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Behind-the-Scenesters: Tony King


Designers design. Photographers photograph. Models model. That much—in broad strokes, at least—is clear. But what about the artists, technicians, and industry insiders, often unpublicized and underappreciated, who help to get clothes and accessories made and shown? Call them Behind-the-Scenesters: people who shape our experience of fashion but never take a bow on the catwalk or strike a pose for the camera. Without them—from patternmakers to production designers—the show wouldn’t go on. And in our recurring series, sits down with a few of these pros to find out, basically, what they do.

Fashion, at heart, is an industry built on goods: a leather bag, a silk dress, a pair of denim jeans. These are physical objects, made to be used. But the fashion industry doesn’t communicate with consumers the way producers of other commodities do. You don’t sell apples with an ad campaign starring Marion Cotillard, and it’s hard to imagine people snapping up dish soap during an online flash sale. Fashion as media communicates through art and aspiration, and, like all media, fashion has been in flux as it attempts to seize on the opportunities—and head off the challenges—of the digital age. Very often, Tony King is the person fashion brands turn to for a vision of their digital future. The creative director of the agency King, he currently works with labels such as Hudson Jeans, Net-a-Porter, Reiss, and Thakoon, helping them to develop everything from iPad apps to e-commerce platforms to Facebook pages. Prior to that, King was a founder of flagship digital services agency CREATETHE GROUP, and as such had a hand in bringing dozens of blue-chip luxury brands online. Here, King talks to about fashion’s digital deficiency, the future of print media, and using a Sharpie for inspiration.

So, Tony: In one sentence, what do you do?
I’m a creative director focused on the digital manifestation of fashion, luxury, and lifestyle brands, whether that be on e-commerce sites, Web sites, social media platforms, or mobile. To really oversimplify that, my job is to have good ideas for brands, and to come up with a recipe for that idea across all platforms.

How did you get into doing what you do?
My background is graphic design. And then when the Internet boom happened in the nineties, I was amazed by the potential, from a design perspective, to design something that was actually functional—design that had a purpose beyond looking good. By the late nineties I was almost exclusively working on Web sites—I was doing Fortune 500 companies, stuff like that. Very corporate. And to make my life more interesting I would do photographer friends’ Web sites, model agencies. I started a small agency for that kind of work, and then Gucci Group contacted me in 2000 and I went in-house.

I’m tempted to ask you what’s changed about the digital space in the past ten years, but the question is probably more like, what hasn’t?
Yeah, exactly. Leaving aside the advances in technology, you just have to look at the emphasis brands give to digital platforms now versus their status back then. It’s gone 180. When I first started I was working lower down, with people in the PR and marketing departments. As of about five years ago, that began to change, and in the last two years, there’s been a dramatic change. I think the recession has made people see the opportunity more clearly. For a relatively minimal cost, you can create a storefront online that does better than your actual brick-and-mortar stores. Now I’m dealing with creative directors, heads of retail, CEOs.

How do you come up with a digital strategy for a brand?
Well, the first thing you do is you look at the brand. Not every platform is right for every brand. I’m not sure Tom Ford belongs on Twitter, you know? But other brands are more about maintaining a conversation with their customer, and we help them decide how that conversation works, and what it feels like. Is it informal? Behind-the-scenes? And what are the technologies we ought to leverage to conduct that conversation? What happens on the Web site? How are we making sure people find the Web site? If there’s a Facebook page, what kind of content goes on Facebook? And so on. What we get a lot is, brands come to us and say something like, we want an iPhone app. And we’ll go back to them after doing our research, and say, OK, before you decide on a platform, let’s talk about the possibility that, maybe, it makes more sense for you to launch a smartphone mobile site, instead.

Hang on. I was with you right up to “smartphone mobile site,” and then everything went blurry. So, essentially what you’re saying is that the first part of your process with a brand is this kind of meta-analysis, yes? You look at the brand, and you look at all the proliferating platforms out there in the virtual world, and you find a way to match them up.

