‘Not the Same, But Similar’: A Lesson Learned at My Local Dry Cleaners

Moroni, ’The Tailor'

Moroni, ’The Tailor'

I have always imagined that my life would be considerably enhanced by longer legs.

I’d acquire a dash of elegance, a certain swagger. I’d walk down the road with a more confident gait. I’d dance with more grace, jog with more poise. I’d all of a sudden look good in loose linen suits and loafers. And I’d enjoy curling up comfortably on the sofa, tucking my long legs beneath me. Everything would be in proportion. All would be well with the world.

I recently found myself trying on a new pair of jeans. Examining the available sizes, I noticed that they didn’t come any shorter than a 30’’ inside leg.  I was convinced that I couldn’t possibly reside on the absolute extreme of short legs. (I may have short legs, but I’m not a short person.) So I selected a 32’’ pair. I tried them on and took a brief glance at my reflection in the changing room mirror. On a cursory assessment, this pair seemed fine

‘Yes. They’re OK. Let’s buy and be gone.’

Back at home, in the privacy of my bedroom, the jeans gathered horribly round my ankles. I found myself examining their length in the wall mirror, trying to hike my belt further up my waist. When out and about I took to scrutinising the ankles of fellow pedestrians, assessing them for hangs, folds and crinkles. 

My concerns were confirmed. With the exception of a few East London hipsters, most people’s jeans stopped appropriately half way down their heels. When I did see someone with a similar ankle-gather to mine, they looked wretched - sort of juvenile and unkempt. 

I determined to have my jeans adjusted at the local dry cleaners. I was aware that this was no straightforward task as my mother had butchered several pairs of flairs when I was a kid – too much fabric left folded inside above the hem; no tight brown stitching to finish them off. 

Ali is a gentle Turkish chap whose English vocabulary is limited to those words he needs to sustain him in his work. Looking him straight in the eye, I said: 

Take up 2 inches, Ali? Is OK?’ 
‘Yes, is good.’
 
‘With brown stitching like this?’ 
He nodded. 
‘The same’,
 I said, pointing at the hem of the jeans.

‘No,’ he replied. ‘Not the same. But similar.’

Clearly Ali, though he had few English words, had learned that it was important never to promise the same. That was a claim that could come back to bite you.

Not the same. But similar.

Many’s the time in my advertising career that we were approached by Clients wanting the same. The same as Levi’s, or Boddingtons, or Audi. The same as the one we did for the UK market. The same as the mood edit. The same process, the same team, the same ad. The same as before. 

I confess I often found it easy to say: ‘Yes, of course. We’ll give you the same. No problem at all. We can do that.’ 

But I knew deep inside that you can’t deliver the same chemistry, the same magic, the same impact; at a different time, in a different place, on a different category.

Teams must find their own way of doing things. Sectors require their own language. Brands need their own signature style. And campaigns have to evolve and move on.

So we should all take a tip from Ali’s book. Never promise the same. It fool’s gold. All we can do is disappoint. 

But perhaps we can do something similar.

Ali did an excellent job on my jeans. I guess, if you look closely, you can tell that the stitching sits a little too far above the hem - just marginally. But then again, that’s what we had agreed: not the same, but similar.


'You always won every time you placed a bet.
You're still damn good, no one's gotten to you yet.
Every time they were sure they had you caught,
You were quicker than they thought.
You'd just turn your back and walk.

And you're still the same.
I caught up with you yesterday.
Moving game to game,
No one standing in your way.
Turning on the charm,
Long enough to get you by.
You're still the same,
You still aim high.’

Bob Seger, ‘Still the Same’ (Seger Robert Clark)

No. 252

‘Less But Better’: Dieter Rams Thinking Inside Out

Lange-Dieter-Rams_01.jpg

‘What is good design? Product design is the total configuration of a product: its form, colour, material, and construction. The product must serve its intended purpose efficiently.’
Dieter Rams

I recently saw a compelling BBC documentary about the product designer Dieter Rams (‘Rams: Principles of Good Design’).

In a long career Rams, who is 87, has overseen the creation of a phenomenal range of beautiful functionalist products for the consumer goods company Braun, and for the furniture brand Vitsœ. He has also lectured extensively on the nature of good design and its role in society. His work and principles have animated generations of designers, including Jonathan Ive at Apple.

'Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful.’

Dieter Rams was born in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1932. Inspired with a passion to make things by his carpenter grandfather, he studied architecture and interior decoration at Wiesbaden School of Art. In 1953 he got a job at an architecture practice in Frankfurt, and in 1955 he was recruited to Braun. He became the chief design officer in 1961, a role he retained until 1995.

'One of the most significant design principles is to omit the unimportant in order to emphasize the important.’

Dieter Rams ,  Braun T 41 long, midwave, and shortwave transistor radio , 1962

Dieter Rams, Braun T 41 long, midwave, and shortwave transistor radio, 1962

The Braun aesthetic was simple, minimal, elegant and unobtrusive. Rams and his colleagues designed products whose form was driven by their function - classics like the SK4 music center with its plexiglass lid (nicknamed ‘Snow White’s coffin’), the T41 radio with its speaker of circular dots, the T3 radio with its touch control dial, the T1000 portable radio with its built-in instruction manual. There were handsome blenders, graceful juicers and tasteful dryers; weighing scales, speakers and shavers; televisions, timepieces and table lighters; coffee machines, calculators, and camera flash units. Every product was honest, robust and durable; efficient, practical and responsible. Rams also worked in parallel at Vitsœ. In 1960 he designed the 606 Universal Shelving System, a track-based, wall-mounted storage scheme still in use today, and in 1962 he created the iconic 620 lounge chair.

Dieter Rams ,  Hans Gugelot  Radio-Phonograph (model SK 4/10)1956

Dieter Rams, Hans Gugelot Radio-Phonograph (model SK 4/10)1956

Rams’ design philosophy was rooted in people.

