When it come to building fashion narratives, fashion’s go-to man for wit and wink is RICHARD CHRISTIANSEN, founder and creative director of CHANDELIER CREATIVE. We sit with the innovative raconteur to talk think tanks, law school, sheep races, the value of strategy, TV advertising, and the greatest fake-it-to-make-it story of all time.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Let’s start at the beginning. You have a very left-of-center, creative upbringing. Can you tell us a little about that, and are the stories true?
Yes, the stories are true. I had a wildly non-traditional childhood, and I’m very grateful for that. My mother and father are farmers in Australia and I have an identical twin brother. We grew up in a remote area in Australia, which was great. We didn’t have other kids to play with, so we had to use our imagination to build things and run around and create stuff. There wasn’t a lot of idle time.
My parents were very inventive. At the time, Australian farmers were having a rough time, so like many of the other farmers, my mum and dad needed to get creative to make money off the property. This was at the peak of the Asian tourism explosion in Australia, so we were constantly trying to think of what we could do to get Asian tourists to come to our farm for an “authentic” Australian experience. We started gambling with sheep races, built a steam train and put on live shows. It was really, truly like a vaudeville family and a great foundation for creating make-believe and learning to market these stories. More importantly, it was a great introduction to the BUSINESS of creativity. So today, I feel the same way about the creative work we do. If it’s not actually driving results, it’s not good work. No matter how pretty it looks.
Did you ever imagine then you would get paid for all that goodness?
I was very happy doing that. Creating stories and marketing them came very naturally to me because we were always practicing our skills, as kids all the way through to young adults. Over time I got better and learned how to build on those ideas and articulate them in a more engaging way. All we wanted to do was problem solve, creatively. So I knew what I wanted work to “feel” like, but I had no understanding of a job title. In rural Australia you don’t exactly hear the term “Art Director” or “Creative Director”, but I am grateful that I get paid for what I love to do. Having to problem solve your way out any situation is such a wonderful creative challenge (as my parents taught me). So I have found that nothing excites me more than a brand that is in trouble. I want to fix broken brands and create new ones.
You obviously left the farm eventually?
I did. I was so excited to experience the world because we lived in a rural, remote area, and we attended a country school. Every kid in the school — all 23 of us — was in one classroom, so it was a really “country” school in every sense of the word. The non-linear education was a great asset as I had a wide knowledge of lots of things, which helped me get into a private boys school, and ultimately, law school at a young age. I actually wanted to study something creative, but nobody in my world had ever made money from creating anything “pretty”, so law school it was, which I completed in London. In retrospect it was a very smart decision; law school taught me how to write, it taught me to think on my feet and argue my case. So I got to exercise the other side of my brain.
So what happened back in London after you finished law school?
Well, I was kind of broke, so I was working every night in cool bars in London, which I loved because it was putting on a show for people behind the bar and being able to talk to EVERYONE. Of course I was incredibly impatient and curious – there wasn’t a person I didn’t say hello to. I shook everyone’s hand, and if you came back to the bar twice, I’d know your name.
I met a lot of people from the publishing world and ended up interning at various magazines. Around this time, I met some very talented agency people (including Michael Wolff from Wolff Olins) who started an agency called the Fourth Room. They’d just come off some airline repositioning work, and were looking for business-minded people who could think creatively, so it was a really nice fit. I jumped in there for a little bit and learned a lot. From there I got the introduction to Oliviero Toscani and the Benetton team at Fabrica.
What was that foundation like?
Benetton was amazing. It changed my life. Oliviero Toscani was incredibly talented, very disruptive and challenging. He, like me, was also a really big believer in a non-linear creative process. He didn’t care who you were or what you studied, as long as you had a good idea – and could then argue it. I had lots of ideas, and despite being the only one in the room who didn’t go to art school, my childhood on the farm, my legal training, and my years of working in bars, meant that I was very comfortable debating ideas and trying to get others to understand them.
Everything Oliviero did embodied this democratic spirit, right down to the interview process. Not only did he not care where you studied, but also had no interest in who you knew. Instead, you had to prove that you wanted to work there by making something, doing a project, having an idea. It forced you to think conceptually, right from the very beginning. None of us had a resume or portfolio to hide behind. Once we were in, it was very interesting seeing others try to apply. You could pick a winner instantly. We’ve actually adopted the same concept at Chandelier. If you want any job, you need to make us something – anything – and just show us you can think.
Toscani was also very big on not ‘selling.’ We talk about this a lot now: how we stand for entertaining people, not selling them stuff. And I think that’s the role of all good creative work: to entertain, arouse, and create desire, but not literally sell you, because motivation is emotional. We practiced this thinking on so many diverse projects at Fabrica: designing a sports car, doing a campaign for Unicef, saving the city of Venice — all sorts of weird projects that seemed to have nothing to do with Benetton, but everything to do with innovation. It was a wonderful bubble to be in. From there I went on to Colors, the magazine, which was my first serious job in the creative world.
