Archive for November, 2009

stores that survive

photos by Deidre Schoo for the New York Times

photos by Deidre Schoo for the New York Times

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Cathy Horyn wrore a story called “Yes, We’re Open” about five new fashion retailers that are swimming upstream against the recession. It’s an appropriate topic after Black Friday in the U.S. and the newly-minted Cyber Monday, which offers online retailers the chance to cash in on the holiday binge.

It seems the bruised North American economy has created a predictable pattern where stores close or lay off workers and strip down their inventories. “But nothing quite conveys the confusion and sense of retail sclerosis as the high-end ladies boutique, lights on and empty, its owner selling the same six fabulous designers as everyone else, the same droopy China-made knit that shouldn’t cost $600 but somehow does, and not a chance, barely a glimmer of hope, that enough customers will care to buy something,” writes Horyn.

At the same time, lower rents and longer leases can also help newcomers to open the doors and turn their visions into reality. In New York and its burroughs, stores like Against Nature, JF & Son, Metal and Thread, Self Edge and Victor Osborne are attracting loyal new customers — often with a carefully curated mix of handcrafted, bespoke, vintage and forward-thinking items. It’s small-scale shopping without escalators or loyalty cards.

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Certainly that’s nothing new, and the shift toward actually meeting the man or woman who stitches up your skirt has been gaining momentum for at least half a decade. But it’s still encouraging to read these retail profiles. According to Horyn, “beyond favorable rents, beyond an interest in traditional things, the new stores say a lot about the fashion world. That there is a disconnect between the customer and the people making clothes. That men have replaced women as informed, upward-moving shoppers. That designers will have to take control of how their clothes are produced.”

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Here in Vancouver, those words also ring true. Every day, I walk past a pair of gorgeous-but-empty boutiques that opened in the last calendar year. I’m waiting to see which one shuts down first — even though they’re a beautiful addition to the neighborhood. At the same time, some retailers struggle with crowd control on a busy Saturday afternoon. Stores like Gravity Pope and Plenty come to mind. They can’t keep people out if they try. So what’s the difference? In my opinion, the survivors have these attributes on their side:

scale — small is beautiful. We’re sick of big box, big budgets and overblown, anonymous corporate retailers. Stores like H&M and Topshop are still getting a pass on this rule, but even they’re capitalizing on collaborations with designers such as Sonia Rykiel, Comme des Garçons, Matthew Williamson and Viktor & Rolf.

relative value — buyers will shell out more cash for the cashmere scarf if it’s a lovingly hand-knit, one-of-a-kind piece of fashionable art. Then the extra cost makes sense.

service — the owner who remembers your size and calls when something perfect arrives? That’s always been good business, but somehow it feels more meaningful today. Connections matter. Supporting small business is a social and political statement.

craftsmanship — who isn’t sick of hems that wait for the most inconvenient possible moment to unravel? Well-made products make sense. We’re seeing a long-overdue return to repairing things that were made right in the first place, and spending money on something that won’t be tossed in a month.

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posted 30 Nov 09 in: business, fashion, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

anton the great

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Ready for a treat on a dreary fall afternoon? Steer yourself over here and dive into the moody, gloomy, dirty glamour of Anton Corbijn. He’s the legendary Dutch-born photographer and film director who has shot some of the world’s most iconic musical acts, including U2, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Iggy Pop, Bjork, David Bowie, Miles Davis, Nirvana and R.E.M.

Depeche Mode was my first major band crush. Their edgy electro-synth sounds offered the perfect soundtrack for my teenage angst. But even then, I was awestruck by Corbijn’s videos for singles including Strangelove, Never Let Me Down Again, Behind the Wheel, and World in My Eyes. Music videos were just emerging as an art form, and MTV was almost garishly colourful — reflecting the bouncy, mainstream pop of the era. But Corbijn created fantasy worlds that were gritty, grainy and dark. His camera captured beauty edged with ugliness and more than a hint of subversion

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The men in Corbijn’s viewfinder are rock outlaws, all distressed leather and louche attitude. The women walk dogs in stilettos and skintight dresses with Eurotrash indifference. They function as props — lounging in lingerie on couches and pouting in doorways, nonchalantly aware that they’re being filmed right into history.

