Polaroid goes Gaga

Twice-bankrupt instant photography company makes unlikely comeback, thanks to fans, Canadian private equity, Lady Gaga.

Anytime Lady Gaga is in the house, you can be sure of a spectacle. When she stepped onto a stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January, the reigning queen of pop and preposterous fashion didn’t disappoint – the sprawling sun hat the diva wore turned out to be made entirely of her own hair. But behind the glitz was perhaps an even more astonishing revelation. Lady Gaga has signed on to be the creative director at Polaroid, a company that not too long ago had been relegated to the dead brand scrap heap.

The past decade was a hellish one for Polaroid. The company that invented and popularized instant photography has gone bankrupt twice since 2001. Polaroid’s former owner turned out to be a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi fraudster. Then, with the phenomenal popularity of digital cameras obliterating demand for traditional film, the company stopped manufacturing instant cameras and film altogether.

But now Polaroid is back. The company is churning out new digital products at a feverish pace. Polaroid is even getting back into the field of analog photography by re-releasing some of its classic instant cameras. Most important of all, Polaroid is enjoying immense buzz among artists in ways it never has before. Just this past weekend, thousands turned out for a gallery exhibit in Santa Monica featuring more than 1,850 Polaroid images by professional and amateur artists from around the world. “People were paying their respects to a wonderful medium,” says organizer Kevin Staniec.

This remarkable revival is all thanks to a unique combination of grassroots enthusiasm and the marketing savvy of private equity investors, including Toronto-based Hilco Consumer Capital, which bought the company last year.

Polaroid’s decision in 2008 to pull the plug on instant film sentshock waves through the small but thriving community of instant-film diehards. Dave Bias, a New York graphic designer, and other volunteers set up a Save Polaroid website. He also teamed up with Florian Kaps, an Austrian artist and photographer who’d been in talks with Polaroid to take over the company’s shuttered film factory in the Dutch town of Enschede. Under the name the Impossible Project, the group restarted the plant with the goal of making and selling new film for Polaroid cameras.

One reason for the intensity of the movement is nostalgia. Many people who grew up snapping photos of friends and family, then shaking the print to help it dry, still have their cameras. The company estimates there are nearly one billion functioning Polaroid cameras out there.

But Bias believes there’s more to it than that. Just as there’s been a resurgence of interest among young people for vinyl records and even typewriters – things you can hold and touch – instant film cameras are becoming hot commodities again. “There’s something to be said for not being able to instantly take more digital photos or change things in Photoshop,” says Bias. “The thing on the paper is a tangible artifact of that moment in time. Good or bad, right or wrong, it’s what you created. These tangible things have gained in value.”

That was part of what drew Hilco to Polaroid, says the firm’s CEO James Salter. “It’s such an iconic brand worldwide,” says Salter. “It’s not every day you have the opportunity to buy a brand with such strong acceptance around the world.”

After Hilco teamed up with Gordon Bros. of Boston to buy Polaroid for US$67 million last year, the plan was to sell a whole slate of new products, including digital and video cameras, home entertainment systems and even glasses and goggles under thePolaroid name. That’s still going ahead, and as creative director, Lady Gaga’s Haus of Gaga design team will play a role in shaping the look of new products. But the incredible buzz around the Impossible Project has also prompted Polaroid to relaunch its analog instant cameras this year. The factory in Holland will supply the film.

It’s unlikely this hybrid of grassroots and high finance will bring Polaroid back to its glory days. But both sides are hoping there’s enough of a demand for all things Polaroid to satisfy everyone.