Watch Out For Licensed Goods And Diffusion Lines

March 21, 2011

Watch out for licensed goods and diffusion lines

As long as I’m offering thrifting pro tips, here’s another: watch out for licensed goods and diffusion lines.

Beginning with Pierre Cardin in the 1970s, and continuing through the 90s, many luxury brands licensed their names to lower-end manufacturers, and particularly menswear manufacturers. This allowed them to profit from their name recognition without having to run a complicated mass-market clothing business. Ultimately, though, it dramatically devalued these brands in the eyes of consumers.

One of the great innovations of the LVMH empire was new strategies in protecting these brands. Most luxury goods makers now offer “diffusion lines,” which are associated with the brand name but not identical. Think of Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Polo, Lauren and Chaps, for example. Lauren is a licensed, low-end brand. Chaps was sold off completely years ago and no longer even says Ralph Lauren on it. Each brand represents a different level of quality, and they’re all tightly controlled by the mothership. Ralph Lauren even has a line without its name on it – American Living – made just for a low end department store.

Bearing these arrangements in mind is essential when thrifting. Novice thrifters often crow about hauls like the one above, which unfortunately is nothing to crow about. In the 1970s and 80s, brands like Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Lanvin, Givenchy, and Yves Saint Laurent focused on high-end womens clothing, licensing their name to lousy menswear manufacturers who dragged them through the mud. If you find a find a piece with one of these brand names, give yourself a reality check. Is it really a quality piece?

Many of these brands have, over the last ten years or so, gotten their menswear acts together. The good stuff, though, remain extremely rare on thrift store racks. In my years of thrifting, I’ve found only one piece by those brands that was of worthwhile quality – a Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche blazer from the mid-2000s. It was beautiful, and the quality was apparent when I touched it. I’ve seen literally thousands of pieces by the brands I ennumerated that were utter crap.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider diffusion lines, as well. Ermenegildo Zegna Su Misura is one of the finest ready to wear clothing lines in the world. Z Zegna is a line you might consider buying if you found a suit on discount for $300. Lauren is a Mervyn’s brand, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label is worth the trip to Saks or Barney’s. It’s always important to do a reality check before you buy.

You’ve been warned.