Personifying the Brand
Peter Huston heads custom form manufacturer Fusion Specialties, where he is accountable for all brand strategy, planning, budgets, product development, marketing and sales. He’s spent more than eight years with the suburban Denver-based manufacturer, whose major customers include Nike, Gap, Chico’s, Macy’s, Guess and Bebe.
Huston’s retail roots run deep, with more than 20 years of experience as a brand, product and sales marketing executive. Before joining Fusion in 2004, he was vice president of retail marketing for Haggar Clothing and had spent more than six years with Hartmarx in various positions.
Early on at Hartmarx, Huston directed HSM University, the apparel industry’s first educational institution dedicated to the advancement of retail associates. He developed curriculum and taught classes in retail selling, professional fitting, tailoring, store management and visual merchandising.
Your education and early resume certainly speaks to a career in retail. What led you to study retail management and marketing at Drake University?
Writer’s block. I switched from journalism in the second semester of junior year after not being able to meet the deadlines without excruciating angst and anxiety. Now I’m in retail. Go figure.
When you think back on the positions you’ve held, was there someone who guided you to the next level? What are some of the life-long lessons you learned from previous jobs?
So many incredible people have touched my life and career that it is hard, if not unfair, to single out a few. The person who was there at every turn was my father. He was relentlessly encouraging and conducted himself with such integrity that I never questioned his guidance.
It didn’t take long to understand that those who work alongside you, and those who report to you, are the ones who actually elevate you to the next level. If you focus on the next level, you may never get there. If you see your role as simply one member of a greater team and work to remove the obstacles to success from those who report to you, then the next level comes naturally and the “now” is much more rewarding.
Another important lesson is that adversity and even failure make you stronger. About a decade ago, I took a risk and joined a fledgling start-up company. The unfortunate events of 9/11 quickly ended that venture and I had to fight like a dog for two years to scratch out a living and support my family during difficult economic times in a city where I had [few] roots. But in the end it led me here to Fusion, where I have never been happier or more productive.
Finally, I’d have to say, just be. If you put yourself honestly out there, people will respond.
Let’s talk about the cyclical nature of mannequins’ popularity. We seem to be in a cycle where lots of retailers are using them, and your company’s business is up dramatically. What are your thoughts?
Retailers have become increasingly sophisticated, and more than ever they recognize the importance of their brand. In a way, a mannequin is the personification of the brand … if your brand was a person, what would it look like? That is where Fusion enters the picture.
Since the vast majority of Fusion’s business is custom design, we do not design mannequins to fit our own brand image, but rather design them to fit the brand image and demands of our customers. I’d like to believe that our business is up because better than anyone else we strive to understand the needs of our customer, and then deliver a great product at a great value.
Related to the cyclical nature of mannequins’ popularity, we see mannequins becoming simply part of the DNA of good store design, and [they are] here to stay. After all, when the consumer can see an outfit in three-dimensional form, touch it, feel it and envision how they would look in that outfit, you are far closer to a sale than if they simply see a sign, a two-dimensional graphic, or in my opinion, even a TV screen or monitor.
The cyclical nature, therefore, will be more about the trends surrounding mannequins themselves — the look, tone and feel of mannequins, their attitude and style — rather than their popularity or general use. But then again, I make mannequins.
You were recently quoted as saying mannequins are aspirational. But there are those who think the mannequin is educational — as in, able to instruct the customer how to wear particular styles. So, which is it?
It’s both, really. On the surface, a mannequin can telegraph how to wear an outfit or what an appropriate fashion may be. That is the conscience purpose of the mannequin.
But there is also the emotional aspect that can never be underestimated. A well-designed mannequin display will spark the observer’s subconscious to say, “I can look like that.” You need to leverage the fact that few people see themselves as they really are, but rather how they would like to be.
Aspiration is the fine line between “I could never look like that” and “I’d love to look like that!” That aspiration leads to inspiration, and inspiration leads to sales.
What’s the most unusual order the company has ever taken?
Old Navy’s SuperModelquins. It is not that the program is so unusual, but it surely has been high profile. It also was one of our company’s finest moments. We went from development to delivery of 13,000 mannequins in four months.
Care to name a retail trend you’d like to see go away?
Anything inflatable. And please turn the music down.
What’s next on your reading list?
I actually don’t have a reading list. When I am done with one book, my mood and interest at that time dictates the next. Currently I am trying to overcome a two-year addiction to economic textbooks. If any reader is not familiar with the Elliott Wave Principle, I suggest they seek that out.
I just finished a great book called American Buffalo. Right now, I am reading Hellhound on His Trail, about the manhunt for the killer of Martin Luther King, Jr. What’s next? Anything but economics.
Name one thing you’d still like to accomplish either personally or professionally.
I have a book that has been held prisoner in my head, which I’d like to free onto paper and call it “Thoughts from the Road,” but that damn writer’s block still haunts me. Ultimately, when I stop doing what I do now, I plan to become a high school teacher and pass on some of what I have learned along the way.