George Gottl

Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with George. George, thanks so much for joining me today.

George Gottl: Hi, thank you very much, Stacy. I’m thrilled to be here.

SSR: It’s exciting. We always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

GG: I grew up in California. I was originally born in Los Angeles, one of the few native Los Angeleans, and grew up mostly in Orange County. I was living actualy by the ocean most of my life, so I’m literally a beach boy.

SSR: Love it. Were you always creatively minded? Do you have any early memories of design or creativity or anything that might hint at where you ended up?

GG: Absolutely. I mean, I think I’ve always been intrigued with imagination and creativity, even from a very young age. One of the things I used to love to do was, I don’t know if anyone remembers Play Dough, if Play Dough is still around or not, but-

SSR: Well, my kids have it. It’s all over the house.

GG: Okay, well, there you go. Well, back when everything was analog, because I’m old enough to remember when the dinosaurs became extinct, there used to be maps of Disneyland. Now, this is even before there were Disney Worlds and Disney everywhere there is now, there was only one Disneyland in Anaheim, California. I would lay out the map of Disneyland, and the way they did it is they made little icons of all the rides, and I would, when I was like four or five years old, make out of Play Dough the little ride icons dimensionally and place them on the map.

SSR: That’s so cute.

GG: Yeah, kind of bizarre. But anyways, I’ve always loved making things. I’ve always loved using my imagination, so yeah, ever since I was young I was creative.

SSR: Well, was anyone in your family creative too? Your mom, your dad or do they have any influence on you?

GG: Not really. They didn’t discourage me and they didn’t encourage me either, so it was this I kind of did my own thing and I lived in this imaginary world like I think a lot of kids do.

SSR: Yeah. Did you travel a lot as a kid or any other kind of influences?

GG: Yeah, actually a huge amount of influence. My parents were both foreign, so I’m a first generation American. My mother was Costa Rican and my father was German. I grew up in a more or less foreign kind of cultural context in the sense that I had a lot of Latin influence obviously and also the European influence from my father. That immediately set me apart from everyone else because, I mean, obviously my mother would make traditional dishes and the same thing with my dad, so I didn’t really have a very traditional sort of “American upbringing.” I guess ultimately that is American, being an immigrant because everyone pretty much, except for the Native Americans are, but yes, I had a very foreign influenced upbringing.

SSR: Love it. I can imagine those meals, so different, right, between-

GG: Goulash and dumplings on one end and tamales and squid in its own ink over rice on the other end.

SSR: Very similar, but-

GG: Yeah.

SSR: You had the whole spectrum. Did you end up going to school for design or tell us a little bit about your education?

GG: Yeah. I mean, I had a pretty normal upbringing in terms of education. I got a scholarship to Otis Parsons. So at the time, Parsons had an affiliate in LA called Otis, which was the definitive fine arts school in Los Angeles, and I took the fashion design course there. I became a Parsons’ fashion graduate.

SSR: Very impressive, yeah.

GG: Just like all the famous people out there that have in the past. Yeah, and I started my career as a fashion designer. I’ve never known anything else but a creative career.

Bloomingdale’s Kuwait

SSR: What was your first job out of school?

GG: I went to work for a company called Jimmyz, with a Z, and they were very famous for this kind of Velcro waistband that they had for surfers. It would be so that the waistband was would be flat when you lay on the surfboard. I ended up translating that concept into all these different types of garments. One of them was a Sarong skirt that you could use the Velcro to close the skirt. In any case, that became an enormous hit and Jimmyz became very famous, especially in the surf wear industry. Yeah, and at that point, I became a bit sought after as a designer because I made all this money for that company. Yeah, and kept working in the fashion business for a couple of years. It was hard, it’s a hard business. I decided, I got really inspired by seeing these freeze-dried flowers and decided to open a store on the La Brea Boulevard selling freeze dried flowers, the store was called Relic, and I had that for about three years.

Then the Rodney King riots hit, I don’t know if anyone remembers those, but that was a devastating time in Los Angeles. Los Angeles really just… I mean, the riots in the city just really took over the city, and friend of mine who was living, actually a fellow student of mine who I knew since college, said, “Why don’t you come up to Oregon, to Portland and work for Nike?” I was like, “Oh my God, what do you want me to go to the lumberjacks?” I had no idea what a fantastic place Portland. I went up there, of course fell in love with the city, and I was hired by Nike and that kind of set my career off for a long time. Actually, Nike was my employer for many years.

