FOCUS: CONSUMER PR - Ensuring brands stay in fashion/PR, rather than advertising, has become the driving force in fashion when it comes to setting trends, says Richard Edwards

Slothful shoppers bored with established clothing labels, stagnating figures for consumer spending and the ever-intensifying competition on the high street have forced fashion retailers to use every weapon in their armoury to battle for market share. And for many retailers, PR is the weapon of choice in stealing a march over the competition.

Slothful shoppers bored with established clothing labels,

stagnating figures for consumer spending and the ever-intensifying

competition on the high street have forced fashion retailers to use

every weapon in their armoury to battle for market share. And for many

retailers, PR is the weapon of choice in stealing a march over the


Clothes rails full of press samples, champagne receptions and sleepless

weeks of partying during the New York, London and Paris shows will

always be part and parcel of fashion PR.

But the fashion houses and retailers of the 1990s have brought PR to the

heart of decision-making and strategy, seeing it as a key to the brand’s

success each season and a function increasingly relied on to get the

apathetic consumer out of his or her armchair and into the shops.

Mark McKeon, European managing director of womenswear brand Episode, is

one who believes the support he receives from his PR agency is


’For us, PR offers the best value of all the external fees we pay, and

that includes accounts and solicitors,’ he says. ’They act as a

non-executive management team.’

McKeon adds that the feedback he gets day-to-day and through regular

meetings provides a valuable insight into how the brand is perceived

outside of the company. ’The PR people we work with are not sycophantic.

They tell us what they like and what they don’t like and they judge our

collections as the fashion press would judge them,’ he says.

With consumers more advertising-savvy and increasingly sceptical about

big brands, the fashion industry agrees that, more than ever, editorial

coverage of their brands is vital.

Anne Rafter, managing director of Stephanie Churchill PR, believes

retailers are right to see fashion PR as a key to selling a brand.

’Fashion PR has a tremendous effect on the consumer compared to

advertising,’ she says.

’If you pick the right publication for the brand you are working on,

well-targeted editorial can generate huge sales. It gives a lot more

weight to the message when your brand is talked about by a journalist

who readers trust.’

Executive fashion editor of Marie Claire Elizabeth Walker agrees that

any editorial or products featured in the magazine have a phenomenal

effect on the consumer. ’We put together looks from the high street

retailers and readers will go out and buy what they see on the page,’

she says.

Debenhams fashion PR head Catherine Sturgess agrees and says that the

company sees a noticeable increase in sales whenever one of their

products appears in a magazine or newspaper: ’People come in and ask for

the products they have seen. Some of them come in clutching their copy

of Marie Claire.’

Jenny Halpern, managing director of fashion specialist Halpern

Associates, says PR is an essential tool for bringing cachet to the mass

market, but adds: ’Stores wanting to bring glamour to the high street

with designer names need to use PROs who are used to dealing with

designer brands and journalists at the top end of the market. It’s no

good bringing in a high street specialist who does not have the contacts

needed for a new target market.’

Unlike advertising campaigns, which for all but the biggest brands tend

to run in short bursts - necessarily limited by cost - fashion PR can

continue to plug the consumer into a brand through the fashion pages on

an ongoing basis through the season.

According to Andrew Tucker, fashion journalist and author of the London

Fashion Book, this works by providing an editor with a stream of fresh

ideas which in turn keeps the consumer interested and aware of the

products that are out there.

He says: ’The fashion press are not psychics, especially at the

beginning of the season - they always need to see new ideas, new trends

and directions. This is where a good, proactive PRO who understands the

way the press works and has a good take on what is going on in fashion

will be able to originate stories and manipulate the press to get their

client into print and into the consumer’s consciousness.’

Tucker argues that this is something which should not be limited to the

national newspapers or the glossies. ’Good fashion PROs know there is a

big regional press out there with massive opportunities to get to the

consumer,’ he adds.

Debenhams is one example of a high street store which exploits the reach

of the regional press to the full in order to target potential


Sturgess says this is an important part of the company’s PR strategy:

’Regional papers have relatively limited resources to dedicate to

fashion compared to the nationals, and simply cannot afford to go out

and do fashion shoots.

