In an ongoing play to associate its cars with fashion, music, and tabloid favorites, General Motors is hosting its second annual G.M. Style event in Detroit this Saturday, unofficially kicking off the North American International Auto Show, which opens to the press on Sunday. Bryan Nesbitt, vice president of design for North America and second-in-command for planning the event, chatted with us this week about G.M.’s evolution into the world of style.
Expected to draw some 1,000 attendees (a number Nesbitt, 38, jokingly asked us not to share with the Detroit fire marshal), G.M. Style is a three-tiered fashion show held in a tented atmosphere on G.M. property. Last year the event garnered lots of media attention, thanks to the dozens of celebrity models who showed up—Jay-Z, Jennifer Hudson, and Carmen Electra among them—but with this year’s G.M. Style scheduled for the same weekend as the Golden Globes, the company was forced to recast the event’s vision, focusing more on top musical acts. When asked if he is scrambling to get celebrities on board now that the Globes have been canceled, Nesbitt was mum but hinted that some “surprises” are in store.
G.M. Style is a few days away. What are you working on now?
Well, it’s definitely taken a bit of planning. This event is based around expressing personal style, and most people typically express themselves in the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, and the cars they drive. Celebrating those in one event, one occasion, is the intent.
One of the challenges we’ve faced is aligning the genre of music and the artist with the style of the cars, as well as the style of the fashion designers. There are a lot of different types of vehicles out there, from aggressive to sleek, with a whole lot in between. When you see an old hot rod, there is a type of music that goes along with it—we see this a lot in movies. And it’s the same kind of thing for us with this event. When Kid Rock is performing, for example, it's not going to be a sweet little car on the runway. And for Maroon 5, we’re coming out with the Saturn Astra, which is targeted to young but very relevant buyers who are up to speed with what’s going on in the latest trends—buyers who are similar to Maroon 5’s fan base and the band themselves.
How is the event going to differ this year from last year?
Last year all of the models were celebrities, but this year, because of the Golden Globes, all of the celebrities will be in Los Angeles. Now it turns out that the celebrities would have been available since the Golden Globes were canceled, but instead we’re using runway models from New York and Los Angeles this year.
The Golden Globes gave us a challenge that we welcomed. We were excited about looking at music as a way to communicate artistic expression, along with clothing designers. We certainly wanted to do something different from last year. We wanted to keep it changing and a little unexpected.
Mary J. Blige is kicking off the show, and she’ll be followed by Maroon 5 and Kid Rock, and in between acts celebrity DJ Samantha Ronson is performing. Each performer’s set varies between three and four songs, depending on the length of their songs. When Kid Rock finishes the finale, we’ll unveil a surprise vehicle that hasn’t been shown. Musicians like Kid Rock and Mary J. Blige, who are very different artists, show quite a musical bandwidth, which is complementary in that G.M. offers quite a bandwidth as well. You’ll find a very different execution in the Cadillac CTS from a Malibu LTZ. We found it fun to express the parallel between the creative bandwidth and the automotive-industry bandwidth.
What’s the runway going to look like?
The runway will be similar to last year, with traditional catwalk style and a platform for the bands at the end. It’s wider than a New York-style runway because it has to fit a car and a turntable to spin the car. The floor plan is familiar to what you’ve seen at New York shows, though, with chairs stacked back facing the runway.
We’re showing a total of 19 cars, including the finale surprise car. With each car we’ll have at least one model; right now we’re up to about 30 models. As of Thursday the models will be in town being fitted into their outfits.
How did you choose the designers?
Some of them we have relationships with. For instance, we’ve been working with Russell Simmons’s philanthropic organization in New York for the past five years. Kid Rock is a natural fit, seeing as he’s from Detroit and his line is named Made in Detroit. Kevan Hall is also a Detroit native. This year we went after a different genre of clothing to match the musical artists and the cars.
It seems that G.M. is trying to align itself with top-name celebrities, athletes, and musical acts—Nick Lachey, Beck, Matt Leinart, and the cast of Heroes, to name a few. How does this event fit into that plan?
We’ve certainly been trying to communicate that we’re interested in design leadership, and we’ve been able to offer customers a lot of value, and in that value equation is style. So yeah, we get Jay-Z here, but it’s really about looking at our products and the relevancy to [the celebrities].
For G.M., its not just about creating products that get you from point A to B, it’s about expression of a lifestyle and identity. We try to look at different ways for customers to understand that and see that. We feel that we have a pretty high standard in those executions.
Who’s attending the event?
We’ve got some employees, press, kind of a who’s who of Detroit, and some celebrity guests who saw what we did last year and asked to attend this year.
G.M. has been reporting losses and cutting jobs in recent years. Is this media-hyped event a way to change the public’s perception of the brand?
Absolutely. We’re certainly interested in sending the right messages, especially because we don’t want anyone to be insecure about the quality of the product. Last year the event was a great intro to the auto show, and a festive way to celebrate our passion for auto design. There is residual value for building the brand, and we’re going to continue to look for creative ways to send our messages.
We realize that it’s not on the tip of everyone’s tongue that G.M. builds the most fashion-relevant cars, so we have to work really hard to get that message out. We want customers to know that, and we have to be creative—standard advertising and auto show placements aren’t enough. Our message with G.M. Style is that we are a very fashion-relevant company.
How do you manage to lure a crop of celebrities to Detroit in the middle of winter?
We do provide transportation, but we don’t give out kickbacks. You try to not have a one-off deal with a celebrity, as that doesn’t benefit anyone. We try to develop lasting relationships. With some celebrities, we have promotional deals [like Mary J. Blige and her sing-songy Cadillac commercials], and others we have previous relationships with. Beyond that, some people just have a real strong passion for cars, and we offer them a behind-the-scenes look at G.M. Design. Christian Slater, for example, is a big car fan and spent a lot of time here last year.