Suede: Retail Store Naming

By Mark Skoultchi

November 6, 2008

I have a twin sister. Debbi. There she is in the photo! She loves clothes. So much so that she opened her own clothing store. Figuring she wouldn’t have much personal use for men’s suits and ties, she opened a high-end women’s boutique selling some of the most exclusive, sought after brands in fashion – mortgage your house kinda threads. I can’t afford anything in the place, but then again, I don’t look very good in baby doll dresses.

I remember a couple years ago when she first started to think of names for the store. Name development specialist that I am, I threw in some candidates. Got Caché? Arm and a Leg. Sky-high Fashion. Deb’s Duds, and others. Surprisingly, no winners. Instead, she was focused on the name “Suede”. I remember asking, well, are you gonna carry much suede in the store? If not, that name is probably misleading. And then my sister, my smarter half, proceeded to lesson me in the business of naming. Mark (she said) – the word evokes the kind of associations I want people to have with my store. It sounds rich, luxurious, and sophisticated. It’s just one syllable and I think most people know how to spell the word. And just saying it makes you want to try something on!

Okay, I get that. But (I countered), don’t you think because suede is a fabric that manufacturers use to make, um, clothing, that people could get the wrong idea about your, um, inventory? Wouldn’t another word with the same or similar associations, perhaps borrowed from another industry, make more sense? I mean, if you can avoid the possibility of confusion, don’t you want to?

Silence. Silence. Silence. And then she ended the conversation like she ends most of our sibling disagreements: with a “no”. Of course she continued the lesson though. Silly brother, she said in the most patronizing tone (and I’m older by 9 minutes – the nerve!). I don’t have aspirations of going national! I’d be happy with one, maybe two (okay, three) stores in Westchester County, New York. This is a relatively small community, and my store’s success will be driven by word-of-mouth and repeat customers. Sure, the name presents an initial hurdle (more like a detour sign, Deb), but I think over time my customers will forget what the name implies about my inventory and focus on all those wonderful, rich associations that suede evokes!

Of course I offered her a job at Catchword on the spot. Okay, I didn’t, but she was pretty convincing, and I was impressed that she had given the name so much thought. She’s been in business now for over two years and the store was voted best new women’s boutique in Westchester in 2007 (paaaa-lugggg).

So it would seem the name hasn’t “ruined the outfit”, but I’m inclined to think her success has more to do with her taste in clothing than her naming savvy. In my opinion, even if you don’t aspire to global retail dominance, it makes sense to lead with a name with as few faux pas’ as possible. Suede does evoke wonderful associations, but it’s too suggestive of a specific type of clothing product (one which is scarcely found in the store). It’s misleading, and if the store’s focus or Deb’s aspirations for growth change (it may be helpful to know that my sister rearranges her living room on a near weekly basis) the name could pigeonhole her, or just become an unnecessary drag. I’m ecstatic for her success (no one deserves it more), and I think the name succeeds on numerous levels. I just wish it succeeded on all levels.

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