Creative Duty

Peggy Wynne Borgman

The Wall Street Journal Headline reads, “Retailer Turns in Loss on Increase in Markdowns.” They’re referring to Talbots, which over the past three years re-imagined its famously frowsy fashion label. Despite some high profile successes in 2010–Michelle Obama wore a flowered Talbots dress, reportedly spurring catfights over the item in stores–the Chief Creative Officer has left the company.

The WSJ item goes on to explain that Trudy Sullivan, the company’s president and chief executive will “take over creative duties” (love that phrase!) while a search is carried out. Ms. Sullivan has a long history in the middle-of-the-road fashion business.

“While we have made progress in executing our brand vision and product design, customer acceptance needs to improve,” Sullivan is quoted as saying in this piece. If there was ever a quote that epitomized corporate cluelnessness, that has to be it. Our problem is that “customer acceptance needs to improve,” rather than “no one wants to buy our stuff.” Customers, did you hear that? Get with the program!

Meanwhile, yesterday’s WSJ described the ascendancy of Tori Burch, a brand that seems to get it right, to the tune of $500 million in annual sales. There, “creative duties” seem to be much more of the former and much less the latter. Significantly, that company is still helmed by Ms. Burch, who showed her first collection to a Bergdorf’s buyer in her living room.

It’s hard for real creativity to thrive in corporateAmerica, which is enslaved to focus groups and testing, ensuring that we get endless iterations of the Same Stuff, sold by the Same Stores, the usual suspects of retailing. Take a risk? Why, that would be a disservice to our shareholders. (Tori Burch is still a private company.)

It’s hard for an economy to recover without creativity, too.  Can you clamber out of a deep hole without risking falling back in? If you could just step out of it, you wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place. Yet our marketplace is filled with depressing crap that looks like last year’s depressing crap, with a detail or two changed. I walked through a Macy’s recently and was overwhelmed by the awful, petroleum stink of its cheap Chinese-made merchandise. The salespeople looked depressed. The customers looked depressed. There wasn’t a lick of creativity anywhere. There wasn’t a frisson of fun.

Apple is a weird, wonderful exception. Pricy iphones fly off the shelves in the middle of the Decession. The stores are always jammed with rapt shoppers, heads bent in benediction over tables covered with sleek and lovely devices.

Do you think Apple trumpets its “customer acceptance”? Of course not. The only acceptable response to Apple’s products is love, pure and simple.

An article in the San Jose Mercury News today sniped about the shape of Apple’s new building, an enormous ring whose diameter surpasses the height of the Empire State Building. So big you would never know it was a big circle, unless you flew over it in an airplane. This, the article concluded, was ridiculous and wasteful–why bother building a round building if you can’t tell, from standing next to it, or being in it, that it’s round?

I suppose Apple should have built something incrementally better than today’s corporate headquarters, perhaps a “progressive” design with some new features and benefits that could be bullet-pointed in a press release. But I can’t wait to read about how amazing the new building looks from the air. Creativity may look wasteful at times, but in the end, it’s the only thing that makes a difference. Incremental change simply can’t save our bacon. We have a duty to be creative.

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