SSR: What did you do at Nike and how did you evolve there?

GG: Yeah. Well, I started being a designer with, at the time they called it special makeups, which was basically working directly with the private labels of all their biggest chains that they would sell to, so like Footlocker, Foot Action, all those companies, and I would design the garments that would go with the shoes that they were buying. It was a really basic job, but it took me all over the US because I had to fly to all the different headquarters and meet with the buyers and listen to what they had to say about why they were buying the shoe and then interpret that into a series of garments. I developed a method that increased their sales hugely, so I created this sort of portfolio method where the buyers could select the silhouette and the colors that they wanted and so they really were co-creating with me, which of course made the sales skyrocket because, of course, their ego became involved in the purchase.

SSR: Smart.

GG: Not only they helped design it. I was promoted to inline design work and eventually invited to be part of the World Cup Project, the ’98 World Cup Project that Nike basically launched their, well, to the American listeners, the soccer division, but to the European listeners, the football division.

SSR: Got it.

GG: Working with a team, I came up with a concept what was called engineered apparel and that really set off a huge momentum behind this idea of taking apparel beyond just simply technical and performance, but actually engineering it to the specifications of the athletes. That got me promoted to Creative Director there for apparel.

SSR: Amazing. What did you learn there? What have you taken away from your experience at Nike?

GG: Nike was amazing for me. I mean, Nike really opened the door to so many things. When I was with the company at the time, I don’t know what it’s like now, but when I was there at the time, it was really entrepreneurial. You could really make a difference as an individual. They welcomed input in terms of different ideas, but at the same time, they also really helped you become a better designer and just a better person in a lot of ways. I mean, they really helped educate me. The first time I went to Europe was with them and the first time I did a lot of things was because of Nike. They really supported and nurtured their talent there. I think the thing that I took away, the thing that’s probably the most important that actually has just really led to the success in my career overall, is the ability to craft an idea and tell a story, being able to put together an idea and then being able to tell an invocative story behind that idea is really one of the reasons why I’ve been able to be as successful as I have been and Nike is the one that really taught me how to do that.

SSR: Yeah. Is there one project looking back that you really loved or was maybe not… I guess, your break at Nike was with engineered apparel. What do you think was the one thing that you did there that really sticks with you?

GG: Well, I think there were several milestones there in my career. I think one of them was the developing this way of selling products to the biggest chains that they had. I also was very active in transforming the fit of the garments and pushing to get better. The concept behind engineered apparel was like, “Okay guys, why are we looking at our competitors? We should be looking at the world’s best apparel brands and that means looking in the world of fashion, that means looking in the world of Cutour and seeing how they finish and how they cut things. We need to be on the same level, but with the idea of performance behind it.” That’s what engineered apparel was about, it was about creating the best garment for the specific sport.

I think that was a huge milestone because I think at that point they viewed… What they were doing before is they were looking at all their competitions, seeing what they were doing versus just creating the best and that really transformed their perspective in terms of what apparel could mean and that was a huge milestone definitely for me, but also transformative for the apparel division at Nike. One of the things that I really worked on there was also transforming… There’s a thing in the fashion industry called a block and a block is your basic garment, it’s your basic fit, so how the arm hole hangs, how the neck hangs, how the shoulders hang, all those things, and I went through all of the blocks that Nike had in their apparel division and tried to transform and improve them so that we could have the best cut in the industry.

Eventually it happened, it took a while and I think… Again, one of the things I had learned how to do was also anticipate because as a designer at Nike, I had to work two years out so I had to create a collection and try to anticipate what customers were looking for two years out. That really sharpened my ability to spot trends that potentially would develop in the future and that also has been a huge help and support in my career.

McDonald’s Luna concept in Shanghai

SSR: Right. Well, it seems like such a simple idea, right, just make the best that you can, but just flipping that switch, I mean, must have just elevated what Nike was. I mean, and you were there in the ’90s when they were just growing tremendously.

