An Exploration of Iconic Brand, Guess, with Founder Paul Marciano and a Handful of His Insta-Muses
A skip through the hallways of Guess headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles is a bit like an astral tour high above DTLA at the famous, mysterious, Griffith Park Observatory. At the Observatory, you’ll interactively witness how seemingly designed ripples through our universe precipitate star showers, stellar explosions, and alluring phenomena—an experience not unlike my morning spent with co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Guess, Inc., Paul Marciano. Marciano’s universal ripple across the fashion industry has seen similar, star-sputtering effects, constellating the careers of numerous models and photographers, and defining a lifestyle that is inarguably—and therein durably—the sexy, carefree world of Guess. Consider some of the names the brand has put into orbit: Gigi Hadid, Ellen von Unwerth, Claudia Schiffer, Anna-Nicole Smith, Carré Otis, Laetitia Casta, Allesandra Ambrosio, Kate Upton, and Dewey Nicks.
Marciano was born in Morocco in 1953 to a Jewish family of rabbi forefathers, and thereafter raised in Marseilles. As a young man, he worked in his family’s clothing shop on the French Riviera before a trip to Southern California left he and his three brothers enchanted with the beauty and lifestyle. Then, following political challenges in France, his family uprooted to the Southland. The Marciano brothers founded Guess jeans in 1981, with Paul taking on the role of Creative Director and launching the iconic aesthetic that has defined the brand. By 1999 he was the co-CEO with his brother Maurice, before becoming the sole CEO in 2007. Currently he is the Executive Chairman of the Board and CCO.
Over coffee, Marciano tells me of the first campaign he created for the brand, at a time when he had one store under his wings and only fifteen to twenty million dollars in total annual business. The aspirations were high: he deeply admired Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein’s campaigns, as well as the vision of Bruce Weber. So Marciano journeyed to New York to meet with Weber, and following a brief interaction with the photographer at a store on 16th Street, he was directed to Weber’s agent. A bit of polite back and forth followed, and then Marciano was given the proposed day rate for Weber to take on the Guess campaign. The fee astounded him, he tells me, his eyes wide: “I said, ‘What is that for? Are you serious?’ And she says, ‘This is Bruce Weber.’ So I say ok, and return to LA where I find an unknown photographer, an unknown model, an unknown stylist, and we loaded up my car and went to Laguna Beach. Every campaign featured long-haired women at the time, like Brooke Shields, but I went with super short hair, denim unwashed, muddy, unprepared, completely street-looking, and the opposite to what you saw at the time with Calvin Klein where it’s perfectly done, studio, fan blowing the hair, a normal shoot—I did the opposite.”
The opposite could veritably describe much of what Marciano has built here and around the world. The following seasons’ campaigns would see, for instance, a daring injection of black and white color treatment, lending a timeless confidence to the imaging—the opposite of the early ‘80s status quo. And whereas sex and sexiness certainly defined and continued to define the brand, one of Marciano’s critical stipulations, and perhaps the most important, is that the models look healthy—that the attitude is playful and joyous, and that the talent has not been used to promote product elsewhere. While that may seem like a healthy, obvious approach to business, much of the fashion terrain isn’t healthy, instead upholding unrealistic beauty standards, model / campaign mimicry, and a tortured, repressed demeanor or attitude in much of its imaging. “I don’t get it,” Marciano shrugs when asked about the prevalence of ultra-skinny, seemingly emotionally tortured models. “Who actually likes that?”
But it’s clear that Marciano does get something: his gut. And his instincts have grown an empire and a dreamy American attitude that continues to showcase talent (be it in front of the lens or behind it) that seasons later become household names. During the course of my tour through the years, Marciano touches on the prevalence of Instagram and its influence on his creative decisions, the occasional frustrations of being too ahead of the curve [a problem Flaunt routinely labors under], and his Guess-like aspirations for the former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, a massive facility he and his brother, Maurice, are flipping into a full-on art museum of emerging artists.
How do you feel you’ve worked to maintain, after 35 years, that sexy, confident, unmistakable brand identity?
From the first shoot I ever did—which I still do because I never have worked with anadvertising agency, ever—I always wanted to have new talent. I always wanted to helpnew photographers, new models that nobody knows, new stylists that nobodyknows. That’s something that I’m proud of. That’s the beauty of Guess—that we tryto take a different road, not just the safe road. Go to the big, super-known, topphotographers, and you know what you’ll get; it’s safe, it’s insurance. We don’t wantto take insurance. We want to take the risk.
Many brands look to other brands for whom to cast, how to cast, how to art direct. You guys are the influence in many ways.
It’s not exciting for me to take a super model and make her bigger—but it’s super exciting for me to take someone like Kate Upton, or Gigi, and to make them who they are, and then say, ”They started with Guess.” Is it luck, is it just that I know what I want? Is it a combination? It’s also about being confident and doing what is right in your own eyes, and you just stay with it.
How do you feel you’ve kept the sexuality of Guess consistent?
