Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A design career punctuated by photo ops: Where to now for Ksubi?

I've just returned from the Ksubi press conference. As per usual it was one great big photo op for Ksubi co-founders Dan Single and George Gorrow: a meet-and-greet with their supposed bestie, international runway walker Erin Wasson.

As already reported, Wasson was recently sent a text message by the Ksubi lads to ask if she'd like to come on down to grace their show tomorrow. She jumped at the opportunity, Wasson told today's mini media scrum.

"So are you doing it for free?" asked someone from the media pack.

"Yeah" said Wasson, a little awkwardly.

For the record, Wasson happens to be an IMG model, and according to an IMG spokesperson, she is contracted and is being paid. As was Lily Cole, last year's international runway ringin at the event. IMG of course owns Australian Fashion Week and it has an interest in promoting its own talent. That's not to say that Wasson doesn't like and wear Ksubi's jeans or that she doesn't know and like Single and Gorrow. But it's worth pointing out this connection, just to keep some perspective.

After the "conference", during which not a great deal was said other than organiser Simon Lock recounting some of Ksubi's antics at AFW's past and some of their upcoming projects (a store in Tokyo, a book of photographs due out tomorrow) - and certainly nothing about yesterday's announcement of the sale of a chunk of Ksubi equity to Quiksilver Europe founder Harry Hodge - Gorrow, Single and Wasson squeezed in together for pics.

This is what Ksubi revels in: photo ops, back pats and prat fall pranks. Their fashion career, since they first launched themselves into publicity orbit in 2001, by sending 169 rats down the AFW runway, has been punctuated by one photo op after another. For the most part I do take my hat off to them: for the ability to keep on pulling publicity rabbits out of hats. I'm all for pushing the corners of the envelope and the label formerly known as Tsubi has certainly gone there many times.

From the models overboard show of 2003 (even Simon Lock at the time admitted he was nervous about the public liability issues of models coming to grief in Sydney Harbour after diving off the Tsubi boat) to the "fabulous nobodies" show of May 2005, you usually never know just what you're in for with a Tsubi show. Some ideas have been clever. Some have been offensive - a case in point, the "porno" calendar launch, for which models (including Michelle Leslie) posed in some very unflattering poses alongside cars and motorbikes. One line of accompanying 'graffiti' was so offensive that I wrote it down for posterity: "It is the code of the semen to f**** a golden prostitute".

And one idea apparently wasn't theirs at all: the famous "two minute" show of November 2004 - when, after making the audience wait for over an hour, models were sent out on a victory lap of the runway, clapping, as if it was the end of the show. London-based Swedish designer Ann-Sofie Back has, I am assured, been doing this very stunt since she first launched.

Ksubi has lapped up all the attention and publicity - and rucked up a A$20million sales turnover in the process, the greatest slice of which has of course come from their killer jeans. Perhaps it's no surprise to learn that they don't like bad publicity. I mean who does in fashion? This business runs on PR and publicists and designers love fashion writers who don't ask the hard questions best. Sydney is not the only town where fashion journos get banned and verbally attacked - Cathy Horyn of The New York Times is currently under a ban from several separate design houses, following negative reviews, including Dolce e Gabbana and Carolina Herrera. Ksubi is the only show this week that I haven't been invited to and there was the incident in New York last September where loudmouth New York publicist Kelly Cutrone - Ksubi's US PR rep - banned me from all her clients' shows forthwith.

I was interested to finally see the dark side of Dan Single on Saturday night at the Willow presentation. I'd heard a lot about it. Totally unprovoked - except save for a series of stories that I have written about the Tsubi/Tsubo trademark dispute which obliged Tsubi to change its name to Ksubi, and the Cutrone incident - Single approached me while I was talking to several other people and made a couple of nasty comments in a loud voice.

When I later attempted to clear the air, by asking just what Single's problem was, he told me - once again in full earshot of a number of people - that after I had made enquiries to some of Ksubi's suppliers approximately 18 months ago, some of the companies had been spooked and it wound up costing Ksubi a great deal of money. He didn't elaborate any further.

At the end of the Tsubi trademark story that I wrote this time last year, I alluded to a major cash crunch that Tsubi appeared to be having in late 2005. That's certainly when I first got wind of it - due solely to the fact that the ragtrade, from Sydney to Auckland, was abuzz with talk about the company.

Who knows what's really going on in Ksubi's world? Many fashion companies experience cashflow problems - and of course some unfortunately also go under. But while Single and Gorrow may have laughed off suggestions from branding specialists this time last year that the trademark changeover cost could potentially wind up in the seven figures, it's probably a safe bet to say that irrespective of the cost, it's an additional expense that they probably did not need at the time.

A Tsubo director told me that his company had been pursuing Tsubi for several years but claimed that Single and Gorrow just kept fobbing off the calls and emails. In the end, Single and Gorrow didn't have much choice - the case almost went to court, which could have cost the duo more money still. Had they nipped the matter in the bud, at a time when most people had never heard of Tsubi, presumably the entire exercise would not have been quite so expensive.

Good luck to Single and Gorrow. It will be interesting to see how this new partnership pans out and just where the Ksubi brand is heading. Hopefully it's onwards and upwards. I don't enjoy having to investigate/report that fashion companies may be experiencing financial problems however the ragtrade is a tough industry and at the end of the day, it's my job.

One thing's for sure however. As a number of fashion creatives have discovered after selling brand equity to investors - there's no such thing as a free lunch.

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