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NEW YORK — “I think we’re frustrated Fellinis.”

This story first appeared in the March 30, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

So says Charles DeCaro, partner with Rocco Laspata, reflecting on the DNA of their advertising agency Laspata DeCaro. For 25 years, the pair has been creating glamorous — sometimes traffic-stopping — campaigns, often in the form of mini-movies.

They’ve enlisted some of the biggest models of the day in campaigns for clients ranging from Kenar Enterprises Ltd. and Blackglama to the Americana Manhasset, Harry Winston, Maidenform and Revlon.

“They created the atmosphere,” said Kenneth Zimmerman, Kenar’s founder and chief executive officer in the Nineties. “They were selling the image, not just a pretty girl in a pair of jeans.”

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“They have such creative ideas. They seem to really have their fingers on the pulse of the upcoming season,” said Andrea Sanders, senior vice president, creative director of the Americana Manhasset luxury shopping center, a client for nine years. “Charles and Rocco have really helped to define the Americana Manhasset as a brand. They take their work so seriously — but they don’t take themselves so seriously.”

The duo’s campaigns blend humor and sophistication and, over the years, they have discovered their fair share of talent. And ruffled a few feathers.

“We’re celebrating our 25th year, but we don’t look a day over 24,” grinned DeCaro, who art directs and styles the shoots, while Laspata does all the photography. “We’re very inspired by film. Whenever we plan something we think cinematically.”

The Early Years

Now personal as well as business partners, Laspata and DeCaro launched their ad agency in 1987 with a third partner, Robert White, who helped them develop their business model. White realized there was a group of potential fashion advertisers who didn’t have the resources and would get lost in the shuffle of the mega ad agencies in the late Eighties. “There was a niche for boutique agencies,” said DeCaro.

White had a business background and was “incredibly charming, and very, very smart. He had a conviction that we could do it all,” DeCaro said. At the time, Laspata and DeCaro were doing photography and styling “and kind of finding our way, and ultimately he [White] decided we had something to offer.”

When Laspata and DeCaro first got together, they would talk incessantly about photographs and ad campaigns that were in European and American fashion magazines. They would discuss who did the hair, what they were wearing and the angles of their bodies in the shoots. “We’d go back and forth and know these photographs and ad campaigns by heart. There was this incredible interest,” said Laspata.

At the time, DeCaro and White owned a restaurant called Luxe at Christopher and Gay Streets in New York City, and Laspata was a waiter.

“It had nothing to do with being on Christopher or being gay. We had parties for Andy Warhol.…It was an amazing place, but we ultimately came to the startling revelation that we were never meant to be restaurateurs by any means,” said DeCaro.

“There were these models who lived in the building and were under contract to Revlon, and we started expressing our interest in fashion and finding out how it was working with Avedon and Helmut Newton. All these girls literally worked with these people so we became friends, and that’s how it started.”

He said they began doing test shoots and taking photographs. “Robert saw this niche for us and said we should take all this creative energy, creativity and passion and turn it into a boutique agency that really wasn’t out there at that point. There’s so many now, but there really weren’t any back then,” said DeCaro.

They started winning accounts such as Capezio Bags and then Revillon. “Robert was pounding the pavement, and just as things started taking hold, he passed away in 1989. It was not only a monumental loss for our business, but a profound and life-changing personal loss,” said DeCaro. Rather than take on someone new, Laspata and DeCaro divvied up White’s responsibilities.

They met Zimmerman, one of their earliest clients, through White. Unquestionably, the Kenar account — and the often-controversial and edgy campaigns they created for it — catapulted the agency.

Zimmerman said he gave Laspata and DeCaro free rein to create “exotic, great advertising” for Kenar. He had previously been working with different agencies, with very little effect.

“I met them, and instinctively I could tell they were serious and passionate,” said Zimmerman. “I said, ‘I don’t want to know anything. I just want to pay you. You don’t need permission from anyone in my company.’”

Zimmerman said he didn’t want to compete with Ralph Lauren’s 50 pages, and wanted bang for his buck.

“If I spent $1, I got $5 [worth],” said Zimmerman, who today is ceo of Only Hearts. “I got them at the right time. They’re so talented. The way they work, they speak without speaking to each other. When I would walk into a [Kenar] shoot, I knew I better not interfere.

“The campaigns cost me a fortune, but I had to create a brand in five years.”

Zimmerman has since sold the Kenar brand to The TJX Cos Inc. With Laspata DeCaro behind the ads between 1991 and 1996, “I tripled my sales [to around $80 million],” said Zimmerman. “Everywhere I went after the second year, everybody knew the Kenar name. The famous models were wearing it.