’By providing high quality pictures and press information, you are more

likely to get your story into the press,’ she says.

As fashion PR branches away from the mailshot press release and the

weekly haranguing of editors, and chooses to adopt an increasingly

strategic and subtle approach to promoting a brand, fashion retail

executives are ever more eager to bring them into the boardroom and

listen to their advice.

And this is typical of the service that companies now expect of the

public relations industry: not just a pile of clippings on the desk

every Monday morning, but a two-way communication of what

opinion-forming fashion writers think of the collections, feedback on

how best to market a collection before it hits the shops, and ideas over

the future direction of the brand.

’One of the biggest consumer PR successes I can think of is the revamp

of the Clarks brand a year or so ago,’ says Tucker.

Shoe manufacturer Clarks had never employed a fashion PR agency, but

realised that to survive in a tough marketplace it would have to lose

the image of unwanted and indestructible school shoes and look outside

its traditional market.

A PR campaign conceived and managed by Rafter’s team at Stephanie

Churchill saw the brand’s image go from something which had been the

preserve of trainspotters to the staple retro footwear of choice for

trendsetting pop stars and their legion of admirers.

From the careful placement of the product in leading independent fashion

retailers to allowing fashion editors and then consumers to ’discover’

the footwear, Rafter employed a subtle strategy which shifted the

perception of the brand, which she believes would have been hard to

achieve by using other forms of marketing like advertising.

Although the job in hand for Marks and Spencer clothing range is on a

larger scale, retail industry consultant Richard Hyman of Verdict

Research believes that, just as with any other launch or relaunch, PR

will play a key role not just in the high street retailer’s recovery,

but in its future fortunes.

’PR is central to the revival of M&S as it seeks to reinforce the

changes shoppers are seeing in its department stores with positive

stories in the press. After years of the kind of PR that most companies

could only dream of, they will need to manage the expectations of

shoppers to keep them realistic about what the store can offer -

something it has never done before.’

MD of Bryan Morel PR Christine Bryan adds: ’Ongoing brand management and

measurement of brand perception is a key way in which fashion PR can

serve new companies and established retailers like M&S, ensuring that as

they grow, they remain in tune with how the man on the street feels

about what they are putting in their shops.’

Through harnessing their market knowledge in this way and offering

strategic advice which adds value beyond the amount of column inches

achieved each week, effective fashion PROs are now providing a credible

two-way channel, bridging the gap between the boardroom and the high

street which, as retailers and brands such as M&S and Levi’s will

acknowledge, can lead to success or failure.


Designers at Debenhams was launched in 1993 to bring designer clothes to

the high street at affordable prices and has since become one of the

most successful and most envied retail concepts.

But while the success of placing designer names in high street stores is

now taken for granted, Debenhams’ head of fashion PR Catherine Sturgess

points out that PR played a crucial role not just in promoting the new

idea but in educating the consumer and making them understand what they

were buying.

’It started with Philip Treacy in 1993, but even though he was a big

name in the fashion world, this was not the case for Debenhams’

customers,’ she says.

Debenhams consequently launched an in-store campaign aimed at

acquainting the consumer with the designer’s name and his


The message came from every conceivable angle. Staff on the shop floor

were trained in Treacy details, while careful positioning of promotional

material around the store announced the concept and included pictures of

the designer.

The campaign was cross-promoted in the Debenhams magazine and the

fashion press was briefed, all in the name of spelling out all aspects

of the product to the customer. ’This type of product had never been

marketed by our store before so we had to say to the consumer ’This is a

pounds 200 suit from one of the hottest fashion designers and this is

his picture.’ We had to stage manage every message rather than just let

the news leak out,’ says Sturgess.

For Debenhams, the launch was a success across the board. Acres of press

coverage, higher footfall in the stores, a wider variety of shopper and

a fashion press fully on board and singing the store’s praises at every

turn were all immediate results. This, in addition to the promotion

itself, was central to the store repositioning its profile from dowdy

department stores to forward-looking retailer.


Annika McViegh is the PR manager for Hussein Chalayan, one of the most

recent in the line of widely-lauded young fashion designers to emerge

from the Central St Martins School of Fashion in the 1990s. McViegh, who

describes her job as ’a hands-on role’, has been working for Chalayan

from her office below his Covent Garden studio since April this year

with a phone, a fax machine and no computer.

