In Vogue

Trey Laird began his advertising career as a closet creative. “I was a suit,” he says of his days as an account executive at Arnell/Bickford Asso ciates, then the epicenter of fashion advertising.

It was at the insistence of Peter Arnell that Laird moved over to the art department. “I really resisted it,” says Laird, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin business school. “I was quite intimidated. There were all these people from the Art Center and Parsons. It was Peter who said, ‘You have good taste and good eyes, and you’ll be OK.’ It was fantastic—and really changed the course of my career.”

Laird went on to steer the in-house creative department at Donna Karan for nearly a decade. Now the course of his career has changed again, with the opening of his own venture, Laird + Partners. And in this economic climate, the business degree will certainly come in handy.

Laird, 37, says the impetus for breaking out on his own came after Sept. 11. “It was a time when you looked inward and asked yourself, ‘What do I want from my life?’ ” he says. “[Starting my own company] was something I’ve thought about doing over the last few years, but I never knew the right time.”

Then, in December, he got a call from Millard “Mickey” Drexler, president and CEO of the Gap. Drexler wanted advice on reviving the brand. Several meetings later, Drexler dropped the Gap’s agency of 16 months, Boston’s Modernista!, and hired Laird to handle the $100 million account. Karan agreed to hand Laird’s new operation the bulk of her creative services, a $25 million account. In mid-March, Laird + Partners opened its doors with a staff of 20.

With two iconic apparel brands in his purview, Laird says he intends eventually to expand into other categories in a bold attempt to combine two worlds—fashion marketing and traditional advertising—that rarely collide. “There hasn’t been a big overlap in understanding the values of each other’s turf,” Laird says. “I want to try to do that.”

With his low-key attire—on this day, a pair of jeans, a crisp white shirt, a black blazer—and unassuming demeanor, Laird has a down-to-earth presence. In a fading Southern accent, he talks about treating his 7-year-old son to his first Knicks game with the same excitement as he discusses his new business.

“Here’s this guy who’s working on some of the top fashion brands in America, and he comes across as a cast member out of My Three Sons—so conservative and traditional. But he makes this amazing, cutting-edge imagery,” says colleague James Hitch cock, executive creative director at Ziccardi Partners Frierson Mee, a New York-based fashion agency.

Laird appears not to have any of the attitude that the fashion industry is known for. “One of Trey’s most striking characteristics is his great respect for everyone. Not just me—everyone,” says photographer Peter Lindbergh, who has collaborated with Laird on dozens of Donna Karan shoots. “It’s an incredibly rare thing these days. He leads people with kindness.”

Creatively, Laird is a believer in applying one strategy to all branding. His latest effort for Karan’s DKNY brand, for instance, features models against a collage of New York images. That urban flair is carried over into DKNY’s retail estab lishments. Conversely, the worldly sophis tication that Donna Karan brand advertising conveys is reflected in its tranquil, luxurious stores.

“Trey sees the larger picture,” Karan says. “It’s not just about shooting a campaign. It’s about translating [the concept] to other areas, such as retail and merchandising. There’s a consistency.”

One of Laird’s most recognizable efforts for the designer was the 1996 campaign with Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. For the spring 2001 collection, ads depicted the steamy relationship of a fictitious couple, Jeremy Irons and Milla Jovovich, holed up in a French colonial hotel in Vietnam. Storytelling is a favorite way to exude the essence of a brand.

“Sometimes fashion advertising is at its best when it can take you away and transport you to that place, make you dream a bit. It shouldn’t always be so serious,” says Laird.

For Gap, Laird will collaborate with its in-house team on advertising, direct mail and in-store marketing. He’s already “knee deep in the creative process” for a fall campaign.

“Gap is a very powerful brand,” he says. “There are very few brands that intersect with so many people’s lives—there’s almost no one I know that doesn’t own something of the Gap. I’m approaching it by being true to the brand and what it means to people.”

In the last few years, Gap’s attempts to attract a younger generation have been seen as alienating to the thirtysomethings who grew up with the retailer. “They were reacting to fashion,” says Hans Dorsin ville, a Donna Karan veteran who is now creative director at Laird + Partners. “It’s our job to update the brand, modernize it and make it fresh within the parameters of what the brand stands for.”

Gap hired Laird two weeks after reorganizing its marketing department and retaining West Coast creative director Lisa Prisco—who guided Gap campaigns in the late ’90s—for its summer campaign, due next month. The San Francisco-based client desperately needs to boost the brand—in March it recorded its 22nd consecutive month of same-store sales declines. “Marketing is critical as we get our product right,” Drexler says in a statement. “Trey’s creativity and understanding of Gap will help us talk to our customers in new ways.”

One old formula likely to remain is the use of celebrities, prevalent during the past several seasons. Last year’s holiday campaign from Modernista! featured rock stars Seal, Alanis Morissette and Dwight Yoakam, among others, performing the Supertramp classic “Give a Little Bit.” Gap print this spring features some 50 celebrities.

Dorsinville, currently casting for print, promises no gratuitous use of celebrities. “The question is, ‘Is it the right person to represent the brand? Do they have an innate sense of style and validity?’ ” he says. “We have a strategy in how we’re picking and pairing the people together. We want the Gap to appeal to all generations.”

As far as TV work, it’s a relatively foreign medium for the new agency. Laird has not yet hired a creative with extensive broadcast experience, but he says he’s considering candidates for future campaigns.

Dorsinville asserts that much of a spot’s success lies in a shop’s collaboration with the director. “It’s about being able to find the right people who understand the vision,” he says.

Beyond TV and print, Laird plans to extend Gap’s message to online, outdoor, in-store and possibly bus sign age (a first for Gap)—the same phil osophy he implemented for Karan. “You have to be versatile and think about all of these mediums as you’re creating a concept,” he says. “Things have to live on so many different levels. If you have something wonderful and enticing in the advertising message and then you go to the store and it’s a different message, you’re not doing your job.”

For now, Laird’s agency still occupies the 10th floor in the building that houses Donna Karan International in the heart of Manhattan’s fashion district. But his lease runs out in Decem ber, and he’s negotiating for space in the meat-packing district. The move will be a way of further cutting the apron strings tying him to Karan.

Laird has known Karan since 1987, when he worked on her account at Arnell/Bickford. From there, he landed a creative director post at Italian apparel design house GFT. A year into that job, Laird got a call from Karan, asking him to establish her company’s advertising department.

“I’ve been very lucky,” says Laird as he reflects on the turns of his career. “The phone has been good to me.”