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What Can Design Learn From Holly Golightly?

It’s a war for relevance … and you’re losing. Jump the queue. Throw caution to the wind. Treat yo’self. That Huckleberry friend is waiting ’round the bend.

What Can Design Learn From Holly Golightly?

About exactly halfway through Blake Edwards’ 1961 classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) has the ‘mean reds’ and finds herself sitting with ‘Fred-darling’ (George Peppard) in a strip joint, gawking at the night’s ‘entertainment’. Behind the bar, a rather poor imitation of her is dancing on a stage, undressing down to only some decorously arranged paste jewellery. “Do you think she’s talented, deeply and importantly talented?” Holly asks her chaperon. “Amusingly and superficially talented, yes. But deeply and importantly, no.” Amusing. Superficial. Ta-da! Ladies and Gentleman of the design industry, I give you our biggest struggle yet: the war for relevance.



In an industry that is becoming increasingly loud and over-crowded, ‘amusing and superficial’ is a phrase we are beginning to hear more and more. In fact, veteran Italian designer Stefano Giovannoni puts it pretty well: “The industry is starting to feel like we have arrived at somewhere ridiculous. All the designers work for the same companies, and the companies themselves have become all too similar to one another. You can see the same chair designed by the same person on three different stands at the Salone del Mobile, with a small variation.”


But what could Holly Golightly possibly teach us here?


Well, for one thing, in a crowded market Holly knows her point of difference. She knows exactly who she is and how best to communicate it. “It’s useful being top banana in the shock department!” she famously says, and not unlike a small handful of the contemporary design community’s most exciting visionaries, top banana Holly Golightly is a disruptor in an insurgent economy – one of our very first examples of a truly agile brand.


Let’s start with the opening credits for example. Fifth Avenue, five AM. Mercer and Mancini’s Moon River swells to a demi-crescendo as a Checker cab pulls up curbside outside Tiffany & Co. Out steps a beanpole in a black silk evening gown, oversized sunglasses, chewing on pastry. She glances at her reflection amongst the jewels, a little green-faced after having to be ‘entertaining’ for several hours (let it be known that everyone’s favourite ‘Huckleberry Friend’ is, in fact, a call-girl). But now, she’s alone. After spending all night unsuccessfully on the hunt for an investor (a rich husband) – royalties for services rendered – she gazes inside Tiffany, window-shopping for a new packaging strategy to market. And, she’s going to need it. Why? Because the marketplace is competitive, full of many lookalikes and similar products.


Armed with lakes for eyes, her trusty little black dress and kittenishly indefatigable je ne sais quoi, she is uniquely positioned to demonstrate that capital-R relevance amid a maelstrom of competition, makes her not only different from the rest, but simply a “must-have”.



So, in the pursuit for relevance, what does she actually do? Disrupt, rinse and repeat – and always on her own terms. She parties all night and sleeps all day, either in the nude or a bedfellow’s tuxedo shirt; she occasionally shoplifts for a cheap thrill; she thinks of marriage scornfully and “can’t think of anything she’s never done”; she saws a bathtub in half and calls it a sofa; she finds a cat, keeps it, and then refuses to call it anything at all. Running her own little operation out of her own little studio, her micro-corporation of making, supplying, distributing, dispatching and marketing herself works entirely to her own schedule. She sips coffee from a jar at midday, drinks champagne before breakfast – flying in the face of proper conventions and old-biddy traditions. 


But make no mistake, Ms Golightly is also a cautionary tale for today’s practicing A+D – after all, the parties have not always raced ‘til dawn, and the shoes have not always been stored in a vase in the refrigerator. Constantly disrupting the market to achieve competitive difference – similar to a generation of designers starved for those three per cent wholesale price royalty cheques – Holly forged the path arguably taken by icons such as Tom Dixon and Marcel Wanders. Disruption and rebelliousness certainly keeps top bananas on the top shelf, but it requires constant change and creative foresight. You’ve got to keep them guessing – not dissimilar to when Holly, for example, would constantly re-invent herself whenever she’s courting her next big tender…


…It’s key that she’s calculated. Not calculable.


Reaching her full and somewhat subversive potential through independence, creativity and a unique grasp on her prospect market, she navigates a myriad of her multi-purpose talents for clients: from the inmates of Sing Sing Prison to the powder rooms of Manhattan’s finest restaurants. 


Like it or loathe it, Breakfast At Tiffany’s is the world’s most thorough example of mobilising talent to hold capital. (Who knew that a little black dress is an exemplar of growth channel marketing?!)


Constantly repackaging her proposition to the market, Holly recognises that relevance is scalable: quarterly yields (fifty big ones for the powder room) keeps her sharp, but longer-term dividends (fifty more for the cab) keeps her flush.


And the lesson? Easy. Become the top banana in the shock department: disrupt, be agile, run after that meal ticket. Forget about the ‘mean reds’ of royalties that don’t pay out. Just make sure your brand is dressed to be seen. 


Go on, you’ll be darling at it.


This article was originally published in Indesign Magazine #71. Available now.

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