PR mogul Ed Filipowski on the power of communication
“Not everyone is entitled to have an opinion.”
With offices in New York, London and Paris and a substantial portfolio of clients that reads like an A-to-Z list of who’s who in fashion, Filipowski has worked through the ranks at KCD since its founding and is at the helm today with co-president Julie Mannion, who oversees events. On a personal note, in 2015 he got married “on the terrace of their Chelsea penthouse at sunset in an intimate ceremony” (as reported by WWD) to his long-time partner Mark Lee, who is CEO of Barneys New York. “Surprisingly, it’s different. Your level of commitment changes. I tend to say yes a lot faster and a lot more now. Also, people have treated me in a totally different way when I say, this is my husband. It has given me a sense of personal validation that I never thought it would.” In a rare and opportune sit-down that many young designers would kill for, we discuss the marriage of a more professional kind – of that between designer and PR.
What is good PR?
What defines good PR is one’s depth of knowledge of clothing. To be a good PR, you have to love, understand, respect and know everything there is to know about design, designers, their collections and clothing. That has to be the start of everything that you do. This is the fashion industry, and the soul of what we are doing is what the designer is creating. I’ve been in this industry for quite a few years and when I hold a McQueen dress, I still hold it like I’m holding a child. It is something so precious and I get emotional. I know what has gone into making it, and how many hands have touched it in the process. I know how much love and passion is behind it. I think that’s what makes good PR in this industry.
“To be a good PR, you have to love, understand, respect and know everything there is to know about design, designers, their collections and clothing.”
I read an interview published by The New York Times in 1996 where Gianni Versace said that a new word has to be coined for what KCD does because it goes further than PR.
I remember when Gianni said that. Gianni was a wonderful person. That was when there was a big shift in fashion, like how we are currently going through a big shift because of the technological revolution. At that time, globalisation was the big change, right after Anna Wintour went to Vogue. She started the whole mix of international fashion in American Vogue. What started to happen is that fashion required a more sophisticated way of doing things in a much more international way. We as an agency developed those systems and kept that rigour. It’s something many designers admired in our work, and I think that’s why Gianni said that. We have a lot of legacy clients, clients that we’ve had for fourteen, fifteen, sixteen or seventeen years.
How does a new relationship form? Do brands approach you or do you approach them? What are those initial conversations like in the beginning?
We’ve never approached a client. We have been fortunate. We have been lucky to grow our business by being approached by some wonderful people. What we always do when we meet with somebody is to see the clothes. Whether I know the designer well or not, I need to see the clothes first-hand. I never take on a client until I see their clothes and they explain to me what they do and what their design process is. It is important we have the same vision; we both understand where they want to be six months from now, and that we know we can take them there. We want to move together as partners.
It is like a marriage. What would you tell a young designer who is looking to be represented? Are there do’s and don’ts when it comes to PR?
There are no rules. We are at a time in this industry where it all goes out the window. This is the time to create new things and do things differently. You don’t have to follow formulas that existed. You don’t have to follow what a certain editor says. This is the wild wild west of fashion right now. You can do what feels instinctively right for you.
“This is the wild wild west of fashion right now.”
When did that change?
In the past year, and it has been caused by the digital revolution and the speed at which it has developed. A lot of self-questioning has gone on about the nature of the industry and the ageing of the young generation of designers. There was a big splurge of young designers ten years ago in America particularly. Now they are ten years older and in a whole different place. It is a conflux of many different things that have led us to this new frontier. I would tell new designers to do it their way; as far as representation, walk before you run. You don’t need to have an agency right away. You can take care of yourself for a while. You can have someone mentor you. We mentor a lot of young designers. We mentored designers in Paris and New York. There are a lot of programs that CFDA, BFC and Chambre Syndicale have that could help designers. A lot of designers come to me and say that they need a PR agency and I say, “you don’t, it’s too early”. They need to work on their commercial side and get their collections to a certain point. Maybe instead of an on-going PR agency, they could do some projects together over the course of the year by planning a couple of things on a project level. You don’t need to follow any rules.
What exactly are the parameters of the mentorship? How involved are you?
There are no boundaries if we take someone on as a mentor. We usually have one designer per office that we are mentoring. We treat them as a full-time client. When you are mentoring someone at that age, you are helping them with their business development and advising them on other areas as well. Finding them other mentors to help in other areas as well. It’s about helping someone from inception, which is fun.
“Anybody who tries too hard never succeeds.”
How important is it for designers to create a public persona? We see it obviously today with Olivier Rousteing at Balmain among others. What role does a PR agency play in constructing that persona, or does it emerge organically through the personality of the designer?
