A flagship is the lead ship in a fleet of vessels, a designation given on account of being either the largest, fastest, newest, most heavily armed or, for publicity purposes, the most well known. In military terms, it is a ship used by the commanding officer of a group of naval ships. The term originates from the custom of the commanding officer (usually, but not always, a flag officer) to fly a distinguishing flag.

Used in this way, "flagship" is fundamentally a temporary designation; the flagship is wherever the admiral is flying his flag. However, admirals have always needed additional facilities; a meeting room large enough to hold all the captains of the fleet, and a place for the admiral's staff to make plans and draw up orders.

In the age of sailing ships, the flagship was typically a first-rate; the aft of one of the three decks would become the admiral's quarters and staff offices. This can be seen today on HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, now at Portsmouth, England. HMS Victory still serves the Royal Navy today as the ceremonial flagship of the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command making her the oldest commissioned warship in service.

In the 20th century, ships became large enough that most types could accommodate commander and staff, and during World War II admirals would often prefer a faster ship over the largest one. Some larger ships may have a separate flag bridge for use by the admiral and his staff while the captain commanded from the main navigation bridge. Because its primary function is to coordinate a fleet, flagships are not necessarily more heavily armed or fortified than other ships. Increasing communications and computing requirements have resulted in the design of specialized command and control ships to serve as flagship.

Private ship

A private ship is a warship which has no flag officer on board, and thus is not a flagship.

Flagship in language

As with so many other naval terms, flagship has crossed over into common parlance, where it means the most important or leading member of a group. It has also come to be an adjective describing the most prominent or highly touted product, brand, location, or service among those offered by a company. It now has common derivations such as the "flagship brand" or "flagship product" of a manufacturing company or "flagship store" of a retail chain. Auto companies usually have a flagship in the form of their most important car. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is one example, and the Jaguar XJ is another.

Flagship stores

A flagship store, or simply a flagship, is a main store from a retailer designed to serve a mainstream of customers. Most noticeably, flagships are found in prominent shopping districts (e.g., Ginza, Madison Avenue, etc.) that are targets for a main set of worldwide high-income shoppers. Because of this, shopping at an upscale flagship is seen as high social/economic status. Flagships are, as well, larger in retail size (bigger than its retailer's outlets and in mall stores) and the most volumes in merchandise. These stores become a more preferred shopping destination for the retailers' goods. Flagships are meant to overshadow its sister stores in its area.

For example, the brand Abercrombie & Fitch holds 359 mall stores in the U.S. and operates two flagships in the country: one on Fifth Avenue and one at The Grove at Farmers Market to serve people on the east coast and the west coast of the U.S. (respectively). The brand also marked expansion into the United Kingdom with a flagship in Savile Row and will add stores around the flagship. Meanwhile, it is preparing to launch a flagship in Ginza to mark Asian expansion.

Many other upscale retailers operate flagships worldwide. This includes but is not limited to the following brands: Prada, Louis Vuitton, Polo Ralph Lauren (which claims its flagship in Tokyo, Japan to be a milestone for the brand), Dior, and The Apple Store among numerous others. The A&F brand, Hollister Co., is slated to open its first flagship by 2009.

Broadcast stations

A flagship station is the "home" station of a broadcast network (radio or TV). It can be the station that produces the largest amount of material for the network, or the station in the parent company's home city or both. The term dates back to the mid nineteen century years of broadcasting when the local stations themselves produced programs for the network, as PBS does today.

For example, the flagship stations of the ABC, NBC and CBS television networks (and ABC and CBS radio networks) are their owned and operated outlets in New York City. While a handful of PBS stations, including WGBH, KQED and WNET provide the lion's share of the web's programming, the TV industry has long given the "flagship" appellation to WNET, dating back to its years as the key outlet for PBS's predecessor, National Educational Television.

In sports broadcasting, the "flagship" is the sports team's primary station in the team's home market. For example, WGN radio and television are the flagships of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which also has an extensive radio network.


The term flagship is also used to describe the top or main vehicle manufactured by automotive marque. These vehicles are usually, but not always, the most expensive, prestigious and largest vehicles in the line-up.

While the flagship is always the most prestigious vehicle in a company's line-up, it may not always be the most expensive, or the largest. The Lincoln Town Car, for example, while considered the flagship of the Lincoln division, ranges roughly $6,000 below the Navigator in price. In the case of Cadillac the DTS flagship sedan is not only priced roughly $11,000 below the Escalade but it is also smaller, in terms of overall length and width, than the Escalade ESV.

However, the term is most often applied to sedans and usually only those manufactured luxury automobile marques.

University campuses

In the United States, state universities are often systems of numerous campuses in widely-separated locations. In this context, flagship can mean either the oldest campus in the system, or it can mean any of the larger and better-known campuses.

According to Robert Berdahl, former University of California, Berkeley chancellor, "In most cases, these institutions were the first public universities to be established in their states. Many of what we now call the flagship campuses were established in the extraordinary period of university building that took place in the United States in the roughly three decades from the mid-1850s to the mid-1880s. Many came into being after the Morrill Act of 1862 provided the federal grants of land to the states to establish public universities. Some states built two institutions, a land-grant college focused on agriculture and the "mechanical arts" as well as general education, and another more directed at classical education and the other professions."

Fulfilling the naval analogy, it is often (though not always) the site of the administrative headquarters for the system.

The phrase "flagship" came into existence in the 1950s when the Morrill Act schools were joined by newer campuses built in a wave of postwar expansion of state university system.

Berdahl commented on the prestige and elite status of flagship campuses in the following:

...those of us in "systems" of higher education are frequently actively discouraged from using the term "flagship" to refer to our campuses because it is seen as hurtful to the self-esteem of colleagues at other institutions in our systems. The use of the term is seen by some as elitist and boastful. It is viewed by many, in the context of the politics of higher education, as "politically incorrect." ... Only in the safe company of alumni is one permitted to use the term.
Nevertheless, it is common for state university officials to use the term "flagship" in official contexts, e.g. "As the system's flagship campus, University of Massachusetts Amherst draws from throughout the Commonwealth, the nation and the world; "It is a pleasure to report to the General Assembly on the accomplishments and initiatives of the State's Flagship University.


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