Is Public Relations Relatable?

...how a designer chooses PR representation

by Bel Jacobs
A young designer emerges from London College of Fashion, Antwerp's Royal Academy or Fashion Institute of Technology and, after a series of internships – and lucky breaks – launches his or her first collection. What he needs now, he is told, is public relations. Public relations – or PR – will help make sure his clothes are seen by the right editors and buyers in order to create the market that will allow him to survive in his craft. All this inevitably comes at a cost, a monthly retainer, sometimes high. But how do young designers know they’re getting what they pay for?

This is particularly difficult as PR is a trade where results are hard to measure. Just because its clothes are featured in magazine shoots or worn by a celebrity – both coups in the world of PR – doesn’t ensure a brand’s long-term survival. Depending on the label, the clothes, the personality of the designer, different approaches may work better.

Let’s face it; the world of public relations has a bad reputation. If journalism ranks low on a list of courteous, even-minded professions, then public relations must rank lower. NJAL founder Stefan Siegel has countless stories of ‘bad practice’ amongst PRs.

‘One London agency makes designers sign up for quite affordable rates, usually between £250-£500 a month, but this does not include an expenses account',’ he says. ‘So every time there was a media request, the agency told them they had to send a courier themselves.’ Inevitably, costs mounted.

Then, there are stories of precious one-off pieces, lent to PRs and journalists – and returned unusable; or the legendary, often misplaced, pushiness that can actually alienate key contacts rather than getting them on side. ‘PR's have definitely got the Bitchy Queen stigma,’ says one.

And yet, for every example of PR loopiness and bad manners, there is an example among agents of a prima donna designer. ‘The worst client I’ve ever had?’ remembers one PR. ‘One who wanted to be in a level of the market that their brand and collections just were not suited for. ‘They were completely unwilling to listen to advice, constantly complained about not appearing in press where their 'perceived' competitors were and just could not get used to the fact that, just because they loved their designs, everyone else might not.’

There was the egocentric designer who could not be reached for a month, or the very young creative who refused to let Florence Welch wear his clothes because he did not feel the singer fit his vision for the brand.

For some, this made perfect sense. Why not wait for a brand ambassador that perfectly suits your ethos? But the PR was tearing her hair out. Florence Welch is a style icon with close links to Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel. The designer won out but at what cost to his brand – or his future?

Within an agency, an emerging designer occupies a complex position. On one hand, they are unlikely to be cash-rich or selling widely enough to earn their agency much income. In any profit-making organization, which most PR agencies are, this is already a tough proposition.

On the other hand, because their brand profile is so low, building that profile will require a more work-intensive approach. Marketing an unknown name can certainly be more challenging than flinging another Topshop project at a style journalist. ‘This can be the case,’ admits one PR, ruefully. ‘A PR agency is very much built around money and the time spent on each client, depending on how much they pay. If a young designer is on a low retainer, they may end up just being another rail in the showroom.

‘However, if the new designer is the 'hot new thing', the agency will probably take them on for no fee and really push them while they are the flavour of the month as it's good for the agency.’

The problem arises, he says, when ‘that fever drops a little when the new wave of graduate darlings arrive. You could find yourself out in the cold quite quickly.’

This does happen – and quite frequently – but one PR is adamant that the commercial system that can see young designers side-lined is also one that keeps them in sight.

‘We’ve often nourished new designers at our agency and always want the best for them,’ she says. ‘At the end of the day, more coverage means more sales, which means more money to pay their PR fees. It is in our interest to help them grow.’
One stylist and Vogue commissioning editor agrees: ‘Some agencies will handpick a young designer and invest time, resources and money on him/her expecting to get a mid-term return through exposure, kudos and even corporate sponsorship.’

How best to pick an agency? Research. Each agency is as individual as the people who founded and run it. Some, as is evident, are commercial monoliths in which individual clients, and particularly young designers, can get lost or pushed aside for more high profile, more profitable stalemates. Others are small, intimately run and keep a close eye on their clients, working with them to build the brand’s profile sensitively and effectively.

‘Make sure the agency wants to represent you for the right reasons,’ advises one PR. ‘and that they have a real passion to deliver a bespoke package for you and that you're not just a revenue stream. Don't always be attracted by big shiny client lists. Instead, look at the account team being offered.’

‘The designer needs to believe in what the agency does and respect them,’ says another. ‘They need to see past results of designers’ growth at the agency and see where and who they want to be in five years’ time. If they believe that agency can take them there, that is where they need to be.’

PR is like a relationship,’ says a PR who has worked successfully with a number of emerging talents. ‘You need to follow your gut instinct - and check a few before you commit to one’. The thing to remember, says one PR, is that ‘the whole industry is made against emerging designers. It really is costly for them to keep up with Fashion Weeks, seasons, trade shows, presentations, shows, models, production, PR.’

What are PRs looking for in a young designer? ‘Talent is wonderful but then again there are successful people with questionable talent!’ laughs one PR. ‘Passion for what they do is essential as you need them to work with you to help them succeed.’

It also helps if designers remember that they are a business, working in a business environment. ‘At times, their ideas will have to bend a little to make certain things work. Their ego can't get in the way of this or they will fail.’

‘The perfect fashion client?’ says another PR. ‘One who understands their creations as a brand and that everything (from what they wear, what they say, what they produce, etc.) is creating that brand. They have a clear idea of where they want to get, they know to say NO but they know to listen too.’

Top tip from all is to examine fees – and extras – carefully and to remember that, while being a ‘hot new thing’ carries the potential of abandonment, it can give you leverage.

There are instances, for example, where, if the designer is regarded as an interesting enough proposition, fees are waived. In this case, warns a PR, ‘make sure they don't over expose you for their own benefit, then dump you when they have taken all they can!’

If this all still sounds too cat-and-mouse, are there alternatives to conventional forms of PR? ‘Of course,’ says Siegel, definitively. ‘Do it yourself, or hire a motivated student. We have to stop thinking the route to success is a feature in your average 20,000-copy style bible, there's a world out there and there are markets where customers are keen to buy avant-garde fashion from emerging designers. Something which is not the case in London, nor in Europe at the moment.’

There is, of course, NJAL itself. ‘NJAL is a catalyst, based on free-of-cost and transparent showcasing of emerging talent from 5 continents,’ says Siegel. ‘We provide the tools to 'make it on your own''.

From listing a brand in the directory to selling via the site’s retailing channels, participating at live-showcasing events or competitions such as Mango Fashion Awards, Marc Jacobs' Designer For Tomorrow, Fashion Fringe and many more, designers can use NJAL as a PR tool from their studios.

‘Over the years, we’ve learnt what the needs of a designer are when starting out,’ he says. ‘We are continuously offering new services to designers to bypass expensive middlemen, act and work more internationally and find ways to engage with their market, unreachable via conventional methods.’

Doing it on your own may seem like more work but you are in a position to bypass some of the more traditional clashes between PRs and the young designers they represent. For some, PR may be the only way forward; for others, a more low key approach may suit. It all depends on the designer’s vision of their brand and of its future. Because, ultimately, that future is in their own hands.