Corbijn’s images were a massive departure from the fresh-scrubbed acts of the ’80s, and he continues to produce some of the most breathtaking photography around. If you haven’t seen his 2007 film, Control, about Ian Curtis and the rise of Joy Division, you need to book the night off right now. I mean now.

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More than anything, the man is seriously prolific. Corbijn shot Echo and the Bunnymen in 1984 and still found time to tart up The Killers in 2008. He’s done stacks of books, major gallery exhibits, and I can only imgaine what new projects are rattling around in his creative mind.

Surfing through his website, I’m reminded that a creative life piles up day by day, project by project. When you stay on course, stay true to your influences, and work hard to hone your craft, the results can be extraordinary.

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posted 19 Nov 09 in: art, business, music. This post currently has 3 responses.

crushing creativity

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I just read an interesting article by Carlin Flora, called “Everyday Creativity,” in the December issue of Psychology Today.

It was rich with ideas I want to explore in future posts. But even before I flipped to the story,  Kaja Perina used her front-of-book editor’s note to explain “how to crush your last shard of creativity.” According to Perina, these are five “surefire tips to extinguish the creative spark:”

– Know exactly what you’re doing before you get started

– Be careful not to offend

– Get permission

– Run it by everyone first

– Criticize yourself at every step

All those saccharine motivational sayings (“leap and the net will appear!”) just make me snicker. But I’m ready to post this list right on my desk. There’s nothing like a set of rigid rules to awaken my inner rebel, and this is such a cheeky reminder of how to actually be creative.

Then there’s the deceptively simple concept of everyday creativity. Yes, the Sistine Chapel can steal your breath. Mozart’s Requiem routinely makes happy people weep. And I once lost a full half-hour in front of a de Kooning painting. But when people take everyday ideas, objects, sounds, spaces, events and ingredients and transform them into something better — something inspired and surprising — that’s the foundation of a creative life.

As Flora’s story argues, engaging in creative behavior makes people more dynamic, conscious, non-defensive, observant, collaborative, and brave. People who spend their days immersed in innovation know that creativity is less about divine intervention and more like working in a coal mine; you just have to show up and keep digging.

Would I post that on my desk? I’m not sure. But I do know it’s better than “shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

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posted 17 Nov 09 in: art, media. This post currently has 2 responses.

meet teresa smed

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If you’ve attended a fashion or handmade gift show in Vancouver, you always know when Teresa Smed is in the house. Women swarm her Dotted Loop booth five deep – making it nearly impossible to glimpse the deliciously tangled pieces she crafts from ribbons, charms, chains, pearls, feathers and found objects.

Fashion runs fast in Smed’s veins. As a student in Athens, Georgia, she developed a line of bags and clothing made from recycled vintage fabrics. She returned to the creative drawing board, however, after a house fire destroyed her collection and life as a single mom of two brought her back to Canada in 2003.

She took a jewellery class and quickly fell in love with the medium. On a road trip to Calgary, Smed stopped at an antique store that was shutting its doors. She glimpsed the shelves of glittering antique baubles and suddenly, Dotted Loop was born. “Instantly, my whole world came together,” says Smed. “I just knew that’s what I was meant to do. I bought the entire collection, came home and started taking it apart and making new stuff.”

That collection is long gone (save a few key pieces that adorn her home studio), and Smed has since burned through piles and piles of remixed and recycled treasures. Her work has been featured in Elle Canada, Fashion, Flare, the Georgia Straight, and sells at retail stores across Western Canada. Then there are those insatiably fashionable women (and men) who snap up her pieces at shows like Portobello West and One of a Kind. As Smed sums it up, “beauty does come from ashes and old can be made new again.”

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1. What fuels your work?

Antique and vintage jewellery. It’s unbelievable how inspirational it is. I’m also totally inspired by rock and roll. I just designed an entire collection around Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced album and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’m also really inspired by Gucci, Coco Chanel, and couture. Runway fashion is huge. I read Vogue religiously.