It works best when it comes up organically. Anybody who tries too hard never succeeds. Olivier is my client and I have known him since he was an assistant at Balmain when he took over and continued to work for them. It is just natural talent. He is just that person. He is who he is. He is a charmer. You could talk to him for hours. He has such a great personality and a fascinating intellect. He has a point of view of fashion that is very particular to his age. On the other hand, you have other designers who want to be quiet, and for various reasons, like to maintain a sense of mystery about themselves. That’s something you can cultivate too and work through PR. Whatever is right for the brand and the designer is what you make work in PR. Right now, I’m working with Maison Margiela and John Galliano. I’ve only worked with them since John took over as creative director. The house has taken a quiet approach to communications, which is the history of the house, but it’s also what feels right for John himself right now too. I have to respect that and I have to make that work.
I’m glad you brought up Margiela and John. There’s an inherent contradiction in that specific relationship: the Maison is known to be anonymous and quiet, while John is known to more extroverted. Were those initial conversations difficult in any way?
Finding the balance in such a new situation is challenging, but to sit down and have tea with John right now is a very quiet experience. He’s a genius, a charming and funny person.
Does the relationship work both ways? Do you learn as much as you give to your clients?
Oh my god, yes! I have walked away from some meetings to go sit in a room and sit still for a while because I’ve been blown away by what I’ve just experienced. My first meeting with John was like that. I’ve known John but I had never worked with him. I understood the depth of his intelligence and how far beyond creativity it went; that he knows everything that there is to know about fashion, and I’m not just talking about fashion history, I’m talking about a fashion company. He has that 360-degree mind that knows everything, whether it be merchandising, store design, sales, communications or digital. I was so blown away by him that I needed some time to myself. To see that in a person, someone who has had some trying times recently and is so spot on about what they are talking about, is rare. It is the same with Sarah Burton. It is a privilege to have her walk me through her collection and what she is thinking. One of the biggest privileges of this industry is being able to interact with the designer and to understand their process, who they are and why they are creating what they are creating. It still is inspiring and emotional to me.
Do you think that young designers should work on that by cultivating their voice and point of view and then communicating it to others? Is that the most important thing?
Yes, to be able to communicate their passions and story. To enrol somebody in their minds and the heart of what they’re doing, is how I would put it.
“Anybody that thinks we need to slow down has a lazy attitude.”
What should designers focus on? Product or presentation?
It depends on where the designer is in his career. In the beginning of their career, I think it’s important for a designer to think about what they’re doing in its totality, but it’s equally important for them to focus on the product, because there’s nothing more important than the product. The sooner a designer starts to think about what he creates in a bigger scenario, the better, because this is a very fast-moving visual industry right now. Once you’re designing, your clothes are being seen immediately. It is not a slow building process anymore. It’s valuable for a designer to start cultivating a well-rounded point of view about what they are creating as early as possible.
Let’s talk about fashion weeks. What is the role of the catwalk show and how important is it? Should young designers start thinking about alternative methods of presentation?
There’s nothing more authentic than a catwalk show. It is the purest way to see clothes. This whole debate about fashion shows is uninteresting. There can be a lot of options to show collections that are appropriate to certain designers, but there is nothing that is more pure to see clothing than in a well-done fashion show. I had this conversation with Victoria Beckham. She shows in New York and she does it wonderfully. It is very pure. It is in a beautiful white room with the right number of people, and the perfect casting on a Sunday morning. Everybody loves coming to the first show. No celebrities and very few photographers. It’s just about the clothes. She asked me, “Do you think I need to change my show?” I said, “No, you don’t. Nobody needs to change, just to change. You do an absolutely pure, beautiful fashion show. It would be a shame to lose that.” She got it. There are alternative methods. We worked with American designer Misha Nonoo. We did an Instagram show for her this past season, a collaborative idea with our digital department. She had this one idea and it turned into this show. It was easy to produce and had tremendous success with as much coverage as a major show. There are alternative methods that do work. It worked for her, and it worked for her collection, but I am a firm believer in the emotion of the catwalk show. For anybody who thinks the catwalk show shouldn’t be, go to a McQueen show.
The fashion industry is going through a similar shift to the music industry, which went through a major struggle in the last decade. They have managed to overcome it to a certain extent; we are in a similar predicament in fashion, but no one seems to have the right answer.
We are going through a revolutionary time. The impetus for it is the rise of digital technologies in the past eight to ten years. We are also not the only ones going through it. We should stop whining. Everyone is going through it. Anybody that thinks we need to slow down has a lazy attitude. Yes, maybe we have to figure out a new way of doing some things and maybe things are going to settle in a new way. This world is going through a major change. We are a little fish in a pond. We should stop complaining and just make it work. I don’t think there’s one big answer for this point.
It is only stirring up insecurities.
Yes, it comes from insecurity. I got a press release today from a client saying they are doing something because they thought they needed to slow down. Oh my god!
How do you deal with that and what did you say?
We are going to change this. It is a sign of weakness.
What you’re saying is that you have to adapt to the system and make it work.
Yes, it is business. We should be so fortunate that we are going through this. It is transformation.
