A Conversation with

Sebastien Agneessens

Sebastien Agneessens is a creative director, designer and musician and the creator of the experiential studio Formavision. He is at the forefront of installation design for retail spaces and brings an artistic edge to every commercial project he develops. His client list includes Diesel, Edun, MaxMara, Reebok, Nike, Coca-Cola, Lexus and Starbucks, just to name a few and he develops projects such as fashion shows, capsule collections, temporary and permanent installations, and sound projects.

Described by Advertising Age as 搕he man who has established a foothold at the intersection of art and marketing and by i-D as 搕he impresario behind some of the most intriguing brand extensions in recent memory, Sebastien is a frequent speaker on experiential marketing and the culture of commerce. In 2007, he released his first book, 揜emastered, for which he had 55 contemporary artists reinterpret Old Masters paintings. He recently started a music career under the moniker Seb Leon.

Where are you from? How did it shape your career path?
I am from a village next to Orleans in the French Loire Valley. A very peaceful and beautiful area with a myriad of old castles like in fairy tales. It seems beautiful to people who discover it for the first time, but it is actually quite secluded, which is what encouraged me to travel from a very young age. My life revolved around school (in which all the kids aged 7 to 11 were mixed in one classroom because there weren抰 enough kids to justify several classes), my dog, my bicycle and my guitar.

When I was 18, I embarked on a journey that never really took me back to France, aside from short stays here and there. I studied business in Italy and England, worked in a French Embassy in South Korea, did my military service in Spain, then worked for the fragrance division of L扥real there, moved to New Orleans to discover the French side of America while playing some music, then moved to New York to work for Bourjois makeup, where I was in charge of store planning and merchandising. Slowly, I settled in New York, which I consider home now. In 2001, I left Bourjois and started a much more artistic part of my life, opened a gallery and then started my agency, Formavision.

Can you explain what it is that you do?
My business partners would tell you that Formavision is an experiential design, curating and production agency that helps brands connect to the creative community. For me, Formavision is a way to develop the artistic projects I am interested in.

What led you to start combining art with retail spaces?
At our gallery, we were mainly showing installations, which by nature are hard to sell. So I approached companies to sponsor our shows. One day in 2002, I was walking around Soho and came across the Diesel Denim Gallery. It was a concept store that was trying to position itself between an art gallery and a store. It was a great idea, but the shows were terrible. I got in and told them. They told me to propose something, and that was the beginning of a six-year collaboration, developing bi-monthly art installations with all kinds of artists.

What does experiential marketing mean?
Experiential design means telling a story that infuses your experience through various senses. It means you connect with the brand on an emotional, sensorial and intellectual level.

What is the difference between New Retailing and Old Retailing?
Old retailing is about selling things. New retailing is about building a connection with people. And notice I never say consumers. Who likes to be defined as a consumer?

Where should people look for the best in merchandising and retail?
I feel that Japan is much more advanced than we are in terms of retail design.

What makes an exciting retail experience?
Discovery. Feeling like you enter a new dimension.

Hair salons are a mix of art and commerce. How would you go about curating a hair salon?
I would give it an artist-atelier look. I would showcase all the colors like a painter showcases his paints, and the scissors and other equipment like paint brushes. I would have the staff wear white cotton blouses. Natural light would be very important. And volume, too. The space wouldn抰 look new, but more worn-in, inhabited, like it抯 always been there. There would be hand sketches of haircuts and looks on the walls, along with hair samples for color and texture reference, and these would constantly change.

In your book 揜emastered you have contemporary artists reinterpret Old Masters paintings. How important are past references to new artists?
For me, art history is a great source of inspiration. Now we all dress more or less the same, have more of less the same hairstyles, but back a century ago the world was a totally different place where what you wore and how your hair was arranged defined which group you belonged to and where you came from. There were extravagant hairstyles like in Mongolia, Japan and all over Africa.

You recently recorded an album named 揅ranes of Glitter. What prompted that?
While I was working on the fashion show and the creative direction of the campaign for Edun, Bono and his wife Ali抯 clothing label, I worked with a music producer and musician called Kyle Fischer. We enjoyed working together, and after the show, he asked me to work on a record with him. He didn抰 know I could play music, but he apparently liked what he was hearing, so he said, 揕et抯 do your record. I now increasingly integrate a sound component into my projects.
How do you stay inspired? I open my eyes, listen and wander a lot.

Who cuts your hair?
I do.

What抯 your favorite Oribe product?
I love the smell of all of them, but my favorite product is Gold Pomade. Works both for the beach and my concerts.

- DL

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