‘You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.’

His products were simple to understand and easy to use. There were clean lines and rounded edges; faces you could read and dials you wanted to touch. No element was too ostentatious, or too subtle. Everything was balanced and in proportion.

‘For design to be understood by everyone, it should be as simple as possible.’

Accordingly Rams was not keen on loud branding.

‘When you’re new some place and have to introduce yourself, or you enter a room and say ‘I’m so-and-so’, you don’t shout. Please, you should do it quietly.’

The man himself is modest and understated. He’s lived in the same house for 50 years and his only screen is a Braun TV from the ‘80s. In black tee shirt, bleached jeans and no socks, he prunes the trees in his Japanese garden. With white hair, tortoise shell glasses and thin lips, he sits at his desk typing.

'Question everything generally thought to be obvious.'

Dieter Rams ,  Dietrich Lubs Calculator (model ET 55)1980

Dieter Rams, Dietrich LubsCalculator (model ET 55)1980

There’s a rigour about Rams’ thinking from which we can all learn. He began every process with the fundamentals of function and utility; of materials and process. He designed from the inside out.

‘I want to start from the inside. Always from the inside to outside. And I have to do this with my thinking as well. From inside to outside.’

As much as Rams knew what he wanted, he knew what he didn’t want. He stripped away the superfluous, edited out the redundant. He disliked fuss, frills and flamboyance; design jokes and artful affectations.

‘I hate the term ‘beautification.’ We never just wanted to make something beautiful. We wanted to make things better.’

Although Rams was hugely influential, his way of working was not by any means the norm. Over the years he became frustrated at the way design was abused by commerce and misunderstood by popular culture.

‘Design has become a synonym for a backdrop, for beautiful appearance, for the stylish.’

Rams thought deeply about his profession and defined what he regarded as the 10 Principles of Good Design.

1. Good design is innovative
2. Good design makes a product useful
3. Good design is aesthetic
4. Good design makes a product understandable
5. Good design is unobtrusive
6. Good design is honest
7. Good design is long-lasting
8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail
9. Good design is environmentally-friendly
10. Good design is as little design as possible

Dieter Rams 620 Chair Programme manufactured by Vitsoe

Dieter Rams 620 Chair Programme manufactured by Vitsoe

You’ll notice that there’s a strong ethical tone to these Principles. Rams was serious about his craft and its place in the world. As far back as the 1970s he railed against built-in obsolescence and introduced the idea of sustainable development.

‘We have to get away from the ‘un-culture’ of abundance. Because there is no future with so many redundant things.’

Rams sometimes worried that he was part of the problem, but he always looked to produce products that had enduring utility.

606 Universal Shelving System -  Designed by Dieter Rams in 1960 and made by Vitsœ ever since.

606 Universal Shelving System - Designed by Dieter Rams in 1960 and made by Vitsœ ever since.

‘I find it better to improve things than to be constantly forced to come up with something new.’

These sentiments should give everyone working in the marketing and communication industries pause for thought. Are we responsible for creating desires and exciting appetites; for proliferating product launches and accelerating life cycles? Are we in part to blame for ‘the ’un-culture’ of abundance’?

‘The times of thoughtless design for thoughtless consumption are over.’

Rams summed up his design philosophy as ‘less but better.’ Perhaps these words could provide guidance for us all. Modern strategists need more focus and precision in the way we approach resources and materials, time and talent. We need to be more mindful of waste and more rigorous about objectives. 

Like Rams we need to think things through from the inside out. 
 

'When you're sitting on your own
And you feel the city life surround you.
And she's always on the phone,
But you just don't think that you can fight it.
Don't give up, don't give up, darling, on what you dream.
'Cause like the words here in this song,
We'll go on and on and on with our love.
Inside out, oh darling.
I want it to be so deep that you'll be turning me,
Inside out.’

Odyssey, ‘Inside Out’ (J Rae)

 No. 251

‘I Must Create a System or be Enslaved by Another Man’s’: The Visionary World of William Blake

William Blake  'Europe' Plate i: Frontispiece, 'The Ancient of Days'  1827 (?) © The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

William Blake 'Europe' Plate i: Frontispiece, 'The Ancient of Days' 1827 (?) © The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

‘The enquiry in England is not whether a man has talents and genius, but whether he is passive and polite as a virtuous ass, and obedient to noblemen’s opinions in arts and science.’
William Blake

I recently attended a fine exhibition of the art of William Blake (Tate Britain, London, until 2 February).

Welcome to a world of angels, snakes and devils; of gods, monsters and demons.  Welcome to bearded titans and long-locked maidens; to stooping figures in billowing robes making grand theatrical gestures. Here are muscled torsos and sinuous limbs; heroic figures wreathed in rays of light and clouds of smoke. Here’s Isaac Newton working with his compass, poor old Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon crawling on all fours. Here’s the ghost of a flea, and Urizen, the embodiment of Reason and Science, reaching down to measure the Earth – a futile endeavour.

Welcome to a world of myths, legends and fairies - where Biblical themes are intertwined with the mystical, and historical subjects are treated in mythical terms. Welcome to regret, shame, wrath and ire; to pestilence, plague, war and disaster. Welcome to the unique visionary world of William Blake, poet, painter and printmaker.

William Blake,   Nebuchadnezzar   1795–c.1805. Tate

William Blake, Nebuchadnezzar 1795–c.1805. Tate

‘The Corner of Broad Street weeps; Poland Street languishes
To Great Queen Street & Lincoln’s Inn, all is distress and woe.’

Blake was born in Soho in 1757, and for most of his life he lived and worked within 20 minutes’ walk of his first family home. The son of a Dissenter and hosier, he attended school until he was 10. His parents, recognising that he had some artistic talent, bought him classical prints and plaster casts to copy, and paid for him to have drawing lessons. At 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver and at 21 he enrolled to study art at the Royal Academy.

