Calling it quits: Fashion boutiques exit the runway

Trends such as cost cutting, fewer fashion media outlets, influencers and the demand for proof of ROI are thinning the fashion PR sector.

A model walks the runway at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Madrid. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
A model walks the runway at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Madrid. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

New York Fashion Week is set to return to the Big Apple on Monday, but this year’s series of events will be without some venerable names in boutique fashion PR. 

Siren PR, for instance, has ceased operations after more than 20 years. It had a client roster that included French luxury hair-care line Kerastase, nail polish Deborah Lippman, hair-product line Tresemmé and Serge Lutens perfume. 

The boutique’s owner blames seismic changes in fashion and communications.

"The industry has changed dramatically since we launched in 1999, and I am sorry to say we could no longer operate the way we once did," said Winnie Beattie, in a statement. She is continuing to own and operate Manhattan boutique retail shop, Warm. 

Black Frame, a top fashion PR firm since opening 15 years ago with luxury brand Dior Homme as a client, is set to close its doors on February 28. Its clients include Nike, backpack brand Herschel Supply, fashion line Helmut Lang and French luxury brand Kenzo. It is helping clients find new representation. 

Founder Brian Phillips told Business of Fashion that he no longer wants to be a "PR guy" because of the demand for data-driven results that do not reflect cultural moments. 

"There is a definite difference between the [key performance indicators] world of PR and then the world of creating a public image and an impression," he told the website. 

Phillips, who is also creative director of Garage magazine, said he will instead work as a consultant in creative direction and film. He couldn’t be reached for additional comment by PRWeek. 

Beattie and Phillips aren’t the only ones who have left the runway. So has Harriet Weintraub, president of HWPR in New York, which she founded more than 20 years ago. Her firm had worked with the likes of high-end brands Burberry, Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix. HWPR now focuses on clients in architecture, design and real-estate development. 

"I solved the fashion PR problem some time ago by getting out of the game altogether," she says, via email. "We currently maintain our fine jewelry business, but social media completely changed the game for luxury apparel." 

One former fashion agency executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that she decided to try something new for a few reasons. For one, the goal of many new labels is to sell, meaning a focus on quick-hit tactics over long-term creativity. She also says that clients no longer need PR agencies or publicists to get access to the media, celebrities, stylists and other fashion influencers because of social media connections. 

Fashion-focused media are also debating the necessity of events such as New York Fashion Week, which is set to run from Monday through February 12. Vogue Business highlighted brands forgoing runway shows in favor of building relationships directly with consumers, especially via social media, in an August article headlined "Beauty is outgrowing New York Fashion Week." It noted that those tactics can be measured more easily and provide return on investment.

However, a Quartz article in September concluded that New York Fashion Week is a must-attend event. Fashion weeks provide brands a unique showcase for their creativity in attracting buyers, press attention and partners, and pop-ups and parties give them a way to garner exposure without big runway production costs.

No industry is immune to digital disruption, and some fashion PR shops, especially those founded during the rise of social media, are embracing it and standing out as disrupters in the fashion PR agency world.

Small Girls PR, which bills itself as a "direct-to-consumer" creative comms firm, is turning to social media influencers to produce content for clients rather than commission expensive photo shoots. Its clients include jewelry brand Mejuri, bra- and underwear-maker Lively, shoe and handbag company Betsey Johnson, Olay and jewelry line Kendra Scott. 

"We see influencers as a two-for-one play," says Mallory Blair, cofounder and CEO of Small Girls PR, which has offices in New York and Los Angeles. "On the one hand, they are content creators of beautiful videos and photos who can film, art-direct and collaborate with clients, but these influencers have also built up tens of thousands of followers on Instagram because of their content, so they are also the distributors of content."

Gone are the days of high-production values and rare are clients focused on print placements, in part because they are few and far between, agrees Liz Anthony, president and founder of Mariposa Communications. The firm’s clients have included Beck Jewels and footwear brand Femmes Sans Peur. 

"Now you can just skip all that and do something with an influencer or two on Instagram," she explains "The measures of success have changed vastly. It used to be that firms could promise the world in earned media coverage and work off relationships and get favors done. That isn’t the case anymore." 

Anthony has expanded her business into areas such as providing PR template packages for startups without a budget for a comms person or agency. Keeping a positive approach, creative attitude and openness is key to survival right now," she says. 

Alyson Roy, managing partner and cofounder of AMP3 PR, agrees about the effect of digital and social media on marcomms budgets, saying, "I have definitely seen an impact on budgets for New York Fashion Week."

AMP3 PR plays in the consumer lifestyle category, but has a roster of fashion clients including fabric company Tencel, designer and manufacturer Fossil Group and licensed brands including Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Tory Burch, and Wrangler’s Modern denim collection. 

"It’s also in part because the timelines around fashion shows have been called into question. While people see all these celebrities in the front row of these beautiful shows and the celebrities may even be streaming the content to their fans, consumers can’t even buy any of the clothing until six months later," says Roy. 

She adds that even fashion media brands are embracing a buy-now mentality in their coverage, having signed affiliate programs with the likes of Amazon and Nordstrom. Yet Roy sees this as a positive development for fashion PR. 

"If a brand’s top 10 link referrals are from PR-based initiatives, and we can show that they are driving more direct revenue from PR than what they are spending on it, that’s pretty exciting," she says. 

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