After thirty minutes with Warner Bros' Jay Young (creative director - Licensing) and Gustavo Antonioni (VP creative services) you begin to feel self-conscious about whatever you're wearing. It's not because the two of them are dripping in Prada. It's because they express an urgency and seriousness about 'knowing your stuff' in fashion that is very hard to ignore. It's this attitude which is scoring success for Warner Bros properties with retailers across Europe at every level. The approach looks set to continue and it has transformed the creative team 'from being the guys who make the style guide into a serious business tool,' as Jay puts it.
The fashion-forward strategy is essential if you consider the influence of retailers like Zara and H & M in Europe. Their lines change rapidly, catwalk fashions appear in store within weeks and young consumers develop their design sensibilities at a young age. 'In Europe consumers walk into a shop and choose fashion first,' says Gustavo. 'So this is where we have to pitch the Warner characters.' Jay's designers are briefed to create a good design first and then incorporate the characters. The result is a sumptuous style guide full of trend directions for single characters like Tweety and Scooby Doo. 'If you slap on the character you appeal to the Tweety fan; if you create a good design you appeal to the fashion fan. It's breaking the mould of ordinary character licensing,' he says.
Jay suggests that forecasting trends is actually all about understanding history and looking for threads. Twice a year the creative team show retailers the directions they think trends will take and see which ideas get picked up.
As ever, most retailers evolve their offerings based on previous experience and keeping risks low. But Gustavo says they respond well if you work with them like their other fashion brands do.
Jay encourages retailers to take a collection, rather than one item, because it's easier for the consumer to understand. The trend for direct to retail has made this easier to achieve. Now, the looks Jay's team have created are also being extended into non-apparel categories like stationery.
Warner is working with a number of different trends for individual character applications at the moment. One, for example, is the 'home-made' look. For kids who have been word-processing their homework since they could read and write there is nothing fashionable in a highly finished, sleekly presented aesthetic. Combine this with the trend to personalise and you have 'Cartoon Chaos', characterised by felt tip doodlings, collages and personalisation. 'Punk Nation' is another popular look, more adult-focused and steeped in nostalgia that the UK customer really understands. 'Kimono Koolaid' makes Scooby as an Eastern icon. The richness contained in the style guides for these looks is staggering. 'What we're doing is expressing the brand personalities and attributes but not the character slap,' says Jay. Licensors are prone to say this, but the collections already inspired by the Warner approach bear it out. For example, a junior apparel line for Taz doesn't show the character but it is unmistakably him. A French Harry Potter line with items selling at around E50 took the school uniform look and made it cool - traditional sports jumpers, coats and gillets for example. Fresh Air's recent Batman range of t-shirts reverses the trend to endlessly add production values to t-shirts by presenting them as simple, retro-style items. 'There is a story behind every look,' says Jay.