Interview Adam Bryce
Public relations is an ever-changing beast and recent years have seen big changes. Gia Kuan runs one of the few agencies that are doing things in the way current and future media landscapes require of them. Kuan is leading a new generation of communication experts, a genre I don’t think can even be called PR anymore. Kuan’s based in New York and, prior to setting up her own communications agency, she held one of the most coveted roles in fashion — running the PR and communications for Comme Des Garçons and Dover Street Market.
Fashion PR and PR, in general, is something that’s so often talked about in the industry. How irrelevant the traditional model has become, how it doesn’t work and how there’s a need for change. Now that we’ve reached a new point in time with Covid-19, we’re even more subject to change. What you’ve been cultivating, throughout your career, is a new generation of communications that isn’t part of that traditional model. Why is it so topical for people to talk about the changing face of PR?
Well, I think that PR is an interesting term because the field of communications has changed so much over time. I studied Communications during university, that was my major. But since then and now, it’s completely changed. The ways we speak to each other and the way we interact with the media and internally, within a brand, has drastically shifted.
Fashion PR is interesting. Over the years, I’ve seen it change and the main drastic shift is that the older notion of a larger-agency model of fashion PR, events management, marketing; they used to be all allocated within separate departments. You would go in to hire different agencies for each separate thing; it had a dedicated service. Over time and especially in the past five years, we’ve seen a decrease in that. I think that’s partially to do with the economy, because brands are now streamlining and wanting to be able to use their resources so that you have a ‘one-stop’ shop for everything. They want it to ‘speak’ closer to their marketing voice, where you can see a direct correlation into the growth of their business. That’s one part of it. There’s also been this shift into a smaller model. During that time, part of my drive was that there was an emergence of younger, smaller brands that came. Even now, I find it incredibly exciting.
I had worked both in-house and in agency format — in that order — and, while I learned so much from each model, there were things that I didn’t agree with structurally and there were methods that I thought were a little bit dated. For what I was interested in the time, which was the emerging-brand model, I couldn’t really apply it. The inability for them to have the same resources that larger brands would have — they just didn’t have the means to do so. I learned to think about these things in new ways and how I could nimbly work to adapt to that and be able to tell their brand story. Which is really the main goal of what PR would be.
Growing the brand in a way so they’re achieving revenue, obviously, that’s a great end result. But the reason I wanted to go into the industry, in the first place, was to tell brand stories and narratives for brands that have the talent but don’t have the resources to do so.
You’ve worked with a lot of high-profile brands where their story is quite succinct and it’s something that you can work with. Even now, with Telfar, they’re reasonably thick stories but how do you find, when you go into a situation when the brand itself hasn’t really got their brand sorted and you are challenged to tell a story when there is no story? Having worked as a creative director, I found that was the biggest challenge.
That’s definitely the greatest challenge of all. There are two parts of it, right? At the beginning, when I first started doing this on my own, I wanted to work with the brands I truly believed in and really did have a narrative. But then, you also see brands that need this coaching work. What I really assess at the beginning is, right down to the basics and think one step at a time. Do you have a good product? Then, going from the product, I think what is your brand voice and mission that does that really support your product? From that, do you have an existing community? As you said, it’s not often that a brand can tick all of those boxes and, from what they’re lacking, is to tell them to take a step back.
The idea of what you think PR is, is maybe not what you need. What I try to do is a coaching and educational exercise. Depending on how their brand is set up, I dial back and figure out what they need. I do branding workshops with them, where I assess their little pockets to determine what needs to be worked on and I give them a realistic timeline to determine when it will be more appropriate to activate press so they’re not spending all of their marketing dollars inappropriately at the beginning, when there is no story to tell. Even if I do get some press clicks, it might sizzle out really fast. For any brand, longevity is the key to everything.
There’s nothing worse than that ‘one-hit-wonder’ brand. What I’ve seen over the years, is brands growing really fast organically, then they start to get a bit ahead of themselves and find themselves in trouble. The ability to really dial things back and set up a structure and a platform is a much smarter way to go.
That’s what I’ve seen a lot too. One thing that is really important is understanding their wholesale or consumer model. Having a very succinct voice throughout all the different channels of the brand is especially important for someone in communications today. Because you need to look inside and out, both at the same time, to be able to tell the narrative properly and advise the brand appropriately.
I wondered this with Telfar, in particular. It’s a brand that is often talked about because it’s this brand that people consider to be the new generation of American fashion. I guess he has become the face of new fashion in New York, or even globally. But at the same time, it’s not a widely available product. Is that part of the overall strategy? That he doesn’t flood the market and he waits for the right time?
