Thursday, March 29, 2012

5 Minutes with Joseph Hancock

Joseph "Joe" Hancock teaches, publishes and conducts scholarly activities at Drexel University in the Department of Fashion and Design & Merchandising. He a has twenty-year retailing background having worked for The Gap Corporation, The Limited, Inc., the Target Corporation and continues to do publishing and merchandising consulting work on an international level. Joe earned his PhD from the Ohio State University focusing his research in popular culture as it relates to transnational mass fashion garments and world dress, aspirational fashion branding and experiential retailing, as well as men’s fashion and lifestyles. He has published works in the Journal of American Culture, the journal Fashion Practice, the Journal of Popular Culture, and has released a book Brand/Story: Ralph, Vera, Johnny, Billy and Other Adventures in Fashion Branding that was published by Fairchild Publications. He is currently working on projects with Berg Publishers, Intellect U.K., Wiley/Blackwell, and Fairchild Books. He has lectured and taught courses at University of Technology in Sydney, Australia and at Stockholm University. Has been an invited speaker at Cornell University, The Ohio State University, Albright College, and the University of Delaware. Dr. Hancock has received research fellowships and grants from the Popular/American Culture Associations, the London College of Fashion, and Stockholm University.

Q1. What was the first record that you owned that had a life changing effect on you?

JH: This is a very hard question for me because as you know, I am ‘fashion/retailing person,’ and therefore extremely visual. I was in high school (1985-1989) and college (1985-1989) during the entire 1980s. And was impacted by music both visually by fashion styles and musically with the synthesized sounds. MTV was a big influence for me because it was the first channel dedicated to simultaneously giving aesthetics to music. So on that note, the first album or group that musically impacted me with their sound was Yazoo and their album, Upstairs at Eric’s.

Yazoo was introduced to me, by my then, Penn High School colleague Michael Alig (pictured above) who was eventually moved to New York…Yes, this is the same Michael Alig who founded Club Kids, and who was eventually sent to prison for murdering Angel Melendez. Michael was really into their music and he shared all their remixes with me and his other friends. The combination of Alison Moyet singing to Vince Clarke on the keyboards was revolutionary to me.

Now, style, fashion and appearance wise the first group who changed my life was the Thompson Twins with their album Side Kicks. I wanted to be Tom Bailey, so bad and I had a huge crush on Joe Leeway because he was so hot. I immediately began to mimic their fashion styles by wearing duffle coats, baggy t-shirts, big wide Army surplus belts, Capri pants, espadrilles and moccasins. I had bobbed hair and would dye it shades of blond, brown and red.

What I really enjoyed about that time period was the process of assembling my dress style. Unlike today, you there was no way to just go out a purchase these garments, you had to go to the various stores such army/navy surplus stores, thrift stores and even the mall to create the look. I mean, yeah, some items could be bought at the mall, but not like today where kids just purchase a complete style by brand.

However, what is really ironic about my liking the Thompson Twins, if you recall, they had a concert series that was sponsored by Swatch in the 1980s. I went to see them in Indianapolis, IN and immediately ran out a bought all the Swatches that they wore during concert. I was the first time Swatch did their plaid swatch that was bright green and red. I loved that watch! And I really think that who thing really influenced the type of research I do today on fashion branding.

Q2. When did you first become interested in academia?

JH: My mother was a teacher and I always looked up to her and what she did. However, I never really enjoyed the various subjects that most educators teach in grade and high school. I could never seem myself as a math, English, social studies or history teacher, but when I began to study fashion I was really inspired by my professors. I thought Dr. Kathleen Rowold, one of my professors at Indiana University was so cool and I wanted to be just like her. So, when I eventually go the nerve to ask her what I needed to do to be a fashion professor, she told to go out and work in the industry for a few years. If I was still interested, I could come back to IU and go to graduate school… And that is exactly what I did. I got my first taste of actually teaching while getting my PhD at The Ohio State University. I taught their Introduction to Fashion class with over 70 students and no help, it was a nightmare grading all those papers, but I loved it. So I taught part-time, worked full-time at The Gap Inc., The Limited Corporation, and for The Target Corporation, while taking classes part-time in graduate school. The whole process took me 15 years, but I do not regret one single moment.

Q3. We've just been through a time of preppy inspired fashion for men that has looked really safe and a bit boring. Is it time for men to start revving it up a bit? If so, where to next?

JH: I really think most men like to play it safe when it comes to fashion. They always stick with a formula of style that is really quite boring to me. I am so tired of seeing my colleagues in dress shirts, ties and dress pants with a sports jacket where usually the only conversation about their outfit is focused on the tie and what a risk it was to wear such a bold pattern. But unfortunately, I think this has become the male uniform of men, especially in business. I think men are really scared to look different…And I used to think that gay men where more willing to take risks with fashion styles, but gay men seem so obsessed with being hyper-masculine, they over compensate with ‘safe fashion’ fearing their feminine side is going to show.