Pretty much. Part of our job is just to be aware of what’s out there, and what’s really going on with consumers. We’re always keeping track of analytics, like, what percentage of the market is using what phone. And so to go back to that example of the company that wants the iPhone app—often, you’ll find out that’s because someone high up has an iPhone, and likes downloading apps. But that doesn’t mean that’s the right initiative. The person that brand is trying to reach might not be an iPhone user at all. Or it’s just a better allocation of resources to design a site that works on almost any mobile interface.

The aforementioned “smartphone mobile site,” you mean.
Yes. I ought to add, we’re not opposed to any technology or any platform just because it’s new. I’m always looking for the next thing. Like, right now what’s happening with social commerce is really interesting, and so suited to fashion.

Uh, social commerce what?
Sites like Styledon and Fashism, where you can get feedback on your purchases. I like the idea of embedding that into brand’s Web sites, to help guide purchases. But that’s one of those things where, it’s a great opportunity, but you have to find an elegant way to integrate the technology into the user experience. You want people to relate to the brand, not to this new feature on the brand’s Web site. I think we’re successful because we make the technology invisible. But I see a lot of fashion brands doing stuff that’s just gimmicky.

Are there brands you feel are really innovating with interactive?
Hmm…fashion brands? Frankly, fashion has been lagging behind in digital. We look at Apple, we look at Nike. They’re leading the pack. That said, there are things I see in fashion that I like. Uniqlo is doing some cool things online; some of the ideas are really simple, but there’s a constant flow of new initiatives, fun interactive pieces. I’m expecting great things from Burberry in the next few years. They’ve done stuff I don’t find particularly exciting, like live-streaming their fashion show; that was kind of old news from a digital perspective. But they’ve got a great team in place and they have the right mindset. And I liked the H&M/Lanvin video a lot; it had a great retail feel and it was a viral hit. I think it’s telling, though, that that video came out of the head of a pop promo director. Every time I see a video online made by a fashion photographer, I’m like, oh jeez. Fashion has to start bringing in new talent. We’re beginning to see that—many of the heads of digital being appointed now are coming from other industries. But a lot of the so-called thought leaders in fashion are so far behind on digital, or so uninterested in catching up, it’s really astonishing. You take meetings with them, and they listen, but you walk out feeling like everything you just said was gibberish to them.

Just to play devil’s advocate…If you’re a luxury brand, say, isn’t there a particular challenge to extrapolating your brand digitally? I mean, the two things seem at loggerheads. Interactivity is all about access and participation; it’s fundamentally egalitarian. But if you’re, I don’t know, Prada, a big part of your brand is its out-of-reachness.
That is a challenge. And I think the solutions are still evolving. A brand like Prada may have a more restrained approach on their Web site, but they can still use platforms like Facebook or Polyvore to allow people to play with them a little more. Whereas, Hudson Jeans can make the Web site itself the playground. Tumblr is another platform that helps luxury brands thread the needle—it’s a blogging platform, it’s incredibly easy to use, and since it’s not being hosted on the brand’s own Web site, the blog can be a little more informal.

Obviously, we can’t have this conversation without bringing up the iPad. Do you agree with the conventional wisdom that it’s a transformational medium?
I think the iPad makes it a really fascinating time to be in publishing. Traditional magazines are going to suffer—there’s no way around that—but I don’t believe print is going away. The magazines that make it through will be stronger, because they’ve figured out ways for the iPad magazine and the print magazine and the online magazine to coexist and support each other. They all need to have their own exclusive elements.

What’s a typical day like for you?
Usually I get to the office early and check e-mail. Then I sit with the creative team and figure out where we are with concepts and designs, and make sure everything is on point with look and feel, and in terms of meeting clients’ objectives. I’ll get together with the tech teams and see how their work is progressing. Then I’m on the phone with clients, going over links and getting their feedback. I go to photo shoots a lot—we shoot a bunch of e-commerce stuff ourselves, and I’ll also attend campaign shoots, to make sure whatever they’re doing is going to work online. I still like to do creative work myself so I try, at some point every day, to spend some time sketching out ideas on my own. Just at my desk by myself, with a pad of paper and a Sharpie.

Sorry, what? Did I just hear you refer to pen and paper?
Yeah. [Laughs.] My favorite tools. I’m old-school that way.

Photo: Courtesy of Tony King