The SAKS YETI
In the spring of 2011 I received a voicemail from Saks Fifth Avenue creative director Terron Schaefer. “Michael Bierut at Pentagram says you’re the man to design our Yeti.” I use Google Voice, so the automatic transcriptions are often quite badly garbled, and I wondered what the message had actually said. Well, turns out that Google got it exactly right.
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Michael Bierut had recommended me. Saks Fifth Avenue did need somebody to design a yeti for their holiday season. And apparently I was their man for the job. The deadline was tight, which meant I could go straight from the excitement of the first call to drawing characters—without my usual detour into days of high anxiety. Within a weekend I drew up over 40 different yetis. After a bit of winnowing, and with a bit of development to account for the realities of plush, the good people at Yottoy in New York set to work on the prototypes. While they were sewing, I started creating a backstory for the Yeti, along with the proper historical documentation.
When I design I don’t usually love making thumbnails. Thumbnails lie. But for character design you can’t beat sketching. And this was particularly fun. I mean… yetis! Can you think of a better assignment? Below are a few pages from my mad weekend of drawing. I had just come home from judging the Addys in Hawaii. Seemed natural to include the customs sticker in my presentation to the Saks team. It certainly set a tone. Luckily, they loved it.
As you can see, the final character actually appeared fairly early on, but he’s so shy that I kinda missed him. I certainly did like him the second I drew him, though. Sweet, anxious fella that he is. As this was for Saks, I did class things up a bit with the heels. That one still comes up at meetings.
The two guys on the right spread were finalists, but Lefty was too simple, and Righty was too demonic. Incredibly, Terron left the choice to me. “Well, which one do you want to do?” This had happened to me once before with the cover of American Photography 17, and once again I was floored. Terron’s faith in my ideas cemented my dedication to the project. When somebody puts their trust in me, I will do anything and everything in my power to justify that trust, and to make everybody involved proud of the result.
Based on the sketches I worked with plush designers Kate Clark and Peter Doodeheefver of Yottoy Productions to bring the Yeti into the third dimension. They carefully guided me through a steep learning curve of what frabrics will and won’t do, what can and can’t be controlled as each Yeti is made, and how a Yeti cowlick is not nearly as easy to make as it is to draw. I also had the help of my friend Karla Field, who had spent years as a soft toy designer at Mattel. Talking through the process with Karla allowed me to ask the right questions, and to occasionally throw out an industry term to Kate and Peter, so they wouldn’t think they were dealing with a complete amateur.
Each Yeti face is a little different. This one seemed well suited to a boisterous Hello!
As always, I ended up making things much more involved than they had to be. The Yeti was so big that he wouldn’t fit into the largest Saks bag, so a custom shopping bag was needed. Once again, Marian’s snowflakes were pressed into service on this tailor made hoodie backpack. I had already designed the furry type for an internal presentation document that just had seemed too plain to me without a little something extra. Since then it’s become the official Yeti logotype, and makes an expanded appearance on the cover of The Yeti Story.
The Yeti is sweet, but surprisingly difficult to shoot. Jason Ware sorted it out with me, as he always does.
Oh, and what’s that? you need a care tag, you say? How about a 16-page booklet about the Yeti’s emotional care? Complete with mini-history, Yeti spotting tips, and a guide to Yeti semaphore? (It’s how they communicate from rooftop to rooftop.)
Deleted scene: The Yeti’s favorite book is “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”
I can’t tell you how much fun it was working with the Saks crew. They jumped at every chance to add another piece to the Yeti Universe. Here, for example, is an internal memo from 1953 that addresses rumors of Yetis on the Saks rooftop, signed by then Saks CEO, Adam Gimbel. On the right is the translation of a secret communiqué from Siberia to an undercover operative in New York. My friend Suzanne Wertheim found an expert translator who recreated my letter in perfect, period appropriate Russian. Another friend who speaks Russian looked at it much later, and said that the letter was well written, but that the language seemed a bit old fashioned. Exactly.
The Siberian memo (right, shown translated) was period authentic in its use of now slightly arcane Russian.
The team at Saks created a whole site for all of these extra bits, called YetiTracker.org. They also placed life size Yeti tracks throughout the store to direct visitors to the ninth floor, where they would meet a six-foot Yeti who was happy to pose for photos. They even released previously secret footage shot on the roof of the store:
Due to some shipping issues I finally saw my first actual Yeti at the Saks Fifth Avenue Branch in Santa Barbara, California, just a few hours before delivering a talk at the local TEDx. The final push had been so manic, that I never even got my hands on a prototype. All I’d had to go on were cell phone pictures sent to me by anonymous sources within the organization. Needless to say, it was love at first sight.
To top it all off, my friends Lynda and Bruce of lynda.com bought a Yeti for every member of their staff that year—30 in all—and had me give a brief introduction at their holiday retreat. Please take a look, if you like. Having already read this far, some things will be familiar, but eh… why not double up?
When the Yeti became a smash, Saks asked me back for another year. All of the DVD bonus feature lore found its way into The Yeti Story, a book that explains how the Yeti came to live on the roof of Saks’ flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The Yeti himself was included in the prestigious American Illustration annual.
Oh, and then there’s this little thing that happened: Guess whose character took over the holiday windows for the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store:
Somebody posted a comment on the lynda.com video above, “Does that guy have the greatest job in the world or what!” I really do. It doesn’t get much better than this.