What did you do for Colors?
I was the Creative Director (or I think they called it “Creative Editor”) for Colors. I was still very young and had a lot to learn creatively, but I suspect Oliviero liked ‘sink or swim’ training. He liked people to bite off more than they could chew and then punch far above their weight. I made some mistakes and learned so much. It was invaluable training for me and for the other photographers and creatives who worked with me and have now gone on to do great things. We might not have done that if Oliviero hadn’t pushed us all outside of our comfort zones.
Did he help lay a foundation that you actually take into your own agency in terms of the people you surround yourself with?
Yeah, absolutely. Oliviero had a very low tolerance for laziness. He was also very democratic: ideas were the currency and they could come from anywhere. This created an incredible amount of healthy competition, but everyone protected the process. We worked together, we ate together, we went out together. In terms of our space, he created a creative environment that people wanted to come to everyday, and we genuinely wanted to work together – it absolutely laid a foundation for me. I have applied a lot of the same principles, for example, with our space in NYC, walking into our office is as if you are walking into an inviting living room. Our spaces are beautiful, deliberately well-designed, and made to invite curiosity and encourage creative exploration. We’ve brought in a lot of art and sculpture, and brainstorm in a big curated library that houses hundreds of my favorite books.
It’s important to me that our culture feels curious and communal. We do regular ‘Make and Make Believe’ workshops, where the team gets to learn something new, like practicing modern dance at Martha Graham’s studio or learning how to weld and draw. And we have a retreat in the Hamptons, Mermaid Ranch, that functions like a creative incubator, very much in the Fabrica model, or as I like to refer to it – the Camp David for creatives. Our team spends time working and relaxing there, contributing to the aesthetic of the place. We’ve custom-printed our own textiles, and projected movies on screens strung up between the trees. We’ve got an artist-in-residence program there, too, so we can surround ourselves with people who are thinking and making and doing things differently. Some of our best ideas happen around the firepit.
But Fabrica was entirely not strategic, entirely creative-driven, and although so much of my time there shaped the early foundations of Chandelier, it is what I learned in my years of working in the US that truly shaped where Chandelier is today.
So what have you learned and what do you value now that you may not have before?
Though I didn’t used to think so, I now value that strategy is also a very creative process and integral to a great creative idea. There’s great creative clarity that comes with good strategic thinking. As the brands we work with get larger, they’ve got more on the line, and strategic thinking helps us keep our work smart, grounded, and authentic for them. It helps put the work in a context, so we feel as if we’re striving for something greater.
Every creative project is a chance to impact not just sales and brand perceptions, but culture itself.
So our strategists have to be dialed into pop-culture and aware of what’s happening in the world at large. They’re actually some of the most creative thinkers on our team.
You’re pretty well-balanced and outside of fashion, but do a good deal of fashion work. What do you like in fashion advertising?
In fashion advertising, I like the same things I love in any form of advertising, really: to be pushed, challenged, and excited, to blur the lines a bit. There has to be style and substance: it’s not just about showing a pretty face. I think fashion advertising should inspire, make people think, and give them a chance to express themselves in a real way. Because fashion isn’t really about rules and formulas. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
When we worked with Ferragamo, for instance, it was a beautiful heritage brand that fully embraced a very digital idea. For Bergdorf Goodman, we tried to make them more relevant, leveraging real men of New York. We did a project for J.Crew in Hong Kong with 250,000 bespoke mah-jong tiles, which was a great surprise and delight moment.
We want to find smart solutions.
On the subject of solutions, can you share a little bit about how the agency came together? It was about 9, 10 years ago, right?
Yes, ten years ago. The short version of the story is that I was working at Time Inc., as the Creative Director of Suede Magazine. It was different from anything I’d done before — and it was this big, American publishing house with an ad team in nice suits and sensible shoes. The editorial team at Suede was amazing (especially our Editor-in-Chief, Suzanne Boyd). Being a new magazine, creating the ad sales vision was very important to the success of the launch and beyond and I knew I could talk better than anyone else about the creative vision, so I’d go to their sales meetings. But then when I started seeing the ads come through, I was so annoyed, the big brands were producing such mediocre ads and they diminished the design of the magazine. The art department would constantly complain about it.
When Time Inc. decided to close the magazine, I thought, we’ve been complaining about these advertisers for so long, why don’t we just go out and tell them we can do a better job? And that’s essentially what happened. I took a few people from the art department and we went out knocking on doors. I had no agency experience. I just wanted to do a better job… and that’s what we did.
