Creative: Critique

Soft Focus: Cashmere – Life At Its Creamiest
Agency: Banana Republic/San Francisco (In-House)
Photographer (Print): Tim Walker
Director (Tv-Suede): Peggy Sirota
Talk about your brilliant makeovers. Oprah Winfrey aside, has any major brand undergone as tasteful and cohesive a visual transformation as Banana Republic?
To further this Oprah link, both were saddled from birth with a problematic moniker. I start getting bad-perm/oversized- shoulder-pad flashbacks when I think of the ’80s pith-helmet incarnation of Banana Republic. (I imagine the name would be mucho offensive in marketing to our Central and South American neighbors, but we’ll have to solve that down the road.)
It’s painful to even conjure up some of the store’s original safari-themed clothing (let’s just call it Rommel-wear) and fixtures (“Honey, hold that khaki jumpsuit next to the mosquito netting while I get a shot of you in the Jeep!”). So much for the country’s proud Indiana Jones moment.
Started in 1978, and bought by the Gap in 1983, BR has been gradually ridding itself of everything Banana-freaky and outback-themed since the late ’80s.
But in the past few years, it has begun filling a brilliant new fashion niche for the ’90s–providing cool but polished clothing and accessories for people who live that casual, dress-down office lifestyle. People who need “modern silhouettes” in “neutral palettes,” as they say in the press release. People who have an eye for contemporary style but have a long road to hoe before they can afford Prada.
For better or worse, we now live in a post-ideological, post-political, †ber-consumer culture that covers nearly everyone but Newt. So a chain like BR (270 stores) has joined the roster of mass brands in the last decade to become a major purveyor of taste–a standardized yet elevated level of style brought to you by Martha Stewart, Pottery Barn, Ralph, Calvin, Donna, Tommy, the Gap, etc. All have followers happy to join the cult of aesthetic self-help, even if it means paying retail.
So say you’re a thirtysomething creative type, meaning you and your boyfriend have pretty much the same hair (peroxided the same color) and the same black glasses. You could go into BR and pick up pretty much the same stretch cotton shirt and slim pants and suede jacket and split-toed Oxfords, and voilˆ, you and your dearest mate would be head-to-toe Banana, squared.
These are consumers with a more educated eye and certain visual standards. They want to transplant their favorite things, to wear the furniture, so to speak, so it’s easy to see how BR ventured into the home arena.
In the last two months, the chain has launched its biggest marketing moves ever (including the first BR TV spot, first catalog in 10 years as well as print ads, gatefolds, inserts and creative outdoor–kiosks, bus shelters and permanent walls). One of the recent print ads, by photographer Tim Walker, shows a young semi-nude couple taking shelter at the beach under their cashmere throw.
All the cashmere advertising evokes the feeling of being enveloped and swaddled in luxury. I guess this is the new business class: X-rated cotton. (There’s even a cashmere T-shirt.) A company representative told me the white cashmere comes from the hair closest to the belly of a goat. Given the chain’s incredible volume, I hope they’ve discovered a new market of untapped goats.
Speaking of bellies, the guy who presumably had the hard job of holding up the cashmere throw later emerges, full face and body, holding an arm up to the sky and yawning, showing some serious midriff skin, where his tasteful gray cashmere sweater meets his tasteful gray cashmere pants.
It’s a whole new take on the man in the gray flannel suit–in the bellybutton of the well-pelted slacker–so to speak. Another ad shows a female model, in a cashmere T-shirt and underwear, lying in a fetal position on the floor. I guess, you tend to reduce yourself to what’s elemental: birth, water, life, ribbed charcoal separates.
There’s also a great-looking shot of a man’s legs cropped just below the knee. He wears gray cashmere socks, and mysteriously a little white mouse crawls across one ankle. The ad is a wonderful juxtaposition of color and surface–talk about a creepy way to get your goat, though.
Clearly, this is not the softer side of Sears, although that is great retail advertising, too. What struck me about the incredibly tactile TV advertising for BR suede, which broke in late September, is how hip but approachable, rollicking and active it is, as if it’s saying, “Come on in.” It’s almost like the new lifestyle advertising is for an HMO for the aesthetically gifted.
There are five different versions of the suede spots, all involving smiley cool people in various suede separates (we’re talking skins, baby), and lots of shots of hands–across the water or in the mud or molding a pot in clay or reading braille or feeling the circumference of a man’s shaven head.
One of the shots, of a woman in a suede shirt putting her fingers across her chest, suggests a famous Edward Steichen photo of Georgia O’Keefe. If some of the shots teeter on the brink of preciousness or overzealous Zen, the music saves them: “Feeling Good,” exquisitely performed by jazz singer Nina Simone. (“It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day.”)
BR will launch a holiday spot in late November involving fragrance samplers, linens, oil candles, merino gloves and handblown tree ornaments–a sort of aesthetic answer to the old raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
But what BR has done, fully integrated, top to bottom, is taken all the ideas that the 25-45 demographic group is questioning and reconfiguring–home, career, comfort–and made soft sense of them.
Now that’s a self-improvement bender for the new retail age–jeep and mosquito netting not included.