Trey Laird: Fashion brands are saddled with ‘layers of bullshit’

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Trey Laird’s only “wearable” is a bracelet from Africa. It’s telling because the rest of Laird’s points of view on luxury and fashion are pretty traditional. Makes sense: Laird, the creative director and founder of Laird + Partners and the former head of brand at Donna Karan is part of a stable of fashion branding greats who remember when outdoor advertising was considered avant garde in fashion.

Laird is this week’s guest on the Glossy Podcast. Edited highlights below.

Fashion advertising — especially in New York — used to be raw.
Laird was one of the creative minds behind a 1994 DKNY campaign that featured a woman, in black and white, crossing the street in New York’s financial district. Shot by Peter Lindbergh, the iconic photo has since come back in vogue: Public School designers Day-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne’s first collection for DKNY in September sought to evoke that New York, which Laird says has been lost.

“When I first came here, the thing that was so exciting was the rawness to fashion and beauty and luxury goods. There was a real energy because there were so many new things being thought about and tried,” he said. “People were trying things like outdoor, which was like ‘wow.’ Now we have ads all around us. There was a rawness and grit and experimentation that was amazing.”

“Kids today” coming into fashion are approaching it wrong.
Laird says that fashion education today is falling short. “It’s really hard to fully prepare people for what [the career] is like before you start doing it,” he said. And people need to learn to pay the dues of being a young designer, doing grunt work. But the generation coming into the industry today is used to everything being so fast and immediate that they don’t have the patience to make that happen.

“There’s this empowerment that you can do anything and be anything,” he said. “That’s good. The downside is to be the best at something and to become an expert at something it really takes a discipline and a focus.”

Everyone should work inside a brand at some point.
Laird, who entered the fashion word in a roundabout way (through a chance encounter with legendary adman Peter Arnell on the shoe floor at Bergdorf Goodman, where Laird used to work), spent a large part of his career at Donna Karan, which he said helped a lot.

“Agencies approach everything with an ad point of view, campaign first,” he said. “When you’re in-house you are forced to think about everything and the campaign is just one part of it. The shoebox, the hang tag and the press event. Advertising is just a small part of that.”

Too many brands have a culture of fear.
One big reason so many fashion brands are behind in social and digital is that so many of them have an entrenched bureaucratic internal structure, said Laird. On the other side of the spectrum is a brand like Tom Ford, one of his clients. The man himself makes every decision, which Laird says is great. “You don’t have to go through layers of bullshit and it’s not a committee,” he said. Brands that don’t do breakthrough work usually have a culture of “fear-based decision making.”

But at the same time, brands can’t jump in headfirst into everything.
Laird is not sold on chatbots or wearables (the phone is enough, he said). When luxury brands with a history try to be too available on social media or converse with you on Facebook or become too techie, they lose something.

“Sometimes there’s a mystery and mystique about brands and their aura,” he said. “You can get too much information and have it too dissected and have too many opinions and too much conversation. There’s nothing worse than an iPad wielding sales associate.”

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