Strange new shores

One of London’s most celebrated drinks brand designers has decamped to the States, Patrick Schmitt asks Kevin Shaw what lured him over.

Stranger & Stranger’s Kevin Shaw

Ok, so we all know we shouldn’t judge people or products by their outward appearance, but none of us can help it. From the friends we make to the books we buy, it’s the look that counts, initially at least. And this is true in drinks too. Although those in the trade don’t like to admit it, consumers are undoubtedly swayed by the packaging, and particularly when confronted with unknown products and a lack of promotional offers.

Sadly however, slim margins and play-safe commissions are forcing the creativity out of the UK.

Indeed, London has just lost one of its most talented designers, the man behind many of the drinks trade’s most successful and recognisable products: from the seven-point star of Clos de Los Siete to the circular cut-out of Ogio, and, more recently, mould-breaking black spiced rum The Kraken, which comes in a double-handled black bottle with an octopus on its label.

This person, in case you haven’t guessed, is Kevin Shaw, the founder of Stranger & Stranger. Even if you haven’t drunk one of his designs, you’ve doubtless been tempted due to their intriguing and attractive appearance.

Thankfully however, we traced him to the US, where he was on holiday hiking up California’s Lost Coast, before returning to his new base – New York City.

So why has he moved from the UK? For Kevin, the enthusiasm and energy in the US was just too inviting, while Britain was proving increasingly limiting. In fact, his company, which he established in 1994, hasn’t left London, and the UK office, based in Clerkenwell, is still operational, if reduced in staff numbers.

Rather, Kevin has decided to set up a new outpost in New York, not only to expand the Stranger & Stranger business, but also guard against that reduction in daring commissions mentioned above.

“We were definitely getting stifled by the buyer system in the UK,” he says.

“No one really wanted to stick their neck out and try new things and I can’t really say I blame them given their margin targets.”

“The briefs all started sounding the same,” he continues. “Way too many ‘similar to Blossom Hill’ lines, so we started doing work in the US where the attitude was very different and it was all about standing out and upselling: I wasn’t used to people saying things like, ‘this looks great, we’ll increase the price point’.” However, it was two US commissions in particular that prompted Kevin to leave the UK: The Kraken and Avion.

They were both, he says “mould- breaking”.

“We weren’t getting those kind of ‘hell, yeah’ opportunities in the UK.” He also observes an intoxicating enthusiasm in North America, something he says, was irresistible for an “ideas guy”.

As a result, Kevin recalls, “One day I asked if anyone in the studio wanted to move, and it nicely split the firm in half.”

And already, Kevin admits that the company may be opening a third “satellite” office in San Francisco.

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