NEW YORK, United States — For a fashion house, implementing a new creative vision is rarely easy. The changeover takes time and often involves many moving parts — not just the clothes, but every aspect of the branding: from store design to advertising. Some transitions take longer than others. When Public School’s Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow were named creative directors of DKNY in April 2015 — long after orders for their Autumn/Winter 2015 collection were placed — they needed to create a seasonal advertising campaign that would reflect their vision for the brand without washing away the past. Instead of dreaming up something new, they ran a single image from a 1994 DKNY campaign shot by Peter Lindbergh, a grainy black-and-white photo featuring a single model crossing between William Street and Exchange Place, the Financial District’s sky-high buildings towering above her.
The shot is not as slick as much of the high-fashion advertising created today, but in many ways it feels infinitely cooler and most definitely classic. Trey Laird, who ran Donna Karan’s internal advertising agency when the campaign was first released more than 20 years ago, is tickled by its revival. “It was the first campaign I did on my own after joining Donna, so it’s been a very funny season to see that in all the magazines and online,” he says, sitting in his high-ceiling, high-window office at Laird + Partners, the creative agency he opened in 2002. “It really holds up. I think there’s sort-of a timelessness about it.”
Laird remembers it all fondly. “That campaign was a love letter to NYC,” he says. “Peter and I, with a pretty small team, went out and shot for like three days all over the city, renegade style, which I miss now, because everything is so production- heavy. We hired an open-air double decker bus and drove all over the city, shooting from that bus, which was an interesting perspective. We just ran around and made this story of young people in New York. Donna fell in love with it. To this day, it’s one of those things that defines what DKNY is about. I guess when the guys came back [to the campaign], they saw something in that.”
Defining brands — in particular, American ones — has become Laird’s trade. Along with Donna Karan and DKNY, where he spent most of the 1990s readying the company’s image to be recognized on a global scale, Laird has played a significant role in crafting visual messaging for some of the biggest brands in the world, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford, Diane von Furstenberg and Gap. European brands including Chloé and Belstaff have also called upon his services, although Laird seems to have a specific ability to capture what an American brand needs. Perhaps it’s a certain feeling of accessibility, even at the high end. Nothing Laird touches feels intimidating, even if it’s high-concept fashion.
There is an open-hearted sincerity to his approach, which partially explains the tremendous scale of his success. “I try to push them wherever possible: wherever they stand out, have a unique offering and a real point of view. I try to be a champion for doing something innovative and different, wherever they can,” Laird says of his process. “I think the marketing can bring that to life, but you can’t survive on great marketing. Ultimately, you have to back it up with the goods. You can smoke-and-mirrors it for a while, or you can get somebody’s attention, and maybe they’ll [buy] something once, but they won’t come back. A lot of times, people turn to marketing to fix issues that it can’t fix. Marketing helps when you’ve got all your shit together, so to speak. You’ve made something great that has a reason for being. That, combined with great marketing and great branding, can make it sing.”
Like many admen, Laird has long hovered over the line drawn between the business and creative ends of a company. Born and raised in Texas, he earned a business degree — with a focus on marketing — at the University of Texas at Austin. “I mixed that with art history. I always had this creative side, and then this business side. I didn’t know exactly what to do with that,” he recalls. After school, he travelled in Europe for a few months and moved to New York, landing a spot at a large Madison Avenue agency in the account management training program.
But before he even started, a chance encounter with the legendary (and controversial) advertising executive Peter Arnell, whose work for brands such as Tropicana and Pepsi was widely derided, set him on a different path. They met on the shoe floor at Bergdorf Goodman, where Laird was working as a sales associate. It was the summer of 1988 and Laird found Arnell’s approach far more interesting than the big-box agency’s. “After I sold him a pair of shoes, I introduced myself and said that I was a fan of his work. He said, ‘Why don’t we meet?’ A week later, he offered me a job,” Laird says. “At that point, [Arnell-Bickford] was a creative boutique firm with mainly fashion clients, but an interesting creative approach to different categories.”
One of those clients was Donna Karan, who had launched her namesake brand just a couple of years earlier. Laird started out as a “ junior, junior, junior assistant, assistant, assistant account executive,” but within a year or so, Arnell moved him into creative work. “I was super intimidated, because there were all these major art directors from Italian Vogue and Condé Nast and I was this kid a year out of college,” he says. “I went kicking and screaming into the creative department, but I just gradually got more and more comfortable. And then, it was actually a great thing that I had this business side. I was kind of half account executive, half creative director. And that has served me well, even today. Peter was the one that pushed me in this direction.”
After working for Arnell for a few years, Laird moved on to Gruppo GFT, an Italian company that at the time manufactured men’s suiting for the likes of Giorgio Armani and Valentino. Soon after, Donna Karan called. She was bringing advertising and marketing in-house, and wanted Laird to run it. (At the time, Apple executive Angela Ahrendts was Karan’s president and Burberry chief creative/chief executive Christopher Bailey was her head of womenswear design.)
Laird became the company’s creative director, overseeing all advertising, branding, store design and product design for divisions like home, watches and certain licensed categories. “The company was exploding. It was the Alex Wang or Tory Burch of its day,” he says. “Every year there was a new division and this sort-of transformative growth trajectory. So it was this amazing opportunity to see how brands are built from the ground up, and I think it really shaped the way I approach things now. I think [people with] an agency background always tend to lead with advertising, and then fill in the rest. But when you do work inside of the company and you’re tasked with all those [different] things, the design of the shoe box is as important as editor previews, which is as important as the paper on the hang tag.”
