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The quest for_cool The quest for_cool Document Transcript

  • ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY PETER AND MARIA HOEY
  • The Quest for CoolPredicting the future is hard work. Ask any professionaltrend spotter: it takes insight, dedication—and secret armiesof super hip teenagersSaturday, Aug. 30, 2003By LEV GROSSMANPredicting the future is hard work. Ask any MTV. She reads five newspapers a day. Sheprofessional trend spotter: it takes insight, carries a video camera wherever she goes, anddedication, and secret armies of super hip she goes everywhere? Bars, raves, concerts,teenagers. trade shows. "Car shows are great!" sheMany of us are not cool. I am not cool. gushes. "Young people come on SaturdayChances are fairly good, statistically speaking, with their dates, and you see what cars theythat you are not cool either. Dont feel bad want to have their pictures taken in." Sheabout it. Cool is an elusive thing. If it werent, travels four months out of the year. She talkswell, wed all be cool, wouldnt we? And then to strangers. Zandl invented the term alphawho would get snubbed in the hallways and consumer, and shes the closest thing the trendmade fun of in gym class? business has to a founder. Shes been doing it since 1986, back when we thought legCool may be our countrys most precious warmers were cool. She has streaky blondnatural resource: an invisible, impalpable hair, oblong glasses and a sunny, irresistiblesubstance that can make a particular brand of smile. She looks like the fun, cool mom youan otherwise interchangeable product? A never had. Zandl doesnt give out her exactsneaker, a pair of jeans, an action movie? age (forty something is the most shell cop to),Fantastically valuable. And cool can be used but she is almost certainly the oldest person into predict the future. The theory goes as America who regularly uses "holla back" atfollows: when cool people? A group known to the end of her e-mails. Zandl is president ofmarketers as alpha consumers? Start talking the Zandl Group, a small, boutique trend-or eating or dressing or shopping a certain analysis shop based in Manhattans beyond-way, noncool people (a group that most hip Soho. She speaks with an elusive,marketers belong to, by the way) will follow unplaceable accent. She was born in Germanythem. Watch the cool kids, the alpha and raised in Australia, the worlds least andconsumers, today, and you can see what most cool countries, respectively. Aftereverybody else will be doing a year from now. Zandls family moved to Australia, sheAs you can imagine, that kind of information learned English before her parents did, andis worth a lot of money to a lot of people, and she grew up having to interpret for them,there is a small but vigorous industry entirely teaching them how to fit in, underliningdevoted to harvesting it: trend watchers, who articles in the newspaper for them to read sofigure out what is and isnt cool and sell the they could stay au courant. It was goodinformation. Most of the people in the small, preparation for her unconventional career.selective cool industry arent cool. They just "Theres that sense of being an outsider andpay cool people to figure it out for them. And having to be incredibly observant," she muses.you thought your job was tough. Irma Zandl "I feel like in some respects I was destined towakes up at 5:30 every morning and watches do this.”Destiny arrived in 1986. After stints TIME – The quest for cool 2
  • at L’Oreal and Revlon, Zandl was working as turned out that cool hunting didnt work. "Asvice president of marketing for a cosmetics hip as it was, as exciting as it was, very fewcompany called Andrea Products. Shed had people were able to monetize anything thatgood luck with some teen-oriented initiatives? came out of that," Zandl explains. "PeopleIn 1983, way before almost anybody south of were fed this line that if the cool hunter found125th Street in New York City knew what it, then six months from now you would havehip-hop was, she commissioned a rap-themed a rip-roaring business. And I think a lot ofcommercial for Walgreens (which refused to people got burned by that." Either the coolair it). hunters got it wrong? There were someSoon some of the senior sales guys noticed infamous misses, like aprons for men? Orher sharp eye for cool, and they had Zandl do they were right, but by the time the companythe rounds with them, helping them sell teen- rushed out a product to capitalize on the trend,oriented products to retail buyers. Then