LOS ANGELES — Is Fred Segal Fun the second-happiest place on earth?
Today, when consumers walk into the hipster fashion retreat, one of many, inside the Fred Segal Complex in Santa Monica, they may very well see pixie dust. Greeting them is a window display of posters from Disney archives, such as "Goofy in Hello Aloha" and "Hawaiian Holiday." Another can’t-miss is the beaming, open-armed Mickey Mouse and his nearby leading lady, Minnie Mouse.
Even more surprisingly are the Disney icons found on the cool clothing occupying front and center at the store.
In an unusual venture, Fred Segal Fun owner Jackie Brander and The Walt Disney Co. are doing things they never imagined. Brander is serving as lead designer of their joint contemporary line called "Disney Vintage," while Disney is opening up its decades-old archive trove to the outsider boutique owner.
Industry observers say the alliance is less about bang-for-the-buck appeal and more about increased visibility among those high-profile trendsetters.
"[Disney is] reaching up to the audience they had and they lost," said Sharon Lee, co-president of Look-Look, a trend consulting firm in Hollywood. "They probably lose people after the ages of 10 or 12…but if there’s a way to tap into that nostalgic feeling married with some contemporary fashion, it’s an opportunity for a studio with significant assets to repurpose them to a different audience and bridge the gap in sales before someone becomes a parent."
Of course, relevancy is an issue daunting most Hollywood studios. In their favor is that everything old is new again. Witness the hype surrounding upcoming movies "Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle" from Sony Pictures and "The Hulk" from Universal Pictures.
Those film libraries are also a gold mine of characters that can produce a strong fashion tie-in, especially as newer loveable and quirky icons — notably Julius the Monkey from Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Paul Frank Industries Inc. — have hit pay dirt in the apparel world.
In the last year, character regeneration pioneer Hello Kitty has had a buzz-generating outlet with Heatherette, the New York label designed by former club kids Richie Rich and Traver Rains. Rich recently said Heatherette is in talks with Urban Outfitters to create a moderately priced line of Hello Kitty-inspired T-shirts and sweatshirts. Los Angeles-based accessory designer Tarina Tarantino has also given the Kitty an edge, which is only expected to sharpen with this summer’s launch of Pinkhead for HelloKitty. Even lingerie designer Samantha Chang is on board to create a 12-style collection of intimates with the feline logo due to hit stores in July, including Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.A troubled Disney, whose merchandising business has stumbled in the last few years, has had to change. Its consumer products division president Andy Mooney was a late-1999 recruit from Nike Inc., brought in to turn around the business whose operating income plummeted to $386 million in 2000 from $893 million in 1997. Pushing retail gear tied to its television shows is one new direction, along with playing up its key franchise, Mickey Mouse, which accounts for about 40 percent of the division’s revenue.
But the repairs have just begun, and have yet to have an impact. For the second quarter ended March 31, operating income for the consumer products segment decreased 38 percent to $58 million as revenues fell 14 percent to $500 million.
Still, the company’s move to be a more proactive content house is a step in the right direction, say brand experts.
"They’re reminding people that they have a collectability about them, and they’re important in the long term," said Carrie Williams, a Seattle-based brand consultant.
Disney won’t reveal terms of its deal with Fred Segal. For now, the Disney Vintage line consists of vintage-inspired shirts with Disney logos that officially began selling in January, and about a dozen clothing styles due to ship May 15 to Fred Segal Fun — all a creation of Brander’s fancy.
"It’s going to be whatever I like, whenever I feel like it," she gushed.
Her current affinities: Tinkerbell and Donald Duck. Among the highlights are a stretch poplin shirt with a Donald Duck image imprinted and airbrushed on the back and "Never never" embroidered in reverse; faded Levi’s with a frayed waist and Tinkerbell and the looking glass airbrushed on the legs, as well as cargo pants with shirred sides, flower appliqués and a Tinkerbell airbrush.
At press time, among other ideas she was mulling was a cashmere sweater with a screen print of the Magic Kingdom’s famous Sky Ride — sure to go over with the Gen-X crowd.
Whatever her decision, Disney execs say it suits them just fine.
"She’s driving it," said Dennis Green, vice president of Disney’s softline consumer products. "She’s able to capture the magic with the way she uses our content, mixes in the characters and applies them."He reiterated the entertainment giant’s enthusiasm for being distributed in "such a prestigious retailer."
Accessories are also part of the vision, including leather belts with Mickey Mouse antique brass buckles crafted by Dillon Rodgers. The details, the higher-quality fabrics and the designs are what will set this line apart from Disney’s mass-market apparel.
Not to mention the price. Retail price points range from $95 for the belts to $300 for jackets, which will come at a later date.
Along with Brander, there are about a dozen employees working with Green who touch the clothing along the design process. Jem Sportswear in San Fernando, Calif., which has had a Disney license for the past decade, is making some of the T-shirts, and Los Angeles designer Ashley O’Rourke, a longtime friend and former roommate of Brander, is the collection’s manufacturer.
The line is exclusive to Disney for now, and next yearwill roll out to about two dozen retailers globally, in such cities as New York, London and Tokyo.
O’Rourke envisions the business growing to $4 million to $5 million in two to three years.
"We want to do this slowly and carefully," O’Rourke said. "Stores will either get this or not. If we have to explain it to them, they’re not our store."
Another twist in the deal? It’s virtually marketing-free. The venture will rely on word-of-mouth promotions to grow sales organically — not the usual Disney m.o.
"We’re purposely not promoting it because then it’s uncool," Green said. "Part of making something cool is the element of discovery and if we do the whole television campaign, it takes away that element. Yet, a corporation the size of Disney usually doesn’t have the patience to watch something develop from a grassroots level. It’s a complete reverse strategy from what Disney would do."
Fashion test signs at other studios are also encouraging.
Universal Studios has had a successful line of licensed clothing for juniors aimed at specialty retailers Hot Topic, Gadzooks and Wet Seal, including a line for its "Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat" movie release in November. It dabbled in more forward looks with Los Angeles knitwear designer Suss Cousins, who created high-end sweaters for its 2000 movie, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Tim Rothwell, Universal’s senior vice president of consumer products, said another deal is in the works with Cousins."We performed successfully with the product and view that as an opportunistic business," he said.
Warner Bros. Consumer Products drummed up interest and noise during the recent awards season with the distribution of 800 of its vintage-inspired Looney Tunes T-shirts at the Cabana Beauty Buffet holding court during the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood. The courtesy "suite" attracted celebrities such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mira Sorvino, Sarah Wynter and the Hilton sisters. Up for grabs were tight-fitting ringer T-shirts emblazoned with vintage Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat screen prints.
It was the studio’s first exposure with the Golden Globes and its second with the Academy Awards, and Warner Bros. says it’s looking forward to more of such events in the future.
"This was an opportunity to get confirmed product placement with fashionistas and celebrities who then helped generate interest in the media," said Karine Joret, Warner Bros.’ senior vice president of worldwide public relations.
Indeed, Warner Bros. is seeking new ways to get in the market following the closure of its 130 company stores in 2001. Most of its distribution is at the mass-market level, with such retailers as Target Corp. Recently, Kohl’s Corp. picked up the retro-inspired T-shirts for fall and discussions for placement in a more high-end department store are in the works.
"We’re trying to go after opportunities that put us at a different level," Joret said. "If the interest is there, we’d push for boutique sales."
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