2. How do you organize the administrative parts of your business so you still have the time, energy and focus to practice your craft?

It’s really, really, really challenging. I spend so much time developing the business and building it and doing everything it takes. Little by little, I’m hiring people to help out, but I still do a lot of it myself. I have come to realize that I can’t make the same things more than once. Everything is one-of-a-kind, but the Glam Vintage Remix collection uses the same designs with different materials. So, outsourcing and having those re-created is a very good thing. It also helps me to stay focused on the more higher-end, wearable art pieces.

3. Is there an artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

I pick and choose, and lots of different people definitely inspire me. I’ve worked closely with Wardell Professional Development and gotten tons of advice – things like putting systems in place and outsourcing where you need to do so, plus organizing a business in a way that’s sustainable.

I often think about the woman who created Robeez shoes, Sandra Wilson. She’s a mom and she grew her business, but not too quickly. I also talk to lots of local artisans and I like to take a lot of people’s opinions into consideration. To me, that’s how you learn. I never want to have the perspective that I’ve got it all figured out. I always want to learn more.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

I sell wholesale to boutiques across Canada, I sell directly to consumers at markets and tradeshows, and I sell pieces directly from my website. I also donate to silent auctions and charities. Technically, I’m giving those pieces away, but I really feel it puts my name out there and brings in business.

I chose not to go on sites like Etsy. There’s some unique, amazing stuff, but there are also lots of people ripping each other off. I feel you can put yourself in a really vulnerable position, because there’s so much copycatting going on.

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5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

It’s split about 50 / 50 between wholesale and retail. I’m currently working to find ways to improve my online sales and I’m working with web developers to enhance search engine potential. That’s an area I’d like to maximize, but I need to get comfortable with updating the site all the time. It takes lots of work.

Press also brings a lot of traffic to my website. Whenever I’m featured in a magazine, my website sales usually spike for about two weeks.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

The wholesale side requires a lot less time and energy. You do need to follow up, but you just fill the wholesale order, people re-order again in 2-3 months, then you package it up and send it out. It’s not the same as having to be physically present at the shows, having a killer booth and chatting with people for four days straight. It also leverages the power of outsourcing those repeated designs.

7. What tools, money-making opportunities and ideas do you think most artists don’t fully exploit?

I invest a lot of time and energy and resources into marketing, and I think it really pays off. It’s so important. I have a graphic designer who has worked for me from the beginning and I have a publicist who does quarterly press releases. I have a professional photographer doing the photo shoots. I really want that area to be polished. I’m all about bootstrapping and pulling together friends and family to make things happen, but when it comes to marketing, I firmly believe in spending the time, the energy and the money it takes to make it super polished and to communicate what you’re doing.

Also, I don’t consider myself on the playing field with all the local jewellery designers in Vancouver. I consider myself on the playing field with Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. I want to be considered a high-end, fashion-forward jewllery designer. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think I’m Gucci – but I’m setting my goals and my bar at the highest possible level, not somewhere in the middle. I want to push myself to attain my goals.

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8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Having a publicist. And nobody really cares who you are until you’ve been featured in a magazine. For example, with one magazine, I had to overnight product samples, pay huge FedEx fees and send jewellery on at least 15 separate occasions. It didn’t go to print 15 times, but on the 16th time it went to print and it changed the face of my whole business.

9. What has been the biggest waste of time and / or money?

There are many things that I have done that one might consider “mistakes,” but sometimes mistakes are the most valuable thing a person can do. The ability to learn from your mistakes makes them all worth the while.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate? Do you believe it’s possible to sell out?

Good question. It is very possible to sell out. I almost think I am selling out by selling anything at all.  However, I believe it is important to stay true to my values of honesty, growing organically, buying and producing locally, waste reduction, and prioritizing community and family sustainability.  If I remain true to these fundamentals, then I won’t be selling out.

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Thanks, Teresa!

posted 6 Nov 09 in: art, business, fashion, interviews. This post currently has 5 responses.