Blake’s training as an engraver sustained him throughout his life. He was employed to create illustrations by various publishers and sponsors, and for a short time he ran his own print shop. In 1788 he developed a new form of print-making, ‘relief etching’, a method that enabled him to combine text and images in colour. He used this process to produce most of his own books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. 

‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.’

These were times of radical thought and social upheaval. There were revolutions in France and America, wars raging across Europe. Blake himself was a profoundly independent spirit, a man who refused to conform to established tastes and traditions. He was deeply religious, but he objected to organised religion. He championed the imagination, but he was sceptical of science. He opposed slavery, tyranny and industrialisation. He was an avid proponent of free love. And he channelled all these beliefs and opinions into his poems, prints and personal mythology.

Blake Williams, 'Newton', 1795-c.1805. The Tate

Blake Williams, 'Newton', 1795-c.1805. The Tate

Sadly Blake’s unique talents were largely unrecognised in his lifetime. He rebelled against the fashionable styles taught at the Royal Academy and against its president, Joshua Reynolds. He was out of step with the artistic community, and looked down on the landscapes and portraiture that were financially successful at the time. He resented the commercial engraving work he depended on for income. He fell out with his partners and sponsors, and he didn’t sell many of his books. 

‘I am laid by in a corner as if I did not exist.’

In 1809 Blake organised an exhibition of his work at Broad Street, Soho, on the first floor of the family hosiery business. Very few members of the public turned up, and his one reviewer observed that the artist was ‘an unfortunate lunatic.’

What’s more, Blake always seemed to be getting into trouble. In 1780 he was caught up in the anti-Catholic Gordon riots, and that same year, while out on a sketching trip by the River Medway, he was arrested for spying. In 1803 he was taken into custody following an argument with a sailor.

His wife, Catherine, once complained: 

'I have very little of Mr Blake's company. He is always in Paradise.'

One can’t help concluding that, though supremely gifted, Blake was a difficult individual. 

So what are those of us working in the creative industries to make of William Blake? 

On the one hand, we must stand back and admire his individuality, his free-thinking, his radical vision. We must respect his single-mindedness and persistence in the face of setbacks and disappointments. 

On the other hand, it’s something of an indictment of the artistic community of Blake’s time that it couldn’t recognise the very special talent in its midst. We should always be on the lookout for misfits and malcontents who may in fact have phenomenal contributions to make. I also wonder whether Blake could have been somewhat more successful in his lifetime if only he’d been a little more diplomatic. Maybe he just needed a good Account Manager.

 

'He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with
grief. (Isaiah 53:3)
He gave his back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off
the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.' (Isaiah 50:6)

George Frideric Handel, 'He Was Despised' 

 

No. 250

Bing Crosby and The Intimacy of Crooning: Creative People Can Make Great Entrepreneurs

Bing_Crosby_1951.jpg

Bing Crosby was a revolutionary. 

Born in Takoma, Washington in 1903 and raised in Spokane in the same state, he embarked on a musical career in the 1920s when the convention amongst singers was to deploy a loud ‘belting’ sound. Performers like Al Jolson from the vaudeville tradition were ever mindful of the need to project their big, booming voices to the back seats of the theatre. 

Crosby was one of a new generation who embraced the recent technology of the condenser microphone. He regarded the microphone as his instrument. He leaned into it, caressed his notes and purred his lyrics. With the microphone he could bend melodies and twist phrases. He could be laid back and conversational, pleading and emotional. He could be intimate.

Though Crosby didn’t like the term, the new singing style was called ‘crooning.’ Some were critical of this fashionable approach. Cardinal O’Connell of Boston complained: 

‘Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…. No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes.’

Nonetheless, crooning was a hugely popular phenomenon. Ten of the Top 50 records of 1931 featured Crosby’s mellifluous bass-baritone. Crooning was informal, easygoing, casual. It seemed quintessentially modern and American. The key to its appeal resided in its intimacy. The crooner came across as someone who was in the room with you, sharing a joke or confiding a secret; as someone you knew. Fellow singer Dinah Shore observed: 

‘Bing Crosby sings like all people think they sing in the shower.’ 

Perhaps there’s something we in the field of commercial creativity could learn from Crosby. We tend to concentrate on the functional benefits of digital technology: we think of it in terms of enhanced data, distribution and targeting; of superior user interfaces, connectivity and customer journeys. Of course, technology delivers all these things. But we should not forget its considerable emotive power: technology can demolish distance and time; it can create closeness; it can make things more personal and private. Technology enables human intimacy. This is a precious thing.

Crosby went on to become the world’s first multi-media star. His success extended from live performance, to radio and recordings. He had an Oscar-winning film career and he later evolved into TV. 

‘Listen a lot and talk less. You can’t learn anything when you’re talking.’

Throughout his life Crosby was a natural innovator. When the record market was hit by the Depression of the 1930s, he agreed to take a royalty rather than the customary flat fee. In the 1940s he embraced magnetic tape and was the first major performer to pre-record his radio shows. With pre-recording he could control performance conditions and times; he could ad lib and edit out mistakes. And by pre-recording four shows in a week, he could also spend more time on the golf course. 

As his fortune increased, Crosby bought TV stations and recording studios. He financed the development of the video-tape. He invested in fast-freezing technology and became Chairman and lead promoter of Minute Maid orange juice.

We can learn a great deal from Crosby. He demonstrated that creative people should view technology, not as an enemy, but as an ally - something that inspires new approaches and opportunities; something that enables them to take control of their work and how it is received. And critically he demonstrated that creative people should regard entrepreneurism, not as an alien craft, but as a natural extension of their talents. Creatives should be at the heart of a thriving business, not at the margins of it.