In fashion, people are not grateful for the positions they are in and everyone is taking things for granted, and sometimes complaining a little bit too much.
I agree with you. In New York, the big subject is the location of the fashion shows. I would not enter a conversation about it at a table. I will not speak about it. You land somewhere and a few years later, you don’t like it and you want to be somewhere else, so I’m done. I agree with you. It’s very ungrateful.
We have talked about a few things that you said you’ve heard a lot of before and you don’t think it’s even worth having those conversations. Breaking out of the system, the pace of it and fashion show locations – are there any other subjects that you don’t want to hear again?
Women’s Wear Daily interviewed me for an article that was titled, “Is fashion heading for a burnout?” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You are not doing this story. Why aren’t you doing a story about how fashion is in the middle of a revolution? I want to read that story. I have to think about this and call you back.”
It’s like a fashion apocalypse.
Exactly, but why do you have to look at the glass half empty? My answer to that interview was that I look at the glass half full.
Do you ever look at other industries for inspiration or knowledge of how you can do things differently?
I do find the intersection between fashion and entertainment, especially in the United States, becoming deeper and deeper. I think it is the next frontier. I think it’s going to become more fully developed as to what the two industries are doing together.
“If I were a student, I would make sure that I spent 50% of my time learning as much as I could about technology and all the applications to design.”
Do you think this industry is insular? How do you break out of that? Is it based on self-interests or does it affect business as well?
It is, for the most part. The best answer to this question would be the technology industry because that is beyond an intersection at this point. We are only at the tip of the iceberg. Ten years from now, it is going to be fully here. If I were a student, I would make sure that I spent 50% of my time learning as much as I could about technology and all the applications to design.
Everything. Entertainment is more so from a marketing, branding and client management standpoint. From a design standpoint, I would go deep into technology, which I’m sure many people do, but I would not underestimate what it is doing for us because I think we have barely experienced it yet.
Is there such a thing as the wrong kind of publicity?
Anything that is not truthful. When something is difficult, I say, “Let’s start with the truth.” The answer needs to be authentic.
Do you think that having a personal life outside your work is important? Apparently, a lot of people in fashion believe that work is their entire life.
You can be successful in fashion, and not make it your whole life. There are some people who make fashion their whole life and I think they are very happy so I wouldn’t judge them for it. I choose not to, very strongly. My husband is in fashion also, and we turn it off. We don’t talk about it at all. You don’t have to be that way. I’m not a social person, I don’t go to anything. I don’t have lunches, don’t go to events and parties unless it’s my own event. You can be successful by just working hard and being yourself.
What are the three perspectives in this industry that you would like to change?
Stop complaining. Don’t judge people too quickly, meaning that people are given time to grow on their own terms. Also, not everyone is entitled to have an opinion. I know the exact minute when that changed.
It was concurrent with social media; with the people in the third and fourth rows of fashion, who never used to voice their opinion about a fashion show because it was the people in the first and second row that formed the point of view of what the show was. When social media started, everybody was a critic, up to the last row. You’ve been in this industry for two years and you can judge this designer who has been working for twenty years. Have a little respect.
So you believe in the hierarchy of the system?
Well, there isn’t one anymore, but I do. The hierarchy has dramatically changed with social media.
How often do you get frustrated? We don’t want to paint the industry as mean-spirited or as people getting angry or being unsatisfied, because that’s not the case.
No, not at all. It is not a mean-spirited industry. It’s an industry that really takes care of itself. There are so many wonderful programs that take care of young designers and students. It is dynamic in that way. The only thing is, it’s an industry that likes to complain and is afraid of the change we are going through.
Isn’t it ironic, though, that fashion is built on change but the people working in it are so resistant to change? It doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t. It’s ironic. I find complaining to be counter-constructive.
A lot of people have said that KCD is a brilliant place to work and that they have stayed here for a number of years and are really happy working here. It is in contrast to the industry itself, where people complain about their workplace, wages, working hours and their environment. I found that contrast interesting, where an agency that represents fashion brands is at the other end of the spectrum. What is your secret?
The average tenure of our executive board, which consists of vice presidents and beyond worldwide, is twelve years. We have people who have been with us for seventeen years, which is unusual. We have the same thing with our clients. Jill and I care a lot about the people we work with and we take good care of them on a personal and professional level.
Is that the secret to good business? Hiring the right people and then treating them well?
Yes, treating them sincerely. I have never lost a senior level person to another agency. They might go in-house, which is great for my business.
How do you spot the right person? Is it instinctual?
It’s becoming harder because of the difference between generations nowadays and the emergence of the millennials. The difference between the 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds is dramatic. It is really hard to get someone in their thirties to work with someone in their twenties. They get really frustrated.
We would probably see a shift in another ten years when the millennials grow up.
Well, they say that the next shift will be back to normal because the people under 20 have a different set of values.