Luanne DiBernardo lives a rich life that crosses over from art to business and back. Whether making films, writing fiction, or designing and being CEO of Coolture, a business she began with her brother, she has always been guided by the power of story -- stories of people that may otherwise never be heard. Sometimes the telling of those stories led to a few brushes with greatness.
I spoke with Luanne about her art, and how the elements of making art might relate to the making of a business. “While much of the work of business is math, science and formula, I find there needs to also be room for the abstract.” In fiction, she writes to understand why her characters are motivated to do what they do. “I have to understand where they’ve been before I can help them move forward”, she explains. She is finding parallels as she develops the Coolture clothing line to help those challenged by heat intolerance. “I am using my affinity for the story and bringing characters to life to be open, to listen, look, think and receive information in the abstract rather than the literal. Some companies I encounter today haven't shown me that they are interested in motivation - what motivates employees, vendors or customers to do what they do…like when your vendor says, 'Screw you, we are going with someone else,' the time to listen is long before it becomes a crisis. This eye toward the abstract creates a leeway in communication and determines how I invite information into our company.
Blowfish was my response to the unheard voices in the trailer park. Coolture is my response to the underserved customers with heat intolerance.
AB: What is it to be an artist?
LD: It took me a long time to identify with that word.
AB: Well, who are you when you are making films?
LD: Let’s just say it was easier for me to experiment if I didn’t identify myself as that “thing”. I thought, if I'm this “thing” then I better damn well create something memorable, meaningful, something that makes a difference… I refrained from calling myself a writer for years because it felt like pressure to align myself with the authors I respected and learned from.
AB: It still allowed you to make stuff…to complete stuff…was being “something” other than an art
maker a strategy that allowed you to get projects done?
LD: It wasn’t a strategy… it was more like fear...I saw the others as more legitimate. I didn’t go to NYU for filmmaking or Columbia for writing...in my mind, it disqualified me.
AB: Yet you made the film…what was it like?
LD: It was just putting one foot in front of the other. I was raising two young boys at the time, working in advertising. The job allowed some creativity, but I needed more. My partner at the time was an actor shooting a short film with George “The Animal” Steele... he showed George a short script I’d just written based on candid interviews we conducted at a small trailer park in Florida. George surprised us by saying he’d like to play one of my characters. He had just filmed “Ed Wood”, so in order to maximize the opportunity, I turned my script into a feature length screenplay. I learned about a huge production grant being awarded based on screenplay, but missed the deadline by a week. What I did next reveals why I’m a complete contradiction!
Though I knew the deadline had passed, and while I knew there were hundreds of submissions, I drove four hours to deliver my script, Blowfish, in person. Despite not being able to call myself a writer, I'm also the person who says 'Somebody has got to win that grant, it might as well be me.' Three days later I received the phone call: the grant was mine. After one month on location, two years of post production, and three festival awards, Sony and Miramax requested screeners and wanted the film. We thought we had made it. Then Miramax backed out (no sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll was their reason), then Sony learned and backed out also.
Joseph Gannascoli was in my film is the actor who played Vito Spattafore, the gay mobster in the Sopranos. Before the Sopranos, Joe was one of the principal leads in my film. While in post production, he put me in put me in touch with Anthony Bourdain. Joe had just optioned “Bone in the Throat”, Bourdain’s first novel. Bourdain and I spoke on the phone several times while I was adapting his novel, which was a blast to work on.
Julian Schnabel, the neo-expressionist painter turned filmmaker, was my next target. Joe had a small role in Schnabel’s film “Basquiat”, and believed Julian might help us with distribution of Blowfish. Making a call to Julian Schnabel was out of the question for me. Why in Sam Hill would Julian Schnabel take a call from me?? So I wrote a letter. And two weeks later, with Joe hounding me daily, I called to follow up. Julian and I spoke for almost an hour, discussing not only Blowfish, but his upcoming project. He ended the call by asking me to read the book his film was based on, and calling him back with my thoughts… When I acted surprised that he would want my feedback, he asked why… I told him because “I was a nobody”. His response was “You sure don’t sound like a nobody to me”. I should be too embarrassed to tell you that I never followed up. Again, that contradiction -- all the reasons why he wouldn’t remember me, why he was just being polite, you name it -- I completely discounted the notion that I was an artist.
AB: Did you make any other films after that?
LD: In 2000 I moved back to Buffalo and filmed a web series; 11 episodes using local talent. “Half Time” was a collection of five-minute segments about a group of friends who gathered every Sunday to watch the Bills. A show about nothing, to borrow from George Costanza.
At the time, webisodes were touted as being the format of the future, which turned out to not be true. YouTube, yes. Webisodes, no.
I also wrote, produced, co-edited a short film called “Lemon Lime”. It was an adaptation of one of my short stories.
AB: So how does any of that experience paraly into your current work as founding CEO of Coolture?
LD: Again, just putting one foot in front of the other... and listening to what was in front of me.
My brother, Van DiBernardo, designed shoes for DKNY (Donna Karan) until he was forced to return home due to health complications from Multiple Sclerosis. After several years of wearing an industrial-style cooling vest, I encouraged Van to design a vest for himself that would be more aesthetically pleasing and comfortable. We started prototyping his vest in 2008 while I also started researching heat intolerance and who it affects. Blown away by the problem, the lack of solutions, and the size of the populations, I began researching fabrics, manufacturing, and different types of cooling packs. Little did I know I was in the process of developing our brand. Starting with Van’s unique story, we transformed a medical and industrial garment into a lifestyle solution. Coolture became my next focus, and without a doubt, my most challenging.
AB: How would you compare making art and marketing a product
LD: When writing fiction, my goal is to not think about the audience. The minute I start thinking about the audience, I lose touch with my characters, my story. With Coolture, my audience is the only thing that matters. Once I start thinking about what I want, the customer becomes secondary. In essence, the process is the same, but the “subject” of our focus changes completely.
Another difference is something that terrifies me -- once you present your art, it’s done. Your audience will either love you or walk away. In business, you’re given the chance to adapt, to revise, to improve. This goes back to “listening”. Coolture alerted me to the fact that I DO have an ego. If customers tell me that the belt should be adjustable on both sides, I listen and revise. It’s not how we designed the vest, but it’s how we should have. It’s so not about me. On the other hand, if a customer tells me I should include a polar bear or an ice cube in my logo -- I want to say 'tell you what, you start a company and put a polar bear in your logo.' Of course, I don’t say that. The point is, you have to know when to listen to your customer and when to listen to your gut.
AB: How did you grow creatively during the interactive steps in product development?
LD: Through the thrill of pleasing the customer, in giving them something that they not only need, but that changes the quality of their day. I want to grow Coolture by continuing to recognize the honor of connecting in meaningful levels. It sounds easy, but it’s a far cry more difficult than writing fiction. I can’t put words in my customer’s mouths. I can only put intention in mine.
AB: You found source for your film in the trailer parks - does this translate to the stories of your Coolture
LD: Very much so. Our interviews in the trailer park gave residents their moment. Nothing mattered except that interaction at that moment in time. It’s no different with my Coolture customers. If they care enough to call, to ask, to suggest, to share -- I care enough to listen.
My partner and I felt selfish conducting the interviews at the trailer park, we became so engaged with their stories and how they came to be where they were. We questioned if we were exploiting them. When we returned the second time, we no sooner parked our car and gathered our camera when they started emerging from their trailers, following us, asking if they could be next. That’s powerful stuff! And if anyone in business thinks it’s any different with a customer or a vendor -- they’re missing the boat. Blowfish was my response to the unheard voices in the trailer park. Coolture is my response to the underserved customers with heat intolerance.