GG: Well yeah, you would think so, but see, they really… The fashion word was the F word at Nike, so you couldn’t bring it up and they didn’t want to look at fashion brands. You couldn’t talk about them and it’s like, “Guys, but those are the best garments, not the athletic brands.” At the time, the athletic brands were really schleppy polyester, really quick and cheap, there was no care or there was no design involved in actually cutting the garment to the body and actually cutting the garment to the activity, like how can you improve the cut of garments so that the athlete could perform better in it and that was a huge breakthrough.

SSR: Yeah, so cool. Why did you decide to leave Nike?

GG: Well, Nike was extremely kind to me and Nike ended up moving me to Europe to open a lifestyle division here and that’s where I moved… Because I live in Amsterdam now and I’ve been living in Europe now since 1998. They moved me here to open a lifestyle division for Europe. It was like a wide label project basically, I don’t think it exists anymore, and it was the beginning of Nike dipping their toe in the world of fashion and style and acknowledging that they are as much a part of fashion as anything else. I think nowadays, that’s obvious, but back then it was not. I moved here and what they were going to do is I had to work one year in Hilversum, which is the city just outside of Amsterdam where their headquarters are, and then I would be moved to London to work at a pod that they had in London for two other designers and myself.

It was an amazing experience. I mean, it was all expense paid. I don’t think they have these packages anymore, but in any case, I didn’t have it rough, it was very, very nice, they were very generous and it was a tremendous learning experience for me because it was the first time I actually had to live outside of the US and that’s very, very different than just simply visiting a country. So yeah, I mean, Nike was incredible. I lived for one year in Amsterdam, loved it. Amsterdam is an amazing city. It’s even more amazing than back then. When I first came here, it was a beautiful place, but now it’s just like crazy fantastic. Then they moved me to London when London was booming and that was a really eye opening experience. I have never seen or been in a city like that before.

It was a city, but I think was in some ways even more progressive than New York. If we take New York and LA, I mean, I’ve always been a big city boy, but if you take a city like New York or LA, they’re great and they’re quite international, but nothing like London because I think European cities have… the adjacency to different cultures is so much closer, so the mix of culture is so much more elevated and intense. You have so many different types of people walking around speaking all these languages all the time. Anyways, then I got head hunted by an Italian company called Mandarina Duck and I moved from London… I quit Nike because they just made this offer, it’s funny that they’re Italian and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, I live on the cliché, yeah, I mean, it was this crazy offer. It was so well paid and I had to go live in Bologna, Italy.

SSR: Had to.

GG: Yeah. Well, it was a big change. One of the things about living in Italy, unlike Holland, is you do need to learn the language. I mean, I still don’t speak Dutch fluently and I’ve been here now since 2003. I learned Italian so I speak fluent Italian. It helped that I speak fluent Spanish because of my mother. That was a very interesting and difficult and challenging experience. It was really rewarding in some ways, but I think I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of how companies are run in Italy versus how they’re run in the United States. It was a big shift, to say the least, especially coming from such a well organized, well run company like Nike to a family run company, even though it was a large company. That transition was really difficult.

Between that and also learning Italian that I actually learned just from listening, believe it or not, and just understanding the cultural context, after two years, I decided then to open my own business and move back to the Netherlands because the Netherlands is so business friendly. I mean, they really encourage foreign investment and entrepreneurship here. It’s very easy to immigrate to the Netherlands if you open a business. Yeah, I moved here, opened the company I have now, UXUS, and I’ve been here ever since, since 2003.

SSR: Real quick before we go to UXUS, what were you actually designing in Italy? What kind of clothes or?

GG: I was the Global Creative Director for Mandarina Duck, which is an Italian bag and fashion brand. They’re this weird kind of fusion… I don’t think they exist anymore. They’re this weird fusion of technical bags with fashion bags and then the same thing was… They’re famous for their luggage, let’s put it that way. I also made clothing. Well, I didn’t make it myself, but obviously I directed the entire lifestyle component of that company.

Clinique Laboratories Shenzhen

SSR: Interesting. Okay. So UXUS, what did you want to create? What were you hoping you business would be? Did you want to do anymore fashion or is this where you wanted to go more into interior spaces and branding? It’s definitely a shift.

