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A Designer Name - If It Sells Clothes,Why Not Paint, Too?

Inside a paint store on Boston's upscale Newbury Street, a display of glossy brochures and rainbow-hued paint chips introduces customers to the latest in snob-appeal: the Ralph Lauren Paint Collection. Launched with ads in slick magazines, the line features nearly 200 colors in five "lifestyle" categories.

Move over, Benjamin Moore. Make room for designer paints. Mr. Lauren has even thoughtfully provided a collection of "custom-designed" paintbrushes with "specially blended bristles, stainless-steel ferrules, and sculpted wooden handles." After all, what self-respecting status seeker wants to use just any old brush to apply such a classy product?

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Designer semi-gloss is probably an idea whose time has come. As celebrities and athletes diversify their business ventures, they update a time-worn phrase: You can never be too rich or too thin - or have too many licensing agreements. Think of Elizabeth Taylor, now promoting her third perfume, Passion. Think of Sophia Loren in years past, putting her name on eyeglass frames. And think of TV host Kathie Lee Gifford, whose signature line of clothing reportedly grosses $200 million a year at Wal-Mart.

Designer paint may be the subtlest form of status-symbol snobbery. Unlike the labels and logos that trumpet designers' names on clothes or accessories, a paint job carries no signature. One can't expect friends to walk into a freshly decorated room and gush, "Ooh, Ralph Lauren matte finish! Sneaker White, right? Really classy." Still, a homeowner can rest secure, knowing that this paint "sets a mood ... and heralds a new dimension of design," as a Ralph Lauren brochure explains.

America may have been built on rugged individualism, but for late-20th-century Americans, a designer-label herd mentality prevails. The reasoning goes: If you buy the right name or initials and assemble the proper look, good taste will be yours.

For all the talk about the conservative 1990s that supposedly replaced the free-spending '80s, evidence abounds that there's no shortage of discretionary income for the "right" label. One manager at Bloomingdale's reports that Chanel cotton T-shirts, with a tiny logo of interlocking back-to-back C's stitched almost invisibly on the collar, "fly out of the store" at $500 each.

Yet the quest for borrowed status can get comical. Who but someone with Ralph Lauren's exalted name could get away with paint colors such as Elephant Herd, Reflecting Pool, Resort Sunrise, Courtyard Canopy, Harlow's Slip, Dinner Jacket, Director's Script, Storm Lightning, Rhino Tusk, Tribal Pottery, and Gazelle? His 32 shades of white include Starched Apron, Edwardian Linen, and Country Dairy.

What's in a name - the right name? Big money. The possibilities are endless. Already, Martha Stewart has a mail-order business called "Martha By Mail." Customers can order designer trowels and other garden implements fashioned in the best Martha tradition. For Martha wannabe hostesses, she offers beeswax candles and heirloom-quality cookie cutters.

Now that Madonna is pregnant, will she design a line of baby clothes? And if Ralph Lauren's paint succeeds, is it only a matter of time until Armani markets wallpaper - its designs tailored and understated, its price just $800 a roll?

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If Ralph Lauren can sell paint, why can't Benjamin Moore sell clothing? The timing could be right. In a display of reverse chic, middle-school boys in St. Petersburg, Fla., are turning industrial uniforms into trend-setting fashion. Last year they favored United States Postal Service uniforms. This year it's coveralls and used work shirts, preferably with a company name patch ("Exxon") above the pocket and oil stains intact. With the proper marketing, perhaps next year's fashion rage could be painters' overalls complete with Benjamin Moore paint splatters, available - for a price - at Bloomingdale's or Neiman Marcus.

Go for it, Ben.

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