Petrol threads: how fast cars influence fashion
Ever since the first Curved Dash Oldsmobile rolled off a Detroit production line in 1901, car culture and fashion have enjoyed periods of creative synchronicity. The sense of freedom granted by the motoring revolution in the 1920s spilled into clothing, ushering in rebellious “flapper” styles and Coco Chanel’s little black dress for women. The invention of the car also inspired the first prototype of the modern handbag, which began as an accessory for storing driving gloves until it was picked up in America and turned into a portable sac-a-main. In menswear, the car ushered in the vogue for flat tweed driving caps, leather jackets and plus-fours.
Fashions in the 1950s and 1960s are closely linked with automobile culture. The golden age of American car design spawned subcultures such as the “greasers”, with their slicked-back hair styled like Cadillac tail fins and white socks to recall the whitewall tyres of the time. Just as they would hot-rod their rides, so, too, would they customise their leather jackets, inspired by James Dean and Marlon Brando. In the 1960s, Hollywood star Steve McQueen became entirely defined by his wheels — those of the 1968 Ford Mustang he drives in Bullitt or the 1967 Ferrari 275 he steered in real life. His driving gloves, Persol sunglasses and bomber jacket are still cult accessories for men hoping to channel his alpha-male aura.
Today, luxury car marques have never been more actively engaged with fashion, with increasing numbers of manufacturers launching branded men’s and women’s collections, as they position themselves as lifestyle brands. One reason for this is the increasing competition as global car sales are projected to flatten in 2017. Although the global market for luxury cars grew from €245bn in 2010 to €438bn in 2016, much of it is attributed to China and India, with Chinese growth in particular peaking in 2010. In December, the Communist party’s treasury ministry announced a 10 per cent tax on any car costing more than Rmb1.3m (£151,000) in a bid to foster “reasonable consumption”. While sales of clothing and accessories collections aren’t going to greatly impact a carmaker’s profits, it does provide another hook up with which to snag the Chinese demand for luxury goods.
“For us, it’s not about buying into fashion,” explains Marek Reichman, Aston Martin Lagonda’s design director. Last year, the Gaydon-based carmaker collaborated with Hackett, the English tailoring brand, on a capsule collaboration of mens’ blazers, polo tops and moto jackets in fine heritage fabrics. “Our mantra has always been ‘For the love of beautiful’, and we’re starting to tell that story more now,” he continues. “Relationships between the automotive and luxury sectors have existed for many years — just look at the Hermès trimming on some of the great classic cars from the 1950s and 1960s, or Sean Connery, as James Bond, immaculately tailored in a DB5. In its most luxurious form, the car is romantic.”
The collection — which also features padded jackets in Loro Piana’s storm system wool, formal shirts, chinos, flannel trousers and knitwear — bears little visible branding. A signature crosshatch on the inside of a blazer is the only indication of the collection’s provenance. Many customers are shrewd enough about style not to want a conspicuous car logo. The question remains, though: why would a customer choose clothing produced by a luxury car brand rather than a luxury tailor?
“They acknowledge our design expertise and trust us to produce beautiful clothing at the same level,” says Reichman. Indeed, why stop at clothing? Aston Martin also designed a 37ft powerboat last year and teamed up with G and G Business Developments in the guise of Aston Martin Residences to design a residential tower in Miami. After a huge investment push, Aston Martin reported record revenues of £593m last year, up 16 per cent on 2015, and expects sales of up to £815m this year and to return to profit in 2018 after six years in the red.
The Bentley Collection includes handmade sunglasses to golf clubs, fragrances, leather goods, candles and clothing. Furniture is marketed under Bentley Home. “We’re not trying to establish a fashion brand,” says Karin Schilcher, Bentley’s director of licensing and branding. The Bentley Collection as a whole is very important for Bentley as it supports customer acquisition, customer retention and it also generates revenue. Sales have grown significantly during the past two to three years.
Last October Bentley released an “iconic classics” capsule collection including cashmere scarves sourced from Inner Mongolia and made in Britain, a woman’s cashmere and wool poncho and his-and-hers leather jackets in soft lamb nappa. “When starting the design process for the leather jackets we wanted to complement the lifestyle of our customers,” says Schilcher. “For ladies, that meant an item that could be worn from day to night, over a white blouse and jeans or a black evening dress.” The Bentley branding is only “delicately visible”, adds Schilcher.
That both Bentley’s and Aston Martin’s collections are good shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s a synergy between fashion and car design. “Car designers learn about colour and material trends in fashion and this transfers back to the car interior as this knowledge base grows,” says Reichman.
Sometimes, these two design disciplines work hand in hand. The Italian carmaker Maserati offers interior styling packages by Ermenegildo Zegna in its new Levante SUV, incorporating natural Zegna mulberry silk inserts throughout, with an accompanying capsule collection. And Bugatti has injected as much horsepower into its menswear and womenswear collections as into its V8 16-cylinder engines.
However, carmakers need to tread carefully or risk having their brand image damaged by what is a peripheral part of the business. One way to mitigate this is to invest, rather than create. No one has done this better than Mercedes-Benz, a partner and sponsor to more than 60 international fashion platforms, including London Fashion Week.
“For more than 20 years we have been committed to the world of fashion through promoting creative and talented people,” says Michael Bock, Mercedes’ director of sport and lifestyle marketing. The German carmaker’s International Designer Exchange Program gives emerging designers access to its global platforms. It also supports the British Council and British Fashion Council in hosting the International Fashion Showcase at London Fashion Week.
Perhaps this proliferation of carmaker to lifestyle brand will be seen in time as the automobile industry’s “peak romance” in light of the approaching electric age and driverless vehicles. Somehow, its hard to imagine a silent, lithium-ion-powered meeting room on wheels inspiring the same stylistic desires as a Bugatti Chiron. Then again, the 1950s greasers would never have conceived that one day they’d be wearing corduroy and doing the school run in a Plymouth Valiant.