Bing Crosby passed away in 1977, having completed a round of golf on a course outside Madrid. His last words were:

‘That was a great game of golf, fellas.’

Bing-Crosby.png

‘Oh, what eyes you have.
Oh, what lips you have.
Oh, what lovely features.
Talk about adorable creatures.
You have so many thrillables,
That I’m all out of syllables.
From the top of your head,
To the tip of your toes,
You’re marvellous.
Glorious, you are simply divine.
Top to tip, you’re tip top,
But to top it all, you’re mine.’

Bing Crosby, From the Top of Your Head (Mack Gordon, Harry Revel) from the film Two for Tonight (1935)

No. 249

The Bias Cut: Halston and the Perils of Brand Extension

Photography © Dogwoof

Photography © Dogwoof

‘I believe in our country, and I like America, and I want Americans to look good. And I’m an American designer and I want the opportunity to do it.’
Legendary US designer Halston, on signing a 5 year licensing deal with JC Penney

I recently saw a fascinating documentary about the American fashion legend, Halston (‘Halston' a film by Frédéric Tcheng). It’s the story of a designer who was instinctively in tune with his times, who rewrote the rule book, but who ultimately fell victim of his own success. It’s a story that teaches us a good deal about the perils of brand extension.

Roy Halston Frowick was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1932. Having developed an early interest in sewing, he moved to Chicago, found work as a window dresser and enrolled in a night course at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1953 he opened his own milliners business, which was quickly successful. Soon he was creating hats for the likes of Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson, Deborah Kerr and Hedda Hopper.

In 1957 Halston moved to New York where he was appointed head milliner for high-end department store Bergdorf Goodman. He gained wider celebrity by putting Jackie Kennedy in a pillbox hat for JFK’s 1961 inauguration. In 1968 he opened his first womenswear boutique on Madison Avenue.

‘I’m the all-time optimist and I like it right now.’

Halston in New York in 1980. Credit: SAUER Jean-Claude/Paris Match Archive/Paris Match via Getty Images

Halston in New York in 1980. Credit: SAUER Jean-Claude/Paris Match Archive/Paris Match via Getty Images

Halston’s style was right for the emancipated ‘70s. He was a minimalist and he began by stripping away what he saw as the unnecessary elements of female fashion: 

'All of the extra details that didn't work - bows that didn't tie, buttons that didn't button, zippers that didn't zip, wrap dresses that didn't wrap. I've always hated things that don't work.'

This resulted in clothes that were unstructured and unrestricted, relaxed and carefree - clothes more suited to times of liberation and social change.

Iman walks the runway in a Halston jersey dress in spring 1976, Pulse Magazine

Iman walks the runway in a Halston jersey dress in spring 1976, Pulse Magazine

‘He took away the cage, and he made things as though you didn’t really need the structure as much as you needed the woman.’
Pat Cleveland, Model, ‘Halston’

Halston favoured the bias cut: cutting cloth on the diagonal (at 45 degrees) rather than following the straight line of the weave. The technique caused the fabric to fall naturally over the body, creating sensuous curves and soft drapes. His clothes had a fluid functionality, elegance and ease. They were simple yet sophisticated, glamorous yet comfortable.

‘Fabric to Halston was like clay to a sculptor.’
Chris Royer, Model

Halston designed for the international jet-set, for professional women and the discotheque. He eroded the divide between womenswear and menswear, between night and day. He worked with soft silks, sequins and satin, with chiffon and ultra-suede. He produced hot pants and halter-tops; suits and shirtdresses; cutaways, kaftans and capes - all finished off with a flamboyant big belt.

‘You were free inside your clothes.’
Karen Bjornson, Model

Halston was a natural publicist. Subscribing to the view that ‘You’re only as good as who you dress,’ his boutique drew celebrity clients like Anjelica Huston, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli.

‘His clothes danced with you.’ 
Liza Minnelli 

Halston, bottom left, and models in his designs. Photographed by Duane Michals, Vogue , December 1, 1972

Halston, bottom left, and models in his designs. Photographed by Duane Michals,Vogue, December 1, 1972

Halston brought a sense of theatre to everything he did. He turned up at events accompanied by an array of his favourite models, the Halstonettes. He styled the 1972 Coty Awards as a talent show, climaxing with ex-Warhol actor Pat Ast emerging dramatically from a cake. In 1977 he threw a 30th birthday party for Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Sitting atop a white horse, she was led around the dance floor by a naked giant covered in gold glitter.

The Urge to Expand

Halston was driven by an ambition to move forward, to grow, to reach more people.

'I don’t quite know where I got my ambition but I have it. I go into things with an optimistic point of view and I look at it straight and try to make it the biggest and best success I can. But the thing that holds my interest always is MORE - what’s next, what’s going to be the next exciting thing?'

In 1973, in order to fund expansion, Halston sold his company to Norton Simon Inc, a conglomerate whose properties included Max Factor and Canada Dry. The deal afforded him huge financial backing and he remained principal designer with complete creative control.

Norton Simon felt they were buying instant access to fashion credibility.

‘We wanted a top perfume and he was the hottest thing around. I just wanted to buy the whole thing. Just to have him on board for his general knowledge of panache.’
David Mahony, President, Norton Simon Inc

The auspices seemed good, and Halston dealt confidently with anyone querying the wisdom of the sale. 

‘It’s rather like growing a tree. Everyone thinks that you’re an overnight success. I’ve worked very hard for 20 years, and you know it’s just a further extension of it. It’s another branch. And they all help each other in a curious way.’


The Honeymoon

In the early years the new corporate partnership went incredibly well.

At the legendary Battle of Versailles Fashion Show of 1973 Halston’s presentation, fronted by Liza Minelli and making extensive use of black models, put America at the forefront of the global fashion industry.

