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Outside of the fashion world, Trey Laird used to be a blip in the advertising universe. But last month he announced he was opening his own New York boutique, Laird & Partners, and in what seemed like the blink of an eye he was on the creative radar. "A lot of people, especially in advertising, had no idea who I was," he admits. " 'Who is this guy? How did this happen?' I swear I've been asked that 20 times in the first week."

If you're still asking, the 37-year-old Laird spent the past 10 years "hiding" at the in-house agency of New York design maven Donna Karan, where he served as EVP/corporate CD. The departure seems at most nominal, as his shop will retain all creative duties as Donna Karan International's agency of record. The event might have even been overlooked by many ad industry folk, save for the out-of-nowhere announcement that Laird had taken on as his second client none other than the Gap, picking up where Boston's Modernista, which parted ways with the Gap in February, left off.

Laird is tight-lipped on the details of how the deal went down. "I know Mickey Drexler [CEO of the Gap] from the industry. He followed my work and had always been very complimentary, so I called him and said, 'I'm starting my own agency and I'd love to do some work with you.' So we met and we worked it out." It probably didn't hurt that Laird's decade-plus experience in fashion had allied him with star creative talent in the sector. Of course there is Donna Karan herself, who praises Laird's abilities as a true collaborator. "He sees all aspects of the brand and understands that it isn't about clothes or a particular product, but about a lifestyle," she says. "He knows that we need to tell a story and keep our communication consistent, be it with an ad campaign, store visuals, image books for DKNY or with our direct-mailer, Woman to Woman. Thanks to Trey, all these pieces work together to send a coherent message to the consumer. I'm looking forward to our continuing partnership and creatively growing together."

In developing the brand images for both the Donna Karan Collection (which draws from what Laird calls the "strong woman" image of the designer herself) and DKNY (which takes inspiration from the energy of New York), Laird has also collaborated with top fashion photographers like Herb Ritts, Mikael Jansson and Peter Lindbergh. "It's really been an amazing place to learn and grow creatively," he enthuses. "For me, as a designer and a creative person, I've been able to get involved in other aspects of the business, like store design, visual display and product design." A lover of all things design, Laird cites a host of inspirations, among them Alexey Brodovitch, architect Louis Kahn, furniture designer Jean-Michel Frank and even Apple computers. His passion has translated to sexy and sophisticated print campaigns for both of Karan's clothing lines, which have been the bulk of his responsibilities, but he's also overseen commercials for Karan's fragrances, and has designed everything from store interiors to fragrance bottles and even the designer's watches.

Quite an accomplishment for someone with a marketing degree from the University of Texas/Austin, although he did balance that with classes in art and architectural history. After graduating in 1987, Laird moved to New York, where he met fashion-savvy adman Peter Arnell. Arnell signed him as a junior account exec at what was then Arnell Bickford, but quickly shifted Laird into creative. "Peter was actually the person who told me that I should be on the creative side," recalls Laird. "I didn't get it at all. I was trained in business and I was going to be a business guy. But I think he was the first person to see that I had a good eye, a good sensibility. I was incredibly intimidated when it first happened. I went to the creative side kicking and screaming. But once I just took a deep breath and sort of went with my gut, I felt more and more comfortable." After five years working primarily on fashion clients like Emmanuel Ungaro and Christian Lacroix, Laird spent a year at GFT, an international fashion company that produced designer lines. Then he got a call from Karan, who'd known him from his days at Arnell, and wanted him to start up her in-house agency.

With most of his career spent in fashion, Laird is well aware that it can be quite a different beast from the more general run of advertising. "It does become this sort of unique world that's very much about photographer, model, hair, makeup - all these little nuances that when a few of them aren't right, it doesn't feel authentic," he notes. "That's a very hard thing to translate. What I'm really looking forward to is bringing that authenticity and that understanding of style and fashion in a very inside way to other industries."

At press time, his agency just days old, Laird can offer few specifics on his plans for the Gap. He'll be collaborating on a project basis with the company's in-house marketing team to develop the Fall 2002 campaign. Modernista had worked with the Gap since the Holiday 2000 campaign, and the summer executions, set to break this month, were produced on a consultant basis by Lisa Prisco, former head of the Gap's in-house team, who left in 2000 and later launched a commercials directing career (see Creativity, Oct. 2001). The company is still struggling to end an almost two-year-decline in sales; recession aside, Laird's got a tall order. "I think the Gap needs to be the Gap, and that's what I'm focusing on," he says, insisting "it's an American icon. It's really worked its way into so many of our lives, and that's a relationship that very few brands have with so many people. That's a really precious thing, a really powerful thing, so for me it's a marketer's dream. They know they've done some things wrong, and I think they're working very hard to fix it. They've said quite openly that they were chasing fashion a little bit, and sometimes lost sight of their core strengths, so I think you're going to see them returning to what they do best - which are these core categories that are really part of all our lives, like a blue jean or a khaki."

Laird is especially inspired by his tenacious new collaborator, Mickey Drexler, the merchandising guru who had already seen the Gap through a previous slump in 1996. "When there's something to say that has an impact, I think it's up to both the agency creative and the client," Laird declares. "When the two of them hold hands and jump together, that's when the magic happens. I'm really interested in working with clients who want to break barriers and blur the lines between what an agency and an in-house team can do. That's why I think the Gap is so exciting."

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