon-lined zipper at Lanvin. The black, brown, and ivory palette of Jean Paul Gaultier's fall 2006 collection for Hermès showcases the brand's multitude of megaluxe handbags.
"It's part of our DNA to be very understated," says Robert Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermès USA.
Certain tailoring touches are, in fact, only apparent to a very select few. Take, for example, the shrunken fit of a Thom Browne suit or the soft round shoulders of a Giorgio Armani jacket. Armani says it was in response to stiff, formal clothes that he stripped out the pads and stuffing nearly 30 years ago, making his clothes more fluid and modern.
"If I have a defining item in my career, it is my jacket," he says. "I have always built collections around jackets, as they provide the backbone of any wardrobe. The message is timelessness—a philosophy that will never go out of fashion, as it's more about eternal style than seasonal changes."
Indeed, such subtleties don't usually stay low-key for long. Some signature design elements become ubiquitous cultural icons—the Burberry plaid, the Chanel tweed. Quicker than ever, they are making their way into the mainstream. "The Burberry check goes from the Queen of England right through to the chav, English working-class kids," Doonan explains.
Dani Shapiro, a notably fashion-savvy writer and novelist, likened the appeal of secret signals to having reservations at that coveted restaurant or bar of the moment with no name—you just get it. "It has something to do with the sense of being in the know," she says.
While Shapiro once bought a Jil Sander suit in the hopes that she would feel more confident wearing a designer label during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, her motivation now is in the confidence she gets from not sending any message. In fact, she prefers to discover clothes and accessories with no easily identifiable pedigree. She talks instead of the exceptionally light cashmere sweaters by Dublin knitter Lainey Keogh and the slouchy Sissi Rossi bag she received on her birthday.
"More and more my closet ends up having much less obvious designer items," Shapiro says, "and more just interesting or idiosyncratic pieces."
Some designer fashion codes seem to overlap. As Doonan points out, the "H" in Tommy Hilfiger is quite similar to the "H" in Hermès, and Moschino uses the Italian flag as does Dolce & Gabbana. One could never confuse, however, the cherry-red soles so utterly unique to Christian Louboutin. "When women sit down and cross their legs, you immediately see this flash of red under their shoe," Doonan says. "Now that's where a designer becomes an inventor."
But alas, as luxury goods have grown ever more widespread, it has also become increasingly difficult to find the truly rare. "Those who buy high-end luxury items want them to be even more exclusive and discreet," Robert Burke says.
Given the proliferation of copycat pieces, these codes could also serve to foil the ubiquitous counterfeiters who have so devoured and repackaged designer labels and logos that recognizing better leather, for example, is only one of several new ways to detect the fakes.
"The complicated handiwork and craftsmanship make it hard for styles to be re-created," says Bottega's Maier. "We have many limited editions and models that involve extremely complex techniques. This creates collectibles that our clients will use for a season, then put away and bring out a year or two later. The design is timeless and the product is meant to last."
But even these versions are likely to be seen soon on a street corner near you. "To send out that infra-chic signal to other collectors, the item has to be something that virtually cannot be copied," Wolfe says.In developing their trademark elements, though, designers are not necessarily trying to avoid rip-offs or consciously broadcast a signature. Instead, they are expressing their particular design sensibility.
"I think it's very important for a designer to have a recognizable identity and fashion direction rather than switching around season after season, chasing the latest fad or trying to be the 'new' and 'never seen before' without considering their founding elements," Armani says. "My main goal and spirit is really about bringing forth the idea of simplicity and elegance. Certain items will never go out of style."
And there will always be discerning fashion sophisticates to appreciate them.