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Meet The Expert: Creative Guru Gianfranco Zani

Meet The Expert: Creative Guru Gianfranco Zani
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Today we're talking to design, product and concept development expert Gianfranco Zani. With a CV reading some of the most well-known brands in the world including La Perla, Chicos, Sears, and Natori, he is uniquely positioned to speak about the creative journey and its relationship to the business of fashion. You'll want to pay close attention to this one.

Tell us about how you got your start in the retail industry. Any advice you’d give to someone starting out in order to maximize their chances of long-term success?

Be identifiable and have confidence. Creativity without confidence is just a dream.

As someone who lives and breathes creative, what is the single biggest challenge to someone in this type of role?

Creativity's biggest challenge is its direct link to risk. In the mind of every executive, creativity needs to be aligned with the organization’s expectation to minimize risk, to be measurable and to be scalable. These days, creativity has been replaced with words like innovation and disruption. It’s like creativity has been repackaged. What it shows is a collective understanding of risk containment. By calling it 'disruption' and 'innovation,' we have stripped creativity from fears and passions. Those are emotions, and we do not deal well with those in the US.

I see creativity as a vision that needs to trigger emotions, benefit our lives, AND make investors happy. Because creativity is by nature untenable and prone to objections, it naturally leads to confrontation. To engage in a creative and intelligent dialogue one has to understand intuition, inventive processing, and a keen sense of observation. To be creative means to think outside of the box. How many times have you seen a job description that seeks outside-of-the-box thinking? How many times did you do just that and encounter setbacks?

Can you tell us a little bit more about your process and mindset towards approaching design and product development?

It’s a mix of open mind, discipline, and editing. Look, even with an open mind I decide where to look for historical references (past), zeitgeist (present), and inspiration (future). Music, architecture, the subway, not to mention the gym, airports, and parties. I have lived in 3 continents and traveled to over 85 countries collecting fabrics, objects, and memories with locals.

Yet my first instinct is to always look at the opposite. As an example, if the task at hand is to develop a contemporary brand, let’s say it’s based out of Los Angeles, I will first look at the opposing end, the Hollywood silver screen dressing or 60’s hippie beach culture. This way I am creating polarities of different design languages. The tension between the two helps me find new references to translate, shapes to reimagine, and colors to apply. For me, starting at the opposite allows me to edit newly found references. New being the operative word.

When working with brands, I do have a task at hand, to either renew or add to the story (that’s what design and product development is). The process is to filter the information and let those bits fester. By looking at these inputs and their relationship to everything else, themes and patterns emerge. The next step is to connect each bit of information and it all becomes a dynamic system. All my information is now consolidated, connected, and interactive. I now have to choose the elements, themes, and patterns that will add to the brand equity.

How do you balance creative instinct and business sense? Or do you think this balance is even necessary to be successful in fashion?

Fashion is full of successful relationship examples: Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, Valentino and Giammetti, Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz. Behind every creative there is a business wo/man. As a creative you have to be honest and clearly define your range of business acumen. More than the balance of creative and business acumen, the true success is a trustful business partnership and knowing your limits.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry in the time you’ve been a part of it?

E-commerce, fast fashion, haute couture becoming a marketing vehicle, the end of design dictators, and legitimizing street fashion, athleisure, and vintage.

What role do you think the creative industry should play in the current troubled state of the retail industry, in order to effect positive change? Have there been any missteps on the creative side that you believe play some role in the current state of retail?

I hinted at the muffling of creativity earlier. Merchants, investors, analysts, and big egos have been dictating market assortments, markdowns, and mergers. What is shocking in the reporting of financial results is the shift of consumer in spending habits and the rise of e-commerce. These were not sudden. It doesn’t make sense to hire smart, creative people and then tell them what to do. You hire those people so they tell you what to do. That’s what Steve Jobs said, not me...

A member of a board of directors of a now-defunct national brand once told me that,
'creativity is what sells.' Looking at the state of retail these days, everyone agrees that very little sells.

So, if creativity is what sells, and little is selling, isn’t it because there is not enough creativity? That applies to the big box retailers, heritage brands, and department stores. But what's invigorating is that the creative industry has found a way to enter the market with e-commerce and therefore circumvent the high entry prices of wholesale and brick-and-mortar. More than ever, the creative industry has a channel and a voice to speak directly to the customers.

What role, if any, do consumer insights play in your creative process? What about other types of data? Do they matter?

I firmly believe that, these days, no one can operate and be successful in this business without the voice of the consumer. That said, let’s enjoy every vice in moderation. As a creative, I look at consumer data and CRM with fascination and an open mind. But in my creative role I select the information that is relevant to my next steps.

For instance, when it comes to retail math, I am mostly interested in USPT’s, velocity, and full price sales. And testing trends is extremely important to me as well. The same selectiveness applies to consumer data and predicting analytics. The trail that consumers leave in their online activities show patterns of spending habits, interaction, and engagement. It tells a brand when to promote an evening dress, raise or lower prices, where to place product, and so many other things.

On the other hand, these things don't replace the creative process. I was asked by a nationwide retailer to come up with a concept for a men’s line targeted to young dads who had moved their families from the city to suburbia. These guys are educated now and still feel hip and current, as if they were still living in Williamsburg. I researched the market and identified 3 concepts to choose from, one of which was an interpretation of a cleaned-up hipster, but inspired by the swell sporty attire of the famous Rat Pack. That idea came to me while on an architectural tour of Palm Springs. And you guessed it, this was the direction the retailer chose. At the end of the day, it was one part personal experience, one part (informed) historical point of view.

Which fashion brands or retailers are changing the game?

Amazon, from a commercial perspective, not a creative one. That's all I'll say.

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