After spending nearly a decade at Karan, Laird was inspired by then-Gap, Inc. chief executive Millard “Mickey” Drexler to break out on his own. Initially, Drexler was interested in bringing Laird in-house. “I really, really liked Mickey and I still do. He’s still a close friend and mentor for me today. However, I decided that I didn’t want to move to San Francisco and I didn’t want to do that job. I felt like I’d already done the in-house thing, like it was just the same job on a bigger scale,” Laird says. “But it did make me think about what I wanted to do next.” He talked to Karan about leaving to establish his own firm; she was supportive. When he called Drexler to turn down the job, “I told him that I was going to do my own thing, but thanks so much and I hoped that one day we’d work together. He called me the next morning and said, ‘You’ve got the Gap account.’ I hadn’t even resigned. I had Donna Karan and Gap [as clients] so I had to start a company the next day.”
Founded in 2002, Laird + Partners now employs more than 100 people. The firm serves, somewhat, as a template for many other fashion-focused creative agencies, combining sophisticated art direction with business-minded brand strategy. “There were these amazing art directors in fashion that I really admired and respected, and they had such great taste and such great style, but there wasn’t really a lot of strategy or even a real concept,” he says. “On the flip side, there were these traditional, conceptually driven agencies with strong strategic skills, but they had bad taste and bad style. Whenever you’d see an agency like that trying to do anything even remotely related to fashion, it just looked corporate and bad and like a mess. That was my inspiration for starting the company.”
Early on, Laird gained global recognition for his work with Gap, for which he continued to work long after Drexler’s departure. His most memorable campaigns include a commercial starring Missy Elliott and Madonna and an Annie Leibovitz-lensed series that paired duos of different generations (such as Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams in work shirts). There was also the skinny pant campaign, which featured footage from Audrey Hepburn in the musical comedy, Funny Face. “That caused a big commotion and sold a lot of pants, and that was fun,” Laird says. “I think Gap is really good when it has simple, bold, pure messaging.” But nearly a decade after Gap initially signed Laird, the two companies parted ways. Laird + Partners was behind the 2010 redesign of the Gap logo, which was much maligned by the public and quickly reneged by the company. But, of course, Gap’s troubles go much deeper than its logo and still persist today, more than five years after Laird lost the account
“There are so many choices and there’s so much information and it’s constantly coming at you, that I think you kind of get overwhelmed with shopping and looking and browsing and searching and processing all this information. As a consumer you start to get a little numb,” Laird says on why specialty retailers, including Gap, are struggling. “That’s on the one side. Then, on the other side, I don’t think there’s really very much innovation out there from a product point of view. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I have everything. I don’t want to go buy another sweater. It is just more of the same old stuff.”
Laird’s job, of course, is to make the consumer feel differently. His process is unique to each project, but the crux of the work is getting inside the designer’s head. “It’s understanding what makes their brand unique and what makes them tick. What their vision is long term,” he explains. “So, it’s about doing all that work and all that research and fact finding up front, and build a partnership and a relationship and a trust. Some people like to see options, some people really have a clear idea so it’s about mocking that up and showing what it could be.”
One of Laird’s success stories is the 2010 rebranding of Tommy Hilfiger, moving the all-American brand toward a quirkier kind of prep. “I think it’s a really great example of a brand that had gotten a little sleepy or lazy, or maybe just too big and too commercial, and has had some misfires strategically in terms of positioning and what they’d gone after,” he says. “All we did was help point them back in the direction that sort-of captured their founding vision — that classic preppy sensibility — but it was very rebellious and spirited and fun and a little bit off.” The campaign’s fictional family, “The Hilfigers,” was more inspired by the Royal Tenenbaums than the Kennedys. “It was a template for storytelling over several seasons. But I think it inspired and reignited [the company] internally, before it even started doing anything externally. It was rewarding because you’d see them walk a little taller and stand a little taller and get their confidence back. It’s been a great few years for the brand and they really have a point of view.”
Current client Tom Ford knows what he wants. “Tom is such a master. Whether it’s designing a fragrance bottle or coming up with a show concept or art directing, or packaging — whatever it is, he’s so brilliant,” Laird says. “‘[With Tom] it’s really helping him realise his vision. Other people have a sense of what they’re into, but they’re unsure and need some hand-holding and guidance.”
Laird has always taken a 360-approach to his work, but digital has become a bigger part of the equation than ever. “I think that people are really flirting with this whole issue of content and how that translates into commerce, and certainly, a lot of it is social media and digitally driven, but I think nobody has the answer yet,” he says. “There’s a lot of experimentation and innovative thinking going on right now. I think there are little bits of light happening. When you connect the dots, it’s really inspiring.”
In a recent success, he helped stage Tom Ford’s Spring 2016 digital fashion show, an Internet video starring Lady Gaga and directed by Nick Knight. “To experiment and to figure out a different way to get people excited about something — not that it was perfect at all, but I do think it brought energy and it got a lot of attention and it was fun to put a different way of showing out there,” says Laird. “Tom is a bold person, with a bold point of view. He can take that and run with it. That was really rewarding to work on. It cut through and got some attention.”
Laird is also excited to work with emerging brands that have that same magic Donna Karan possessed 20 years back. His agency is currently collaborating with Proenza Schouler on a project. “I like the idea of really helping a brand find its story,” he says. “It’s exciting when I think what [Proenza Schouler] could be in ten years. I don’t know where it’s going to end up, but I think they have a strong point of view and are going to stand the test of time.”