People always talk about the American success story and the importance of team work as well as rugged individualism. The brothers Marciano-who made GUESS?-have lived that story. Here we speak to the youngest of the pack, Paul Marciano, whose energetic leadership of the company’s campaigns and imagery exemplifies true passion
INGRID: Whenever I think about you and your family end GUESS?, I think about that phrase “the american dream”.• Tall me, as a little boy what did you think about?
PAUL MRCIANO: what is vivid ill my memory today when look back is my years as a Boy Scout. That was from when I was about eight years old until I was 15.
Is: Where was this?
PM: In Marseille .My brother Maurice was the troop leader. I remember the freedom or going to the forest in the middle of the country every weekend. The only thing that mattered was survival and discipline, The lessons l learned then have been with me as long as I can remember. I think it’s related to What I do today: I get an instinct or an idea and I follow it.
Is: Were all your brothers scout?
PM: Yes. First Armand, then Georges, Maurice, and me. Our sister. Jacqueline was born between Maurice and me.
Is: And what made your parents send you and your brothers to Boy Scouts?
PM: My father was a rabbi in Marseilles from 1954 until bout 1986. When I was growing up, our apartment was right inside the synagogue complex and the Boy Scouts were under the synagogue.
Is: Were the Boy Scouts of mixed religions?
PM: No. It was E.I.F.- which means “Jewish Scouts of France.”
Is: What was it like to be the children of a rabbi?
PM: it gave Us a sense of ethics. My father’s father and my great-grandmother were rabbis too, and my father tried very hard for me to be a rabbi, but he wasn’t successful.
Is: In those days, In a rabbinical family, there must have been a real sense of right and wrong, a kind of black· and-white belief system. Did the strictness smother you?
PM: On the one hand, it Can make you feel that way; but on the other, there is a sense of direction. Maybe it was too strict. But if you give me n choice between chaos and discipline, I would take discipline and try to bend it a little bit rather than to live in chaos.
Is: What was It like In Marseilles? How much antisemitism was there?
PM: That’s a very sensitive subject, und it’s one of the reason why we left France in 1981.
PM: You could not feel safe about being Jewish at the time I was there. You could not talk openly about your beliefs. Cursing at Jewish people and things like that were common- finding your parent’s car scratched in front of your home was normal.
Is: How did you fiist come to the U.S:?
PM: My brothers and I first came for a week-and-half vacation at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in L.A. in October 1977. Instead of staying a week and a half, we stayed a month and a half. Everything we dreamed about was in California: huge beaches and incredible weather. Three of us-George. Maurice, and me-were bachelors. We saw this California girls and just flipped. II was everything we’d seen on TV back in France.
Before we left, we bought a condominium-just lo show you how impressed we Were. and we also signed leases for two stores. Three weeks later my brother Georges came back and stayed here with Maurice, and two years later, after wrapping up our business in France, Annand and I arrived. We actually started GUESS? In December ’81- Georges and Maurice started it. Georges’ vision and fashion eye, and the business skills of Maurice, were the foundations of GUESS‘. Meanwhile Armand and I were managing the:. retail operations of our earlier company, MGA; we joined GUESS? a couple of month later. We still barley spoke English. Only Maurice spoke it. because he learned it at school.
Is: What about you and school?
PM: I never graduated, because I had a motorcycle accident when l was fifteen, A friend and i hit a car going full blas tand between us and the car, the people on the street-it was .a mess. L was in a wheelchair’ for about seven months, and then it took me a year and a half to walk again. That experience changed my life. L became a really different person:i became very conscious of what you can and can’t be. I was told that I would never walk again, but l Was convinced I would walk again, and run again. And I did. But ii was a long process. Again, it took discipline, and I have that, but when J tried to go back to school. I couldn’t because I had lost a year and s half, so i left. I spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel. Where, again, the key thing is discipline- and when l went back to Marseilles, i was a salesman in a jeans store.
Is: How old were you at this point?
PM: I was seventeen. And on Saturdays and Sundays l worked in a club checking coat. Georges was at the front door and Maurice was at the bar-always together.
Is: Did you talk about going Into business together even then?
PM: Really, we were already in business together. Gorges would find an opportunity to manage a club, and the first people he hired to work with him were Maurice and me. Armand was a much quieter guy; he wouldn’t work in clubs.
Is: What about your sister?
PM: She was in school and at home; she had another life. We were close to her, and always have been.
Is: So tell me more about the club life .
PM: We worked in a club in Bandol. next lo Saint-Tropez.,and Georges managed it I was a DJ and Maurice was the bartender. Then Georges, who was a hairdresser at the time, started to design ties. He said, “It’s so easy. Jr’s just a piece of silk.” George had two thousand ideas a day. Bui it’s one thing to have two thousand idea. and another to carry them out. So Maurice started to work with him manufacturing the ties, and i would sell the designs. For there month I was in Paris, going back and forth, selling ties out of my car. I got lost a zillion times, but my ties were in the trunk, and I would not go back home until I sold them all.