“I was able to hit higher margins, sell my product to better stores and open overseas business. It was that momentum that they built for me. I got my money’s worth,” said Zimmerman.

The Kenar campaigns helped the agency establish its narrative approach.

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“The visuals and imagery always told a story. It was not just about a pretty picture,” said DeCaro. “The subtext was a narrative. There was Linda [Evangelista] and the Sicilian ladies. There was Helena Christensen with a Fellini narrative. We’ve always been best when we’ve been able to do that. When we communicate a story, I think we do that very well.”

Models featured in the Kenar campaigns included the biggest names of the era — Evangelista, Christensen, Naomi Campbell, Shalom Harlow, Claudia Schiffer. Zimmerman recalled Schiffer photographed for Kenar in a Champagne glass that was mounted on a Times Square billboard on New Year’s Eve in 1996.

Christensen has modeled in Laspata DeCaro campaigns for Kenar, Jacob & Co. and Lacoste in locations from Bali and Rome to New York and L.A.

“I adore them and respect them for their sense of style, humor, wit and sharpness — let alone for the timeless and incredibly beautiful shoots they have done with me over all these years,” Christensen recounted. “We were working with a circus in L.A., and I had to be hoisted up on the trunk of an elephant. I have never seen the two of them laugh so much, as I was desperately trying to hold on to the rough skin of this beautiful creature and not slide down the trunk. Then they put me in a trapeze, which was also high up in the air. As soon as I was up there, dangling from these tiny wires, they yelled out; ‘OK, we’re breaking for lunch!’ And they all left the arena.”

Christensen added: “I don’t think there’s anyone else who so delicately and elegantly has shown the true beauty of women. Their images seem to come from another era, another time. They make a woman look incredibly gorgeous and confident, with a mischievous touch of humor. They show a woman the way she wants to see herself.”

Not only did the Kenar effort create buzz in the fashion community, it provided an early form of “social networking” for the Laspata and DeCaro company.

Laspata recalled the first Kenar billboard they erected in Times Square. “Everyone in the company — except Kenneth — said we were crazy [for going to Times Square] because we were trying to build an image. Times Square at that point was filled with not a lot of attractive types of individuals doing business.”

The agency put up a billboard featuring a topless Evangelista in Mykonos wearing sequin evening pants and clinging to a white wall. Evangelista herself unveiled the billboard.

“On the day of the unveiling, there was a downpour. We asked Kenny if he had any Kenar umbrellas — he said he had so many, he didn’t know what to do with them,” said Laspata. They parked a Kenar truck in Times Square and started handing out umbrellas. “In all the press, you saw Linda and a sea of ‘Kenar’ printed on all the umbrellas.”

Well before company Web sites began posting behind-the-scenes shots of ad campaigns, Laspata said he was documenting each shoot. “We had a camcorder and we’d record everything. Some clips were given to ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ In advance of the Internet and a digital component, we were creating content,” he said.

“Unfortunately, content at that time was limited to showing our family on the weekends, or the client would run it in the showroom,” said DeCaro.

“We have video footage of Cindy, Linda, Claudia, Christy,” Laspata added. “It’s all here. We’ve been trying to pull a video of all of this together. We have Amber [Valletta] in Venice with pigeons on her feet in St. Mark’s Square.”

Today’s Campaigns

The partners revived the famous Blackglama campaign, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” in 2001. With models and celebrities including Evangelista, Gisele Bündchen, Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, Elizabeth Hurley, Naomi Campbell and Janet Jackson, the campaign helped move the needle significantly at American Legend and Blackglama.

When they started working on the Legend division, they spotted the Blackglama ads in the archives. “We grew up with these amazing companies and names and said, ‘Guys, you’re sitting on one of the most famous tag lines in history. Why don’t we put our marketing efforts into relaunching Blackglama?’” said DeCaro. They relaunched with Evangelista. For the last two years, the campaign has featured Jackson.

“The first time I worked with Rocco and Charles, I really did not know what to expect,” said Jackson. “I was so surprised to see what an amazing photographic team they were. Before the photograph is even retouched, it is such a beautiful image. They shoot so quickly. They know exactly what they want; they go for it and they get it. It has such a beautiful, classic look and yet there is something very modern about it.” 

“To put it in perspective, they helped us revitalize Blackglama in 2001,” said Joe Morelli, ceo of American Legend Cooperative, which owns Blackglama and American Legend. “They’re completely in tune with the fashion world.” In each of the last three years alone, Blackglama has achieved record sales, he said.

Morelli said Laspata DeCaro has helped make Blackglama “more contemporary while still holding traditional values.”

