This is Your Brain on Prada

November 7th, 2011 LIKE WHAT YOU READ? SHARE IT!

Prada or Primark?  Halston or H&M?  Why are so many of us prepared to pay a premium for luxury fashion?  The answer might be all in your head…

Designer fashion lovers rejoice!  Prada really does light up our lives – or at least part of our brains.

In a BBC special on Superbrands, neuroscientist Professor Gemma Calvert, says: “It’s clear that brands do really work on our brain and change our perceptions of reality.”

Professor Calvert used an MRI scanner to analyze the brain responses of a designer fashion-lover while the subject viewed images of handbags.  The £15 handbags from Tesco and Primark did not register any out of the ordinary brain response.

But the luxury handbags – including Prada, Gucci and Dior – lit up the pleasure center of the woman’s brain, the area linked with craving, addiction and reward.


Why are we so excited by high-value objects anyway?

Ted Polhemus, style anthropologist and author, suggests items (like expensive handbags) are identifiers that help to define our ‘style tribes’:

‘these are precisely the kinds of things which people use everyday to differentiate themselves from the mass and at the same time to signal their affiliations with ‘Our Kind Of People’.

By expressing ourselves stylistically with the ‘right’ clothes and accessories, we symbolically express ‘who we are, and where we’re at,’ Polhemus adds.


So Prada, (or any other designer brand), signifies where I fit in, or aspire to fit in?

Essentially, yes.  We want to wear the right things to ‘fit in’, but we also want to look slightly better (or different) than others in our group.  That’s why some of us opt for high-value labels.

Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, psychologist, blogger and author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You, says:

‘In the modern world, we no longer establish ourselves in the hierarchy of our outgroup and ingroup through hunting, symbolic tribal wear, ability to foster many offspring, etc.

We find a higher place in the hierarchy by accessing the associations we have created through classical conditioning to define success.  Although money has no inherent meaning, we have learned to associate it with success.

Wearing high-value designer items makes us feel successful, thus heightening our place in the hierarchy within our group and in society at large.

When observers viewing designer bags experience increased brain activity, it is not the bag they crave, but the associations with the bag…a place at the top of the hierarchy.’



Fascinating. But can’t I save a bundle, and just buy fake Prada?

It’s not that straightforward.  The value of the Prada handbag (or the Rolex, or whatever the designer item) has nothing to do with its function.

Jonah Lehrer, contributing editor of Wired magazine says ‘Instead, it depends on the intact authenticity of the brand.’

Wearing fake designer products don’t give you the expected ego boost, says Roger Dooley, blogger and author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing.

In fact, Dooley refers to research which shows that wearing designer look-a-likes actually reduced self-esteem.


Dodgy & Gabbana?

On holiday this summer, I checked out a stall selling handbags and leather goods, most of which were designer knock-offs.

Amongst the shelves of Dior and D&G, a salesman saw me inspecting a fake Bottega Veneta intrecciato handbag.  The genuine article retails for £1,440 on Net-a-Porter.  The kiosk knockoff was £350.

In fairness, the fake was beautifully crafted from genuine, butter-soft leather (hence the still-hefty price).  The bag was, in fact, a dead ringer for the real Bottega.

The salesman’s pitch?  ‘Genuine Bottega Veneta never displays a logo on the outside anyway.  No one would know.’


I would know.  And every time I got a compliment from an observer, would I feel fabulous or phony?

The authenticity of products from brands we admire clearly do impact our self-image.

For label-lovers amongst us, wearing real designer fashion might signify that “you’ve arrived”.  It might even light up your life (and indeed parts of your brain).


But the real takeaway is this:

By wearing authentic fashion brands we respect, we align our sartorial choices with how we want to be perceived (stylish, affluent, individual, and so forth) within our ingroup or style tribe.

Wanting to distinguish ourselves within those groups – be they friends, colleagues, family, associates – isn’t necessarily about coming across as better, richer or more fashionable.

It’s also about being yourself; about expressing authenticity.

And if we feel authentic within ourselves – enhanced by the fashion choices we make – ‘we’ll convey that feeling to those around us’, Roger Dooley adds.

That’s how you truly light up a room, in Prada, Primark, or anything in between.


What about you?  Is this YOUR brain on labels?

Forget the neuroscience for a minute – how do designer brands make you feel?

Seeking more? Let’s get you there.

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“Transformational, life-enhancing stuff.” Joanna Chin, COO, Langland