In the hip Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, nestled between a Latino folk-medicine shop and a beauty salon, there is a loft space that could be an art gallery. Two people are inside. As I enter, one woman chirps, "Hi," then turns back to her conversation. They don't ask me to leave. They don't ask me anything. I look at the art on the walls: no prices, as there would be at a gallery; nothing for sale; no explanatory signs. Just a disclaimer stating we're being filmed for promotional purposes.
Where am I? In SiteLA, an open-to-the-public storefront where Quiksilver showcases its Visionaries in Residence, six "independent and creative women" whose pursuits are being sponsored by the $2.4-billion-a-year apparel maker. The goal is to promote its first-ever line of young women's contemporary wear, which debuted in July.
I've also stepped through the looking glass into a bizarre marketing experiment — touting real people the way Quiksilver has long associated itself with surfers and skateboarders. The timing for the new business and this ridiculous stunt is curious. Earlier this summer, the company reported a net loss of more than $200 million due to a failed expansion into ski and golf equipment. SiteLA itself carries little financial risk — the whole yearlong project will cost less than a Super Bowl spot, about $2.5 million. But Quiksilver Women's success will require authenticity: A grassroots campaign (cool chicks doing cool stuff!) that's wholly synthetic (Quiksilver presents the eco-friendly Spice Girls!) is an odd way to start.
Quiksilver's mission forces the company to pull off the trick of being a maverick with mass appeal. "Its core customers want to be cool, wearing brands that represent the heroes they aspire to be," says retail consultant Matthew Katz, managing director of AlixPartners. "At the same time, those cool kids want to be viewed as unique."
When Quiksilver execs describe SiteLA, my hyperbole meter went to 11. "It's an alternative to pop culture," declares Erik Joule, senior VP of merchandise and design, "something with substance." So it's areality->marketing campaign? "I don't see it as a campaign," says Joshua Katz, director of marketing and communications (and no relation to Matthew Katz). "I see it as a movement that transcends that."
According to SiteLA's MySpace page, the Quiksilver execs aren't trying to start a movement so much as generate some enthusiasm for Quiksilver Women's. With its Visionaries in Residence, the company recruited women under 30 to help it "craft a story of female ambition, creativity, talent, and growth" for its target audience of 21- to 28-year-old women. "I wanted to have something to talk about at trade shows with buyers," Quiksilver's Katz explains.
The "visionaries" are interesting women, but as a team, they seem like the cast of a Bravo reality show. There's the architect, Jesse Rodato, who wants to build a collapsible "guerrilla" skate park. The singer-songwriter, Pilar Diaz, is working on her first solo album. The designer, Khrystyne Zurian, develops cars for eco-conscious women. The artist, Sarah Anderson, runs a collaborative drawing club. The fashionista, Beth Jones, is a blogger who wants to open her own retail store. And the activist, Dorothy Le, is a bicycle advocate.
The company plies them with contacts and the tools they need to pursue their dreams. In exchange, the women's blogs, Web videos, and live events that chronicle their progress — sometimes the new clothes even make cameos! — get turned into promos, mostly on Quiksilver's online store.
"It's carefully orchestrated to be loose," Katz says. The project started in March even though the clothes weren't available for sale until four months later. The official reason? Building "organic interest," which is surfer-meets-suit jargon for creating buzz. The other rationale: "We wanted to learn about the market before we sold clothes to the market," Katz says, meaning that these six women may hold the record for world's longest focus-group participants.
It's hard to argue when Katz says, "We are more obligated to them than they are to us." SiteLA participants don't have contracts, as Quiksilver athletes do. They're not given salaries. Although they're "in residence," they don't live in the loft. They're not even obligated to wear the clothes. At the first Fast Company photo shoot, only three of the six women show up. As the photographer sets up, Rodato quietly asks the site manager, Cammie Staros, "Should we put on Quiksilver stuff?" Staros shrugs. "I don't know," she mutters.
Quiksilver thinks it's selling "stories of independent creativity and progress and activism" — Apple's "Think Different" in a baby-doll top. "Apple is inspiring because it reflects something inspiring," Joule says. (If the company earned a dollar each time anyone affiliated with SiteLA used the word "inspire," it'd be in the black.) So how will it know if SiteLA works? "Taking a risk is success," he says. It's not clear if the company is being naive or cynical, but Quiksilver may be the one in need of inspiration.