GENE PRESSMAN: A BRAND NEW GIG
Byline: David Moin
NEW YORK — Gene Pressman, consultant. Not quite.
“This is a creative agency. Not a consultancy,” Pressman said last week, during an interview at his West Village town house, where he disclosed that his new venture, Gene Pressman LLC, is up and running and seeking clients. “A consultant is about financial assistance, restructuring companies and all this market research. That’s not my expertise.”
With Pressman, formerly co-chief executive officer of Barneys New York, it’s never been about the numbers. Nor is it about following convention.
Now, he’s working as a “creative consultant” on a handful of projects involving branding, brand extensions, marketing, scouting for talent and most importantly, creating newness. He’s selling creativity, and for businesses that may be going flat, he says he’ll bring back “the coolness factor.”
“I had a couple of years to think about stuff,” Pressman said. “That’s a great luxury. I don’t miss the fashion business — I love it. I like the newness. The excitement. I like to see innovation. But I haven’t been seeing any of that lately.
“My expertise is creative vision. All companies need this vision. Very big companies get stuck in the mud. They’re very worried about profits. Their whole structure is financially based. They’ve got to create an edge, a buzz to attract customers and grow the business.”
He wants to do what he did at Barneys, to “create an environment, a real experience that’s real fun, where there’s hot people in a cool atmosphere, with natural light, air and space that’s not overrun with designer boutiques. I had huge fights with designers about that.”
He’ll give “the broad perspective and a collective strategy,” involving ad campaigns, packaging, product building, talent scouting,” and not just for stores, but for hotels, airlines and other industries.
“I could inject coolness,” which in the Pressman school of style is “more about taste and vision, together. Seeing trends that will be important. Accumulating a bevy of talent — designers, art directors, architects. Every kind of field can contact me.”
Count the home as one of his target fields.
“Guys definitely don’t like to shop. They don’t care about fashion, but they do care about gadgets and home products. Men are coming out of the closet to find things for their home and plenty of homes are being built. This is a huge opportunity. The market is only just starting to happen here. It has in Europe and Japan, but only a little in this country. If you had to go out and find a fashion designer, it’s relatively easy. But where do you go to find someone who can design decorative objects?”
Pressman’s got a unique talent for uncovering talent, something he picked up at Barneys, known for launching Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander and Manolo Blahnik, among other major labels over the years.
But a talent for consulting remains to be seen. With the messy bankruptcy of Barneys behind him — the family is no longer involved in the business — and a perception that consultants often have great ideas that they don’t know how to execute, Pressman may be challenged to develop clients.
However, the Pressman name is one of the few in the industry tightly linked with innovation and taste. And Gene Pressman, the grandson of Barney Pressman, who founded Barneys as a discount store, was the driving force in making Barneys synonymous with hip, high-priced women’s fashion, and for bringing some fun back to retailing.
Vera Wang wants to pick that creative mind.
“We are looking to expand the Vera Wang brand into some new product areas,” said Chet Hazzard, president of Vera Wang, which is expanding to categories beyond bridal and ready-to-wear and will soon unveil a new retail concept. “We’ve brought Gene in as a consultant to work with Vera and me on coordinating many of these different efforts so that there is one voice, one point of view, that we articulate on many different products. Vera and I have a strategy for expanding our retail business. Gene has real knowledge of retailing, particularly the creative side, meaning interesting, new and creative ways to think out of the box. A lot of retailers today could be lifestyle-oriented. We don’t want to be something that is monolithic.”
While running Barneys, Pressman launched Vera Wang ready-to-wear and built a Vera Wang shop at Barneys in Beverly Hills. “When every retailer was moving away from bridal, he embraced it. He’s got insight in being able to see what’s coming,” Hazzard said.