Laspata and DeCaro have developed close relationships with many of the models with whom they have worked. While Laspata acknowledged that models today aren’t as famous as those in the Eighties and Nineties, when supermodels rose to celebrity status, he believes there are still several important names, among them Karlie Kloss, Coco Rocha, Natalia Vodianova, Lily Donaldson, Sasha P and Lara Stone. Laspata said the best way to spot them is on the runways.

“We attend shows when we can. We look through magazines, but runways are the most important right now,” he said, to see how a girl moves and how she changes her look.

Laspata and DeCaro have always used top models.

“One of the things we bring to the equation is an editorial feel,” explained DeCaro. “Often, models tell us at a sitting that they think they’re working for a magazine, [that this is a] completely different dynamic [from an ad shoot]. So because of that editorial vibe, we’ve been able to secure these unbelievably boldface names,” said DeCaro.

“When Linda did Kenar, she was doing Chanel and every major designer runway. Kenar sold triacetate suits,” he added.

According to DeCaro, they initially established relationships with these models while working with Hirshleifer’s, the Manhasset, N.Y., specialty retailer, another of their early clients.

“Because we were photographing their designer collections, we started shooting Naomi, Christy, Linda, and that’s how we established a rapport with them. Ultimately, they knew what our m.o. was and how our sets functioned. That’s how we were able to secure them for things that probably would not have happened with another agency,” said DeCaro.

Caryn Hirshleifer, vice president of Hirshleifer’s, said, “We’ve been using them [Laspata DeCaro] for years.” The store still has brochures and catalogues featuring Evangelista, Campbell and Turlington that were shot by the duo.

More recently, Hirshleifer’s has been part of the Americana Manhasset look book shoots.

“They’re incredibly creative. It’s pretty hard to be constantly reinventing yourself and it’s really demanding to do that well, do it consistently and bring something that’s modern and different to it,” she stated.

“Rocco is an incredible photographer and Charles is an amazing stylist. He has the eye,” added Lori Hirshleifer Sills, vice president.

Laspata and DeCaro maintain the difference comes from the comfort level on the set. “The most important thing is that we have a very defined work ethic,” said DeCaro. “Although we are a boutique agency, we function like a larger organization.”

And most of the time, the homey touch carried the day. For years, DeCaro’s parents catered the fashion shoots. “One day we got a call that the caterer took ill, and no one was available,” recalled DeCaro. “And Rocco said, ‘What about your mom and dad?’ My dad was a retired musician and my mother was a housewife. We called them and said, ‘Can you help us out tomorrow?’

“For 15 years, whenever we shot in New York, they catered the food. Suddenly, the set changed and these girls from East Islip to East London had surrogate parents on the shoot. It made the comfort level on the shoot so palatable. There was this unbelievable dynamic where you were entering part of a very private world, so to speak. My mother would know what food Linda loved….”

“It was always so great to work with both Charles and Rocco because it was a family-type environment — and often people would bring their family members. My mom always came on the trips,” said Evangelista. “The thing that sticks out in my mind was their parents making home-cooked meals of our favorite foods and they would be really upset if we didn’t eat enough.

“Their photographs were so positive and full of spirit, even at a time when everything was moving towards much darker themes,” she added.

Having Laspata photograph all the campaigns has given them greater control, and lets them maintain a hands-on approach through all aspects of the creative process.

“We don’t work in silos,” said DeCaro. “We know in advance how something will be photographed, what we’ll do in post-production, and how the media will be placed and the parameters of the layout. It’s a seamless transition from one aspect of the creative process to the next. It’s choreographed to the point where we don’t leave any room for speculation. It’s really that simple.

“We are very organized people,” he added. “The shoots function like a Swiss clock. It’s very important for us to come and understand the whole process, as opposed to having these fragmented thoughts throughout the day. We’re always open to serendipity on the set. Obviously, there are moments where magic happens and we go with it. But for the most part, every aspect is planned in advance. I think that’s part of the success, financially. We’re eliminating a lot of personalities and fees.”

The partners, whose clients have also included Judith Leiber, Perry Ellis, St. John, Jantzen, London Fog, Baker Furniture, Fashion Island and Warner Bros. Records, have seen plenty of changes in the way shoots are conducted, particularly in light of the challenging economy. “Obviously, people are watching money,” said DeCaro. “We used to walk into Kenny [Zimmerman’s office] and say, ‘We’re shooting in Bali next week,’ and he’d say ‘great.’ Now it’s a very different dynamic and we’re respectful of that. So now, homing in and simplifying the process is not only logistically sound, but it’s financially sound as well.”

For some clients, like Harry Winston, they’ve been able to move the company forward, while keeping certain traditions alive. When the agency created Winston’s ads, it resurrected the tag line “Talk to Me, Harry Winston,” famously crooned by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” While pitching the account, they presented that idea to then-chairman Ronald Winston, which they said made him feel comfortable. “Everyone talked about making it hip and cool. We said we wanted to bring the legacy of Winston forward,” said Laspata.

