By  on April 18, 2007

Paul Marciano is used to being second-guessed for his advertising campaigns. He's been asked why his product isn't featured in certain ads or why Claudia Schiffer wore a bustier in every magazine when the company didn't even sell them — and those questions were only from his brother Maurice. But Marciano takes tremendous pride in his vision and has produced some of the most widely recognizable advertising of the last 25 years, including the aforementioned Schiffer shot and Anna Nicole Smith's glamorous ad debut.

"There was and is a culture called Guess advertising," said Peter Arnell, chairman of the Arnell Group, a New York-based branding agency. And Guess has the trophy case to show for it, including multiple Clio and Mobius awards, among other distinctions.

But before the honors and string of iconic Guess Girls became part of pop culture, Marciano admits that he humbly began his career of producing ad campaigns with absolutely no experience in fashion photography, ad campaigns or styling. Marciano took on his first campaign in 1982, with photographer Wayne Maser, who had previously worked for Universal MCA but never shot a fashion picture, and model Deidre Maguire. During that first shoot, the crew was chased off the beach by Laguna Beach police because they hadn't obtained a permit.

Learning from his mistakes, Marciano moved the shoot four months later to the desert in Santa Fe to invent an original concept. "I was convinced that if there was not a strong image attached to the Guess brand, one day we could miss a season or trend and we could face a major challenge," Marciano wrote in his 2006 book, "Guess by Marciano."

He stuck with Maser for the second attempt and worked with him for the next five years. Maser again teamed up with Guess in 1993 to shoot Drew Barrymore in the California desert and Miami. Marciano described the timing of working with a then 18-year-old Barrymore as landing "between two moments in her life." After that campaign hit magazines, Barrymore was no longer considered a child star, appearing in television's "The Amy Fisher Story" and movies such as "Boys on the Side" and "Mad Love."

"I loved being part of a legacy," Barrymore said of her role as a Guess Girl. "I used to have the Guess ads in my binder at school. They've always been iconic, graphic and truly beautiful." She describes the shoots as "pure fantasy, as well as a total blast."With Barrymore, Naomi Campbell and Paris Hilton among the exceptions, Marciano said that 98 percent of the time, he gives models their big breaks. He meets his models through friends and photographers and became acquainted with many Guess Girls, including Eva Herzigova, Daniela Pestova and Laetitia Casta, through Veronique Tuil at Madison Agency in Paris. Early on, Marciano developed a reputation for kick-starting the careers of many up-and-coming models, such as 16-year-old Carla Bruni. Marciano gave Bruni her first U.S. magazine campaign and made her an early Guess Girl, after French model Estelle Halliday and Frederique Van Der Wal, who became famous for her Victoria's Secret work years later.

And, he's done the same for photographers, including Daniela Federici, who was still in film school when Marciano tapped her to shoot an ad campaign, and newcomer Odette Sugerman, who has shot accessories more recently for Guess.

Sugerman is self-taught and only began her photography career a few years ago. She originally met Marciano while working as a hairstylist at the José Eber salon in Los Angeles. When she decided to put the scissors down and pick up the camera instead, Marciano was there to give her a job. "He's my mentor and made my career," she said. In addition to shooting accessories, she has shot for Guess Kids and the new fragrance campaign. In turn, Sugerman helped Marciano by discovering a model, Diora Baird, for one of the more recent campaigns. After shooting for Guess, Baird landed in the pages of Playboy and is now an actress, with appearances in several movies, including "Wedding Crashers."

Federici, too, has high praise for Marciano, also calling him a mentor. She has shot 12 campaigns for Guess, with models Josie Maran, Casta and Smith. She recalls Smith as being "lovely, magical and delightful" on the set. "In each frame she had something going on, and people don't normally have that," she said. "She was very glamorous and over the top."

Ellen Von Unwerth also got a leg up in her career by working with Guess. Von Unwerth shot early campaigns with Schiffer, Campbell and Herzigova. And she has worked periodically with Guess for the past 20 years. More recently, she photographed Paris Hilton, who signed on as a Guess Girl in 2004.Marciano said he received an "incredible response" from Hilton's ad campaigns but that the company eventually parted ways with the heiress because her personality and style weren't in line with the direction Guess was heading.

Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners ad agency in New York, wasn't a fan of Hilton's turn as a Guess Girl but couldn't get enough of the first campaign with Smith in 1993. "The Anna Nicole Smith discovery was such a seminal moment, and she really took America by storm," Kirshenbaum said. "I recently met a young star and realized that there aren't many of them that just have it."

In his book, Marciano credits himself with changing Smith's name from Vicky Lynn to Anna Nicole because it sounded better. He said that one of the main reasons Playboy's 1993 Playmate of the Year went on to become such a household name "is because she was such an oversized model and so beautiful as a face."

Us Weekly recently reprinted one of Smith's old diary entries from June 1992 that recalls the details of Smith getting a call from Marciano before her first photo shoot. She wrote: "Please God let him love me!! He's sending me some clothes to try on for my shoot. I can't believe this. This could be it."

During the Nineties, when Kate Moss and other super-skinny models were all the rage, Marciano bucked the trend, casting the voluptuous 39-27-39 Smith. "I like women who are feminine, real and sensual," he said. "I never connected to the trend of skinnier is better. It doesn't mean I'm right. I still have the same type of model in all my campaigns."

Kirshenbaum said that certain great fashion brands lead in terms of their casting, pointing to Smith and Schiffer as examples. But in recent years, he said Guess hasn't continued to find the same gems. "Consistency is a real art," agreed Trey Laird, president of New York ad agency Laird + Partners. He said, besides Anna Nicole Smith, whom he called a "sensation," Guess has strayed from its strong suit of discovering the new, talked-about girl and producing something more than "sexy, pinup girl images."Post-Schiffer and Smith, Laird said, the campaigns now feel anonymous. "I don't even know who shoots for them now," he said. "I feel like they look like faux Guess campaigns. It was better when they were talked about for more than just being a sexy fashion picture."

Although some wonder whether Guess still has the ability to "bring sexy back" into future campaigns, Arnell said you can't argue with the fact that their ads have been successful enough to attract copycats, listing Nautica and Abercrombie & Fitch as examples. "In the beginning, Marciano did a good job of setting Guess apart from the competition by creating pinup advertising that was almost beyond exploitation," he said.

Arnell added that Marciano's style of choosing the new Guess Girl was previously a successful way to market the brand but that their ad content needs to evolve and include more of a story now. After 25 years, Marciano continues to oversee advertising, image development, retail stores and licensing. And he always has his eyes open for new photographers and potential Guess Girls. The current campaign features Swedish model Elsa Hosk, who is not a household name yet but looks the part. "She looks like Grace Kelly, he said. "She looks so healthy."

Reminiscing about 25 years of Guess Girls, Marciano admitted that not every campaign has worked out for the best. He pointed to Naomi Campbell's 1991 turn on the beaches of Brazil alongside newcomer Herzigova as one of the more forgettable moments. "It was the first time we took on an established model and it didn't work for me," he said. "I have a hard time working with prima donnas."

Guess controls all of its worldwide advertising and marketing in-house, from its headquarters in Los Angeles. Last year, the company expensed $22.4 million for advertising. Today Guess advertises in Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, Elle, W and Vogue.

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