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Famous Creative People Who Went Broke


Photography: Daniel Y. Go

In an ideal world, the people with the brightest ideas, the most original minds and the most inspired inventions would end their lives with the most amount of money. They might not have been the ones who turned their spark of genius into production lines and mass sales, but they should have been rewarded fairly for the brainwave that defined the products.

Often, it happens. James Dyson, the inventor of the Ballbarrow, a wheelbarrow that used a ball instead of a wheel, lived off his wife’s salary as an art teacher for five years while he developed a prototype for a new kind of vacuum cleaner. He now owns a chateau in France and a personal fortune estimated at around £1 billion ($1.6 billion). Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer, might not be in the same economic league but his annual salary was reported at “more than £1 million ($1.6 million)” a year… in 2003. He’s probably earning a bit more than that now and, no doubt,  gets a free iPod too.

But not everyone is so lucky. Here are five creative types whose ideas either haven’t translated into material success yet… or never will, and what the rest of us can learn from their financial failure.

Bust at Sixteen

She’s not the most famous person on our list but Kira Plastinina is certainly the youngest.  In May 2008, the 16-year old Russian fashion designer opened twelve boutiques across the USA with plans to open another 250 stores.

Nine months later, the KP Fashion Co. filed for bankruptcy. The company owed $54.5 million to more than 100 creditors, including Verizon, the Glendale Police Department and Ford Models Inc. According to the bankruptcy filing, it had less than a fifth of that in assets and was involved in a trademark infringement suit brought by Pacific Sunwear.

Kira was helped by having good contacts. Her daddy is Sergei Plastinin, a former chief executive of Russia’s largest dairy and juice producer, who has a personal fortune estimated at more than $600 million. He is said to have put $80 million of his own money into his daughter’s business. But it might have helped more if instead of asking for a handout, she had done a little market research and produced designs that didn’t compete directly with those Paris Hilton, Avril Lavigne and Jessica Simpson.

There’s a reason even creative types have to pay their dues if they want to succeed in the business world. On the other hand, Kira is still big in Kazakhstan.

When Beautiful Designs Go Bad

Kira Plastinina failed because she didn’t have the experience to back her ambitions. That wasn’t the case for John DeLorean. By the time he set up his DeLorean Motor Company, he was in his fifties with a track record that included designing a new gearbox for the Packard Motor Company, taking the credit for creating America’s first muscle car and heading General Motors’ Pontiac division. His new car, a two-seater designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, would feature eye-catching gull-wing doors and a look that would be immortalized in Back to the Future.

Despite a £100 million (now $160 million) investment by the British government, the firm collapsed in February 1982 after operating for little more than a year. DeLorean  himself later faced trial after allegedly agreeing to take part in a drug trafficking operation to help pay off the company’s debts. He was acquitted after claiming entrapment.

It’s tempting to see here a rerun of Kira Plastinina’s failure: when money comes in too easily, it goes out easily too. But it’s probably got more to do with hubris and the belief that if you spend enough money on an attractive enough product, people will buy it. Sometimes you barely get to make it.

Cooking up a Storm

Celebrity chef John Burton Race did get to make it – several times a day. In 2004, together with his wife Kim Burton Race, he opened the New Angel restaurant in Devon, UK. The opening of the restaurant was documented by a British reality show and the venue went on to win Michelin’s coveted stars.

Three years later, while he was in Australia filming a series of the reality show “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here,” his wife shut down the restaurant. The New Angel was sold to Burton Race’s friend Internet entrepreneur Clive Jacobs, who then re-employed Burton Race as head chef. In May of this year, Burton Race was declared bankrupt.

Opening a restaurant is always a tricky business but Burton Race might not have chosen his partner too wisely. Three years after opening the restaurant together, Burton Race left his wife to live with his mistress and their 2-year old son.

It’s good business to be inventive in the workplace. But a traditional family life tends to provide stability… especially when you’re running a family business.

Building Too Little for the Future

Today, Louis Kahn is remembered as one of the world’s great architects. A professor of architecture at both Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, he was a master of the International Style and known for his attention to “servant” space – areas in a building that served other open areas.

In 1974, his body was discovered in a public toilet at Penn Station in New York. It took the police several days to identify him. He had died of a heart attack and was bankrupt.

It’s certainly possible that, like Burton Race, Kahn’s convoluted personal life had held him back —  he fathered three children by three different women – but the real cause was probably more prosaic. Kahn continually revised his designs, even after construction had begun, prompting his clients to assign him a manager.

Groundbreaking designs are vital for creative types but you also have to keep a close eye on the cash.

Taking Your Chance

There are few more successful creative types than Walt Disney. The company that carries his name now has a string of brand names recognized around the world and annual revenues of $35 billion.

But life wasn’t always so good for Disney. An early company producing Laugh-O-Grams for Newman cinemas in the Kansas City area was unable to generate enough income to cover the animators’ high salaries. It went bankrupt… and Disney went to Hollywood.

And that might be the best lesson to learn from creatives’ bankruptcy: a failure doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In fact, it might just provide the experience needed to create the next big success.

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