NEW YORK — Discovering talent in a field of more than 500 design and merchandising employees could be like finding a needle in a stack of fabric samples, but Liz Claiborne claims to have done just that.
The company’s first design competition, Project Protégé, invited staffers from the firm’s 36 brands to create their own lines and present them to senior management. The call to action yielded 27 entries.
The hypothetical brands, which were displayed at Claiborne headquarters here, included lines dedicated to activewear, maternity, contemporary, men’s wear, home and more. Awards were presented in April.
Anne Cashill, vice president of corporate design and merchandising, conceived of the contest with Dana Buchman and executive vice president Angela Ahrendts during an off-site meeting.
“We tried to figure out how we could hear the voices of designers within our company,” said Cashill. “We know they’re creative, but by virtue of the structure of some of our divisions and the designers’ day-to-day real jobs, it’s hard for them to express the other ideas floating around in their heads.”
The winning concept came from an associate designer at DKNY jeans. Like most of the entries, the detailed project included hangtags and logos.
Cashill said the goal of the contest was to ferret out and acknowledge the creativity within the company. “One designer in the Kenneth Cole division did a brilliant project,” she said. “Paul [Charron, Claiborne’s chief executive] said, ‘We’ve got to think about where this person goes next.’ He thought we should be having some serious conversations. He said, ‘This is fabulous. We should be doing this.’”
A big part of Cashill’s job is thinking of ways to coax creativity from the company’s employees. Project Protégé demonstrates her egalitarian view that good ideas can come from anywhere.
Cashill oversees Claiborne’s 18,000-square-foot design resource center. (Several contest participants made use of the center for their projects — after business hours, of course.)
In addition to a vintage fabric library and a periodicals library, the center provides trend reports, consumer forecasts, a pattern inspiration library and a large selection of art books. It was recently expanded to include a state-of-the-art color lab with 4,000 engineered color standards and references.
The color lab will have a significant effect on Claiborne’s business by speeding production time. Once a division chooses a color, Colorsolutions, which provides the technology, posts the specs on its Web site. Claiborne’s vendors can buy dye standards from the site, ensuring uniformity of color.
“Designers used to grab a handful of jelly beans and send them to a mill, or break a terra-cotta pot and send it,” said Cashill. “We’re setting up better processes.”
— Sharon Edelson