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,’
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.
DEBENHAMS’ DESIGNER CLOTHING RANGES GO CENTRE STAGE
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
’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 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.
GRAND DESIGNS CAN HELP A LITTLE PR GO A LONG WAY IN THE PRESS
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
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
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
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,’
GHOST GAINS QUALITY EXPOSURE THROUGH SELECTIVITY
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.’