GG: Yeah. And yeah, it was a huge shift. Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve had basically three careers really. When I opened UXUS, I looked back on the store I had in LA, Relic, and that was really a passion project. It was very successful. I was in the LA Times several times. We had all kinds of celebrities as clients. We were sort of the talk of the town. That was focused primarily on interiors and that was really where I’ve always had a passion, even going back to modeling the Disneyland map. It’s always for me about spaces and journeys and how you move through an environment. When I opened UXUS, I used to work my way through school. The scholarship paid for most of my tuition, but then obviously I needed to have money for food and other things. I used to work as a visual merchandising associate for many years to earn extra money because you could do that at night. Because of my VM knowledge and my retail knowledge, opening UXUS was really easy and very natural for us.

We started with Levi’s as our main account and we were doing basically retail campaign work, so all the kind of retail marketing work that the brand needed and it was sort of our kickoff as a client and things snowballed. It was literally, I would say it was two men and a dog working out of the back of a house seriously, and UXUS 10 years later was over 100 employees and we sold it to a big multinational company.

I mean, our client is enviable. Not only do we work in the world of hospitality, such as hotel design and restaurant design, but we also work in the world of fashion, consumer goods, things that aren’t… things like petrol stations. I mean, Shell is one of our biggest clients. We’ve evolved into something that was always very natural, which is the story, and I think today more than ever, that’s super important. Everyone talks about customer experience, the experience is the now the most important thing to sell. Well, we’ve been doing experience since the day we opened because that was always the foundation of how we worked. We looked always to the psychology of the customer to help drive how we would design and build something. For us, it was all what we called the customer takeaway and it wasn’t what they were buying, it was what they were thinking. How did they feel after they left the experience? How did they feel after they left the store? Because in the end, that’s what a brand actually sells is the sensation to want to return.

When we designed spaces, we designed it with that mindset. And at the time, it was incredibly progressive. No one was talking about that and we would win pitches. I mean, I remember once we had a year where our pitch win rate was like 85%. It was like crazy. Everything we got involved in, we won simply because the brands were really responding like, “Okay, that makes a lot of sense. Yeah, let’s do that,” and it worked. We still have some of the world’s most exciting brands working with us to create these experiences and journeys. And I hate to even use that word because it’s so overused, but that was the foundation of where we started. It was all like, “Okay, so what’s the perception?” We started designing windows and displays and using them as media and communication tools, which now in the end is what a retail store is about. The retail stores are no longer about transactional things, they’re about these communication media experiences. We were way ahead of the curve. And because of that, we’re also really good experts at it. We’ve had a lot of practice.

SSR: That’s amazing. Can we go back to Relic for a second? Were you selling interior accessories …

GG: Yeah. It was a very romantic store, that’s why it was called Relic.

SSR: I got it.

GG: It was all about the past and about this idealized romance, so a lot of vintage furniture pieces. We made custom iron furniture, but in the romantic Italian sense, so that ornate, gilded Italian stuff, it was like that, but with chipped white paint and then painted flowers. Our biggest seller and our innovation was our freeze dried flowers. We would use a taxidermy machine to dry the flowers, which left the flowers looking fresh. So when you dry flowers in a taxidermy machine, first of all, it takes two weeks and what it does is it freezes the flower and then it draws the ice out. The membranes, and this is why you can taxidermy an animal inside a machine like that, the membrane of the plant doesn’t collapse. So when you pull the flower out, the color and the shape of the flower are intact but it’s like it’s light as a piece of paper, it has no moisture in it. It allows the flower to stay fresh for about six to eight months without losing anything. If you put near sunlight, it’ll fade, but that’s pretty much about it.

SSR: How did you figure that out? Were you just playing around?

GG: A friend of mine, well it wasn’t a friend of mine, it’s a person who worked actually for the museums in Los Angeles had a taxidermy machine. I stuck some vegetables… I put lemon. What else did I put? I put a rose. I put a bunch of junk in the corner. These machines are enormous by the way. You could stack three people in them easily laying down. Yeah, they’re gigantic. We would do thousands of flowers at a time, especially because it took two weeks to have the process.

SSR: Well, yeah. So if it was a small machine and took two weeks, it probably wasn’t a good business model.

GG: Not at all, yeah. So we would have these huge trays of flowers. Anyways, I just stuck those things in there. It was like, “Oh, wow, look at that. It works,” and that’s why we became so famous because everyone… We would take a lemon and hollow it out and cut the top off and glue the top to the bottom so it was like a little vase, if you can imagine.