However, I think with the United States experiencing a cultural collision with so many ethnicities men are starting to move forward with more colors and patterns in their casual dress. Also, I am starting to see men’s fashion designers mixing an East meets West style of fashion for men. Ralph Lauren just released his Modern Explorer line for Summer 2012 and it has a wonderful mix of color with a non-traditional utilitarian flavor and patterns. Also, I am really enjoying seeing chino pants for men in a variety of colors such as red, yellow, bright green, but then again I think its because we are becoming a very multicultural male population in the United States and European and men of color are not afraid to wear such styles.

I don’t think preppy is ever going away, but I think it is evolving to a more risqué version of historicism meets preppy with Ralph Lauren doing new lines such as his RRL and Denim & Supply, we are starting to see a new workwear/preppy and grunge/preppy emerge from this. Also, I am seeing the return of the 1980s punk/preppy styles with clothes from LaCoste stylized in a punkish attitude. Overall, I think men’s fashion is moving forward to encompass as many men’s lifestyles as possible because right now almost anything goes as far as style. But I am just hoping that this generation of young men will reinvent work clothes and give fresh ideas to men’s suiting so that we can bring fun fashion back into the workplace. Where’s the double knit polyester leisure suit when you need it?

Q4. Who is your fashion icon?

JH: This is another hard question, because when you say ‘fashion icon’ and not fashion designer or merchandiser. I have to say my favorite fashion icon is probably Madonna. She gave us her signature Lucky Star look in the 1980s that everyone tried to emulate…yes even boys, because I had boyfriends who tried to look like her. And she proves time and time again that no matter how old you are, you can still be fashionable and extremely hip. She has really spanned the spectrum of fashion doing a licensed line for H&M to doing high-end fashion ads for Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. And let’s not forget her new fragrance Truth or Dare that was just launched.

Now, if you want to know my favorite fashion designer and merchandiser that is definitely Ralph Lauren. I really admire the way a Jewish man from the Bronx repackaged the entire WASP lifestyle and made it a success. What an ironic story and how funny because they bought it, and have continued to buy it since 1967. The growth of his company is phenomenal as he has continued to branch out his line to various new lifestyles through his other concepts such as Black Label, Double RL, Rugby, Ralph by Ralph Lauren, Denim & Supply, American Living for JCPenney and Chaps at Kohl’s. He really does reach the entire marketplace and his brands reflect various lifestyles. Also, I like his philanthropy because he diversifies to those he gives to so it really gives an impression of diversity…although his son David Lauren is married to Lauren Bush. But, I can forgive him for that since many folks speculate, his other son, Andrew Lauren could possibly be gay. And we all love his daughter Dylan for giving us that fantastic candy store in Manhattan. It is really one of my favorite stops.

Q5. Today Fashion & Popular Culture interest and influence each other. There was a time though, when European 'high fashion' seemed to exist in a bubble, oblivious to pop culture. Why do you think this has changed?

JH: Because European ‘high fashion’ does not relate well to the mass population and quite simply most people do not understand some of it. Also, very few can spend $2000 on a blouse or pair of pants.

But what I really think has happened is that ‘high fashion’ designers realize that if they did not create a line that is accessible to the public at reasonable prices, then no one was going to buy their clothes. We see this time and time again, look at Isaac Mizrahi who refused to do mass fashion back in the 1990s and went completely bankrupt. Thank goodness Target gave him a chance to renew himself as a designer and this allowed him to become a television personality and even do his own fashion line again. And even those designers that just focus on high-end mass fashion sometimes can’t survive, look at poor Christian LaCroix, who had to file for Chapter 11 back in 2009.

Also, I think retailers are really focused on driving sales volume in today’s market, because most of them are public corporations. The big names that provide the public with clothes are Macy’s, Walmart, Limited Brands, Target, and Ralph Lauren; all owned by stock holders. Quite frankly, big business retailers are afraid to risk sales on innovative non-proven fashions, at the possibility of hurting their stocks and company worth. Some will when the risk is low, for example, you did both, your Keanan Duffty line, and designed for the David Bowie line at Target. The men’s business in a Target store is only about 10% of total stores sales volume. So, taking a risk on a new fashion line is not that risky especially if the line, unlike yours, does not do well. But for most part specialty format large scale retail corporations like Gap, where the men’s business is 40% of most stores sales volume, will not take such a huge risk on fresh innovative fashions beause this might force them into a huge debt and reduced stocks. It’s really a shaky business right now so most retailers play it safe and take small risks.

But I still have hopes for a brighter future, and I think people need to start looking back to smaller retail stores and designer COOPs, where new designers are emerging with fresh designs. When I lived in Portland, Oregon, there was a fashion incubator where I used to buy clothes and I loved that I could find things no on else had. I think we might start seeing this again with new designers who understand the people want reasonably priced clothes that are unique.


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