Tinker, Tailor, Beggarman, Thief | An Interview with Liam Maher

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Liam Maher, Creative Director at ECCO, started his professional journey in a somewhat unconventional way- graduating high school early to work in theatre, then leaving art school early for an opportunity to work in visual merchandising. Comparing himself to most young people, he has an active imagination. Unlike many however, Liam feels that he is lucky he can find the energy and will to turn his daydreams into a reality.

Born into a lineage of storytellers, his mind was fostered in an environment that celebrated storytelling. With the belief that a story can be told not only with words but also with art, graphics, photography, performance, events and environments, storytelling has played a major role throughout his journey that ultimately has led him to his current position at ECCO. Curious to learn more, MiND talked to Liam about his influences, insights and inspirations.

Can you explain your LinkedIn title- “Tinker, Tailor, Beggarman, and Thief”?

I always loved that line.  It is from a centuries old nursery-rhyme. Versions of it have also appeared in songs by The Yardbirds and Radiohead. It describes a few of my habits. I guess I tend to “tinker” like an amateur mechanic with creative-strategies in an effort to clarify, secure and strengthen them. I have designed menswear in the past, so I identify with “tailor”.  I often need lots of help from smarter people, sometimes I feel like I’m “begging” for it. And, like all creatives, I take inspiration from my peers and the folks who came before me – sometimes picking up other people’s ideas to move them forward – like a “thief”.

Liam with his wife Jennifer. Photo by Marc Haers.

How would you describe the fashion industry today?

You’ll need to trust that it’s not false-modesty when I say there a great many people in the industry who would have much better perspective on this than me. But, it’s obviously more complex than ever. There are fantastic things happening. Digital platforms have allowed energetic designers from all over the world and from different levels of “professional” experience to access an endless fountain of mind-blowing inspiration. They can see each other’s work and find ever-fresh motivation on a daily basis on a whole new level today.

It’s also technically easier for younger, smaller teams to realize an idea. Design and development software is cheaper and faster, production is easier to access, content is easier to create and share.

On the downside, some of these formats can be a bit one-dimensional. Footwear, accessories and apparel are fundamentally tactile. Quality, craft, fit & feel are things you need to “see with your hands”. A pixel-based digital image on a mobile phone isn’t capable of telling the whole story. This sometimes leads to an over-emphasis on elements which do come across easily, like celebrity and personality. The steady stream of images sometimes lacks a natural rhythm. It can perhaps obscure or diminish the role of the seasons themselves.

"In the natural world, spring still follows winter, summer is still replaced by fall. For design to retain relevance, it needs to maintain its connection to the physical world, changes in landscape, temperature, length of the days, etc. These should all be celebrated within design."

Liam with photographer Marc Haers.

I suppose there is a lot of talk about the culture of “haute” fashion traditions being impacted by “street” style. Street-savvy creative directors taking appointments at established fashion houses and the like. I’ll probably draw fire for sharing my perspective on it. For me, the idea that street culture would exert a substantial influence on long-standing and established fashion institutions is far from a new phenomenon. From Pop Art and Yves Saint Laurent and Peter Max over half a century ago through to the emergence of Paul Smith from the Peacock Revolution through the days of the Graffiti Movement with Keith Haring and Vivienne Westwood over 3 decades ago as well as from Sue Clowes and Bodymap to Walter van Beirendonck and Dirk van Saene, etc. The interesting tensions and potential harmonies between the “establishment” and the “street” in fashion has a long and rich tradition. I hope it lasts and continues to harness the most compelling energies of both these worlds.

As Creative Director, what is your vision for the ECCO brand?

I want to be careful not to overstate my role as a “vision provider” at ECCO.  My personal vision isn’t really very different from the inherent vision which has been embedded in the brand from the start. ECCO has been led by incredibly passionate, innovative and inspiring personalities over the years. Luckily for me, many of these folks are still with the company. So, my focus has been on “confirming the truth, and lifting it up”.  I like to think this has been a career-long focus for me. It characterizes my ambition in the commercial realm, but has also been a feature in my non-commercial activities. At ECCO the truth is entirely unique with respect to both the brand’s deep ethos of craftsmanship/quality and innovation/modernity.