We would fill it with daffodils and put a French ribbon around it. I mean, women would… they would come in and they would literally go nuts and they would buy everything. It was pretty much price was no object. What we ended up doing as well is we would go out and we would get a bunch of vintage things like little tea cups and little old silver teapots, just junk and fill it with flowers and people would go crazy because it had the nostalgia of something old and then it had the beautiful color of the flowers and we would coordinate everything around the object it was sitting in. Yeah.

SSR: Amazing. I think you should bring it back. So UXUS, tell us about the name. What’s behind it?

GG: Well, if you look at the name graphically, it’s U Times US and that’s actually the original name of the company. The original name of the company was U Times US. And because we started the company in Italy and Italians don’t speak English and if you try to talk to anyone about your company and giving them a website and you had to sell out Y-U-S-T-I-M-E-S-U-S, forget it, so it’s easier to UXUS. Also, Italians don’t use Y in their alphabet. They don’t use Y at all, and it was a nightmare, so we just made this an acronym and it worked.

L’Occitane Regent Street flagship store in London

SSR: Awesome. Amazing. I love that you do retail, you do branding, you do hospitality. How do you collaborate amongst your team or how, I guess, is it… how’s it set up? Do you let the different studios get ideas from each other? Is it very collaborative?

GG: Absolutely. I think that was another thing I learned from Nike that teamwork is super important. When I was at Nike, it was extremely collaborative teamwork environment with no hierarchy. Ideas can come from anybody. We are very much that here. It’s extremely collaborative. Every person is valued, their contribution is all… everybody’s contribution is valued. Basically, the way we set things up is that we have these design studios within the company that specialize in various types of design. We obviously have someone, a team that works on hotels and restaurants, another one that works on beauty, another one that works on fashion retail like that. Yeah, and that’s how we’re structured. We always have a project manager, a designer that does dimensional design. We also have graphic design. We have a strategist usually. And depending on how big the project is, then we scale up or down how many individuals we have in each studio.

SSR: And when you’re about too, like staying ahead of things, like working two years out, how much of your team or you are looking, I hate to use the word trends, but influences, what’s happening, how do you stay on top of all of these?

GG: Yeah, hugely. Hugely. We’re always ahead of the curve and I think we’re viewed as thought leaders. If you Google my name or you Google the company, you’ll see that there’s a tremendous amount of articles and thought leadership pieces around the future. Yeah, I mean, I’m just a curious person to begin. I mean, it’s just I live what I do and so there’s no barrier. I’m always looking around and seeing what’s interesting, what’s new and what’s developing. I think more than ever… And also just catching things that aren’t necessarily because it’s easy to Google and go to McKinsey’s or whoever the consultants are and they can tell you what’s coming in a very, I call it Wall Street information versus actually looking at what’s happening on the sociological level and that’s where you can really go way out. Maybe it’s not scientific, but let me tell you, it’s always worked for me. And just talking to people.

My partner, my life partner is a filmmaker and he just finished shooting a pilot. The show is about young people and one of the actors, well, she’s an actress, is just turned 21. It’s just chatting to them and understanding their world and how they think and what they value. It’s so interesting and it’s really interesting how there’s a huge movement. My generation was about decadence and consumption; Studio 54, drugs, sex, rock and roll, wealth, status, Wall Street. Their generation is very different. It seems like the values are placed in a different… What they aspire to do and become has a completely different set, a complete different filter to it. I think what’s interesting is that even though everyone talks about digital, it seems like that generation values meeting what they IRL more than ever and even shopping and going to stores and I think that’s one of the reasons why vintage shops are just blowing up.

It’s because not only are they inexpensive and you can find… but more importantly, it’s a treasure hunt. What this group looks for is uniqueness and being able to be individual and being able to express themselves for who they are inside. I think that’s why the whole discussion of gender now has come up. For example, the young lady who’s the actress in this series doesn’t identify sexually in any way. She considers herself omnisexual, which means she’s attracted to basically whoever she’s attracted to emotionally, so gender doesn’t play in it and she doesn’t associate herself as gay or straight or bi. I think that’s a really interesting insight. That’s something that’s never, ever, ever happened before.