‘All that energy and that joy and that wonder and that curiosity. Well, that is America!’
Liza Minnelli

In 1975 Max Factor released Halston's first branded fragrance for women. With its distinctive teardrop bottle design by Elsa Peretti it was an immediate success.

Halston expanded his line to include menswear and cosmetics, homeware and handbags, shoes and sunglasses, luggage and lingerie. He designed the uniforms for the 1976 US Olympic team, for Braniff Airways and Avis, for the Martha Graham Dance Company and the US Girl Scouts. He created the gold outfits for Sly Stone’s 1974 wedding at Madison Square Garden.

Indeed everything Halston touched turned to gold. In 1978 he moved his headquarters to the 21st floor of Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue. The offices were adorned in white orchids and every wall was covered floor-to-ceiling in mirrored glass. 

"Halstonettes" Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn and Karen Bjornson in 1980 - Photo, Dustin Pittman

"Halstonettes" Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn and Karen Bjornson in 1980 - Photo, Dustin Pittman

The Cultural Tension

However, there were inevitably tensions between the corporate owners and the high-end fashion house. Prior to the launch of Halston’s fragrance, Max Factor executives complained about a bottle that couldn’t be filled from the top and branding that was limited to a ribbon round the pack.

In 1982 Halston signed a 5 year licensing deal with JC Penney, the archetypal mainstream department store. Halston was typically bullish about the move.

‘It’s really the third stage of my career. The first being in the millinery business, and then in fancy clothes and dressing all the stars… and now a larger public - dressing America really.’

The media talked about Halston moving ‘from class to mass.’ The President of Bergdorf Goodman deemed this a brand stretch too far and immediately delisted all Halston products from their stores.

Penney merchandisers began to complain that Halston’s working methods didn’t mesh well with their own.

‘He’s got to understand that we’ve got to commit like at least 8 months in advance. We need to get the approvals and the go-aheads and the concepts. But he’s so involved with everything that…the label took him months.’
JC Penney Merchandiser

The Troubled Genius

Halston was committed to retaining complete creative control as his business expanded. He refused to delegate.

‘I must be a part of it. I’ve never ever just leant my name for a commercial business venture.’

On the face of it, this was a good thing as it sustained quality through growth. But it also put incredible pressure on the man himself. He was overworked and stressed, tired and prone to panic attacks. Increasingly he turned to drugs to sustain him. He became a bully in the workplace, an aloof presence behind his signature black sunglasses. Deadlines slipped. 

‘It’s like quicksand. If everyone around you is going down, you’re going to go down too.’
Pat Cleveland, Model

The Decline and Fall

In 1983 Norton Simon was sold to Esmark, an even bigger conglomerate that included Playtex. Senior executives were immediately concerned by the wasteful practices and creative extravagances at Halston.

‘I’m at the top and I don’t care what’s happening in the engine-room. I know the engine-room isn’t running. And it wasn’t. Turn this into a brand. Turn this into something we can handle and stop having it be this airy fairy kind of ‘work when I want to, I’m not inspired, I’m an artist’ kind of thing.’
Walter Bregman, Playtex President

Halston’s MD took to placing ‘to-do’ notes on his desk every day. The relationship deteriorated. Halston came into work later and later. When at length he talked about leaving Esmark and starting out on his own again, he was quickly put back in his box.

‘You don’t own your own name, pal. Read the small print. We own your name.’
Walter Bregman, Playtex President

By this time Halston’s star was on the wane. Soon he was eclipsed by Calvin Klein and a new generation in fashion. In 1984 Halston was locked out of Olympic Tower, and a junior designer was given his role as creative director. Esmark sold off his samples and wiped all the tapes of his shows.

Halston retired to San Francisco and became a recluse. In 1990 he died of AIDS-related lung cancer, one month short of his 58th birthday. It was a sad and untimely end for a hugely talented and influential man. 

We always think a strong brand can comfortably extend into other areas of life. And often it can. And it goes on extending. And on and on. Until the elastic snaps.

'I'm in with the "in” crowd.
I go where the "in" crowd goes.
I'm in with the "in” crowd.
And I know what the "in" crowd knows.

I'm in with the "in” crowd.
I know every latest dance.
When you're in with "in" crowd
It's easy to find romance.’

Bryan Ferry, ’The ‘’In’’ Crowd (B Page)

 

No. 248

Not Just Reality, But Truth: Giacometti and the Virtues of Style


Giacometti - Figure

Giacometti - Figure

'The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.'
Alberto Giacometti

On a recent trip to Vancouver I visited an exhibition of the work of Alberto Giacometti (Vancouver Art Gallery until 29 September). The show originates from the collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury held by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Inevitably I was drawn to Giacometti’s tall, slender bronze figures. Big feet, small heads, rough hewn and long limbed. Standing somber, pacing purposefully, stripped bare, isolated and alone. They seem to suggest the very essence of humanity - and after the Second World War they were taken to represent society’s existential crisis.

'When I make my drawings... the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness.’

I was also struck by Giacometti’s portraits. They sit square on, staring us straight in the eye. We can see how the artist has restlessly worked and reworked the image: the scratching and scraping; the narrowing focus on posture, frame, face and eyes; the struggle to capture an essence, an identity, a soul.

‘One day when I was trying to draw a girl, something struck me: suddenly I saw that the only thing that stayed alive was her gaze. The rest, the head which was turning into a skull, became more or less the skull of a dead person. The only difference between the dead and living is the gaze.’

Giacometti was notorious for refusing to accept that his portraits were ever finished. On one occasion the Sainsburys needed to get a work signed. But they were warned not to let the artist get his hands on the piece, as he’d never give it back.

Alberto Giacometti -  Diego Seated , 1948,  oil on canvas

Alberto Giacometti - Diego Seated, 1948,
oil on canvas

'That's the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.'