Across our campaigns, there is always a sense of sensuality and seduction, and I feel that because I’m crazy about the movies in the '50s and '60s—old Italian and French movies, like the movie with Brigitte Bardot, And God Created Woman. In it is a pure seduction, a pure sensuality, a pure femininity, but a woman who will never cross that line and become vulgar or trashy.
Can you speak of a time where your confidence in what was sexy was tested?
Well, for example, when I took a girl who was completely different like Drew Barrymore, she was not the typical Guess girl. She’s not too tall, she’s 5’7, 5’6, short hair, skinny, and at the time I think she was 18, 19, and it was a big risk because it was the complete opposite of what I had done with some of the other girls. I didn’t have at that time a guideline of where I was going with Drew Barrymore. She was not doing well at that time, she was not shooting, she was not working, she had some issues, she had tattoos at a time when very few people did, so it was a bit of a challenge, a risk. But when I saw the pictures, I loved the pictures, and we put them everywhere, everywhere. And then I had something happen in life—it was the big time of Kate Moss—by pure accident, I meet a girl named Vickie Hogan, who would become Anna Nicole Smith. And she came with her son to shoot for kids, she was working in Texas at a restaurant. When I saw her I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she says ‘That’s my son!’ And I say ‘Okay, well have you done pictures?’ And she says ‘no,’ and I say, ‘okay can you take pictures today?’ And I took pictures that day. Eventually things changed, she started to live a different lifestyle, she stopped showing up, so we said, okay we’re done. But she was an amazing voice for us.
Having been casting models and creating campaigns for decades now, social media sites like Instagram must create an entirely new approach for such things?
Now I am in control. I do my own search. I don’t have to go through an agent, I don’t have to deal with bookers who sometimes drive me crazy. I mean, suddenly we have the freedom to search any place, any person anywhere in the world. Columbia, Venezuela, Russia, China, anywhere! It’s just to see and find what fits my eyes.
And are you finding a new “type” or girl or it’s similar to what you’ve always been after?
Everything for me is about life. It’s about positivity, it’s about simply being happy and enjoying the moment. I don’t want to be reflecting an image of a girl with tired eyes or who looks unhealthy or obsessed with weight and being skinny enough to do runways. I don’t get it and I will never get it. Call me old-fashioned, passé, whatever you want but no man is trying to get this kind of woman, not one. Men and women both like the kind of women who are voluptuous, who are feminine, who are healthy, who are comfortable with who they are and not trying to project an image that they don’t want to, but they have to because of their job. It’s all about having fun.
And do you ever feel like you don’t get the appreciation or the recognition for doing so because you were so early? Like almost too early?
I do, honestly I do. And sometimes it frustrates me. And what can I do? I try to eliminate that point in my mind because it will take away my creative side. But sometimes it affects me to see. And the list is long, as of even now. I mean now, Kate Upton—I mean, we shot and shot Kate Upton so many times, and I think now she did Sports Illustrated. They think she went straight to Sports Illustrated. No, we brought her there. And it was like we shot her years before. If you take Sports Illustrated every season, there is at least 15 pages of Guess girls. Half of those did Victoria’s Secret right after they started with us, way before. But I don’t try to spend too much time on that because I’m always looking for the next person for me.
The denim industry, the apparel industry on the whole, is certainly a challenging one. You’ve had your ups and downs like anyone, but what would you say has defined your longevity?
We try to stay true to who we are. We try to stay true to our roots. I don’t want to chase trends. I don’t want to do that. I try to combine simple things. To have an image with healthy and positive and beautiful and attractive. We have a great product, at a reasonable price. We’ve had a simple formula. In the 1980s, do you think I thought one day I would have 2,000 stores? I thought if I had 20 stories I would be the best of the best of the best. And that came about because of the brand. We expanded the name of Guess throughout the world. We are everywhere, every country you tell me, every capital city we have stores there right now.
What can you tell me about the Masonic Temple on Wilshire at this point?
We’re excited to be able to show new sculptures, new painters, and new artists. New talent—we have so much here in California, but they don’t have a venue, and the galleries are scared to give them space, but we are a huge, huge museum, and our idea is not to put our collection—of course we can put up our collection—the idea is to have a venue for new talent to say, here it is, here’s space, and if you’re really good, it’s yours. We want to connect to universities, schools, artists to come and be able to have a free space for them to look at not only the known artists, but a place to see all the upcoming artists, we want to find and show those artists that we think have the potential to explode, and we want to offer them a place to find their potential.
Photographer: Yu Tsai For Opus Reps.
Stylist: Emma Trask for Opus Beauty.
Models: Ellie Gonsalves, Bryana Holly for No Ties Management, Rachel Mortenson for Next Model Management, and Kara Del Toro for Elite Model Management.
Hair: Ryan Richman for Starworks Artists.
Makeup: Kathy Jeung for Forward Artists.
Manicure: Lisa Pena-Wong for Opus Beauty.
Producer: Trever Swearingen for 88 Phases Creative Agency.
Photography Assistants: Graham Dalton and Huel Tavares.
Makeup Assistant: Keely Maroney.
Digital Tech: Luis Jaime.