Disney, by Design
THE most expensive piece of clothing sold by the Walt Disney Company six years ago was a $75 sweatshirt embossed with a mug shot of Mickey Mouse. By Magic Kingdom decree, home furnishings were required to exhibit at least one Disney character, leading to children’s play rugs ($65, in Pluto) and nightlights ($9.95, in Winnie the Pooh).
Disney still peddles all those things. But now the company also sells $3,900 designer wedding gowns — no characters in sight — and women’s cashmere sweaters “inspired by Tinker Bell.” Interior design offerings include $2,800 leather club chairs and $6,000 chandeliers patterned after the Art Deco décor in Mr. Disney’s former office. One of the company’s new products: couture soap.
Welcome to Disney, the “lifestyle brand.”
Shoppers may be surprised to learn that these pricey and Mickey-free products are from the same company that foisted “Hannah Montana” on the world and turned singing Chihuahuas into a cultural touchstone. While some of the items have recognizable characters on them, others contain only winks and nods to the company’s animated movies and theme park rides. And sometimes the only hint of Disney’s involvement is on the label.
Lindsay Bern, a makeup artist for Smashbox Cosmetics, was so delighted with a lavender and silver tote bag that she received as a gift from a friend that she started using it immediately. Then, while on an airplane, a flight attendant commented on her “Alice in Wonderland” bag. “I thought she was crazy until I started looking at it more closely, and, sure enough, there was a subtle Alice hiding in the design,” Ms. Bern said.
The Disney brand, of course, is one of the most powerful in the world. It connotes quality and creativity, but also carries a strong whiff of mass culture — which can turn the noses of fashionistas skyward. It is difficult for many upscale customers and boutiques to take Disney seriously. Of her bag, Ms. Bern said, “I’ll admit it: I liked it better when I didn’t know it was from Disney.”
But Disney has been working hard to improve its image. Starting in 2002, the company tiptoed into high-end retail, seeking out partnerships with designers like Paul Smith, Vivienne Tam and Dolce & Gabbana, who created a $1,400 sequined Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products, thought that a smattering of designer clothes featuring Disney characters in fresh ways would gain the attention of fashion-forward shoppers. The goal was to stretch the brand a bit while adding buzz.
Now Mr. Mooney is going further, asking people to think of Disney as a brand of luxury clothing, expensive home furnishings and hip jewelry. Lest anyone be confused, the company has created labels to differentiate the new merchandise from what it sells at Disney Stores and theme parks. The “upscale, high-glam” Disney Couture is primarily for women, while guys have Bloc28, a name that refers to Mickey Mouse’s debut in 1928. The labels, featured in fashion magazines like Vogue and worn by celebrities like Rihanna, are sold only in boutiques and in department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus.
From a business perspective, the full-speed push into “noncharacter products” like dining tables and executive fountain pens is a crucial way for Disney to expand its consumer products unit, which is better known for pumping out Power Rangers pajamas and Daisy Duck key chains. Disney says that sales of its home and lifestyle products will total about $85 million in the next 12 months, making up one percent of the consumer unit’s revenue. Within five years, the company projects the category will deliver $500 million in sales a year.
It is an ambitious plan for a company whose idea of fashion for decades was to attach plastic mouse ears to a beanie. Analysts who follow Disney said the company’s strategy is smart, though the recent downturn in consumer spending may make it difficult to meet those aggressive sales goals, and some consumers have noticed a similarity between Disney Couture and Juicy Couture.
Over time, consumers from all quarters are likely to grow familiar with the new designs. In one deal that has yet to be announced, Wal-Mart has hired Disney to take over its children’s bedding department this spring. Disney will supply its normal range of “Cars” pillowcases and “Cinderella” sheets, but it will also create four lines of bedding that include no images of Disney characters.
In September, Disney introduced a collection of patio furniture in partnership with Agio. Starting in the spring, consumers will be able to decorate their backyards with outdoor dining sets from the Animal Kingdom Collection. Or they can opt for a martini bar and swivel bar stools from the Grand Floridian Collection — a respite, perhaps, for parents after one too many viewings of “Toy Story 2” on DVD.
Other new products this fall include $1,200 fountain pens from Monteverde that come in three designs. In the Sleeping Beauty Collection, for example, subtle silver arches around the cap are modeled after the window architecture on the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. The nib is 14-karat gold (of course).
Coming soon: Disney dresses from the Los Angeles designer Sue Wong; they will play off the colors in “Fantasia”
“This is more about feeling the Disney characters than seeing their image,” said Kidada Jones, the former Tommy Hilfiger model (and daughter of Quincy Jones), who teamed with Disney to produce a line of jewelry and accessories. One of Ms. Jones’s top sellers is a $143 bracelet made from braided turquoise leather and marketed as an “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired design. The gold-plated charms that dangle from it are references to the story: a pocket watch, hearts, signs that say “Eat Me” and “Drink Me.”
Donna Sheridan, vice president and general manager of Disney Consumer Products, said the company wants people to think of Disney as more of a J. Crew than a family fun factory. “I want to have pieces that adults, designers and tastemakers can all wear and put into their homes.”
The sense that Disney’s new fashions could blend with a woman’s everyday wardrobe is what sold Bloomingdale’s on them.
“We were interested because none of these pieces look like tourist items,” said Denise Ramirez, a divisional merchandise manager at Bloomingdale’s in New York City. “They are clothes you would wear, not something you pick up at a theme park because it’s cute for the day.”
Paul Devine, an interior designer based in Pasadena, Calif., said he was surprised by Disney’s furniture line, which is produced with Drexel Heritage. The collection started with 12 pieces in 2006 and quickly expanded to 50 the following spring.
“I’m a stickler for quality, and I had reservations that this would be up to my standards,” Mr. Devine said. After much scrutiny, he decided to add a few Disney furniture items to a home he was designing in Palm Springs, Calif., and he has been a customer ever since. “There’s even some sex appeal at work there,” he said.
As the company presses forward, it is encountering competition from inside the movie capital. Warner Brothers, also chasing the brand halo that can come from partnerships with top-notch designers, just landed a deal with Diane von Furstenberg. Warner, home to Looney Tunes and DC Comics, teamed with Ms. von Furstenberg on a series of $695 ready-to-wear dresses inspired by Wonder Woman.
To attract artists and designers, Disney has played much looser with its characters than ever, a move that has been controversial within the company. A T-shirt sold at Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, Calif., showed Mickey Mouse looking like a pimp, with a gold-studded chain and a fedora. An upcoming jewelry offering from Disney’s fashion collection for young men is a ring that depicts a rabid-looking Mickey Mouse with freakish long fangs.
Pam Lifford, executive vice president of Disney Consumer Products, defended the provocative images. “We take it to the edge but keep it controlled and maintained,” she said. “Allowing designers and artists the freedom to take our creative assets and explore, within reason, is the only way we can attract the right talent.”
Designers say they have been impressed with the willingness of the famously guarded company to take chances. Charlotte Tarantola, a Los Angeles designer, said she decided to do a limited collection based on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in part because Disney allowed her to explore “the darker, very adult side of the fairy tale.”
As the proprietor of a small company, Ms. Tarantola was eager to piggyback on the Disney name. “Anyone who is alive today has been touched by Disney in some way. If becoming partners with them can help my business, far out.”