How hard was that first year?
We were so broke, so quickly. I didn’t really know how to cut through, to reach the CMO, to get to the people who were making the decisions for their brands. I had read about Tibor Kalam sending CMOs a brick to get their attention. So I had these enormous, beautifully made boxes printed – much bigger than pizza boxes – they were incredibly large and cumbersome (which just about stripped me of the rest of my cash). We filled them with all of our old editorial work, and hand-delivered them to everyone we could find, hundreds of people. The goal was to take up space on their desks or on the floors of their offices. I wanted to give them something that was too big to throw away or was not an email that could be deleted. We still send them out to this day, and they have become a beloved collector’s item for some. Back then it nearly sent us broke. And then Nordstrom came along, you may have heard this story…
I have but it’s a good one and would love to hear it again. It does speak to making it. Would you mind?
Sure. I had met the Creative Director during my ad sales meetings for Suede. At this time, the team and I were working out of my kitchen. The client wanted to give us a job but wanted to come to New York and visit our office space and meet the team. OUR OFFICE??? WHAT OFFICE? They had no idea we were working out of my apartment, so we had to do something fast.
There was an empty office on 21st St., which was the street I lived on. So I went to the landlord and asked if we could rent the space for a week. He agreed. Off we went to the flea market and bought a lot of mismatched dining tables and spray painted them black, put them in the room and rented some chairs. We then went to TekServe and rented computers and went on Craigslist and paid a bunch of people to sit at the newly painted desks. But we didn’t have enough outlets, so the day of the meeting, the computers wouldn’t turn on. Thankfully, all the screens were facing the wall, so nobody noticed all the fake typing! It really looked like a good, functioning office. They came in, met me and the real team who was part of the group, and then they left, and we got the job. That day, we took the lease on that office, and the rest is history…
But I’ll always remember that meeting: it was one of those moments where you’re just like, it’s all or nothing, right now, it’s either going to fall apart or we’re going to soar. And we did. Go big or go home, right?
A few years later we had a similar situation with Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. I was obsessed with the Asian retailer, and I wanted to work on their turnaround so badly. The amazing Bonnie Brooks was there at the time and said if you had an office here in Hong Kong, we’d give you some work in a second. So that afternoon I took a lease on an office space, then went back to them and said we have an office. We worked with Lane Crawford for many years and to this day, it is still one of our most favorite clients with some of our most beloved work.
What happened from there?
The next big jump happened soon thereafter, with Old Navy. Eventually one of our boxes reached Jenny Ming, who was the President of Old Navy at the time. Jenny came to our office and said, ‘You guys are really special and it’s kind of weird.’ I think we knew how to have fun and speak to fashion, which is actually not easy. Eventually this led to Old Navy television work (before social media was even a thing). We really started to gain momentum because our work was out there succeeding for a great, big brand.
Was Old Navy your first television experience?
Yes, it was, but we threw ourselves into TV and tried to do some really great work. We were always the underdog, so we had to try twice as hard.
That’s quite a break. You didn’t start at the bottom.
We were really lucky. None of us took that lightly, we worked really hard. We still do. And we have obviously learned a lot. I’m really proud of the relationship we have built with Old Navy over the past few years, and the success we have experienced together. When we started working with them, their business was in a challenging place. With a softening retail market and increasing pressure from fast-fashion competitors, they needed to evolve, and quickly. We worked hard with the Old Navy team to bring back their relevance and cultural credibility. We’ve had a successful and really exciting run with collaborators like Melissa McCarthy, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, an ensemble cast of stars from Saturday Night Live and, most recently, Amy Schumer. Together with the Old Navy team, we’ve all produced some great results.
You’ve worked with Milk, Suede, Radar and Colors, yet you’re now quite prolific at television, which is rare in our space because most fashion brands don’t really have television budgets to speak of. How do you feel about television?
One of the reasons I still love editorial people is they’re instinctively trained to make up stories that romance product. And storytelling is at the heart of TV. It’s an extension of what really good editorial thinkers do. When you work in magazines, you have to work really quickly: there’s always a deadline around the corner. And with magazines coming out every month, you’re always on to the next new thing. TV is like that, too: incredibly quick, decisive, playful, and very nonstop. It’s always an adventure, and there’s lots of on-the-ground problem solving. Which is probably why I love it so much.
How do you view brands in relationship to the volume of communication they should be doing?
For me, I don’t think it’s a question of volume. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I think it’s a question of knowing your channels really well, knowing who your audience is on each channel, what they’re looking for, and where they’re looking for it. You shouldn’t produce work just because you can; it needs to serve a purpose and engage with the audience in the right way, at the right time. But to truly understand this, you need to do some legwork first, before you can entertain them.
