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The case of the missing logo

Forget labels. The fashion elite turn to 'stealth wealth.'


(Illustration/Jason Unger Photo)

For as long as she can remember, Jessica Lennon coveted a Louis Vuitton "Speedy" handbag. When she was finally able to get her hands on one, she wanted to shout it from the rooftops. However, instead of buying the brand's most distinctive monogram-splashed bag, she opted for a less obvious one with an almost invisible logo.

"I feel more unique than every other fashionista carrying bags with the `LV' logos all over them," said Lennon, a 22-year-old ``alpha shopper" from New York. "But at the same time, when I'm walking down the street, everyone still knows my bag is a real Louis Vuitton."

Everyone "in the know," that is.

Today the cachet of owning a luxury brand no longer comes from signature logos but by being able to identify signature designer details -- whether it's the precious metal on a handbag, the lush fabric of a dress, or the sole color of a shoe, fashion insiders say. The premise here, they say, is that if you're truly among the fashion elite you don't need labels or logos to showcase your style and wealth. The new mantra is: If you've got it -- don't flaunt it.

"Wearing designer logos has always been less about personal style than it is about letting other people know that you belong to an elite group," said Ravi Dhar, a professor of marketing at Yale University.

Since luxury brands -- and counterfeit versions of them -- have become more accessible to the masses, fashion-forward folks are sporting their designer looks more stealthily to distinguish themselves from the logo-besotted mainstream, he said.

But just because these styles aren't ``in-your-face" does not mean the drive for luxury or status has lessened, Dhar said. ``It's the same thing at play here. It's `stealth wealth.' It's showing off by not showing off," he said.

Dhar said trendsetters with means are turning to uber-premium designers like Bottega Veneta and Hermes whose styles are not as readily identifiable, or as easily counterfeited, as popular designers such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Burberry. Other fashionistas, regardless of income, are opting for the more understated styles offered by their favorite designers. Often, these stealthier styles are only detectable to those who religiously follow fashion. And that's the whole point.

The perception here is that logo-splashed apparel and accessories have become so ubiquitous that they've created an environment where if everyone has them you are no longer considered part of the elite.

For instance, Burberry's high-end customers in the United Kingdom began shunning the brand's signature plaid last year after it became popular with a subculture of society -- British soccer thugs nicknamed ``the Chavs." Burberry's more traditional customers didn't want to be associated with them, so the company began downplaying its trademark plaid and offering subtler styles.

This countertrend of ``stealth wealth" was born of a similar sentiment, said Dhar. In a luxury-saturated world where anyone can buy counterfeit purses at neighborhood ``purse parties" or same-season copies of designs from Marc Jacobs and Chloe on eBay, it's become so easy to ``dress the part" that dressing the part no longer sets you apart.

``Living in a college town I see so many coeds sporting Prada bags, it certainly makes me wonder how many of them are real," said Lisa Johnson, 39, of Brookline. ``I won't buy a Prada bag for exactly that reason."

Johnson, a confirmed fashion zealot, said she's always practiced ``stealth wealth" up to a point as she's never been into the ``It" bags or ``It" shoes of the moment.

She said she takes pride in her Elie Tahari jacket and prefers logo-free handbags from Alexis Hudson or Michael Kors. ``They all have subtle labeling but are so well made and classic that I'll have them for years.

``Besides, anyone who truly knows fashion -- regardless of their income -- doesn't need a label or logo to spot a real classic -- whether it's an Hermes Birkin bag or the red sole of a Christian Louboutin heel," Johnson said.

More people are tuned into fashion these days because of a celebrity-obsessed culture that takes its wardrobe cues from award shows and entertainment rags, said Radley Cramer, the director of the fashion program at Marist College in New York.

``If you go back 200 years in history, the royals would set the fashion standard and it would take about 10 years for the trends to trickle down to the masses," he said. ``Today, celebrities are the new royalty and the trends take 10 minutes to trickle down. Therefore, the trendsetters out there are constantly reinventing themselves."

Cramer notes how the Emmy Awards in August were short on bling and big on understatement and that the mainstream is likely to follow suit. ``This year, the only obvious show of wealth on the red carpet came in the form of massive cocktail rings -- which are probably being mass-produced in warehouses all over the world as we speak," he said.

But by the time that trend arrives, the celebrities and fashion mavens will have moved up to something else that most people can't afford, he said.

GOING STEALTH? Will you still buy and wear expensive luxury goods from designers like Fendi, Gucci, and Burberry, who have very distinct logos and patterns? Tell us at www.boston.com/yourlife/fashion

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