Perhaps there is something we can all learn here. We live in an era of pragmatism and practicality; of discipline around deadlines. We’re taught that ‘done is better than perfect’ and ‘perfect is the enemy of good’. But in the digital age a task is never complete, a goal never reached. Endings represent a submission, a letting go, a kind of complacency. Nowadays we must constantly improve, endlessly evolve. We shouldn’t be afraid to keep on, to persist in the quest for perfection.

'Failure is my best friend. If I succeeded, it would be like dying. Maybe worse.’

One section of the exhibition considers Giacometti’s sources and influences. In the 1920s he studied classical sculpture in Paris, and he spent days in the city’s museums sketching and making notes. He was clearly inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Roman and West African art.

‘Have you ever noticed that the truer a work is the more stylized it is? That seems strange, because style certainly does not conform to the reality of appearances, and yet the heads that come closest to resembling people I see on the street are those that are the least naturalistic – the sculptures of the Egyptians, the Chinese, the archaic Greeks and the Sumerians.’

Many years ago, on a visit to Athens, I came across the Museum of Cycladic Art. I was bowled over by the elegantly reduced female figures, highly stylised in smooth white marble. Arms folded, flat faced and sharp nosed, they reach out to us across the centuries, cool and aloof, silent and knowing. Originating from a small group of Aegean islands in the second and third millennia BC, Cycladic figures are consistently cited as an inspiration for modern sculptors.

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And here they are again at a Giacometti exhibition on the other side of the world. The artist explained why he found them so compelling.

‘If I didn’t know that your skull had a certain depth, I couldn’t guess it. Therefore, if I made a sculpture of you absolutely as I perceive you, I would make a rather flat, scarcely modulated, sculpture that would be much closer to a Cycladic sculpture, which has a stylised look, than to a Rodin or Houdon, which has a realistic look.’

Giacometti regarded art as 'the residue of vision.’ It’s what’s left behind after flawed perception and fading memory have decayed and distorted the lived experience. Beyond reality there is truth.

Perhaps sometimes in the world of brands, communication and entertainment we strive too hard to reproduce reality, to reflect the world as it actually is. Giacometti suggests that we should set aside our crude attempts at naturalism; that rather we should reduce, condense and distil - and then embrace style, abstraction and individual interpretation.

All we have to do is take a leap.

'The more I work, the more I see things differently - that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.'



'So true, funny how it seems.
Always in time, but never in line for dreams.
Head over heels when toe to toe,
This is the sound of my soul.
This is the sound.
I bought a ticket to the world,
But now I've come back again.
Why do I find it hard to write the next line?
Oh, I want the truth to be said.
I know this much is true.
I know this much is true.’

Spandau Ballet, ‘True’ (G Kemp)

No. 247

Play for Today: The Answer To Your Future May Reside in Your Past

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There were some advantages to growing up in the era before multi-channel TV. Lack of choice corralled you into regularly watching shows about inventions, astronomy, sheep dog trials and show jumping. Back then it seemed perfectly ordinary for a teenager to be sat at home following a snooker game in black and white, estimating the value of an antique chaise longue, guessing the identity of a musical piece played on a soundless keyboard. It was a kind of forced serendipity. In the absence of videogames and the internet, in the era of unheated bedrooms, there was nothing else to do. Sometimes a narrow diet broadens the mind.

My father and I particularly enjoyed watching a BBC series of one-off dramas, ‘Play for Today’. The pieces considered contemporary British life, and were written by the great dramatists of the time – people like Alan Bleasdale, Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal and Dennis Potter. ‘Play for Today’ was a window into other people’s worlds. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ related the concerns of a Jewish lad growing up in North London; ‘The Black Stuff’ recounted the adventures of Liverpudlian tarmac layers during the recession; ‘Nuts in May’ told the tale of a nature-loving couple on a camping holiday.

‘Play for Today’ was not easy viewing. It consistently delivered arguments and upsets, temper tantrums and emotional outbursts. Here were families at war, relationships on the edge, jobs on the line.

One day, after a particularly eventful episode, I turned to my father and challenged him:

Look, Dad, I love ‘Play for Today’. But most people’s lives are really not this dramatic.’

As a suburban youth, growing up in a happy lower middle class home, I was under the impression that the majority of the population led rather ordinary, uncomplicated lives. I imagined my own unfolding in a simple and seamless way: go to university, get a job, get married, settle down, raise a family, take up gardening…

As I grew older I realised that life’s not like that. With every passing year you find that another illness or career dilemma, another financial challenge or brush with the law, another triumph or disaster, has affected your friends and family - and indeed yourself. Someone close has succumbed to teenage angst, twenty-something stress, a mid-life crisis, the softening of old age. Someone dear has been cursed by a tempestuous relationship, a torrid break-up; is haunted by missed opportunities, disappointed ambitions.

 

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In truth most people’s lives could provide the material for their very own ‘Play for Today’. And indeed, as I reflect on my own childhood, it probably wasn’t so ordinary after all. It explains a good deal about who I am now.

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 ‘Childhood is the bank balance of the writer.’
Graham Greene

It’s important to bear this in mind when considering your colleagues. You may regard them as robust, settled and steady. You may feel you’ve got a pretty good appreciation of what makes them tick. But, in my experience, individuals often conceal domestic concerns from the office. They often suppress anxieties, tensions and traumas that date back well before they arrived.

My old boss Nigel Bogle was a firm believer in brand archaeology pointing the way to future business success:

 ‘If you want to make a brand great again look at what made it great in the first place.’

I suspect this sentiment may be as true of people as it is of brands. If we know our colleagues’ personal narratives, their early struggles and experiences, we can better comprehend what motivates them and stands in their way; their enduring values and character. If we spend time properly listening to the dramas that propelled them through childhood, we’ll better understand the behaviour of their adult selves - and be better equipped to get the best out of them at work. The answer to our future often resides in our past.

