Fashion PR mogul Paul Wilmot calls it like he sees it, and it has won over the likes of Calvin Klein and P. Diddy. Claire Atkinson tells of a man confident enough not to share the stage with his big-name clients.After 17 years at the white-hot center of the fashion and media worlds, you can bet Paul Wilmot has seen it all. He's helmed the PR departments of both Calvin Klein and Conde Nast. "He knows where all the bodies are buried,
is the first thing gossip columnist Liz Smith says when asked about him.
Wilmot explains what led him to set up on his own. Steven Florio, Conde Nast president and CEO, had thrown him a birthday party for 50 of his closest friends. "Shortly after, I was given a black Mercedes convertible,
recalls Wilmot."I thought it doesn't get any better in the corporate world. It's time for me to see about myself. Leave a good party when it's still going."
In 1997, Wilmot founded the eight-person Paul Wilmot Communications, joining forces with two people he'd hired at Calvin Klein: Stormy Stokes and Ridgely Brode. Today, the agency employs 32 people, and counts Jennifer Lopez and Sean "P. Diddy
Combs as clients. Wilmot represents their respective clothing lines, J.Lo and Sean John, along with a many other luxury goods brands like Cole Hahn footwear, Anya Hindmarch, Abercrombie & Fitch, and La Prairie cosmetics.
The most striking thing about this handsome 56-year-old is not his Gucci suit or solid gold cufflinks, but his willingness to speak freely about anything .
Commenting on magazine PR strategy and the failure of Talk, he says: "Talk's problem was that it was just plain dull. It was boring as dog-doo. Their mistake was to promote it when there was nothing to read. They made a classic PR blunder - talk about the book ... buzz, buzz, buzz.
"When it came out, people had been talking about it for six months. There was no way they could have met the expectations they had fueled. If it had been mine, I'd have told them all to shut up and sit down."
Wilmot is incredulous when clients want to hold launch parties months before products are available. His advice is to only promote when you can satisfy a consumer's curiosity. "The film business does this very well. You don't see Tom Cruise unless he has a film to promote because he doesn't want to use up his celebrity. If you haven't seen him for six months then you think, 'Oh what's he got to say?'"
Ask Wilmot about any hot-button PR issue that fashion people face and he'll tell you exactly what he thinks. Take PETA, which recently criticized Sean Jean's use of fur. "PETA's tactics are reprehensible. What they want is not so terrible, but they make the end justify all means."
Then take the issue of human rights, a hot topic as many corporations strive to modify their practices with social responsibility programs (see p.12). "People (using cheap labor) should be brought down,
"When you talk about countries that don't enforce human rights, that's reprehensible. Whatever happens to them, they deserve it."
Liz Smith, whose photo sits alongside one of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in Wilmot's office, explains why Wilmot is so outspoken. "He's a guy who's got nothing to lose. Conde Nast should get him back."
Wilmot still dines with Florio, and is much loved by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, but it's unlikely he'd return. He says his agency has grown at a rate of 25% a year, although there are no revenue figures available.
Like everyone else, Wilmot suffered last year and lost clients (he's even honest about that) but there were no layoffs. However, he managed to open a second floor at his downtown Manhattan office, which has the look and ambiance of a Chelsea art gallery. It is decorated with black and white photos and huge Chinese lanterns, while the atmosphere is calm and controlled.
Wilmot clearly loves his social life and his profession (both of which are often a blur). He's booked solid for dinner dates in May, and has just returned from a store opening in Kuwait where hot French DJ Claude Challe was playing. But he is not someone who likes doing the scene. "I wouldn't go to the Oscars if you paid me. I don't go to the Hamptons, and I don't go to fashion shows. I'd take up a valuable seat."
He adds: "Publicists have gotten high profile, it's like the inmates running the prison. Lots of PR pros want to be famous and step into the frame. I step out of it. They hire us to perform a function - we are not our clients."
When asked who he'd most like to represent, he replies, "Miami Beach, FL.
It's a strange answer, but he has a house there and is upset about a critical story published in The Wall Street Journal last month. He's written to the mayor to offer his help pro bono. "I'd also like to have a country,
he says. "Not that I want to sound like Napoleon,
Wilmot is currently working his PR magic on the New York Racing Association, chaired by Barry Schwartz, who founded Calvin Klein back in the 1960s. "I learned a lot from him,
says Schwartz, who gives a clue as to how Wilmot operates.
"He knows everyone at the course; everyone's pedigree, everyone's genealogy.
As any PR operative knows, keeping tabs on who's saying what is a critical part of the job.
Schwartz adds: "Paul was just great to work with in myriad ways. He is good at strategy and clearly understands the media. He would say, 'If we do this, X will happen,' and it did. Calvin and Paul just clicked, they got on like a house on fire."
When Wilmot was growing up in Indiana, did he ever imagine he'd be jet-setting around the world for some of the biggest names in fashion? "I absolutely did,
he says. It's difficult not to believe him.