When you’re doing that legwork, do you ever find yourself surprised?
Yes, we just did a big strategic overhaul for a workwear brand.
I was so shocked that people don’t buy clothes to wear to work anymore! I’m trying to solve that now.
We’ve also just come off the back of a project with a big American retailer, who for years has spent the majority of their marketing dollars in broadcast. In a bold move by the brand, they launched their first ever all-digital campaign heading into their most profitable season. Despite a drastic change in the media buy, the client still challenged us to deliver an increase in sales. By truly understanding their audience, we understood exactly where they were, and what their digital and social behaviors were, resulting in a highly targeted digital campaign that resonated in a real way and was optimized in real time. And, most importantly, exceeded sales targets!
Another example to demonstrate the importance of the “legwork” but also having a sound strategic insight is with one of our clients, a luxury hotel chain. They’d hired us to help them overhaul the brand. When we started to research their customer, we found out something surprising about the path to purchase. The person we thought we were targeting was a moneyed, high middle to upper-class one-percenter. But, it turns out – the real customer making the reservation was that person’s assistant, on the advice of the spouse or kids. So the person we had to target was the spouse or kid, or the assistant. Ultimately, it affected not only the creative direction, but also the media spend and how we allocated the funds.
It’s an excellent example, and I’d love to hear about the creative that came out of that.
It was actually totally different from what we pitched. We understood that the executives weren’t telling their assistants, ‘Book me into this particular hotel,’ but rather, ‘I want to go somewhere sunny and my kids said this might be nice,’ and the assistant has to solve it. So we created very niche content to hit those people first – the kids, the assistant, etc. It’s not a traditional approach for a hospitality brand, but because it was different, it’s going to get some traction. And it will ultimately save the brand money on poorly placed broad media.
Solid insight. What would you say that your agency is known for?
That we entertain consumers, not just sell them stuff.
That we are non-traditional and encourage non-linear recruitment and movement.
And that we love a turnaround story. We like to fix broken brands and create new ones.
We fight for challenger brands and the underdog (because we have been that, too).
What makes for a smart client, from your point of view?
I think a client who communicates really well is the first thing. We have really close relationships with many of our clients, and a very casual, easy communication stream, so it allows us to talk frankly and have the flexibility to screw it up along the way, and ping-pong ideas back and forth together to chew on things. That sort of openness always results in the best work. I’m not such a big fan of working for two months and then giving them a big presentation and sort of hoping that we hit it out of the park. I much prefer to hold hands, and really understand who they are and who their customer is.
Do you have any favorite projects that gave you that sort of autonomy, or clients who have been willing to make real change?
The Old Navy turnaround as talked about above. We had a very close working relationship with the team. The President and CMO were very collaborative. When we initially landed on the strategy, we were in the Old Navy cafeteria and wrote the nugget of the idea on a napkin. That led to three years of pretty incredible growth, and some great TV, radio and digital work.
We’ve also been working with Virgin on the creation of the new Virgin brand, and Google on a new product launch. Both of these projects have been incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that that as companies, both Virgin and Google are committed to making real change by disrupting their industries through innovation and, of course, entertainment. The Virgin team is particularly awesome, they are wonderful collaborators and thinkers.
So what’s next for you?
We have some exciting things on the horizon.
One big one for the agency is the launch of Chandelier Culture, a new division of the business. The premise is to shed light on important causes, activists, creative mavericks. The goal is to create culture in the world. We’re partnering with innovators, creators and explorers who push their ideas and industries forward. The first project is a partnership with the environmentalist Jane Goodall. We’re also building a permaculture center in Los Angeles to explore creativity in the natural world (I ventured up Mount Everest in March and I’m heading to Antarctica in November, which I’m very excited about). The culture team has begun a Truth-Tellers and Troublemaker Salon Series in New York, most recently featuring Cindy Gallop, who founded MakeLoveNotPorn. There are also three documentaries in the works, and a hardcover book.
Outside of that, I’m working on the album art and videos for a pop musician, since we’ve always loved music work.
We will also be spending the next six months really focusing on growing our office in Los Angeles. We have had such a huge growth spurt over the last year and a half and broadening our offering to new categories beyond fashion and retail, and it has opened us up to all kinds of exciting things. LA gives us significantly more space, for filming, editing, social and digital. LA is on fire right now, it’s amazing.
Oh, and hopefully an airline client! I have a massive obsession with all things airline related, and it’s my dream to collaborate on one. I’m just putting that out into the world.
Well, it sounds like you’re about to make your strengths stronger. Thanks for the time and excited to see what happens next for you.
You’re so welcome, Kenneth. It was so nice to chat with you, thank you so much!