The Green Room
I think this picture pretty much sums up what went through my mind when I read the words "Gucci" and "Westminster Abbey" paired in the same sentence. Surely not... and yet... there is something so inherently contrasting and contrived about he combination, that it actually transcends any kind of value judgement, rather like Dave Grohl in an Abba T-Shirt, or Metallica in Brioni Tuxedos. Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele, the wunderkind sorcerers apprentice, is, together with visionary CEO Marco Bizarri, turning the business around, by trusting to instinct, flair and throwing caution to the wind. The coup of landing the location, far out-cooling resort shows in Rio by LV, Havana by Chanel or Naples in the case of D&G, is surpassed only by the continuation of bold, brash, till kerchinging collections. Who can deny the logic ?
So is "doing it differently", something one would naturally expect from fashion of all industries, likely to become the new normal ? Change oddly enough is represents anathema to the logic and process necessary to keep many Maisons on course, and is firmly restricted to collections, runway shows and the minor variations on a theme performed by the go-to photographers. Without question, pure creativity, like pure fire, has to be contained in a sense, to keep the flame high, without becoming the cause of spontaneous self-combustion. How much is enough, and what is too much? Once again, we come up against the age old balancing trick, of finding the right path between art and commerce.
Nick Knight, with his truly unique Showstudio has always been in the vanguard of art media pioneers. Labelled as a photographer, which he is first and foremost, Nick Knight is also a relentless explorer of new creative continents, beyond the drop off feared by fashion's flat-earth brigade. His forays into the unmapped minefields of digital no-man's land, show the courage and the true depth of innovation that will always single to his work as art beyond commerce. His latest work with the equally ubiquitous Bjork seen below, only serves to confirm the status of both, as unfettered, pure artists.
All well and good, but the fashion business cannot thrive on dreams alone, and there is the not so small matter of bottom line to preoccupy CEOs, CFOs and COOs on a daily basis. How is the elixir of eternal profit, prepared by Creative Directors best delivered to the market place in order to nourish the bank balance ?
Here we come back to communication; the first budget to be cut when there's a pinch, but the only true means to actually engage with your customers, rather than fussing awkwardly around your Icon wall, and hoping upon hope, to hear the doorman utter "good morning" as he ushers in a customer. And whilst the flourishes evidenced above are outstanding in their ability to draw attention, there is still the matter "engagement", rather that "announcement" to be considered, and here the rule book seems to have gone out of the window.
The arrival of Stuart Vevers (curiously enough graduated from the University of Westminster) at Coach, has seen the turnaround of the American leatherwood giant. A fearless creative approach, combined with savvy harnessing of American cultural icons such as Mickey Mouse, and US Baseball franchises, is helping Coach not only to redefine modern luxury, but also to extend the brand's influence worldwide, and most importantly of all, to turn a profit after years in the the doldrums. Thinking outside the proverbial box, is paying huge dividends.
As evidence of outside the box thinking goes, it doesn't get much more radical that the recent appointment of Carol Lim and Humberto Leon by Kenzo as joint Creative Directors. Hang on... they are not actually Designers... Well, that's as may be, but the talent they do have in unending supply, is the curiosity, the desire and energy, to never stop seeking touch-points with their customers, and never stop thrilling at the pleasure this bring to those customers. That fun element, is abundantly visible in the emerging Kenzo collections, where they are really shaking it up with campaigns and collaborations with the likes of Vans.
The story of retail success for Lim & Leon, begins with a fairy-tale story of how on a budget of $10,000, they began their own retail operation, Opening Ceremony, a themed boutique where the product on sale would vary from season to season, reflection the pair's passion for travel. Every so often they would feature items discovered and sourced from a new country visited; so it was that they pretty much discovered and loaded up the bandwagon with Havaianas universal best-selling flip-flops.
The concept of a retail outlet a place of ever changing style selections, moods and inspirations, as a place of artistic merit, theatre and experience, is of course nothing new. Way back when, Elio Fiorucci set up stores known as the Studio 54 of retail, An Aladdin's cave of ripped and embroidered denims, creating near hysteria among very young and trend conscious Milanese, before branching out around the world with his namesake brand. "An amusement park of novelties" as Fiorucci himself described the experience, which included also items gathered from his travel, kitsch, and Disney characters no less. Many enduring brands pull off the store experience extremely well. More sober and focused, but Ralph Lauren is just one example. The master of the art of combining product, ambient, art forms and customer engagement, is Armand Hadida, with his sublimely curated L'Eclaireur.