As far as their new consulting arrangement: “This is not just about friendship and we’re not going to just float with Gene,” Hazzard said. “You can’t deny his part in what was created on a positive level. That’s the level we want to work with him. We’re not asking him to run our business, nor does he have any interest in running our business.” Pressman said he’s connected with Dr. Gabriel Golan, a dentist who partnered in 1-800-Dentist. They’re working on developing a line of oral hygiene products, with Pressman focused on the packaging and distribution aspects. “Hopefully, we’ll see some prototypes in the next few months.” He’s also a partner with Dr. Golan in selling CD-Rom business cards, which are wallet-sized and store information.
Also, Pressman said he is working with Peter Arnell, who, he said, has expanded his business to a “brand-building infrastructure, from soup to nuts, but has not stepped away from advertising.” He didn’t specify any projects they’re collaborating on.
Pressman’s consulting practice has a team of one, so he’s working right out of his home, which isn’t a bad place to be. It’s like a cozy English gentleman’s retreat, handsomely decorated by Pressman with an eclectic array of deco, but not frilly, art nouveau and modern furnishings, a small wine cellar with a barreled ceiling formed from a wine vat, a deco iron bed, and along the walls, Pressman’s homage to pop culture. There are originals by Miro, Calder and Rauschenberg, a giant group photograph of Janice Joplin, Big Brother, Jerry Garcia and other rockers, a Beatles photograph, one of John Lennon’s drawings, and a photo of JFK at his inauguration.
“I like design that is modern, that’s timeless, and also classic, but not dowdy classic. A lot things I have are truly copied today, but when I bought them, it wasn’t expensive.”
Among his favorites pieces is the Hogenauer metal racing dog atop a Biedermeier bureau in his bedroom and a Jacques Adnet deco desk with a leather Hermes insert on the top.
Another prized possession is the autographed Knicks basketball from the 1970 championship team, signed by the likes of Bill Bradley, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier. But for this basketball fan, it’s time to get off the sidelines and back on the playing field. And he feels there’s room for someone like himself.
“Service and creativity is really not existent. The impetus for creativity has got to come from upper management where direction is coming from. Quite frankly, it’s coming from bean counters. Today, there are no merchants and designers aren’t being designers anymore, they’re dictated by licensing.”
There are some exceptions.
“Even though Target is a mass retailer, it has really made a tremendous effort to be special and have a point of difference. In their advertising, they’ve tried to get younger and tried to create more of lifestyle by associating generic products with fashion, like a Brillo pad with a sweater that looks like it, and they’ve try to get more excitement in their own private label, like with the Michael Graves home collection. They’re doing this in an aggressive way that makes them different, exciting and certainly young.
“With Martha Stewart for Kmart, it’s similar, even on a bigger scale. She’s almost saved Kmart. It’s pretty generic stuff, utilitarian, nothing modern, but it’s tasteful and useful.”
On Hennes & Mauritz: “Overall in Europe, they’re not as successful as they are here, because they’re newer here. H&M is all over Europe. Because they are European, they’ve presented fashion in a little more avant-garde manner. Price is a huge factor, it’s fast fashion, and nobody else is really doing that. All of the big mass retailers are really doing fashion basics. H&M is a phenomenon, though it’s hard to say how it would do outside New York.”
On Apple: “The designs have influence far and way beyond the computer industry, with their clear lucite and colors. You can see through the products and see the inner workings. It’s very high-tech looking.”
On Vera Wang: “She’s an extraordinarily talented eveningwear and bridal designer who hasn’t exploited the possibilities of brand extensions. She made bridal modern. Before, bridal was dowdy.”
On Barneys New York: “It’s strange to go back. It’s changed, but Barneys still remains such a good concept. It’s not monolithic. It’s an anchor still for new designers and the Madison Avenue anchor for the proliferation of designers there.”
If he was back at Barneys, what would his goal be? To establish the brand as part of pop culture. So when people see something cool and hip, they say: “That’s so Barneys.”
But he says he’s not really seeking a second chance.
“I don’t want to operate anything — ever again.”