LOSING THE EDGE

Byline: Janet Ozzard / Miles Socha

NEW YORK — Step back from the edge.
Fashion firms that have spent millions chasing after edgy advertising in a bid to freshen their sales and image should just chill out and get their own identity, say ad executives and various authorities on cool.
“A lot of ads attempt to be edgy for edgy’s sake,” said Ellis Verdi, a partner in the ad agency DeVito/Verdi. “That just becomes vulgar. I like edgy when it has a concept, when it makes a point.”
“In our estimation, edgy has been over for some time,” said Irma Zandl, president of the New York-based trend and consulting firm The Zandl Group, which tracks the zeitgeist of the under-30 crowd. “I don’t see it as ever having worked in the fashion context. The last time it worked was with CK One fragrance in terms of sales. Most times, it’s just alienating.”
That edgy imagery has trickled down to some of the most mainstream companies is a sure sign that the trend is on its last legs, according to Jeff McKay, owner of an eponymous ad agency here. Consider Tommy Hilfiger’s punk-themed jeanswear collection for fall, which was reminiscent of Vivienne Westwood in the Seventies, he said. “And if you can go to Target and buy an edgy toilet brush, I think we need to rethink this whole thing.”
McKay said the edgiest thing he’s seen in recent months is a suburban-looking Madonna on the cover of the April issue of Good Housekeeping. “It’s totally brilliant,” he enthused. “That is truly edgy because it’s the last thing in life you expect to see. It’s good edgy.”
But lots of examples of “bad” edgy still abound, observers say. Among the spring campaigns singled out for criticism were Emanuel Ungaro’s dogs-in-bondage images, footwear firm’s Cesare Paciotti’s vixens in a graveyard and A|X Armani Exchange’s Barbara Kruger-esque portraits of quirky-looking youths.
Zandl said marketers have missed a strong move to populism and so-called lowbrow entertainment, evident in the spectacular rise of professional wrestling, beers-and-babes magazines like Maxim and bubblegum pop stars like N’Sync.
“There’s a lot more consumer initiation and consumer activity that’s outside the realm of trendsetters,” she said.
Observers agreed that edgy advertising originated in the early Nineties out of the grunge music scene and was exemplified by Calvin Klein’s ads in 1994 for his androgynous fragrance CK One. They featured a lineup of skanky, tattooed youth. Since then, the stereotypically edgy aesthetic has explored several variations: so-called heroin chic, homosexuality and S&M chic, and the drained-of-life boredom attitude.
Why does it persist? For one thing, media now injects edgy culture directly into the mainstream.
“Everything has gotten so much faster,” said Ingrid Sischy, editor of Interview magazine. “Look at the Beat movement, for example. It took a lot longer for that to work into the mainstream, to make the journey from underground to above ground.”
“It’s a bit pathetic, this chase for the edge,” said illustrator Ruben Toledo. “However, aesthetically speaking, things have never looked better. It’s as if corporate America has finally stopped talking down to its public. It’s the edge-ifying of the world.”
Of course, niche fashion magazines that specialize in experimental photography, titles such as Big, Dutch, aRude, Surface and 2wice, have also prolonged the trend. The outcome: “A lot of people talking to each other and not talking to the consumer,” Zandl said.
When attempting to turn street style or avant-garde attitudes into a marketing plan, experts say it falls flat when the edge has no substance to back it up.
“The true avant-garde is the stuff that predicts what is going to happen, it’s the stuff that is going to change the world,” said Sischy. “For companies, it has become a business shorthand, because there’s this unconscious assumption that the avant-garde ‘hasn’t sold out,’ or ‘isn’t commercial.’ And the desire to associate with that is a way of getting authenticity, when your own idea is hollow or lacks vision.” Interview gets approached frequently by companies who want to tap into its lode of cultural hipness. But that can’t just be acquired, said Sischy.
“Real hipness, real avant-garde-ness, is instinctual,” she said. “It doesn’t follow rules. It has nothing to do with age, and it’s never, never done as part of a formula. It changes from day to day.” Sischy pointed to Karl Lagerfeld, Cindy Sherman and Bruce Weber as examples of long-term edge dwellers.
Is adopting a hipper stance a sure way to appeal to a younger customer?
“If you are trying to go to a teen group, you need to be almost unacceptable to older people in order to be acceptable to younger ones,” said Verdi. “But in general, I think that the whole industry thinks that in order to get attention, they have to fall into a formula. I like ads that are a little smarter and wittier.”
Zandl stressed that edgy ads rarely work. “Generally, when we show edgy ads to young people, they say, ‘Who are these weird people?”‘ she said. “Levi’s has tried it, Benetton has tried it…It’s basically driven their businesses into the ground.”
Focus groups might provide handy charts and graphs for sales meetings, say experts, but they suffocate creativity.
“There is very rarely a scientific solution to a creative need,” said Verdi. “Companies like Levi’s are applying their very best scientific methods to a creative problem. People are digging for tools, but they aren’t digging deep enough to touch the heart of the brand. They’re saying, ‘We’re in that market, too!’ But consumers can see right through that. The answers to the challenges they are faced with aren’t going to come out of doing a focus group.”
Others also singled out Levi’s recent campaigns as emblematic of edgy’s pitfalls, arguing that its offbeat campaigns for “hard jeans” and its under-the-radar “viral marketing” clash with the company’s spirit and its product, which is essentially classic.
But Roy Edmondson, Levi’s director of presence and publicity, defends its approach, asserting that the “hard jeans” spots, for example, had a delayed reaction. “The mainstream initially rejected it, which made it more desirable for style leaders, and now the mainstream are starting to follow,” he said. “Trends and directions sometimes take 18 months to two years to take hold…Edgy still works, but it has a very different timeline.”
Edmondson said many companies have fallen prey to “shock tactics,” but he’s convinced it’s still important to challenge consumers and give ads a “spark.” Levi’s is currently finalizing its U.S. campaign for its “engineered jeans,” a radical remake of the basic five-pocket style with curved side seams and slanted back pockets.
With edgy getting dull, what will take its place?
Zandl described a sexy, “pimped up” but populous look that is evident in campaigns by Guess, Gucci and Versace and in recent fashion editorials in Vibe magazine.
“I think the Guess campaign is on target on so many levels,” she said.
Janine Lopiano Misdom, a partner at Sputnik Inc., a trend-forecasting and market research firm, said surreal, dreamscape imagery appears to be the latest incarnation of edginess, evident in last fall’s campaign for Prada, which featured models posed against imaginary backgrounds. Prada’s spring campaign was also widely praised for its mood of tension and conflict.