Previously, Harry Winston’s ads showed jewelry. “What we did was to bring in a face and soften it up.” They hired Carolyn Murphy and “made it younger and more approachable and relevant,” said DeCaro. “Here’s this girl wearing a white shirt, jeans and diamonds doing a crossword puzzle. It gave it a completely different spin. The client called and said ‘You’d think we were selling costume jewelry.’ The amounts of jewelry they were selling was amazing.

“We are very concerned with moving sales,” he said. “In order for a campaign to work, sales have to be impacted. No matter how groundbreaking, modern or cool, if we don’t somehow impact sales, we haven’t done our job.”

For the Americana Manhasset’s look books, the partners have shot all over the world: Paris, Venice, London, Rome, Los Angeles, among others. They usually bring one female model and one male model to the shoot. It becomes a major production because about 50 stores, including Chanel, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Hirshleifer’s, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and Hermès, each get a page reflecting the season’s theme.

“These are tenants [in the Americana]. They own these stores. We not only have to be cognizant of branding the Americana, but we have to be very aware of keeping the integrity of the respective tenants,” said DeCaro. He said the stores call to find out the season’s theme so they can save something special for the look book.

For spring, the duo did a Fifties theme, shot with orange shag carpets, rotary dial phones, classic cars, a Fifties-style kitchen, midcentury furniture and a burger and shake shop, featuring Karlie Kloss and Simon Nessman.

“I admire their personal and professional relationship,” said Kloss. “This campaign is one of my favorite experiences thus far…it made me feel like a supermodel.”

Laspata and DeCaro shoot these 60-page look books, along with videos for the Americana’s Web site, three times a year. “When we started, we were told we’d be dealing with some of the biggest egos in the world, so be prepared for reshoots. We have not reshot a single page,” said Laspata.

Sometimes, Laspata said, the shoots become so involved, they resemble the set of “Gone With the Wind.” He recalled one shoot for the Americana in London. They pulled up and saw a huge crowd of people doing a movie shoot. “We asked, ‘What are you shooting?’ and they said, ‘We’re with you.’”

The Game-Changer

Over the years, Laspata and DeCaro have seen many changes in the way advertising is done, but the biggest game-changer has been the Internet.

“It’s been energized with the advent of digital and what that entails. You’re constantly producing content and thinking of unconventional ways of showcasing a campaign or client’s message,” said Laspata, adding that the business today is more challenging but “it allows you to use your head more. The consumer is willing to connect with the brand, and it has to be interactive.”

Although digital has become so much more important, it doesn’t devalue other media, said DeCaro. “I think in this digital age, there still is print. There is still social marketing. There’s still video and outdoor. The omni-channel methodology is what’s important. A brand must communicate its narrative in all channels. It doesn’t change how we think of the campaign or structure, but it’s given us more outlets to tell the story. I think you can tell the story even more succinctly now. The feedback we get from the customer and the targeted demographic is that knowledge is very crucial in devising a strategy in communicating a respected brand narration,’” said DeCaro.

Furthermore, Laspata believes that a brand’s Web site is critical to help them tell a story and can be used successfully as a branding tool. “It’s not like when you’re in a department store, when there are other brands around you, or you’re in a magazine when there are so many ads around you. Somebody is looking at your Web site. That means they’re interested. It’s a great time to tell your story without being surrounded by anybody else.”

“The client now has the ability to create and to curate what he wants,” added DeCaro.

Looking back, they called Kenar and the Americana the most fun. “Kenar was really our first campaign that had notoriety. We love the Americana because of the tremendous freedom that we have,” said DeCaro.

With such a rich history behind them, the partners continue to be energized about the future.

“We’re all working harder than we’ve ever worked to keep up with it,” said Laspata. “Now there’s a lot more that clients need from their ad agency. It’s no longer, ‘Do a photo shoot, put it in the magazine and see you in three months when it’s time to shoot the next collection.’ Now it’s ‘I’ll speak to you and shoot you an e-mail in three minutes and then three minutes later, there’s another one.’ It’s all happening.”

He, too, doesn’t believe that print needs to be sacrificed for digital.

“You know how many deaths we’ve experienced? said Laspata. “I’ve seen luxury die, I’ve seen bridge die, I’ve seen mass die. I’ve seen men’s wear for women die. Because there’s always something new. People are going to read magazines. People are going to be on the Internet. People are going to love their apps. People are going to be addicted to their cell phones. People are going to get up in the middle of the night and check messages. It’s the world that we live in now, so let’s embrace it all.”


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