First of all, at that age, so young, already so self-aware about what makes them tick and how they work emotionally is pretty amazing. I think this generation that’s coming, I think, is going to really transform society overall. I think we’re going to see a huge transformation in terms of values and finally, in a weird way, letting go of… In a weird way, the 20th century was the pinnacle of Victorian values. I mean, if you think about the beginning of the industrial revolution, they used wood to burn, to make heat, to make a steam engine run and that was technology. Well, there’s no difference between that and putting petrol in a tank because petrol is basically liquified carbon or wood that you’re putting to burn an engine to make it run. So finally, we’re moving away from these old values and even the formalities of society that you have to present yourself in certain ways and that there’s certain social indicators and all those things are evaporating.

I think that that’s why there’s so much conflict in the world right now is because the old world and the new world are clashing. And in the end, the new always wins out no matter what because things always change or else we’d be still in horse and buggies, but it’s just right now there’s… There’s always a transformation in the beginning of every century and we’re in the middle of that. Well, actually we’re just in the beginning. I think it’s going to get a lot scarier.

SSR: But good scary or bad scary?

GG: Well, there is no good or bad, what it is it’s going to be a transformation just like birth is painful, think about that, right. I mean, mother pushing a baby through her body is not an easy thing, but yet life comes from it. I think the Asians have got it right, it’s ying yang. There’s a dark and there’s a light, so there’s always a contrast. So in order to have something positive, let’s say what we perceive as positive and happy, often you have to go through a challenging struggle to arrive at something that is worthwhile. I think that struggle is what’s beginning to happen now. I think it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

SSR: Got it. I was reading or I saw your presentation about the new stealth status and how luxury has changed. Can you talk a little bit about that too because I think that’s super interesting moving forward?

GG: Yeah, absolutely. I think the world of luxury is really completely being redefined and that’s really… It’s always been about social currency. I mean, luxury is social currency right? You have an object as a status symbol, like you show… And again, it’s very Victorian. So again, it’s like “I am dressed beautifully, therefore I’m an aristocratic individual with wealth.” It sends out cues. All that is being ripped apart. I mean, you got Mark Zuckerberg who’s a bajillionaire or any of the people who are the captains of industry, who are not dressed all super fancy and formal, who don’t necessarily have the Rolex watch and the fancy shoes and all those things and those individuals in a lot of ways and just sort of the tech industry overall, basically don’t carry the same kind of Victorian values of the past, so status comes from this kind of knowing versus having.

I think that that is really the key to the future. If you’re a luxury brand, it’s no longer about the object that’s being purchased, it’s about the values that the brand has and how they translate to the peer groups they’re trying to reach. Therefore, those who know, know. It’s like the ultimate brands are the ones that have indicators that don’t have marks.

SSR: Yep, interesting. Love it. Is there a project that you’ve worked on recently that you think speaks to this or you’re really proud of because you’re pushing that idea, especially right now?

GG: I think all of our clients right now are looking for that idea, are looking for how they reach and how they can connect in a meaningful way to customers. It’s a mindset in terms of how you create these experiences. You have to understand their psychology of who they’re trying to reach first. What is it that they aspire to? What do they value? How do they communicate? What are their peer groups like? And then they need to build experiences around that. Sometimes a brand or… Also, it’s very regional, so it’s not like we have the same values in China or the Middle East or South America that you have in the United States, especially in a cities like New York and LA, which are incredibly wealthy and advanced in terms of consumption, so the cues there are very different than the cues you would have in other places. And again, that’s also the future, it’s fragmentation. You cannot blanket things, you cannot blanket individuals or even demographics anymore, it’s all about mindset and cultural context. So the value that a culture has and the mindset of the individuals you’re trying to reach is what you have to design around or build around. Does that make sense?

SSR: Totally. 100 percent. You’re doing more hospitality too, which is-

GG: Yes, we do a lot of it.

SSR: Yeah. How are you rethinking or taking all this retail knowledge and everything that you’ve done in branding and bringing that to the hospitality space?