Liam with his wife Jennifer. Photo by Marc Haers.

What changes would you like to see happen in the fashion world?

The obvious target for criticism is fast-fashion. And, I do have reservations about that end of the industry. It should be in the interest of the consumer that brands strive for fundamental quality at some level and not just rapid trend and speed-to-market.

At ECCO we have the advantage and the responsibility of operating the most advanced tanneries in the world. Our commitment to tanning ensures a particular and sincere culture of quality and craftsmanship as manifested by the wide variety of premium leathers used across our collection. Our design language, while being resolutely focused on our design team’s vison of modernity and high levels of contemporary relevance, are also rooted in deeper Danish design values. Inspired by nature, truth to materials, versatile, and functionality.  These principles generally lead to product concepts which are simultaneously contemporary and fairly timeless.

“At ECCO, we naturally address the longevity of our products through our own unique brand-lens. Since we control the process from concept to production, we can be quick to market. But, we aren’t in the business of disposable fashion.”

Having said that, I’m also very sympathetic that consumers at a certain stage-of-life understandably seek to experiment with fashion, and play with personal identity through a bit of trial-and-error. That ought to be OK. I was a bit like that myself once. In cases where style is being tried-out and the consumer may cycle through a range of approaches en route to evolving their personal style, it’s also natural that their requirement for long-lasting quality maybe less of a priority. But I’m a big fan of mixing lower cost high-street with investment-pieces, mixing vintage; which is the ultimate in sustainability and new items.  On this level I think fast-fashion probably has a role to play. It’s a matter of balance.

If I could change anything I guess I would heighten the perceived-value of real tangible quality versus the value of hype and spectacle (also fine, but in proportion), and I’d balance the roll of fast-fashion in proportion to other industry-segments. It should also go without saying that we all need to push new ideas in sustainability.

Japan – Denmark Press Visit

How would you describe your personal style?

Maybe; “unremarkable”, but, as mentioned I’m interested in a mix of things that carry personal meaning. I like a bit of artisan hand-crafted, a bit of vintage, a bit of tech.  I also sometimes say; Charlie Chaplin – both the well-dressed actor/director and his tramp character dressed in rags. Again, a blend of contrasts.

“Scraps of ‘where I come from’, combined with scraps of ‘where I belong’ and scraps of ‘where I hope to go’.”

Where do you draw inspiration from?

First and foremost, the crews at ECCO with whom I’m very fortunate to work. Amazing as a collective and as unique individuals. The talents in design and communication, but also the visionaries in R&D and ECCO Leather and out in our markets around the world.

Beyond that I would parrot the Paul Smith line; “You can find inspiration in everything”. Since I’ve got an interest in storytelling, it can be the world of cinema, fine-art, fashion, graphic design, industrial design, architecture, music, photography, history, nature and the outdoors. Yes, Sir Paul Smith said it best.

There’s also a quote from ECCO’s founder, the late Karl Toosbuy, referring to his love of fine art. He described having always carried a passion for art through life – not only for aesthetic pleasure, but he said that he considered art to be; “an encouragement to enterprise”.  I absolutely adore that quote and had never heard a sentiment quite like it before. I couldn’t agree more.

Liam with his wife Jennifer. Photo by Marc Haers.

Who and what have been the major influence in your life/ career?

The usual suspects. My late parents. My dual-nationality (UK father, US mother). My brothers and sister. My wife Jennifer – they all share a passion for storytelling in different ways.  Childhood experiences, living abroad, formative years spent living in Denmark and England as a boy. Some of my bosses, both my current bosses at ECCO and a few from the past. Those who introduced me the byzantine world of American department stores in the 80’s when I was very green, the folks who pulled me out of there and allowed me to develop at the brands where I have worked; the leadership at Timberland in the early 90’s, my mentors at Burton Snowboards in the late 90’s, the folks at Oilily who brought me to Europe, Hiroki Nakamura for whom I consulted at Visvim in the 00’s, more recently Jason Denham at Denham the Jeanmaker,

Sam Lambert and Shaka Maidoh at Art Comes First, Panos Mytaros on the managing board at ECCO for whom I consulted on ECCO Leather and who was instrumental in bringing me to the company fulltime… By the time you reach your mid-fifties, the list is pretty long.