So go on. Find a quiet moment, lean over to the person next to you, and gently enquire: 

‘Tell me about your childhood.’

 

'It's not a case of telling the truth.
Some lines just fit the situation.
Call me a liar,
You would anyway.

It's not a case of aiming to please.
You know you're always crying.
It's just your part
In the Play for Today.’

The Cure, 'Play for Today’ (L Tolhurst / M Hartley / R Smith / S Gallup)

 

No. 246

 

In Quiet Contemplation: ‘It Is in Silence that One Gets to Face Oneself’

Helene Schjerfbeck,  Self-Portrait, Black Background,  1915

Helene Schjerfbeck,Self-Portrait, Black Background, 1915

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (Royal Academy, London, until 27 October).

Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki in 1862. Her father was an office manager in the state railways. When at the age of 4 she fell down the stairs and broke her hip, she was given drawing materials to cheer her up. It soon became clear that she had a special talent, and at 11 she was sent to study art in Helsinki. In 1880 she moved to Paris, and she subsequently spent time in artists’ colonies at Pont Aven, Brittany and St Ives, Cornwall. 

Schjerfbeck began as a realist, and over the years her work embraced impressionism and abstraction. She painted still lifes and landscapes, rural views and domestic scenes. Yet one is most struck by her portraits.

Schjerfbeck’s subjects regard us over their shoulders. Then they turn away and look down. Sometimes they simply close their eyes. Her friend Maria attends to her book with her back to us. Her black-clad mother reads, sews and sits silently with her hands clasped in front of her. The seamstress and the schoolgirl are lost in private reflection. 

Occasionally the melancholy mood is lifted by an element of fashion. Schjerfbeck subscribed to Marie Claire magazine and had an eye for a beret, a cloche hat, a bold shade of lipstick. 

From her early twenties until the end of her life, aged 83, Schjerfbeck painted raw, candid self-portraits. Hair neat, lips pursed, eyebrows arched. Angular features. A spot of rouge on her cheeks. The portraits become progressively more pared back, more abstract and anguished. Youth fades, skin pales, colours recede, shadows fall. Finally she faces death, gaunt and alone.

One leaves the Schjerfbeck exhibition haunted by a sense of sadness. She was an artist of introspection; of quiet rooms and muted colours; of silence and stillness.

When I was at college I recall a visit from my friend Catrin’s parents. I was babbling away, filling the awkward silence with inconsequential nonsense - as is my wont. At length Cat’s father addressed me in somewhat severe Welsh tones:

‘It is in silence that one gets to face oneself.’

These words stuck with me.

Helene Schjerfbeck,  Maria (detail),  1909

Helene Schjerfbeck,Maria (detail), 1909

I have generally subscribed to the view that an active mind needs constant stimulus; that it must process that stimulus into opinions and beliefs; that we must always be looking, listening and learning, deliberating, debating and discussing. But there’s a limit. As I’ve aged I’ve realised that it’s also important to stop and catch one’s breath; to liberate the brain from the trivial and unimportant; to pause and take stock. I have found it helpful when on the verge of sleep, on the edge of consciousness, to review the day and reflect on tomorrow. I guess I’ve gradually learned to appreciate absence and stillness.

‘Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.’

Fate dealt Schjerfbeck a cruel hand. Her childhood accident left her with a lifelong limp and she suffered poor health. She was unlucky in love. Financially challenged, she spent many years nursing her mother in a small town north of Helsinki. She died in a sanatorium in Sweden in 1946. Nonetheless, one can’t help thinking that, though she had a tough life, she probably left it with profound knowledge and understanding, and with a strong sense of self. Perhaps that is enough.

Helene Schjerfbeck - The School Girl II (1908)

Helene Schjerfbeck - The School Girl II (1908)

'Quiet nights of quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar,
Floating on the silence that surrounds us.
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams,
And the window that looks out on Corcovado. Oh how lovely.’

Astrud Gilberto, ‘Quiet Nights (Corcovado)’ (A C Jobim / G Lees)

No. 245

‘You Got to Have Vision to See’: Tennessee Williams and The Fugitive Kind

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‘This country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts, for each other. But now it’s sick with neon, it’s broken out sick with neon, like most other places.’
Carol Cutrere, ‘Orpheus Descending’

I recently saw a fine production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Orpheus Descending’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London). This 1957 play meant a good deal to Williams. It was a re-write of his 1940 piece, ‘Battle of Angels,’ which was his first work to be given a professional production. He also adapted it into the 1959 movie ‘The Fugitive Kind’, starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. (Brando’s performance earned him the first million-dollar contract for a single film.)

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a hot Southern stew of ‘memories and the loneliness of them’; of isolated strangers yearning for intimacy in a world of prejudice and bigotry. 

’Nobody ever gets to know no body! We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!’

Lady Torrance runs a small-town dry goods store and she busies herself attending to her narrow-minded, gossiping customers. Her tyrannical husband lies upstairs, unloved and dying. The local free-spirit, Carol Cutrere, who ‘has an odd, fugitive beauty,’ arrives to ruffle some feathers.

‘I’m an exhibitionist! I want to be noticed, seen, heard, felt! I want them to know I’m alive!’

Carol takes a shine to Val Xavier, a drifter who has recently arrived in town with little more than a snakeskin jacket and a guitar to his name.

‘I’d love to hold something the way you hold your guitar, that’s how I’d love to hold something, with such - tender protection!’

But Val has other things on his mind. Vowing to put the troubadour life behind him, he pitches for a job as Lady’s store clerk. Lady is initially sceptical.

Val: ‘I got nowhere to go.’
Lady: ‘Well, everyone’s got a problem and that’s yours.’

Gradually, however, Val charms Lady into giving him a chance. He’s a talkative, sensitive, self-assured young man, with a philosophical nature.

