The making of style

In Features /

By Jessie Stones

There is no mirror in the toilets of the Hoxton Square Bar.

It’s a trendy spot in South London, popular with those wearing the latest cutting edge styles; the designers and innovators; the young and urban.

The absence of a mirror isn’t a case of forgetfulness, or a cash-flow problem. There’s a reason the washrooms have no mirror—one that wouldn’t occur to the average toilet-goer, but one that makes complete sense to the club’s clientele.

There is no mirror in the toilets of the Hoxton Square Bar because you expect one, explains graphic designer Linda Lundin, a regular patron of the bar. Without it, you are manipulated into relying on the eyes of others to make sure you exist. Heady stuff for such a simple item.

But it’s a profession, this manipulation of thought and perception, and the people in it are some of the most powerful in the Western world.

These are the people who plaster images of desirable lifestyles on almost every available surface. The ones who whisper about how sexy it is to eat Doritos in the library, drive a Volkswagen or wear ostrich leather boots. They are the ones who manipulate for a living.

And when the theory behind the later and hottest is revealed, it all becomes clear: Style is dictated by those who sell it.

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It’s not difficult to understand the concepts behind marketing. The general ideas are simple. What kind of company are we? Who is our market? What are we creating? How will we sell it?

It’s the subtleties of executing any marketing plan that can really dog a company.

“It’s not like the fifties and sixties with big companies imposing trends,” says NewAd Media’s marketing manager Stephanie Emond. When revolutionary new products are launched these days, it’s more difficult to influence consumers. “Today’s customers are so savvy about consumption. There is more choice.”

And consumers, especially those in their teens and 20s, don’t want to be told what to do. Successful marketing campaigns allow them to discover the products themselves. To achieve this, companies need to do a lot of quantitative research to figure out the needs of their market.

This is what Levi Strauss & Co. is trying to do with its marketing campaign for Engineered Jeans. Over the past few years, rival clothing companies such as Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren have usurped sales in the youth market from Levin’s—the grandfather of denim—because the company failed to respond quickly enough to fashion trends. So Levi’s decided to revamp its image with a new product line called Engineered Jeans, designing them to fit the needs of urban youth, the most desirable and elusive consumers today.

“We need to recreate the perception of Levi’s,” says Victor Lam, the company’s consumer marketing manager.

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Another night, another city, another bar, this one with mirrors in toilets. Linda Lundin placidly sips red wine on a patio on Toronto’s College Street as she watches the behind-the-styles colonists parade past in their weekend finery.

A young man walks by the patio dressed in a distinctly European-style outfit: dark buttom-up shirt, trainers, and, “Oooh! Engineered Jeans,” Lundin exclaims, putting down her glass. “How come nobody here has those?”

While Levi’s just launched its Canadian ad campaign for Engineered Jeans in August, it’s been selling the jeans in Europe and Asia for the past year. Lundin says ads for the line are commonplace in London. “They’re on bus stops, in the tube, adverts in magazines.”

The jeans themselves are designed around the ergonomics of the human body for comfort and freedom of movement. The side seams twisted, the back pockets slanted, and bottom hems angled to sit naturally across the shoe.

Since Levi’s is already an established name, the company doesn’t need to worry so much about developing brand identity as it does about recreating its image into one more desirable in today’s world.

“We told the designers to make a brand new product that’s unlike any other product on the market today,” says Yvonne Diesing, general merchandising manager at Levi’s Canada.

Diesing says the company instructed designers to study urban youth culture and create a design around what the 19- to 25-year old s look for in denim. She says Levi’s intention was to make a “comfortable” jean, not a “cool” product. “Nine out of 10 products are so contrived when people try to make cool,” she says. Judging by the jeans’ design and fabric, though, Levi’s was looking for a stylish product that would appeal to young people.

When it came time to marketing the jeans in Europe, Levi’s chose to go with an innovative campaign to draw links between the product, film and music. The ads were designed to convey Levi’s everyman ubiquity, and a vernacular, contemporary feel.

The Canadian ad campaign has a more subtle reach, Lam says, because Levi’s wants to generate a sense of self-discovery.

The company recruited young directors such as Spike Jonze to create television commercials for Engineered Jeans. Its print campaign is designed to capture people “connecting” with their Levi’s—the moment whene they make them “their own.”

The company also decided to use NewAd Media’s innovative Videoboards, 18-centimetre screens with tiny speakers and infrared motion detectors. The boards sense when they have an audience and play 45-second commercials.

“The use of the Videoboard will enforce the whole essence of the brand,” Lam says. “They’re new to the youth demographic. They really show the leadership of the jeans.”

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People want to be different, and that’s one of the major challenges manufacturers and advertisers face.

“That’s what is so nice about our era—there are so many things that are cool,” NewAd Media’s Emond says, laughing as her hair gets stuck in the earpiece of her cutting edge hands-free cell phone. “Cool is more about attitude—it depends on your perspective.”

Determining what’s cool and what’s going to be cool is all a part of the job for Alison Winton, who buys clothing for Jean Machine stores across Ontario. She’s 25 and watches YTV and Dawson’s Creek. She spends a lot of time in malls checking out what teenagers are wearing and buying. “It’s a never-ending job,” she says, sounding a bit exasperated. “I watch to see what has been selling, and try to figure out what will sell in the future.”

This gives Winton and others like her the power to influence what young people buy. She says teens generally don’t want to think about their own personal style. “They want to come into the store and leave with the same pants all their friends have,” she says. “They trust [the store]. We dictate to them what is cool.”

And Winton is only a buyer. The people higher up in the marketing machine wield even greater power, if they know how to use it.

Daisy Barkow is assistant promotions and marketing manager at a trendy club and lounge in Manhattan’s West Chelsea district. Her club enforces a strict dress and style code that appeals to a certain clientele.

“Whether we let people in or not is based on aesthetics, of course,” she says. “You can make certain judgements, like if they look a certain way they’ll act a certain way.” Advertising reinforces those images. It equates lifestyle with products.

“Of course marketing has an important impact on how we perceive style,” says Barkow’s boss, Bryan Langston. “You walk down the street and are bombarded with so many images, how can it not affect you?”

It’s only when the images disappear that we begin to realize how much they influence us. Just try going into a washroom without a mirror when all you want to do is check out your jeans.

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