the it was already over. Predicting the future, itbuyers noticed, and they started calling Zandl turns out, is hard work. Zandl is anwith their questions about youth culture. informational omnivore, taking in data"They just sort of saw me as a person who wherever she goes, in whatever form itknew what was going on," she says. Finally appears. But she cant be everywhere at once,Zandl noticed. She quit her job and set up her so each year for the past 15 years, the Zandlown business as a Person Who Knows Whats Group has recruited 3,000 young peopleGoing On. It wasnt an easy transition. When between the ages of 8 and 24 to find out whatshe made a good call at her old job, it was is and isnt cool. The group is ethnically andpure instinct. "We did no research," she says. geographically diverse and gender-balanced."I just had a golden gut." That was fine when The kids are mostly found in malls, whereshe was making bets with other peoples they fill out lengthy questionnaires? Favoritemoney, but now that she had her own band, favourite activity, favourite brand? Andcompany, she needed more concrete have a Polaroid taken that goes in their file.information. Why did campaigns with long- Zandl reads every one. Theyre oddlyhaired models outperform those featuring revealing. A survey with a snapshot of ashort-haired models? Zandl knew they did, skinny black teen clipped to it reveals hisbut she didnt know how she knew. To find occupation as "security guard" and hisout, she invented a new way to analyze trends ambition "to own my own reality." The lastand in the process created a whole new rebellious thing he did? Sex on top of aindustry. Theres a certain myth floating parked car. A pale, long-haired Costco clerkaround about trend watchers: the myth of the writes about his devotion to hair-metal bandcool hunter. In 1997 a lengthy article Pantera and his plans to market a music-appeared in the New Yorker magazine about production software package hes writing.trend researchers who could stroll through a Zandl maintains an ever expanding library ofhip neighbourhood, watch the way the kids "crib chats"; she follows kids back to theirwere dressing, listen to how they talked and, houses and videotapes them talking aboutbased on that, pick out the next seasons hot whatever theyre interested in? Usually sex,products and hip trends. They were mystical cars or electronics, sometimes all three. On adowsers of cool. Chief among them was a typical tape, three black teenagers squashedwoman named DeeDee Gordon, whom well together on a beat-up living-room couchmeet later on. Cool hunters didnt do much discuss the merits of in-car entertainmentresearch, but their intuition was so good? systems with the rigor and intensity of aTheir guts were so golden? That they didnt Talmudic summit. "If youve got four TVs, ahave to. They just knew. In the late 1990s DVD player and a PlayStation 2 all in there,"sneaker companies and jeans companies paid says one kid, summing up, "youre going tocool hunters a lot of money to tell them what have girls who want to give you some. Inwas coming next. Cool hunters themselves your truck!" ("Arent you glad you dont go tobecame, briefly, cool. The trouble was it high school anymore?" Zandl asks me. Yes, I TIME – The quest for cool 3
  • am.) Zandl and her staff archive collate and early-mainstream people who really think thatcross-reference all this information, then theyre trendsetters? The people who say, Icross-breed it with data from other sources really love Gap. And you just think, Yeah,(she is an avid consumer of census data and you really dont know about that, do you?opinion reports) and distill it into a bimonthly Whereas the true trendsetter will be makingpublication called the Hot Sheet. Subscribers her own clothing. Or her friend will just haveinclude General Motors, Coca-Cola and started a boutique or a fashion line orDisney. A subscription costs $15,000 a year. whatever." If you find that this kind of talkSo what does Zandl see in the future? For brings back half-buried memories of beingstarters, strippers. "Theyre really setting the picked last at kickball, youre not alone. Itstrends right now," she says, fast-forwarding impossible to talk to Brooks without inwardlyher way through a videotaped ad for a home- measuring yourself against the goldenuse stripper pole. "I think strippers have yardstick of cool and coming up short. Oncebecome hugely important. I think well see you look for them, youll see that America ispole dancing on ESPN in five years." Zandl crawling with these sleeper agents of cool.loves everything cholo, a Hispanic street Dozens of companies? Radarsubculture thats heavily into tattoos and low- Communications, Teenage Researchriders. She has been watching the steady Unlimited, even Teen People magazinegrowth of the Hispanic population in the U.S. (which, like TIME, is published by Timeover the past two decades and thinks its long Inc.)