‘You know they’s a kind of bird that don’t have legs so it can’t light on nothing, but has to stay all its life on its wings in the sky?... They sleep on the wind and never light on this earth but one time when they die… I’d like to be one of those birds; they’s lots of people would like to be one of those birds and never be – corrupted!’

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a celebration of birds that can’t settle, that stay on the wing, cherishing their freedom; a celebration of misfits and malcontents, oddballs and outsiders; of artists and activists, musicians and immigrants; of ‘the ‘fugitive kind’.

In one scene, eccentric local artist, Vee Talbott, a woman of a nervous disposition, endeavors to explain to Val her impressionistic style of painting.

‘I paint a thing how I feel it instead of always the way it actually is. Appearances are misleading, nothing is what it looks like to the eyes. You got to have – vision – to see!’

This thought resonated with me. 

Professionally I was raised to follow the discipline of Vision, Strategy and Tactics: we should always set out with a clear, compelling Vision; Vision drives Strategy; Strategy drives Tactics; and everything else is just a distraction.

However, there’s something about the contemporary discourse that works against this approach. Whether one considers the field of politics or commerce, one cannot help noticing the absence of guiding Visions. Of course, a Vision Statement may exist on a website somewhere, in a Manifesto or Company Report perhaps, or in an arcane deck of charts. But rarely nowadays do you see clear evidence of Vision driving everyday behaviour and beliefs. 

We spend most of our time reacting to events and responding to circumstance. We duck and dive, nip and tuck. We get caught up in the petty and prosaic, the incidental and insignificant. The competitive storm, the relentless media scrutiny, the headlong tilt towards change; the urgency of now, the pressing need for immediate opinion and instant action – they all combine to drag the debate ineluctably down into Tactics. 

We may feel as though we’re actively engaged and urgently busy, as we expertly navigate our daily trials and tribulations. But as Vee Talbott knew, if we have no Vision, we just can’t see.

In the course of ‘Orpheus Descending’ the forces of small-town conservatism close in on Val. Inevitable really. And at the end of the play a mournful Carol is left in possession of his snakeskin jacket.

‘Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are the tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind.’


'But what I'd like to know
Is could a place like this exist so beautiful,
Or do we have to find our wings and fly away
To the vision in our mind?’

Stevie Wonder, ‘Visions’ (M Graves / L J Fiagbe)

 

No. 244

Are You Sitting Uncomfortably? The Healthy Scepticism of Felix Vallotton

Felix Vallotton - la loge de theatre (detail)

Felix Vallotton - la loge de theatre (detail)

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Swiss artist Felix Vallotton. (The Royal Academy, London, until 29 September, and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 29 October to 26 January.)

Vallotton was born into a puritanical protestant family in Lausanne in 1865. Aged 16 he settled in Paris, at first to study and then to practice art. In the 1890s he associated with the circle of artists known as the Nabis (Prophets), whose number included Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. They sought to convey emotion rather than just to record reality. They admired Japanese woodblock prints, and their work was characterised by flattened figures, strong outlines and bold colours; by empty spaces and decorative patterns.

Vallotton became a master of the art of woodcut and he was commissioned to produce illustrations for journals and newspapers, including the influential La Revue Blanche. 

Belle Epoque Paris was prosperous and dynamic, brimming with fashion, fun and creativity. It was the centre of the art world and a hub for scientific innovation. But it was also a hotbed of political unrest and social upheaval. Vallotton seems to have been both captivated by the capital’s boundless energy and conscious of the tensions that lay just beneath the surface. In his work he regarded French society with an amused but critical eye, satirising the customs and values of the bourgeoisie.

There’s a pervasive disquiet about Vallotton’s art. He seems uneasy about the relationships that are played out in the dim lamplight, in the shadows, behind closed doors; uneasy about the turbulence of city life, about the passions of the new consumer society, about the durability of the family unit. What hypocrisy remains unvoiced behind a conventional conservative façade? What secrets and lies lurk around the corner, along the corridor, or beneath the brim of an elegant hat? 

Félix Vallotton,  The Ball (Le Ballon),  1899

Félix Vallotton,The Ball (Le Ballon), 1899

They’re caressing fabrics at Le Bon Marche. They’re partying in the Latin Quarter. They’re rioting on the streets. The crowd runs for cover from the pouring rain. A smart-suited gentleman waits expectantly by the window. A desolate man weeps into his handkerchief as a woman looks impassively on. A couple embrace by the doorway to a claustrophobic interior. A darkness creeps across the pond in the garden. There’s a child chasing an orange ball, unaware of the looming shadows. There’s something missing in the linen closet. There’s a knife erect in the fruit loaf.

Félix Vallotton,  Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty ,  1885

Félix Vallotton,Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty , 1885

Everything seems slightly on edge, an intriguing, incomplete narrative, a pressure cooker about to explode. Vallotton ratchets up the tension with his terse, enigmatic titles: ‘The Lie,’ ‘The Money,’ ‘The Provincial,’ ‘The Extreme Measure.’ His work foreshadows Hopper and Hitchcock in its dark humour and unsettling air of menace. 

Ours is an industry of emotions and enthusiasms; of fashions and fads. So it serves us well to retain a healthy objectivity, a suspicion of success, a caution around modish ideas. Scepticism insures us against egotism. Paranoia inoculates us against complacency. 

As Nigel Bogle was wont to warn, even in the good years, ‘We’re three phone calls away from disaster.’

So don’t get sucked in. Better to keep a cool head than to drink the Kool-Aid. Let’s maintain our distance, keep a wary eye. And like Vallotton, let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

 

'She had a place in his life.
He never made her think twice.
As he rises to her apology,
Anybody else would surely know
He's watching her go.
But what a fool believes, he sees.’

The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’ (M McDonald, K Loggins)

 

No. 243