I must have been about nine years old when I first experienced the thunderbolt power of branding. I can still remember the glossy red and yellow Chopper bike with its raised handlebars, small studded wheel at the front and bigger one at the back. From the three gears to the L-shaped high seat, to the brand name, Raleigh, spray-painted on the frame. It was the epitome of cool.
I wanted a Raleigh Chopper more than anything I'd ever wanted in my life. It was an all-consuming, all-obliterating desire that lasted for several years. I wasn't a spoilt kid or a brand snob (then). As the younger of two sisters and many cousins, all slightly older, hand-me-downs had done me proud. The Chopper changed everything. It came between my family and my friends. It even got me a detention at school for scratching "Raleigh" on my desk. No one in my family understood why I needed the Raleigh chopper so badly. (After all, it did cost three times as much as the nearest rival, Panther.)
My 10th birthday did indeed yield me a red Chopper, but there was nothing and everything wrong with it. It was a Panther, not a Raleigh. Brands still fascinate me. The way they sway our loyalty, sell us a dream and hold up a mirror to our times. So my ears pricked up last week as I listened to a radio programme where experts discussed the effect a threatened global recession would have on branding. In a difficult financial climate, the experts reckoned, brands that had a good core product/image with a loyal following could be "grown" into areas outside their fields. Licensing was another option.
Of course there is nothing new to this, particularly in fashion. The father of all modern branding and licensing was the legendary French designer Pierre Cardin, whose name is once again bleeping on the fashion radar thanks to a collaboration between the Paul & Joe designer Sophie Albou inspired by original Cardin designs Albou found among her own vast vintage collection. A men's shirt line not due to launch until next autumn also keeps cropping up on menswear blogs. You may or may not be familiar with the name. Perhaps you once owned a pair of Cardin sunglasses or a pen with the scrawly Cardin signature down the side. As well as kooky Sixties gear that clearly inspired the costumes for Star Trek, Pierre Cardin is most famous for being the first designer to license his name, not just in France but worldwide.
His believed his highly individual, colour-blocked, architectural style was so instantly recognisable it was possible to apply to almost anything. As well as creating luxurious ladieswear and menswear, Cardin, who trained with Christian Dior and Schiaparelli before founding his own haute couture fashion house, collaborated with perfume houses, watch companies, jewellers, car manufacturers, wallpaper and lighting interior giants and even put his name to household goods from frying pans to cutlery. His utopian vision, injecting high fashion into ordinary objects, irritated the sniffy French Chambre Syndicale, which expelled him for creating a ready-to-wear collection for the French store Printemps in 1959 (he was later reinstated). Undeterred, he took his brand to Japan, Hong Kong, China and Russia and became a superstar.
Today there are still 900 Pierre Cardin licensed products in 140 countries. In the meantime, Cardin, now a sprightly 86 and still overseeing his own Paris design studio and licence deals, is concentrating on his most ambitious branding project to date: a fashion village. He's been controversially buying up properties in the tiny French medieval village of Lacoste, perched on the same hill overlooking the valley of cherry trees where Peter Mayle wrote his bestselling book A Year in Provence.
Here, the Cardin name appears everywhere from bijoux shops, hotels and art galleries, to bread shops, building sites and even the local delivery van, which has upset artsy locals (including the actor John Malkovich). Nearby, in flashy St Tropez, the words "Pee-air Car-dain" whisper on the local wind, le Mistral. Moored near those floating palaces owned P Diddy or Roman Abramovich floats Cardin's 4.6-metre fibre glass "pod", which looks like something out of a James Bond movie and is currently considered the epitome of cool on the Riviera.
As for the bike? I never did get my Raleigh Chopper.