Part One: Mistakes Were Made
A client first introduced me to George B. Wilson. I remember meeting him very clearly. He was impossibly thin, probably an ex-model or dancer, and his delicate, precise physical movements contrasted with his loud, booming voice. His personality filled the room, and I got sense his personality filled any room it happened to be in. The venue - our client - had been contracted by Mr. Wilson (not his real name) to host a fashion show and art gallery - a strange mixture of medium sized clothing designers and art-adorned walls from a local artist. He needed a full service production company to realize this magnificent dream of art and commerce, and we got the call. It turned out to be a fateful day.
What began as a simple, straight-forward gig devolved into a cautionary tale of errors in judgement that eventually involved the New York court system and the seedy business of judgement collections. A person lost their job, two companies absorbed large financial hits, and salaries were cut in the wake of Mr. Wilson's disastrous, artfully decorated, off-site fashion show. But during our first meeting in the depths of the 2008 recession, all he wanted was some lighting. All I wanted was a gig. I ended up receiving a whole lot more.
Sitting at the venue listening to Mr. Wilson at this first meeting, it was clear he enjoyed being a Producer (his words not mine). He liked being in charge, and he clearly liked people fretting to make him happy. We told him what our company could do and made the usual pitches. Initially his plan was to use booms in the corners of the room to light a runway. With 10' high ceilings and a 30' throw distance, that would have been a disaster. Such low angles of incidence would have blinded audience members and been completely ineffective. That should have been warning number one. Most producers of fashion shows understand why the lights are arranged the way they are, this one apparently had no idea.
I did my due diligence as a designer, making sure my concerns were my client's concerns. I provided sections and line drawings with cost effective solutions which would make everyone -- the venue, Mr. Wilson, and us -- look good. Initially he balked at the price, screaming over email how he'd been doing this for twenty years and would not be taken advantage of. Clients often use such antics, especially fashion people. Their world is full of free interns, and I think many get used to paying little or nothing for labor. We explained our costs and were completely transparent with how and why we priced his job. He would play these games throughout the entire pre-production process, and usually his tantrums would evaporate as quickly as they came on.
He also had trouble sourcing other gear besides lighting. He suddenly needed staging for a runway, and drape to mask off much of the space. Mr. Wilson turned to us to solve these problems, which we did as the quote slowly gravitated upwards. Eventually, we got The Line. All of us know it. It's repeated every day, and anyone who's dealt with clients has at some point heard it. Mr. Wilson said, “Well I can't afford much now because of [some reason that escapes me], but next time the budget will be bigger. This thing is really going to take off, and I'll definitely use you again. For now, however, I need a break.” By this point, I felt serious unease in my gut about this entire job.
He resisted signing the contract for a long time, which by this point now included lighting, decking, flats, draping, as well as hair and make-up gear. The load-in date quickly approached, and we needed to confirm everything before people and gear were booked elsewhere during the busy winter Fashion Week in New York City. We negotiated two payments, roughly 25% now and 75% on the first day of the three day show. After much fuss and fanfare, he finally signed the contract and paid the deposit ... in cash. I watched him carefully count out hundreds, ignoring the alarm bells ringing loudly in my head. I walked from the venue to the bank, a distance of two blocks, carrying more cash than I ever held in my entire life. Mr. Wilson secured the rest of the amount with a credit card which we held on-file.
The day of load-in went well for us. However, it became increasingly clear as the day progressed Mr. Wilson made promises to the designers. Promises that turned out to be either completely not true or half true. One designer confronted him. Their conversation turned into a yelling match in the middle of the venue, with him doing most of the screaming. Mr. Wilson had learned that when in a fight, go big and go loud as quickly as possible. In fact controlling people use this tactic a lot, a sort of M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction) approach to everyday differences. The idea being generally people don't like confrontation, and if others know the ferocity with which the controlling individual usually responds, most people will go to great lengths to avoid any confrontation at all. Mr. Wilson had the upper hand in this particular fight. His outsized volume and blistering intensity aside, the designer could not pull out and change the venue. The invitations had already been mailed. She was stuck, and he knew it.
On the first day of shows I should have charged the credit card, but I didn't. I will never know why. We had it on file, we knew it worked, but I didn't charge it -- a costly mistake.
Mr. Wilson did not show up at the strike, instead his boyfriend arrived hours late to reclaim various supplies. He had trouble making eye contact with me when I asked if George wanted me to charge the credit card we had on file. By the time I did, a card that had worked several days before, was immediately rejected.
Alone in the office, I grabbed a tall, metal canteen and without thinking began banging the back of my hand in uncontrolled rage. I don't recall ever being so angry. After five successive blows to my left hand, I returned the now deformed stainless steel container to the desk and watched my hand turn a dark shade of violet. It hurt to move my wrist, and only after several minutes did my heart rate return to normal. An immediate flood of questions came to mind. How could I have been so stupid? I knew better, why didn't I walk away? How could I ignore so many warning signs?
Emails to Mr. Wilson went unanswered, and he dodged our phone calls. The venue - our original client - emailed us asking if we had gotten paid. Sure enough, they too had tried to charge a now defunct credit card. A staff member at the venue emailed and called Mr. Wilson hourly, fearing for her job. This being the very depths of the recession, the consequences of losing a job were particularly ugly. New York City and the industry had been in free fall for almost two quarters.
Months passed. Regardless of Mr. Wilson's financial difficulties, my employer paid its obligations to the vendors and staff. I forfeited the design fee to help defray costs, which meant forgoing roughly a month's salary. The owners of the venue handed down sanctions and docked the pay of, in their view, the responsible employees. Everybody soon headed to court.
It felt like a clear-cut case: Mr. Wilson was in breach of contract. However, actually going to court was anything but.
Part two continues next week.