GG: Well, first of all, we don’t look at it as separate. When I say retail, I look at it as the capital R versus the lower case R. Capital R means a hotel is retail, but a hotel is the retail or services and experiences. So they’re not selling objects, they’re selling an experience to… and whatever that brand experience might be. Each brand has its own kind of persona, so it’s all the same and I think the thing that’s happening as well is that there’s a fluidity that’s taking place in culture that is affecting everything. What I mean by that is the fluidity in how people define themselves, so there’s a whole discussion about gender that’s really controversial, there’s a whole discussion about a lot of things. There’s also the fluidity of the customer and how they move between virtual and real. I don’t even like to use the word real because actually for young people, virtual relationships through WhatsApp and texting is as real as a relationship that you have face-to-face.

I mean, look at what we’re doing right now. I’ve never met you before and here you are and I’m looking at a screen, I’m looking at a bunch of digital things that are shooting off electrically and I’m having a conversation with you. It’s the digital versus the non-digital and the fluidity between those two points. That is incredibly important. There’s the silos of the past. So you had hospitality, you had… or you had hotels, you had restaurants, you had stores and services, all of that is blurring together, the fluidity, so a lot of retail experiences like fashion retailers, beauty retailers are stealing from the world of restaurants and hotels because they need that welcoming lifestyle, immersive component and vice versa. A lot of restaurants and hotels now are brands that sell products and have their own kind of retail… You can buy a Marriott pillow if you want. You know I mean? It’s just insane. I think that what’s happening is it’s no longer about one thing, it is about how you present the persona to the target audience you’re trying to reach.

SSR: Right. Right. Okay. Is there one project that you recently completed that you could tell us a little bit about in hospitality?

GG: Yes, actually, I think I can talk about this. Well, there’s a lot of confidential projects that we’re working on.

SSR: Yeah, I know.

GG: But one of the projects that has just been launched, actually unfortunately right when COVID hit, is a project that we did for McDonald’s. We did a new décor concept for them called Luna for the China market. Luna, the reason it’s called Luna is because it’s inspired by the moon and the reason why it’s inspired by the moon is because we looked at a fundamental difference between the east and the west and it’s such a basic difference that I don’t think anyone even understands. Again, it’s kind of obvious, but no one… and they went nuts. Our Chinese counterparts at McDonald’s went nuts when we told them this. He said, “Well, the west is based on the sun because the year changes at the solar year and the east is based on the moon because the Chinese New Year is the beginning of the lunar year,” and that is a huge fundamental difference. The reason for that is because obviously you can’t really look at the sun, but you can look at the moon and the moon is round.

Round is so important in China. Round, or in Asian in general, is the ying, the yang. It’s wholeness, it’s completeness. And if you know anything about Asian culture, Sundays is Dim Sum Day and it’s a big, giant round table where the family sits around and the Lazy Susan spins all this food and they all share and having a round table means that there’s no head of the table, that it’s about the family as a whole. We created this décor for Asia, for China specifically, that had a lot of round cues in it, that had round tables and round seating areas and all of these circles. But anyways, they went completely nuts. And again, it’s using cultural context and insights to create something that people then relate to. It’s become a huge success, it’s the most… The lady who runs the Chinese design department in McDonald’s said it’s the best décor they’ve ever had.

And we’ve been invited now to do another one, so that’s really exciting. And yeah, so we’re really excited about that because, again, we use the psychology as a starting point. What is the cultural difference? What is the Chinese McDonald’s, still maintaining the brand of McDonald’s, but how do you then make something that’s culturally relevant to their region? It’s so good that it’s become now a global décor that is being rolled out everywhere and Norway is one of the first places that… Norway of all places, is one of the first places to do a pilot on Luna.

SSR: That’s so cool. That must have been fun though to reimagine too such an iconic brand such as McDonald’s in a new way.

GG: Yeah. We’re actually on retainer with them. We create most of their new ideas or their new decors. Yeah, they’re actually a really great brand to work with. They have a lot of… Unfortunately, they get kicked around a lot because they’re so big. And when you’re that big, they’re an easy target, but it’s actually quite a fantastic company that tries to do a lot of good.

SSR: Right. Awesome. I could talk to you forever, but just keeping in mind the time, tell us something about you that most people might not know.

