I've gotten into some car reporting as I've been on a number of car junkets* in the last several years, and I've learned not just about the advantages and disadvantages of green cars — from hybrid SUV's like the VW Touareg to the all-electric Chevy Volt (and gotten to drive most of them). I've also gotten to see quite a bit of car company culture. Coming from a science — and then creative — background, I'm not used to seeing the clockworks of behemoth companies. In the case of car companies, these are businesses that make products we use and need (so many companies don't) and are therefore sobered by the fact that what they do really does matter, which makes everything a bit more interesting.
And then there are the car shows, which are all about performance, not sobriety, and so it's a fantastically interesting juxtaposition of engineering and total fluff.
Wandering the Detroit Auto Show post a not-so-writerly 5:45 a.m. wakeup, I was nothing short of delirious. It took me a few hours (and a cup of coffee with Earl Grey tea steeped in it, which is delicious by the way) to make a second foray and even begin to process what I was seeing. Indoor pyrotechnics, flashy, glistening surfaces everywhere (and the cars were sheening too), and an over-the-top-is-better motif seemed to infect most of the show's "booths" or areas wherein a car companies newest models were available to be stroked, sat in, admired and photographed. Some people were dusting cars off with giant poofs multiple times in an hour, while tall, slim white girls with waterfall hair wore cute dresses or snug outfits and smiled a lot, while other employees were like store greeters in very nice suits who were really superglad to see you.
I have to admit I was drawn to these people — actors in some cases, models in others. A number of times they caught me staring not at the million-dollar (or more likely $50,000) piece of brand-new, sparkly automobile on the dias down front, but at them. While there were a few typical "model types," a number of them looked more like spiffier versions of normal people. Perhaps the car company employees body snatched them from their day jobs? They were particularly vigorous, thick-haired examples of America's proletariat, and totally relatable.
But they weren't regular folks. These people were paid representatives and they were all dressed by whoever at their particular car company is responsible for branding cohesiveness. In some cases, that person is in-house, while in others there's an outside image or style consultant. In some instances the outfit is the model's to keep, and sometimes it goes back to the company (a particularly cheap move; if you are going to ask someone to wear clothes that aren't theirs, I always think it's nice to consider them a cost of doing business and a gift to a probably underpaid employee). But in every case, from Porche to Hyundai, that was in a style that was supposed to support, underline or otherwise reflect the brand.
At Lincoln, which is spending a billion dollars to rebrand itself as the car company that is "Smarter than luxury" (which I read as maybe meaning "luxury without guilt"), that meant black Louboutins, chiffon shirts with pencil skirts, Armani suits for the guys, and belted suit jackets and grey twill pants for other women (as seen above).
Reassuringly, it was the American companies that had the most equal-sex representation — pretty much all the American brands had both men and women at their booths. The Italians were what you would expect (hot girls in understatedly sexy sheath dresses, bare legs) and the Germans and English were both managing to look both smart and smartypants at the same time with tight men's pants and modern jackets. Japanese companies were, well, businesslike.
I spoke with a couple of the well-dressed models/company representatives, and one mentioned the Book, "Sirens of Chrome," a 2008 text all about the people behind the pretty faces at auto shows. While previously models were used only as visual candy (or "human hood ornaments"), a recent revolution in marketing has led car companies to use reps who not only look great with the cars but are able to speak about them, too. And fashion has followed function, with many companies stepping away from the "women in cocktail dresses and costumes" era into one where both men and women can talk about the cars they are looking fabulous in front of.
*I attended the Detroit Auto Show courtesy of Ford Motor Company.