Fast fashion: The rise of car brands in the world of retail

Luxury car manufacturers are becoming more involved in deriving profit from products other than vehicles.

Ferrari even has teddy bears in jackets with the company's logo. Lee Hoagland / The National
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The hand-finished paintwork is in the signature lustrous deep red, the chassis is carbon fibre with other parts in cutting-edge resins and acrylics. In fact, the prototype for this Ferrari 599 GTO took more than 3,500 hours to create. And at Dh27,680 this Prancing Horse comes cheap. There is, perhaps, just one problem: at just 60cm long, it is rather hard to get into.

It is, of course, a model of a Ferrari 599 GTO, just one of the latest raft of merchandise sold through the company's high-profile international franchise stores, making the car brand probably the world's most heavily licensed. In these stores, one can find Ferrari clothes and jewellery, bags, bikes and skis - and, for those who see this as a stretch, a mouse pad or pencil. Ferrari, meanwhile, made Dh216 million profit last year from such items - close to 20 per cent of its total income.

Small wonder, then, that the prestige car company is not alone. This summer, as part of a comeback that will also see the launch of five new models (full size) over the next few years, Lotus unveils its Heritage Collection of chic clothes and leather goods. It will open a flagship store in London by the end of the year and has a second range of what it calls "fan gear" in the pipeline. Maserati and Land Rover, meanwhile, are among brands now reviewing their product lines with a view to better servicing the demand for auto goods.

"These days, you now have to think of companies like Ferrari as being different brands for different audiences," argues Ferrari spokesperson Stephano Lai. "Often, the main product has a very limited customer base - those who can actually buy a Ferrari - but there are also millions who still love the product, the history, the sport and want to buy into it."

Indeed, the watch industry may have been among the first to realise the growing potency of car brands. Breitling's association with Bentley was followed by Jaeger-LeCoultre and Aston Martin, while Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Morgan and Mercedes were not far behind in getting involved.

But the market now scopes the suitably souped-up. This year Lamborghini and Asus launched the VX5 laptop, its one terabyte of solid storage, making it the largest available, and last year Audi became the first car manufacturer to show at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, with a 1:2 scale kids' version of its classic Type-C racing car.

The market also includes original oil paintings, such as those made by Cultworks for the likes of Alfa Romeo, and, all ironies aside, even wine, such as the fine and artfully designed bottles produced for Lancia, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Maserati from the Scrimaglio vineyard. "And people will buy our product rather than a competitor's wine because their names are on the label," notes Silva Balza, Scrimaglio's head of marketing.

But while such efforts may clearly provide a revenue stream ("it's good business, of course," notes Lai), don't they also risk demeaning the cars that make them possible? Rolls-Royce is not saying that, exactly; but its merchandise consists of either a memento of a visit to its headquarters in Goodwood, UK, or as an item bespoke made for one of its cars - luggage, a humidor or a picnic hamper, for example, "which anyone can buy, providing they buy the Phantom to go with it," quips its product manager, Nigel Wonnacott. "Merchandise is right for some car brands, but we wouldn't want to give the impression we'd taken the eye off the ball of actually making our cars by putting out lots of other products."

"Historically, the problem of car merchandise has been compounded by the fact that a lot of it has tended to scream about the cars too much, to be pretty cheap stuff and often not great quality - it's all polo shirts and caps," adds Antonio Marsocci, formerly of Armani and now Lotus's head of retail.

But the market, he stresses, is now changing. Increasingly, products are upmarket - in line with the brand values behind the cars - and produced in conjunction with experts in their field. Lotus knitwear, for example, is made with Lora Piana cashmere, while Ferrari, which is now also reviewing its merchandise with plans to offer less but better, teams up with the likes of Puma for sportswear, Tod's for shoes and Mattel for models. And the company's stores are deliberately located on more expensive shopping streets. "Licensing products is now very easy for some car brands to do and very hard to do properly," as Lai puts it.

Certainly the image of the market as being all keyrings and Biros is changing rapidly. According to Ivan Ferrari, director of esteemed pen-makers Ferrari da Varese, not all merchandise is necessarily bought by consumers who love the cars but cannot afford them.

After all, the innovative Bugatti Veyron pen, which his company devised for the car company last year, costs Dh55,000.

"And the fact is that we live in such a car-centric society that some car brands can now inspire a love that means people want to buy genuinely luxurious items around the core products," Ferrari says. "They are really luxury brands in their own right now, with the kind of aura that applies to other luxury brands."

Marsocci at Lotus - where the average spend per visit to Lotus's online shop is now Dh1,500 - agrees, arguing that, increasingly, merchandise lines are now developed as complete lifestyle brands because "prestige car brands are themselves lifestyle brands now - when you buy a car, you're buying into a certain set of attitudes that appeal. You're not buying the car just to go fast".

And, furthermore, while the backing of a big car name certainly puts a spin-off line near the front of the grid from the outset, such lifestyle products have the potential to appeal even to customers with little or no interest in the cars.

For one manufacturer, its line of clothing and accessories is absolutely integral to its branding and image. Harley-Davidson, the US motorcycle maker, has an extensive range of riding and lifestyle gear, and large portions of the company's showrooms are dedicated to the vast selection of jackets, boots, balaclavas and other clothing and accessories that are popular with the Harley crowd. Harley riders tend to buy into the "lifestyle" of the brand, as opposed to just motorcycling in general, and the merchandise is important in building the image of a leather-clad Harley rider - or for those who simply want to live the lifestyle without even getting a bike.

Perhaps one last reason underpins the merchandise explosion. As Lai puts it: "If we didn't do it, someone else would - and with an inferior product. It's why we work with partners; they too, then, have an interest in trying to control the flow of fakes and unlicensed products."

Not that unlicensed necessarily means it is not any good. Indeed, never mind the merchandise produced by the car companies themselves, an entire parallel market of products continues to grow too, offering ever more esoteric ways of tapping into car glamour. Take, for example, the British company GTO, which makes cuff links not from gold or platinum, but from what it calls the much more precious RFM, or Real Ferrari Metal, salvaged from vintage cars. Later this year, it will launch a similar line with the company behind Bluebird, of world land and water speed record fame. Then there is V12 Designs, a company that remodels Jaguar engines as coffee tables. Or US company Racechairs, makers of Dh30,000 executive chairs using authentic seats from the likes of Porsche and Lamborghini.

"Countless dollars have gone into ergonomics and engineering to make these seats some of the most comfortable you can sit in," says Ron Hansen, the company founder. "But the fact is that most people - okay, most men - just want to sit in them because they are part of sexy brands. And that works for some companies but not for others, of course.

"Put it this way, no one has asked for a Ford chair yet."