It's good to met your hero, expecially if the hero is David Bowie.
Bill Zysblat, David Bowie’s longtime business manager, organized the first encounter at RZO organization on 57th Street in Manhattan.
Keanan met David three times and the second meeting they decided to promote the David Bowie fashion collection, marketing an exclusive CD of ‘Five, maybe six” unreleased songs by David Bowie.
With advertising in Rolling Stone, Spin and GQ the collection sold out pretty quickly. Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters was pictured in GQ wearing a pair of the skinny black Bowie jeans and the entire line of clothes seemed to get the seal of approval form fans and fellow rock stars. Target created a 3D fashion show, of which the Bowie collection was part, and premiered it in New York City’s Grand Central Station. This was reported favorably in the Wall Street Journal.
The moral to the story is that some times it is good to meet your heroes.
Meeting David Bowie
At this point in time there can be few people in the world who are not familiar with David Bowie. His career has lasted for decades and spanned music, film, theatre, the internet and the stock market. One thing that cannot be over looked is the influence he has had on literally millions of people. To say I am a fan of the man is an understatement. I would consider myself a disciple who has learned much of my creative craft by studying this man’s moves and I am not alone in that. However. nobody comes remotely close to the real thing.
My first exposure to the famous orange RCA records label was not through Bowie, but the glam rock band The Sweet. The Sweet were probably my first music fetish and I was not alone in that either. British kids sent these so-called ‘brick layers in drag’ to the upper echelons of the pop charts thirteen times during the 1970s. I bought their string of hit songsations that included the Bowie-esque stomper ‘Blockbuster’ followed by ‘Hell Raiser’, ‘Teenage Rampage’ and ‘Fox on the Run’ all of which cemented their status a pop idols for British teeny boppers. However, I was soon to realize that The Sweet were merely a lightweight bubble gum ensemble who didn’t even write their own songs. Their RCA label mate David Bowie was the real thing. An artist for whom my admiration never waned. It would be over thirty years later that I would eventually meet the man in person.
Bill Zysblat is David Bowie’s longtime business manager and in 2002 I reached out to him. Zysblat’s office, which houses the RZO organization is on 57th Street in Manhattan and in the early Nineties I had moved to Manhattan and made New York City my home and my base for a career in fashion design. I was interested in designing some t-shirts, Bowie tour merchandise. “Great”, said Bill, “but he’s on tour so let’s revisit after the current dates end in 2003”. However, at one of Bowie’s German shows the unthinkable happened. David Bowie had a blocked artery which caused him to be hospitalized and for the tour to be cut short.
Several years later I reconnected with Zysblat and in the time since our first conversation my circumstances had changed favorably. My fashion label had blossomed I had just struck a deal with the American mass retailer Target, a 1400 plus chain of stores based in Minneapolis and reaching across America coast to coast.
“Come up to the office”, said Bill. “You should meet with David and see if there is synergy”. The famed RZO organization –That was the place where I would first encounter Mr Bowie. The meeting was to be with David, his personal assistant Coco Schwab and Bill Z in Bill’s corporate board room. Beforehand I imagined the meeting would be with the Thomas Jerome Newton character from The Man Who Fell To Earth, the seminal Nic Roeg movie that cemented Bowie’s mid 1970’s star as the alien rock icon. Would David enter the room in a fedora, black coat and shades? Was I suddenly being transported into the offices of World Enterprises? ‘Slow down Arthur, keep to thirty’.
I nervously paced the empty room and after a few minutes Bowie appeared looking very casual in a sweat shirt, chinos and suede desert boots. I guess I am meeting David Jones from Bromley then, I thought to myself and Bowie immediately put me at ease by having me sit in the chair at the head of the desk. Now I was on the spot. That voice. Even his speaking voice is totally distinctive. This is the guy who inspired me to be creative in the first place and I’m in the same room. This is surreal but I am keeping it together. Just act natural…After some lighthearted small talk I made my pitch. Bowie was charming and funny, at one point in the conversation I forgot where I was in my monologue, “I’ve lost my thread” I said, at which Bowie pointed out that was “not so good for a fashion designer-losing your thread”.
He asked what I had in mind and I told him that I thought it was a good time to bring my idea of a Bowie fashion line to him “Oh, why is that then?” he asked. Simply, that I had built a small business selling to hip premium retailers around the world and had now struck a deal with Target- meaning that my clothes would have the potential to be in shops across America. A bit like getting a big record deal after years with an indie. With that distribution already in place I could put the Bowie name on a fashion collection and offer a ‘Warhol style’ mass market approach. David seemed intrigued.
I was dying to ask for his autograph and get my picture taken with this icon of innovation but I resisted the temptation to ask. “Don’t’ blow it” I kept telling myself. We shook hands and David asked to see some design ideas. “You haven’t already pitched this to Target have you?” “No”, I said. “I was waiting to get your approval”. He seemed happy with this and gave his blessing for me to approach the retailer.
Meeting number two took place, again at Bill Z’s office. David, Coco, Mark Wolk, the president of the manufacturing company who produced my collections, my wife Nancy and myself attended. We had design boards, sample garments and designs for the labels, hang tags and packaging. All we needed was David’s approval.
“Nice jacket” he said to me of the coat I was wearing. “It’s one of Vivienne’s” I said happy that he approved of the Westwood tailoring.
Some weeks later we I met with Bill Z and Coco and the guys from the London based music PR firm who handle the Bowie account. Target were hoping for a big splash launch event with some of David’s stage costumes in glass cases-museum style. “Not going to happen”, the PR guys said, and they were firm about that. How about some quotes from David? “Not going to happen”, again came the reply. This is not going to be an easy sell I thought. How do we promote a David Bowie fashion collection without Bowie’s help? The PR men finally agreed that we could market an exclusive CD of ‘Five, maybe six” unreleased songs. That was something-I would even get my name on a Bowie record. OK not on the orange RCA label that I had worshipped since my youth but nevertheless.
The third meeting was at the Bowie’s Isolar offices in Soho. These few rooms are on the sixth floor of a former light industrial building that is typical of that New York neighborhood and house a small staff that tends to the Bowie machine. At that meeting would be just David, Coco and myself. I had come to present the marketing ideas for the launch of the collection. Target were very keen to have David perform a song at an opening party. Again, not going to happen. “I’m not Posh Spice” he said. Oh dear. Did I fuck this up? He seemed happy with the in store promotional presentation and the CD design but didn’t want to be hawking a bunch of clothes. In hindsight I can see his point and he was obviously right. Keeping a distance allowed for his inspiration to be seen without it becoming an obviously commercial enterprise. This man was teaching me something about the importance of mystique-which in the age of mass celebrity and online exposure means that we become over familiar with our heroes and they can be easily cast aside.
The Bowie by Keanan Duffty collection launched at Target stores across America in October 2007 along with the Limited edition ‘Strangers When We Meet’ CD featuring six unreleased Bowie tracks. With advertising in Rolling Stone, Spin and GQ the collection sold out pretty quickly. Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters was pictured in GQ wearing a pair of the skinny black Bowie jeans and the entire line of clothes seemed to get the seal of approval form fans and fellow rock stars. Target created a 3D fashion show, of which the Bowie collection was part, and premiered it in New York City’s Grand Central Station. This was reported favorably in the Wall Street Journal. The moral to the story is that sometimes it is good to meet your heroes.