But the space is the space; consumers now track, surf and share their pleasures, depending on the appeal not just of the physical representation of the brand, but it's every manifestation, platform and happening. This diversity of touch-points, and the emotive chemistry which attracts individuals to brands, goes well beyond planting yet another campaign rattled off by a big name photographer, on the pages of vogue. Whilst this format is still relevant to a decreasing circle of uberlux brands, the on-going democratisation of fashion and luxury, together with the means by which we accept or deny their messaging in an insanely overexposed market, is down to personal connection. The connection I believe, reflects a different society, with different values. Those who are getting it right, are easing clear of the pack. Those who remain fossilised with hackneyed stock visual and PR pap, will drop behind the leaders. In this new world, contamination rules the roost, surprising and delighting your customers not just with collections, but with connections, is fundamental, and social media is the outright king (or queen).
Among the many artists who are making a name for themselves in this new world, I particularly like the work of Tyrone Lebon, who has craft himself a look which brands are adopting for what it is, an pursuing a line of experimental research and development, answering the call that comes from deep within himself. The results are original, striking, and wholly in tune zeitgeist in to the moment.
The rest of this campaign for Calvin Klein, jives to a street-cool mantra, and taps into not just popular cultural aesthetics, but also the outreach of the participants. Kendal Jenner, the model in the polaroid themed ad above, has 90 million followers across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook etc. Who wouldn't want to be #inhercalvins ?
What hope for the poor communications professionals in big companies with high ambition, even higher performance targets, but for the most part, dwindling sales figures ? How are they to stem the tide of falling figures, and the resulting cuts to the all important communication's budget ?
The answer of course, is that exclusive but elusive magic formula which rarely comes about unless as the fruit of one supremely clear thinking mind, shared and applied by talented people using their own skills and judgement to decline and disperse the message, as best benefitting the Brand.
The tools and the instruments available to achieve these aims, are the flora and the fauna of what was once a neatly arranged garden, where TV and Print were the king and queen of the summer ball. We all knew what to wear, how to behave and how to influence those who aspired to be a part of the glamorous life-style portrayed in our ads, and on the pages of our glossy magazines.
The arrival of internet, lobbed a grenade plumb into the centre of the front lawn, scattering the digital seeds of wild grasses and fruits, and spawning new hybrid creatures which have since devoured the native white peacocks of that once safe haven.
Business communications are now the jungle, where the rules we knew no longer apply. Fast growing creepers will carry a message or a brand-name across the entire landscape in a single season, smothering the boughs and branches of more established brands.
Whilst it is important to distinguish Fashion from Luxury in the context of this metaphor, the new nature of digital communication has democratised even the upper echelons price and exclusivity, making the means of communication, as varied and as delicate as the species which inhabit the ecosystem, a fundamental choice in terms of style and sensibility. This has always been the case, but now even more so.
What was once a neat rose-bed of options, is now a riot of flour shape and fragrance, and wining the attention of the customer has to be on a one-to-one basis. Our flower must be global, local and appeal directly to the individual.
The tools we have to accomplish this, are diverse, smart and engineered to generate hyperbole for KPIs, and affirmation of ROI. I have participated in meetings and heard an excruciating overuse of the term "experience" in relation to the dullest and least compelling messaging imaginable, simply because it is dressed up in tricksy digital bling.
But guys and gals....sorry you disappoint you; these offerings are NOT "experiences"; they are hollow and transparent attempts to push product directly into consumers faces, or through their cyber-letterboxes, which may well tick boxes in the course material you studied for your Digi-business MBAs, but sure as hell don't set pulses racing, or "share" buttons sharing.
Customer engagement relies on human emotion, and whilst "anger" qualifies, usually just after receiving the n'th e-card in a month, it's not really doing the trick. Emotion ranges from fun, love and generosity, to quirkier and darker areas of the human mind, but it does touch you in one way or another.
The best vehicles for these messages, remain without exception, music, film,and photographs, not necessarily featuring a car, a cell-phone, or a life-changing hand-bag.
Raw, faithful-to-life, geez-that-could-be-me storylines, sentiments and shared knowledge, will endear you to your desired audience, far more than terabytes of pixelated product animation.
I don't mean to beat up on the masters of coding and html, as these tools have a very very significant place in this new communications environment, people are people, not lab rats, and content needs a recipe to nourish, not a formula to feed saccharin addiction.
One flower - one bee !