Mickey, Minnie and the other Disney icons that have mugged for everything from T-shirts to ties will get a head-to-toe makeover this fall.
Instead of the big, bold depictions that have remained virtually unchanged for a generation, the Walt Disney Co. characters will now appear as subtle accents on a new line of clothing as the entertainment giant makes a new foray into the fashion world.
In a word, Mickey is going from homespun to hip.
"In order to be fresh with consumers, you need to be relevant," said Nanette Soleimanpour, marketing manager for Disney's licensing group. "So one of the ways of maintaining relevance is to make sure that you're in lock step with what's happening in the fashion industry."
The new fashion lines, which are set to debut in time for the back-to-school shopping season in August, represent an especially dramatic move for Disney. The company has carefully nurtured the images of characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse for years, zealously guarding the way the icons are depicted in film, print and in merchandise offerings.
It is among the first changes made by Disney's new marketing chief, former Nike executive Andrew P. Mooney, and the most palpable sign yet that Disney is pulling out all the stops to turn around its ailing consumer products division, the weakest link in the Burbank-based company's financial chain.
"Consumer products has the most work to do," said David W. Miller, entertainment and media analyst at Sutro & Co. in Los Angeles. "That's why you hire a guy like Andy Mooney, who understands teen trends, who comes from the business philosophy of capitalizing on the trends and turning out merchandise that caters to those trends. It's a very difficult thing to do, but they brought in the right guy to do this."
For years, the likenesses of franchises like Mickey and Winnie the Pooh on consumer products were enough to keep sales registers ringing. Baby boomers who had grown up with the beloved characters handed down the memories to their own kids, further extending the life of the icons.
But as Generations X and Y displace the boomers, Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the crew are becoming lost in an onslaught of pop-culture icons from the Spice Girls to Shaquille O'Neal.
At the same time, the novelty of licensing has worn thin, and consumers are looking for fashion first. Characters have taken a back seat.
"Anybody who's in licensing and wants to make a long-term proposition of it understands they need to understand the fashion trends and translate them and market them effectively," said Soleimanpour.
Disney has been one of the last holdouts, resisting the changes in the licensing industry. "They've always treated Mickey in particular as gold, and you couldn't do anything that strayed from the traditional representation," said Martin Brochstein, editor of The Licensing Letter, a New York-based newsletter to the trade. "They (now) realize they need to give the designers a lot more latitude."
Under the guidance of new product development Vice President Aris Lallas, who was recruited from Guess? Inc., Disney has woven its trademark characters into the trims and detailing of its new line of merchandise.
One soon-to-debut Disney apparel line, called "Folkloric Fantasy," capitalizes on the hippie redux fashion trend that Soleimanpour calls "'70s meets Finland." Silhouettes of Mickey's ears can be found mixed with floral borders in embroidery-like trims, starbursts and paper-doll-style cutouts. When Mickey does appear in full figure, the character is embroidered onto a side pocket that's not readily visible.
Another collection, called CosMICK, draws on fashion's techno influences and a form of forced-perspective animation popularized by the Japanese. Mickey's face is seen winking, accompanied by slogans like "What if you're the cartoon. Think about it."
Another boys' line shows Mickey in silhouette in camping and sports scenes that stray far afield from the traditional cartoons that first gave birth to the characters.
"Sometimes it's just a piece of character art on the arm or by the neck, and it becomes more of a way of self expression," said Soleimanpour. "You see it but you don't see it. You know it's Mickey Mouse, but you don't want to scream it to the world, and that's really one of the biggest turnarounds in what we're doing."
The effort, which launches this fall, will focus on apparel for kids and pre-teens, but Soleimanpour said that eventually, the concept will be applied to all of Disney's merchandise including adult apparel, accessories and home furnishings. Disney also plans to incorporate other characters from its movie business in the lines as well.
"It really depends on the character roster that's developed, and if we feel they have longevity as standalone characters," said Soleimanpour. "Like all licensors, we are constantly looking to diversify our portfolio, and where there are new characters we can put in the fold, we'd be happy to do so."
The move is a risky one for any licensor, and Disney, despite its powerful name, is no exception, experts said. By dramatically altering the way the characters are portrayed, Disney runs the risk of diluting its franchise.
"If (the designs) get too subtle, then what's the value of the license?" said Brochstein. "What is licensing, after all? You're renting the goodwill and emotion that's associated with the character."
But Disney has apparently decided the risk is warranted, because its consumer products division clearly needs a boost. While Disney posted a 13 percent gain in operating income during its second fiscal quarter ended March 31, that gain came from strong performances by its TV operations (particularly ABC and its runaway hit, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire") and its theme parks. Analysts singled out consumer products for its lackluster showing during the quarter, citing among its problems the poor quality of Disney's licensed products.
In an effort to rekindle interest in its now-aging properties, Disney recently began airing television commercials featuring pop-culture stars Regis Philbin, Drew Carey and Kelsey Grammar, among others talking about how much they admire Mickey Mouse.
"It touches our overall Mickey strategy, which is to make Mickey front and center once again, and to remind consumers young and old of his relevance in our lives today," said Soleimanpour.
Analysts say that, based on Disney's history, there's every reason to believe the Mouse will roar again.
"Don't count them out," said Miller. "Keep in mind there is no better company out there in terms of creating a media event and using their promotional machine."
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