Having a Thing: the props, pillars and peculiarities of personal brand building
‘Who’s the skinhead with the beard, tight suit and tattoos?’ A few years ago, a distinctive looking chap appeared on the front row of the fashion shows and caught the attention of other regular attendees. ‘He’s the buying director for MyTheresa,’ replied one sage. This particular tattooed gentleman was Justin O’Shea and he was definitely rocking a ‘Thing’. And he was getting noticed. O’Shea came from a humble background. Prior to his Thingness, young Justin grew up in a remote village in Queensland, Australia, working in mines with his dad and shifting boxes at supermarkets. Now he was an unmistakeable feature on the fashion circuit with an exploding social media profile boosted by numerous half naked selfies. Some dismissed him as a bit of a joke. Others said he was a smart guy who knew his fashion retail and also knew how to project himself as a brand – as a Thing.
Fast forward to July 2016 and O’Shea is no longer on the front row but on the catwalk, taking a John Galliano-style bow for his debut collection for Brioni. His appointment as creative director a few months earlier raised eyebrows as he had no formal training or experience as a designer. But it was a reflection of the changing responsibilities of such a role and of the industry and society more widely. It’s no longer just about being able to design or oversee a collection, it’s about communicating a style and a vision. It’s about being an ambassador who projects that vision. It’s about being noticed and talked about. It’s about having a Thing!
I wish I had a Thing. I realised some years ago that anybody who is really successful, who has really made it, has a Thing. I’m doing all right, but if I had a Thing I’d be big. I’d be someone. A Thing gets you noticed and remembered. ‘Do you know Tony Chambers, the editor of Wallpaper*?’ ‘I don’t think I do… oh, hang on, is he the xxx guy with the xxx? Yes, sure I know him.’ Being noticed and remembered seems to make you better.
Think of Le Corbusier. Would he have been as successful without those black, thick-framed round spectacles? Richard Rogers has his brightly coloured collarless shirts, while Jean Nouvel keeps it monochrome. Peter Marino’s career took off after he adopted the Tom of Finland look. John Pawson keeps it minimal, of course – he has his NOthing.
Steve Jobs had his black polo-neck and dad jeans – the low-key thing. While Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli always wore his wristwatch over his shirt cuff. A bling thing!
Fashion designers are undoubtedly kings of the Thing. Alber Elbaz ‘owns’ the big bow tie and Rick Owens ‘owns’ elegant goth, while John Galliano has borrowed just about everything – currently settling on a sober Savile Row gent Thing. Karl Lagerfeld has about five Things. The greedy Kaiser has his powdered ponytail, his high-necked starched shirts, ever-present dark glasses and fingerless gloves, and his celebrity pussy, Choupette.
Although copper is his big Thing, designer Tom Dixon also had a pet Thing. Until her recent sad passing, Dixon would always be seen at cocktail events with his pet poodle, Molly. Even Molly had a Thing – she had to be carried as she was deaf, blind and 120 in dog years. Dixon also proudly sports artfully dishevelled curly hair, rides a vintage motorbike, and was apparently the first person in London to go sockless.
Ron Arad has his ever-present trademark hat, gallerist Rossana Orlandi her oversized eyewear, and Marcel Wanders has his 1970s playboy Thing. Karim Rashid, Jack Mama and Nina Tolstrup are the undisputed bright things. And the younger generation of designers are not to be outdone. Bethan Laura Wood does her Boy George Thing, while Philippe Malouin and the Formafantasma boys have made facial topiary their favoured chin Thing.
Photographers naturally understand the power of image. Terry Richardson has his retro porn star Thing and thumbs-up Thing. Juergen Teller is unvaryingly in the shortest of short, sporty, short shorts. And the late, great Bill Cunningham was never without his bright blue French worker’s jacket.
Successful magazine editors are inveterate thingsters. Graydon Carter’s sweeping patrician pelt, Anna Wintour’s bob, Suzy Menkes’ pompadour and Grace Coddington’s fiery red locks are their mane Things. The follicly challenged have to take another tack. British GQ’s Dylan Jones resorted to wearing comically large shirt collars. It may look preposterous, but at least it’s his Thing. He’s got a Thing. I haven’t. Even our Bespoke art director Aneel has developed a personal way of wrapping his shoelaces behind his ankle. ‘It’s my Thing,’ he answered proudly when quizzed by puzzled colleagues.
What could be my Thing? A monocle? Nah – too old fogey. A single bright, block-coloured outfit? Nah – too Rashid. A hat? A cane? A polka-dot bow tie? Deerstalker and pipe? Pants outside my trousers? Not right! I was about to give up when, lo and behold, I had a Thing bestowed upon me. Last year I contracted vertigo, an inner ear condition resulting in room-spinning, nausea, loss of balance and, subsequently, deafness in my right ear. All rather unpleasant and irritating, but at least I now have my Thing. ‘Tony Chambers? Oh, is he the wobbly guy with the ear trumpet who vomits involuntarily? I know him, he’s a legend!’
As originally featured in the October 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*211)