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Though they hail from different worlds, Elizabeth Musmanno, public relations executive and president of the Fragrance Foundation, and Alex Wiederin, creative director extraordinaire, thrive on taking creative risks.
This story first appeared in the June 20, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
How did you meet?
Elizabeth Musmanno: Alex was working with the jeweler David Webb and was looking for somebody
to buy the media, and somehow I landed on his doorstep. We chatted and he said, “Yep, we would be okay working with you.” So it was fast.
Alex Wiederin: I still think it was the right decision.
E.M.: They were also looking for a public relations company and Alex said, “I think Elizabeth would work very hard for you.” Since then I have brought every single client to Alex. What he does is translate a voice for them. Some creative directors have a look that is implemented no matter who you are. Alex does something different with every client, and what he also does from a public relations standpoint is think about what will get press. For instance, for one client, a small jeans company, Alex hired a girl named Sky Ferreira, and just for that hiring, I was able to get press.
What did you think when Elizabeth came to you about working on the visual presentation of the Fragrance Foundation?
A.W.: It was definitely first about the logo and looking at the organization. It was hard because the Fifi awards was tough for me to swallow. Fifi sounds like a nickname. It doesn’t sound positive and definitely doesn’t sound luxurious.
E.M.: For me, coming in to run the Foundation, from a creative standpoint, most people in the industry agreed it needed a revamp. It would be a stretch to say we were given carte blanche, but certainly everyone said there are no sacred cows.
If you were given creative carte blanche in fragrance, what might you do?
A.W.: Definitely challenge everything a little bit more. When you look at fragrance advertising, it is very classical. Few have really tried to get out of this. Most of it has become such a recipe. I’ve been to meetings where the client showed me boards of what they would like to have. That’s not really interesting. I want to create something rather than fulfill an assignment.
E.M.: We just had lunch with the milliner Stephen Jones, who launched a fragrance called Wisteria Hysteria with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. We asked him if Rei influenced or changed anything, and he said, “Absolutely not.” That’s the reason she wants to work with people like him. She wants their point of view. She doesn’t change what they do. It would ruin the enterprise. There’s a reason the indie brands are popular. They’re not doing the market-research point of view. They are creating what they like and it’s resonating.
Can that point of view be made more accessible?
A.W.: The real problem existing right now is stagnation. The market is definitely a little confused. People are just not finding what they’re looking for. Buying fragrance used to be a far more emotional experience. I think the emotions are far too controlled in our communications right now. Therefore, I don’t think advertising in the fragrance [category] works that well.
E.M.: One brand that does it well is Beautiful by Estée Lauder. They are showing a moment in life, something that you could see yourself in. It’s not always about sex.
A.W.: How often can you redo something? There is a certain recipe which everybody cooks again and again and again. Look at what’s happening in photography, where pretty much every fashion and beauty photographer looks at what Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin and those big guys in the past did, and we all try to achieve that again, a remake of a photograph which was done 40 or 50 years ago, believing that is the aspiration of beauty now. I’m not saying that it isn’t a great picture, but we should move on, we should progress.
E.M.: Where is our Helmut Newton today? Who is it?
A.W.: But we are also not searching for it. Everybody feels more comfortable with things they know. In order to do something creative, you have to go out of your comfort zone, and find something which you may be familiar with but you don’t know 100 percent. That’s when it starts to become interesting.
Alex, you work a lot with fashion companies, and you’re working more with beauty. How similar are the two?
A.W.: What I’ve realized with beauty is, as you go down the line in terms of what happens to the photo shoot after the concept is done, the emotional aspect is almost retouched out at the end of the thing. That doesn’t just include the photography, but also the concept and the message. Fashion is still a little bit more open. I don’t think it’s that big of a difference, though. The reason might be that it’s pretty much all owned by the same big companies. The more you own, the more you control, and the more it becomes your way of looking at things.
E.M.: It would be interesting if some of these big companies started an incubator moment. Every launch doesn’t have to be massive. It’s OK to start in a smaller, more creative, organic way.
A.W.: Another major question is how launches are done right now. They are all done like they were 10 years ago. The only difference is, are we going to make the event even bigger than last time? There could be so many different ways. Maybe there is a viral launch. We have to define the target group before we even start talking about those things. Who is it for? Then you can find a new way of communication.
E.M.: I look at my kids—they are not going in stores, certainly not for fragrance. It’s a big conversation that has to happen. How are we going to reach these kids and get fragrance to them?
A.W.: I believe the nose is one of the organs which is not as polluted, not as confused, as our eyes are. There is still a lot more to be developed and to be done.
Public-relations executive Elizabeth Musmanno began her career in the beauty industry, working for Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein, before moving to the fashion world as head of worldwide marketing and communications at Christian Dior Couture. She founded her firm, The Musmanno Group, in 2010, and was named president of the Fragrance Foundation in 2012.
As founder and creative director of Buero New York, Alex Wiederin works on creating the brand identity, packaging design and advertising campaigns for clients such as Valentino, Versace and Carolina Herrera in the fashion realm and Sonia Kashuk and Oribe in beauty. Prior to that, he was cofounder of AnOther Magazine.