Is: And then?
PM: Ties led to blouse for women. One style, one size, one color; all-white. Peasant blouses-one size fits all.
Is: And now they’re coming back.
PM: I’m telling you. But we sold all ours. so don ‘t look here. And we couldn’t make enough to sell to everybody who learned about MGA-Maurice,Georges. Armand-that was the name of our company. We opened our first store in 1973 in Bandel. It was on a side street, in an old fish store that had gone out of business. We cleaned the store but left everything in it, including the open display counter, which was also a refrigerator. We painted it, put up the MGA sign. And stored the clothes in the fridge.
Is: What happened next?
PM: We thought that if we could do a blouse, we could do a dress. So we did: one size.one style. multifabrics ; multiprints. lt was like a cross-your heart dress that fit everybody.
Is: You mean like a bathrobe?
PM: Exactly. And we did every possible print in the world. from plain to flowers to paisleys to you name it. everything! Then we went from pants to jeans . We started selling stonewashed jeans back in 1976.We had twenty stores.
Is: All with the same name?
PM: Yes. MGA, with an engic motif.
Is: Were stonewashed Jeans being done In America at that point?
PM: No, we brought them over.
Is: do you remember the moment you first saw the stonewashed look?
PM: Definitely. It was in the harbor at Saint-Tropez.
Is: What made you realized lt would be a revolution?
PM: The appearance the look, the feeling it was so different from anything before. The only thing we knew was the street in Marseilles where they had Levis. But nobody who sold a lot of jeans had washed the fabric from the beginning to get this stonewashed appearance.; that was a revelation to us. From the day we realized that we knew we’d do a lot of stonewashed jeans.
Is: You tried it on your own jeans first?
PM: absolutely. But it must have taken us 4 months, because you had to have machines. Mainly, you had to have a special formula for the wash. and it was a chemical mixture that nobody knew except the people., who did it.
Is: What were the best and worst things you did in those early years?
PM: Well. I always loved the stonewashed jeans. The stones came from Italy-pumice stones. And the best thing we did, I would say. Was the rhinestone jeans. We sold tons. The worst thing we did Was the crazy patchwork jeans made up of All these little pieces;. In fact we did patchwork skirts, vests, jackets, everything.
Is: What made you leave France?
PM: When the Socialist government was elected, many people left France, including us. And we had a tax dispute with the French officials. We’re still convinced that we were targeted by some tax inspector who was after us because our father was a rabbi.
Is: And because you had gone to America and were making money?
PM: Yes, success is not liked in France.
Is: Had you already opened MGA stores In America?
PM: At that point we had four: Century City, Santa Monica, Palm Springs, and one store on 60th Street, a block away from Bloomingdale’s, in New York: city; it was a very hot Street at that time.
11:So how did the name GUESS? come about?
PM: In L.A. we used to drive to work together in the same car every morning. One day Georges saw this huge billboard that said GUESS WHAT’S IN THENEW BIG MAC? The biggest word was GUESS. So Georges came up with it. And then Maurice came up with the triangle, and a friend of ours designed the question mark. It wasn’ t long before the brand took off in wholesale. As I said earlier. Annand and l had kept going with the retail part or MGA, but in ’82 we joined our brothers, and !that’s when I decided to do advertising for the company.
Is: How did your advertising Ideas develop?
PM: My obsession when I came to America had one name: Bruce Weber. His work was so opposite from everything else that Was going on—different, striking. But when we started advertising, we had no funds. so I put the first photo shoot together with friends of mine doing photography. styling:, And hairdressing. Diedra Maguire was the model. We all went to Laguna beach in an old Mustang convertible- I still have picture of it.
Is: Did your brothers think you were crazy even to think of spending money on advertising when the company was Just beginning?
PM: They didn’t have time to think about it because we were so busy cutting., washing and selling Jeans. Anyway, my first budget was so small that it wasn’t worth stopping me.but we did something different from the rest of the pictures in magazines at that time. In our pictures nothing was perfect. The clothes were meant to be real-which fit with our design philosophy. The jeans were absolutely worn out, even with some dirt. We left them the way they were.
Is: When did you go Into business with Jordache?
PM: In 1984, two years after GUESS? Started. We were growing very rapidly.and Jordache said, ”Why don’t we be partners. fifty-fifty.” So we said yes. And from the very first day, there were problems.
Is: eventually, you and Jordache sued each other, but the Jury said you were In the right. And then Jordoche appealed?
PM: It happened twice. Because there were punitive damages. But we got our company back.