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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Last Thursday, I attended Vancouver’s CREATIVEMIX conference. In addition to some excellent catering (a true rarity at these kind of events), standouts included speakers Terry McBride of Nettwerk Music Group, Cowie & Fox ad agency director Noel Fox, and Steven Cox of design and consulting studio Cause+Affect.
I wanted to focus on Steven Cox for a moment, because I was struck by one key point from his talk. As a former architect, Cox launched his career in the UK with Alison Brooks Architects and SOFTROOM. He’s worked on housing developments, retail interiors and brand campaigns for clients like Virgin Atlantic Airways, Volkswagen, Selfridges and Volkswagen. He had a rising career in a wildly vibrant international city.
But when Cox and his equally accomplished partner (in life and work), Jane Cox, returned to Vancouver and launched Cause+Affect in 2004, they were struck by how many people complained about life in Lotusland. From the tired “no-fun city” tag to an apparent obsession with polar fleece and strumming Jack Johnson riffs by the sea, Vancouver had a bad rap as a no-go destination for edgy fun. As Steven told the crowd of creatives last Thursday, the pair decided to “make Vancouver their project.”
I love this attitude. Unhappy with the cultural and artistic climate in your city? Change it. Stretch your creativity to enrich your community and develop new ways to talk, think, share and celebrate.
Cause+Affect certainly has. In just five years, their cultural resume now includes Pecha Kucha nights, the hugely popular Fuse events at the Vancouver Art Gallery (just try to snag a spot to watch zombies dance the Thriller), the Movers & Shapers exhibit, the Cheaper Show (cheap! art!), and the EPIC sustainable living exhibition. If it’s fun and buzzy in Vancouver, Jane and Steven Cox have probably had their hands in it. They’re making this city a more interesting place to live, while building a stronger brand for their own business.
The lesson for entrepreneurs of every stripe: Tackle something close to your heart. Figure out how to excite people and cause a stir. Do it because you see a need and you’ll naturally attract the clients, customers and artistic collaborators who speak your language.
I’m a longtime reader of Fast Company magazine. I love its engaging, entrepreneurial take on business — and how it breaks down those old boys’ club notions of success.
Part of my inspiration to launch this blog came from the June 2009 issue, featuring “The 100 Most Creative People in Business.” It’s a diverse list, from fashion designers Stella McCartney, Hussein Chalayan and Marc Jacobs, to artist Damien Hirst and music mogul Pharrell Williams, through to execs from Twitter, Red Bull, Target, Apple, Elephant Design and beyond. The gorgeous cover girl, Neri Oxman of MIT’s Media Lab, is #43. You can see the full list here.
The profiles provide some serious creative motivation, but I couldn’t help thinking about what lies beyond the mainstream radar. There are thousands and thousands of people who are doing amazing work, while still making their lives work. I want to learn from all the artists and innovators who don’t have the backing of big corporations or major studios.
But then again, even the Fast Company editors admit that selecting their top 100 was a risky task:
“We looked for dazzling new thinkers, rising stars, and boldface names who couldn’t be ignored. We avoided people we’ve profiled in the recent past. We emphasized those whose creativity addresses a larger issue — from the future of our energy infrastructure to the evolution of philanthropy to next-generation media.”
Inspired Outsiders is on a similar mission — minus the boldface-only names.
Who’s on your top 100?
“…all the greats did it from the outside. And that’s a very, very inspiring thing.”
In a 2008 article for the Independent, Johnny Marr explored the roots of his illustrious music career – first as a hungry Manchester teenager queuing up in the snow to hear Slaughter and the Dogs and T-Rex, then as the guitarist and driving creative force behind The Smiths. In subsequent years, he’s refused to be pinned down, working as a sessional musician and collaborator for top acts including The Pretenders, Billy Bragg, Talking Heads, The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
Marr explained how the most innovative music always bursts in from the edges – from talented outsiders who are utterly driven to tell their stories and make new sounds. They write and perform for their tribe, and for the sheer thrill of it.
“The Beatles are the most obvious example – rejected by Decca for their four-piece guitar line-up. No one invented Bob Marley, no one invented the Sex Pistols or Kurt Cobain or Jay-Z – they all invented themselves and were rejected. They were outsiders and they were necessary.”
Marr’s philosophy isn’t new, but it might be the most compelling argument for pure, unfettered creativity that I’ve heard in a long while. He’s also one of my most revered musical icons, so I could be a little biased on that front.
Marr is no longer an outsider. Any industry exec would take his calls in a heartbeat. But, that’s not the point. Art, writing, fashion, design, cooking and music that shakes your very core will always originate at the periphery. It’s brave and different. It might be driven by ideas or emotions or just sheer beauty. It doesn’t matter.
But what happens when the show is over, the manuscript is finished or the dishes are cleared? How do creative people pay the bills? Where do you draw the line between selling your work and selling out – or is that a retro, rusty dilemma?
Inspired Outsiders digs down into the business of creativity. The Internet has spawned a wealth of online resources, tools and markets that have changed the game for artists of every stripe. Punk bands from Winnipeg can now make a decent living without major label backing. Photographers can sell limited edition prints online while accepting only the assignments that make them sweat.
It’s now possible to remain independent without getting stuck. And even when outsiders become insiders – attracting fans, opportunities, and maybe some serious money – they can still stay hungry and, most importantly, inspired.
How? That’s what this blog is all about. Thanks for reading along.