With the changing state of the industry, the role of fashion PR has shifted dramatically, too. In our new series, Ask a PR Exec, we’ll be spotlighting this transition and how executives are adjusting to it through interviews with top PR reps at some of fashion’s biggest agencies.
Brian Phillips, the founder and president of the PR and consulting agency Black Frame, has been selective about the brands his company takes on as clients. Being choosy is not a trait every company can afford, but Black Frame started off privileged, with former Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane as its first client. At the time, Slimane was the creative director of Dior Homme.
“We’re very … curated is bit too strong of a word. Edited,” said Phillips. “I’ve treated the company like an editorial platform. There’s something that Black Frame says about itself in who we choose to work with, and who works with us. It’s not everyone and anyone out there. There’s a point of view.”
Since launching in 2004, Black Frame has helped introduce designers like Opening Ceremony and Kenzo’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, and Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy to fashion’s cool kids club. Currently, it’s split into two separate hubs: the PR side and the consulting side, Framework, which helps brands conceptualize new strategies.
For our Ask a PR Exec series, we talked to Phillips about how his company became about more than just external image.
You like to describe Black Frame as more of an “image management hub” than a PR firm. Why is that?
In a way, I never fundamentally thought of Black Frame as a PR agency, and that’s an underpinning of how I’ve approached its growth. We wanted to be the eyes and ears of how a brand is conceived by the public, and take the creativity of a brand and put it in front of a community of like-minded people. PR is just one spoke of that process.
And how does that differ from how other agencies are run?
There’s a model for PR agencies: Let’s get as many clients as we can and try to be as profitable as possible, and make that our modus operandi. That’s never been the way we approach things. We made a lot of choices at the beginning that weren’t for financial gain, but were instead about maintaining a strong point of view. It’s the same for any fashion designer when they get into the business. They have to ask themselves if they’re doing something as an expression of who they are or to turn a quick buck. So that’s the question we ask people when we meet: Are your priorities about making millions in the first few years? We go for clients who want to be in the history books.
How has that worked out on the client side?
Well, in the case of [Rodarte designers] Kate and Laura [Mulleavy], their artistry came first. They had a real commitment to a refined expression of their design, over fast growth; they’re maintaining independence over taking on a quick and easy path to growing their business. Those are tough choices, and we’ve internalized that. We want to advise designers in the most interesting way, while bringing other people into their universe. How do we think about Rodarte as a brand that sits in the landscape of American fashion, in a way that’s set apart? We built a network of people around them that shared their view — those long-term relationships — and turned that into creating projects that have a real lasting impact on the public perception of the brand.
That sounds like a pretty slow build. Has social media forced you to pick up the pace?
Things have become very rapid. Social media is a portal for brands and designers to connect, but it’s also put pressure on them to constantly have something to say. And it’s not in the nature of every designer or brand to be talking all the time. We know there needs to be an increased level of content delivery, but it has to be interesting. And that means something different for each brand. It’s the old guard versus the new guard, and designers who have been around for 30 years are like, “Oh, God, we need to have a social media strategy,” and it’s a crisis. [Meanwhile], there’s a whole new group of youngsters who know how to communicate with a new generation. A lot of the calls we’re getting today are from established brands who just want to learn how to communicate.
Black Frame has switched gears to become more focused on brand strategy than image. Where did that come from?
I feel much more emboldened now to say to clients, “Look, what you’re doing is not working from a systematic standpoint in all these ways: The retailers you’re selling to are having a negative effect on your brand, and your marketing is inefficient because it’s targeted at the wrong people.” The way we assess our clients has gone above and beyond the PR conversation.
Are brands more open today to that type of help than they were 10 years ago?
Brands were used to managing things internally, and that was enough; you could hire a couple of capable people to manage your marketing and wholesale channels, and that would be sufficient. That’s changed because the landscape is more diverse, the industry is much bigger, and there are a lot more people doing things in an interesting way that aren’t bound by convention. There’s been an increasing need for smart people on the outside who have experience, good ideas, insight and guidance. And it’s really interesting when traditional brands are open to the idea of experimenting.