?Keep stables of tens of thousands ofoverdue to make a significant impact on the teenage correspondents, paying them in eithermainstream scene. "I feel about this the way I cash or product samples or other freebies.felt about hip-hop," she says. Shes high on Interestingly, the people running theseanything mobile and portable, especially networks are almost exclusively women. Thethings that fit in your car? She loves audio cool industry is a matriarchal one. "Womenbooks and those blue melt-in-your-mouth are the networkers, the chatterers," saysListerine strips. She tells a story about a bank Brooks. "I think that what you need in thisin Virginia that has been converted into a industry is an ability to get beneath whatchurch, with a drive-through prayer centre. people are saying and doing and look at what"There are going to be a million things you it really means, and I think that those arecan do in your caw," she says in her Austral- skills that we are good at.”Jane RinzlerGermanic English. The god of the trend Buckingham is president of a New York City-spotter is the 14-year-old hipster, and it is a based trend-spotting company called Youthcruel and fickle god with many prophets. Intelligence, which was acquired by theClaire Brooks is executive strategic-planning powerhouse talent agency CAA earlier thisdirector of the Lambesis Agency, a firm in year. Blond and photogenic, she is given toCarlsbad, Calif., that publishes a trend bible saying mind-altering things like, "If blue iscalled the L Style Report. Like Zandl, Brooks the new black, whats the new blue?" (Trenddepends on information from a network of spotters love to talk about how X is the newyouthful informants, but Brooks runs her Y.) Three times a year, Buckingham and herdata-gathering operation more like a domestic staff handpick 300 trendsetters via a screeningespionage ring. "We have this network of exam that covers music, magazines, brands,people around the country," she explains. activities and TV shows. They recruit in"They are trendsetters? People establishing coffee shops, video stores, "cool bookstores"careers in fashion and music, in film, in and high schools in four or five differentmarketing, in advertising." She calls them the cities. "Were trying to go to places whereUrban Pioneers. Theyre the Navy Seals of youll find some trendsetters, but sometimescool, and Brooks is casually ruthless about we have to split it. We want to go to Kansaswho makes the cut. "After a while, you just City, because sometimes youll get cool musicget to know when youre talking to a coming out of Kansas City. But its hard totrendsetter, "she explains.”There are a lot of find 100 trendsetters in Kansas City. "Of TIME – The quest for cool 4
  • course, even with the help of Kansas Citys hand, in person, they built up an army ofcoolest, the trend watchers sometimes get it teenagers that constantly feeds themwrong. Youth Intelligence picked the WB information online. They estimate that theyaction series Birds of Prey as a winner last have 20,000 contacts, with the numberyear. (Birds of whom?)Exactly. It was expanding 500 to 1,000 a month. "It was allcancelled after a few episodes.) And the game grown organically," says Gordon proudly, asis getting tougher. "Some of the companies if she were surveying a vast hemp farm. "Weweve worked with that used to get hair spent a great deal of money and up-front timeaccessories made in China discovered that handpicking these people based on peer-to-they couldnt do it anymore," says Brooks. peer recruitment. Its a very different"By the time a celebrity had worn it, it had methodology from the way that most peopleappeared in InStyle, and then everybody gather bodies. We kind of modelled it after anwanted it right now, and then it was over in a MLM (multilevel marketing plan)? Like afew weeks. Theres this dissemination going Herbalife or a Mary Kay or an Avon." Theon, visually and through the Internet, that is Look-Look kids? They’re known as "fieldkilling brands." For most people, the decline correspondents"? Wander the culturalof the national attention span is just another landscape with digital cameras (provided bycliché; for trend watchers, it raises