’I run all of Hussein’s PR from this office. As it is a small company, I

work on my own apart from any help I get from work experience people,

who I get in when I can, and our agent in Japan,’ she says. ’ We need

someone there because it is an important market for us with specialist

needs and because of the time difference between there and Europe.’

McViegh’s role covers everything from scouting for new business to the

nitty-gritty of fashion PR, but most of her time is taken up by ensuring

samples of the season’s collection are sent out to the right magazines

at the right time.

’Keeping up our relationship with the press is a big part of my job.

I have to know journalists personally so I spend all day on the phone or

in appointments,’ she says. ’At the beginning of each season we have to

decide which magazines are our priority because there are only limited

samples of Hussein’s collections and we need to get them out intact and

on time. This is the only way you get coverage in the fashion press,

which is where the outside world’s perception of what we are is formed.

We don’t always meet all the requests we get from the press because you

pitch yourself at a certain market. We like to be seen in Vogue, Marie

Claire, Elle and other specialist but credible mags. There is a bit of a

pecking order.’

McViegh also looks after all aspects of the twice-yearly catwalk shows,

from booking the venue to deciding on the seating plan and sending out

the invitations.

She also works closely with Chalayan on business development, promoting

and finding sponsors for the label which fit in with Chalayan’s plans

for the brand. This means anything from a touring photographic

exhibition of his work to specially-designed diffusion ranges for Top


Although plying celebrities with free clothes is not top of the list of

priorities for raising the brand’s profile, McViegh admits that it can

provide valuable PR for the label. Nicole Kidman has been pictured

wearing Hussein Chalayan clothes and Bjork modelled a Chalayan design on

the front cover of her album ’Post’. This provided valuable sales and

stimulated interest from fashion magazine stylists, McViegh says.

But unlike Jean-Paul Gaultier, who has thrived on being promoted as a

personality, McViegh is careful about where Hussein Chalayan is


’We don’t promote Hussein as a personality and we pick and choose who we

do interviews with,’ she says.

’He is a good person to interview as he is articulate. All journalists

need to do is bring interesting questions with them. We do a lot of

groundwork before giving an interview as it has to come out right whenwe

do it.’

Despite the small scale of the press office and the absence of a press

budget, McViegh is pleased with what she achieves for Chalayan. ’So many

press people think we are a big company and that aura now surrounds us,’

she says.


Alex Barlow is the press manager for Ghost, the womenswear label set up

by Tanja Sarne in 1984.

Barlow works closely with Sarne on a day-to-day basis, running Ghost’s

international PR from the London head office with two other press


’On a day-to-day basis my role is extremely varied. The company is

expanding and developing enormously so every day I am overseeing and

pushing projects forward,’ she says. ’Generally my work involves taking

press appointments, speaking to the managers of the four shops and

liaising with our international PR agents.’

Ghost has PR agents in New York, Los Angeles, Milan, Paris, Germany and

Sweden, but as personalities including Madonna, Patsy Kensit, Cindy

Crawford and Helena Bonham-Carter all proclaim themselves devoted

followers of the label, demands from the press around the globe have

grown in tandem, something which Barlow says can cause problems.

’The most common problems are co-ordinating the most sought-after

showpieces between countries, between publications and between stylists,

and maintaining a cohesive press image around the world,’ she says.

Barlow believes the strength of the Ghost product and the message behind

the designs make it an easy product to manage, but still believes it is

important to avoid coverage from the wrong type of press.

’I avoid any journalist who wishes to present either Tanja or Ghost in a

misleading way, stylists who will not reflect our philosophy of Ghost

and any magazine that presents women in a negative light,’ she says.

Advertising has only recently become part of the marketing mix for

Ghost, and Barlow says PR has been the key way of bringing the brand


She believes the winning combination for a fashion PRO is keeping good

relationships with press and having the right product to promote. ’I

have a relationship with most of the UK press and key international

press and also friendships throughout the business,’ she says. ’I

believe that a strong product which is represented by a PRO who is liked

in the industry ensures editorial success.’

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