Designers fashion plans for exposure

PR savvy is becoming just as important as art and marketing acumen for fashion designers

Designers fashion plans for exposure

Fashion designer Roberto Cavalli may be best known for high-end women's wear, but it was his cigar that recently caused a stir, according to a Women's Wear Daily article covering his H&M line launch.

A fan's eager scavenge of a discarded, Cavalli-chewed cigar, solidifies the trend of fashion designer as celebrity. Fans want more than just clothing from today's popular designers.

Cavalli is one of many designers in the limelight - take Michael Kors' role on Project Runway or Betsy Johnson's colorful presence in the media - whose fame confirms that in today's fashion industry, designers are honing personal image to support their brand, and fashion PR is adjusting accordingly.

Behind-the-scenes fashion on reality shows such as Project Runway and The Fashionista Diaries, and celebrated fashion critics such as Tim Gunn, have changed consumers' expectations of designers.

"The public responds well to opportunities to learn more about the people who propel the industry forward," says Crosby Noricks, AE at BERKMAN, via e-mail.

Noricks, who also founded the blog site, attributes the effects on designers to online media, which grants the average fashion consumer access to runway shows in real time.

"As part of that access," she explains, "consumers also want to know the story behind the designer."

Pam Morris, account supervisor at Alison Brod PR, also attributes the industry changes to reality TV and media attention.

"Fashion magazines are always interviewing people now, not just about their designs, but their favorite restaurants," she says, referring to designer profiles in The New York Times, which on November 15 published a story on the positive impact of Marc Jacobs' "tabloid glare" on his designs.

Of course, today's obsession with celebrity - confirmed by the success of brand empires built by actual celebrities - plays a key role.

"Today, with the nature of celebrity culture and the media that supports that... there are more opportunities to create news about a brand name," says Raoul Shah, CEO at Exposure PR, referring to labels by Russell Simmons and Diddy.

Shah explains that, in the past, designers such as Coco Chanel and Gianni Versace were primarily great designers. They were dressing celebrities, but it was more about the third-party than themselves. Now, while new designers are still judged on the quality of their designs, they're starting to gain some sense of balance between their commercial smarts and their creativity.

"In today's world... the need to become more self-aware of your own brand value is something that, in fashion, has become much more pertinent," Shah adds.

As today's designers have more opportunity and obligation to harness their image, so do the agencies that represent them, challenging the traditional rules of fashion PR and how designers perceive PR.

According to Shah, younger designers are looking for PR help much earlier in their careers.

"They're looking for someone who can help them understand the value of man-aging the initial stages of distribution, securing the right retail partners, and aligning the right media visibility," he says, offering as an example the recent collaboration where designer Matthew Williamson designed a series of Coca-Cola bottles.

He adds that established designers are putting more money into marketing communications and earned media, "looking for more strategic thinking around how to create new news for them over and above what they do."

With all of the conversation about fashion designers as marketers, there's the potential danger of design students spending more time on PR than on sketches, an idea that Michael Kors recently advocated in a Wall Street Journal article.

PR pros concede that talent prevails over all in a designer's career, but they agree that young designers must acknowledge the changing face of design and fashion PR.

"Success requires... getting a fashion editor interested enough in a designer's story," states BERKMAN's Noricks. "A degree in fashion design would be incomplete without some education in basic PR principles."

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