GG: Oh my God, I’m pretty much an open book. I guess when I was in LA and we had the store, we had a lot of celebrities come in and Madonna’s brother would always come to the store and hang out. Christopher Ciccone was there all the time hanging out and chatting to my partner and myself, so we had a… Yeah, it was like the Relic guys day and we had like… A friend of mine was an agent working with creative artists, so she would say, “Hey, you want to go to lunch me and my friend?” and it would be like Courtney Cox or, “Hey, you want to come over to Fourth of July barbecue?” and then Madonna herself would be actually there. But I mean, that’s also LA. I think a lot of people don’t realize that all these celebrities are actually human beings that do stuff, go shopping and do all kinds of things. Yeah, I would skirt around…

SSR: Would you ever open a store again?

GG: Oh yeah, I would love to. It’s just I know how much work it is. My hats off to people that own retail. I mean, it is so much work. But yeah, it’s really fun. Because for me, retail is a show and I love putting on a show. I love hosting. Again, that idea of hospitality, if you have a really good retail store, it’s a hospitality experience first and a retail store second.

Pudu Pudu pudding shop in Venice, California

SSR: Right. What’s your own personal style like or what is your home like?

GG: Oh my God yeah, I’m really, really fortunate. I live in a beautiful old warehouse from 1763, so I live in a 300 year old loft basically that is, I don’t know, I guess it’s a very eclectic style of iconic classic art and design. I mean, I’m a big fan of Dutch designers, so I have a lot of Piet Hein Eek. I have quite an extensive art collection. I collect contemporary artists, so I have Banksy and Chatman Brothers. Who else? I have a Warhol believe it or not. Oh my God, when you asked me, I should have made a list of all the artists that I have.

SSR: No, that’s fine. That was a great.

GG: Yeah, I have a lot of Daniel Arsham. I don’t know if anyone knows who he is.

SSR: Oh, yeah.

GG: Yeah, I’ve got three pieces of his. One piece I’m incredibly proud of that’s from his earlier work that will probably… Maybe if they ever do a retrospective, it will go in a museum. So yeah, I mean, I collect… When I sold the business, I started collecting art. It’s a big passion of mine. It’s where my inspiration comes from.

SSR: Got it. When you say sold the business, but you still run the studio?

GG: Yeah, we’re part of the IPG Group now, so that really has helped us a lot. It really broke a glass ceiling that we reached when we were privately owned, so it helps us work with a lot bigger clients because, obviously, liability and legal contractual work becomes extremely complicated when you’re dealing with big multinationals and the IPG is really supportive with that.

SSR: That’s great. All right, so we always end the podcast with the title of the podcast or the question of the title of the podcast, what has been or what are your greatest lessons learned or greatest lesson? Either one, one or two.

GG: Wow, okay. I think my greatest lesson learned is never assume that people see things the way you do. I think we are so caught up with ourselves often that we assume that everyone around us sees things in the world the same way. And because I grew up with such a multinational way of living, even my parents, so I began to realize that there are so many different ways of looking at the world. And this is the thing I think that’s so sad right now is that there’s so much division in the world and I think that if we can start understanding other people’s point-of-view in a very compassionate way, I think it would heal so many of the problems that we’re having as a society. And not only in the US, but everywhere in the world. I mean, I know that there’s huge divisions in the US, but everywhere in the world the same problems are happening and I think it’s because social media has opened the communication in a way that we’ve never had before.

And just like children who are learning how to ride a bike for the first time, we’re learning how to use those tools that we’ve created for ourselves, maybe even to our detriment. But I think if people can understand that not everyone sees things the way you do and be compassionate and empathetic to that and actually start having conversations without getting emotional and heated and angry, I think the world would be a lot better place and we would move forward a lot quicker. I’ve learned that for myself because I’ve lived in so many places and had to deal with so many different types of people.

SSR: Well yeah, and this last year, I mean, hopefully that’s taught us that we’re all coming from a different place and that compassion is more important than ever, so appreciate that.

GG: And that suffering is universal and that people can be sad no matter… No matter how much money they have, no matter where they come from, people can suffer and be sad and it’s our job as a fellow human being to make sure that everyone around us is okay. Because if everyone around us is okay, your life is better.

SSR: Right, for sure. Well, George, thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure to chat with you

GG: Thank you.

SSR: And hopefully we’ll get to see each other in real life sometime soon.

GG: That would be wonderful. That would be wonderful.

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