Garden Design Lessons from Vogue?

In the September issue of Vogue, beyond the luscious, fantasy filled fashion photos,  an article about the business of fashion design piqued my interest.  Entitled  ‘What Price Fashion?’, it points in a direction that is also useful for garden and landscape designers–yet I haven’t seen anyone in the traditional garden press writing about it. In the garden glossies there is a bubble of fair economic weather surrounding flowers that bloom in impossible perfection in gardens that cost more than most people make in a year–much like what is pictured in fashion magazines.

Illustration by Alex Holt-Cohan
Illustration by Alex Holt-Cohan

The article’s author, Teri Agins, describes a revised design business philosophy surfacing among fashion designers.  Even before the current recession drove shoppers away from buying anything but the essential, the author asserts that ‘…overpriced fashion no longer made any sense. Amid a declining demand for clothes and accessories, the biggest challenge for fashion houses is to better justify why things cost what they do.’ Don’t we as landscape designers have the same challenge?  In the good old days, before the recession hit, we could often propose  big ticket gardens for our clients  based solely on their own need to possess the glamorous garden  images they had seen in magazines and coffee table books.

With signs of  an emerging economic upswing, the New York Times reported this week that even the super rich aren’t getting richer for the first time in thirty years.    These are the clients for luxury products like designer dresses and designer gardens and they will, in the future, spend less–although less, in the upper income brackets is relative.  Some fashion designers are providing ‘more’ for less by reinventing old business models, finding creative ways to provide interesting and novel details not found in more expensive clothes, and keeping close track of what their customers want–without sacrificing quality and growing their businesses at the same time.  Can’t we as landscape designers benefit from the same thinking?

Consumers are questioning the inherent value in what they are buying from well known designers in all disciplines.  Of course I know that custom built gardens aren’t the same as couture, but how many of us are still lamenting the loss of  ‘the good old days’ without exploring new and real ways of upping the value of our work? Not perceived value…real value. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know–gardens enhance people’s lives in so many tangible ways and clothing doesn’t…STOP!!!  Great, thoughtful and innovative design offered at a fair price enhances people’s lives no matter what the product.

Right now, there is an opportunity to change direction that doesn’t come along often.  I think it’s time for landscape designers (myself included) and garden designers to look for new ways to give their customers more for less without sacrificing sound garden practices or bleeding their bottom lines.   Offering the same isn’t working for many now and isn’t likely to work in the future.

Read the article in the September issue of Vogue,  it’s on page 394. Oh, and tell me what you think, I’d love to hear your comments on this one for sure!

7 thoughts on “Garden Design Lessons from Vogue?

  1. Thoughtful, honest piece! THANK YOU! Take the bull by the horns. Wow, I really appreciated what you said and I hope many people read it and take it to heart.

    Maybe you should see if Vogue would print it . . . or Forbes . . . or Money . . . or the Wall Street Journal . . . or TIME . . .

    Thanks, Stephanie!

  2. I completely agree with you. Luxury is now a bit of a dirty word but it does not mean that we have to live in sackcloth and ashes. Scaling back the cost of your designs does not mean scaling back the creativity (or profitability) inherent in making a well designed space.

    I love your analogy to fashion. But with your background it is not surprising that you made that connection.

    I love reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so well.

    Thanks. I really appreciate that you take the time…

  3. Susan, I’ve been thinking about your question, “How can we give customers more for less?”

    I’m not a garden designer or landscape architect (yet, perhaps), but many years ago I worked doing installations for garden designers. The thing that always startled me was that many of he designers never called for soil amendments and conditioning before planting. We planted tens of thousands of dollars worth of plants into green, stinky muck or hard, dusty clay. How many of those plants were lost and how much of the clients’ money was wasted… without them even knowing, perhaps.

    More for less could also come from more insistence and education on waterwise gardening. Clients would be saving money on irrigation systems and water bills if designers didn’t kowtow to clients who (unknowingly or uncaringly) want verdant oases in desert climates. Or the scalable equivalent from region to region. (This may not be an issue for you in NJ. Where I live in CO we get 14″ of precipitation a year but keep planting large and small specimen that can’t withstand short-term or long-term drought.)

    I imagine it’s tough with clients to try and build in value over time because so many (all?) of the projects are one time transactions — you’re not dealing with long-term relationships and an existing customer base. Are there opportunities to change the duration or nature of the relationship? What else do affluent clients want and need, whether they realize it or not?

    So, you asked the question… what do you think?

    It certainly starts with the designer. You are also right to some responsibility on the consumer who won’t budge from the idea of the verdant front yard oasis ie. turfgrass or too much impervious paving. Residential landscapes are a collaboration between designer/client/contractor and in some cases dictated by local law–the designer doesn’t always have control over the installation.

    But to answer you question, ‘What do I think?’ I think it’s my responsibility to look at each project as a creative challenge–to give each client more than what they expect in terms end use and detail and to present innovative ways to achieve that goal. Each project is different so each solution will be different. Sourcing locally is the first step as it saves time and shipping costs–as well as being more sustainable in terms of the lower use of fossil fuels for shipping. Other solutions will reveal themselves as each individual project unfolds. It’s my job to be open to those solutions and present them to clients in a way that exceeds their expectations. –Susan

  4. Thanks Susan, for relating the NY press to our landscape designing.

    Looking for new ways to give clients more for less

    “Scaling back the cost of your designs does not mean scaling back the creativity” – Mary

  5. Susan – thanks for relating the NY press to our field of landscape design – agree with you and Mary, in that we need to confront the reality of the demise of the deep pockets, and realize that more creativity is needed to do more with less. I hope this can become a design award category – recognizing designers who ‘did this with what?’

  6. Great for post. I will keep more interesting publications. Been following blog for four days now and I should say I am beginning to like your post. I need to know how can I subscribe to your blog?

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