serious Look-Look), uploading images from partiesmanufacturing and inventory-control and concerts and sporting events for theproblems. "It makes our job harder," Look-Look employees? Sorry, "youth-Buckingham laments, "because the minute we information specialists"? To pore over.spot a trend, weve got about four seconds to (Look-Look defines kids as ages 14 to 30.tell our clients. A mall clothing store can take "Thirty is different now," says Lee. "Thirty isdown designer fashion within the next season. really 35 now.") Because these kids areYou see it in September on the runways. Then permanently wired to the mother ship, Gordonyouve got it at Rampage and PacSun and all and Lee can ping them at will with specificthose places the same time youve got it in the requests from clients. When Calvin KleinGucci stores, which means that its going to be came to them with a list of possible names forover much more quickly. "But if the Internet a new fragrance targeted at young men, Look-is making things tougher for most trend Look could quickly run the list past 10,000 orwatchers, at least one trend spotter is turning so teenage eyeballs. (The eventual winner?its raging information flow to her advantage, "Crave.") "Before, you would have to just Using it to power the turbines of cool. Her kind of guess, or youd have to wait," saysname is DeeDee Gordon, and shes a co- Lee, "but because weve built this hugefounder, with partner Sharon Lee, of a new network, we have the capability to test thetrend-spotting firm called Look-Look. Gordon hypothesis with any kind of sample size thathas certain notoriety in the trend-spotting we want and get an immediate response. Yes,industry: she was the original cool hunter, the this is happening, or no, it isnt." Its ansubject of the famous 1997 New Yorker instantaneous, infallible coolometer. Youprofile. Gordon and Lee both used to work for have to respect the sheer efficiency, not toLambesis, but by 1999 they got impatient mention the mass-scalability, of the feedbackwith the way things were done. They were loop Gordon and Lee have created. Theyregoing out and giving kids pen-and-paper extracting coolness from those who know andsurveys when the kids were using instant getting it to those who dont with unmatchedmessaging and two-way pagers. "We could speed and in unprecedented quantities. But ithave kept doing this the same way," says all raises some heavy sociological questions.Gordon, who dresses in black and wears her In the old days, trends would percolateplain brown hair pushed back over her ears, through the population slowly via the "and-Galadriel-style, "but we knew better.”Gordon they-told-two-friends" network. Now trendsand Lee left Lambesis and founded Look- spread virally, via e-mail and instantLook. Instead of canvassing their sources by messaging, with professional trend spotters TIME – The quest for cool 5
  • snapping at their heels, hurrying them onwardever faster. In an age of universal informationaccess, isnt everybody, by definition, in theknow? What would it mean if the linebetween the cool kids and the uncool kidscollapsed under the awesome pressure ofinformation technology? If the trend spotterskeep doing their job, an ever growing fractionof Americans will be well informed as to theproper cocktail to order. (Uh, it is stillCampari, right? Right?) Will cool still be coolwhen everybody knows about it? When youcan buy it at the Gap? And read about it inpopular newsweekly magazines? Maybe itwill. Maybe the rules are changing. Zandlthinks the days of the alpha consumer may benumbered. "Im working on a theory rightnow that I havent really fully fleshed out,"she says cautiously. "Im calling it The CentreIs the New Edge. One of the things wevebeen seeing is that the edge has gottenincredibly predictable? I dont think its veryfresh anymore, because its so focused onitself." She mentions a couple of the sturdywarhorses of cool: indie actress ChloëSevigny and edgy fashion label Imitation ofChrist. "When you really look at it, whattrends are they really setting? Whereas if yougo to Wal-Mart and youve got the Olsentwins with a billion-dollar business, you knowtheres something clearly going on. "In otherwords, maybe cool people arent setting thetrends anymore. Maybe whats going on isthat America is finally weaning itself off anaddiction to cool. If the centre is the new edge,maybe mainstream will be the new radical,square will be the new hip, and? Stay with mehere? Uncool will be the new cool. In otherwords, maybe theres hope for us all. TIME – The quest for cool 6