He does have a wholesale strategy; the entire wholesale, at the moment, is through an Italian partner. That relationship started a couple of years ago and their prior channels had been a little bit small. They have always received press surrounding the CFTA. I came on-board with them the season just before the CFTA and that’s when they received the whole kind of trade/press attention and the wholesale really quickly followed after that. What they’ve done and what I thought was really clever, is the Telfar bag. They have kept that really strictly direct-to-consumer for a good year or so before doing wholesale. That was the bread and butter of the business. It’s still affordable but at the same time, being able to sell directly on their website has gained them a lot more revenue than say, their ready to wear. But the bag model was really interesting, it was something that we worked together on as a communications strategy. It’s a bag that has a very particular niche community knew about. It wasn’t an ‘it’ bag though, by all means.
In 2018, they decided to re-launch the three colours that they always had; it was a re-issue of black, white and tan on their website. It wasn’t a new product. It was an old product being re-issued. But we did a press push for it. They shot their own campaign, shooting their friends who ranged from artists to chefs and that ran exclusively on vogue.com. We basically had a few different magazines that ran their own editorials that had their own take on the bag, which, in turn, generated assets for us to use. We used these on our channels and that had a trickling effect; it kept rolling out in different forms until the winter and, I think, that started this idea of the ‘Telfar bag’ again. We targeted very particular people that we wanted to give this bag to and we encouraged the regeneration of media content.
If you go onto the Telfar page, you always see them re-gramming people wearing the bag. The idea of a repeat image created this sense of desire. I had worked with my friend Justin over at Paper Magazine and we wanted to do a fun campaign for the bag but we thought ‘oh, everyone has already shot it’. But they chose Sonja Morgan from The Real Housewives of New York and that was an amazing campaign. She loved the bag so much that she bought a tonne of them, got her friends to buy them and wrote it into an episode of The Real Housewives. Subsequently, she’s now a friend of the brand. That was a really fun roll out that we did that summer.
One of the things that I love so much about the Telfar bag strategy is that the price point is so low but you’ve generated that feeling like, ‘you have to know to know’. It’s important that the price point doesn’t dictate the quality or coolness of the product. Now, being a luxury brand, the audiences that you are speaking to are so diverse, it’s not so cut and dry. Demographics aren’t necessarily directed by age or income but by cultures and subcultures.
For Telfar, it’s interesting. I think he’s been around for so long; he started designing when he was 18 and he’s now 35. When I first started working with him in 2017, there were all these other interesting brands that I really believed in. It felt like a new generation of luxury that had been created in London, a decade ago. They were at the forefront of avant-garde fashion as the new ‘new wave’ of luxury fashion. Where it was almost a little anti-fashion, but the prince points were still quite high.
Eckhaus Latta, Telfar — they didn’t come through a traditional model, they didn’t go to fashion school. A lot of them were self-taught or did Fine Arts, or already had an affiliation with the art world. I found that really interesting because I started to see a little break from the traditional model at large and that, in a way, democratises the audience too because you move into audiences who aren’t the traditional buyer; you are looking at people who were artists and collectors, musicians, culinary people. These are usually the brand’s natural community who end up being the larger audience.
How difficult was it, transitioning from your roles in-house and in the agency into creating something of your own? Were there challenges that you didn’t anticipate? How did you feel about it and how have you felt about it since?
I started out my career working in-house at Comme Des Garçon and subsequently at Dover Street Market. Then I went into a larger agency mode, where it was a 30-person agency and my field changed from fashion to art. I guess it was non-traditional in the sense that people usually go from an agency into in-house or stay linear in the fashion field. For me, it was incredible because it was a big challenge but you are always learning something new.
When I started my own practice it was a very natural progression. At the time, these smaller brands were emerging and I started working with them on the set and helping them with whatever they needed. As the demand grew, I started realising that I couldn’t keep working mornings and weekends and nights on my own things. So it kind of came out as a result of demand and, at the time, a lot of these producers that I worked with recognised that, perhaps, I was doing something different. Even something myself that I didn’t know about. It took me a while to leave my job but it finally happened.
With anything, starting a new business on your own, you’re going to go through a lot of challenges. You have to think very nimbly and, at the same time, I’m trying to read as much as I can which inspires me every day. I have realised that I’ve been in so many different industries. Before Comme Des Garçon, I was in skincare with Aēsop and before that, in college, it was at nightclubs and hospitality.
The more experiences you have, the more resilient you become. You need to know a lot to be able to make all of these decisions in how you move forward and formulate your own method. With Comme Des Garçons, you were there for a long time and through that time, the company changed a lot. It became more mainstream, a lot bigger. As a consumer, it seemed as though the directors almost decided that it was the time to make money.
When I joined Comme Des Garçons, it was a very small team. The US office only had four people. A year in, my job duties were focused very much on the Comme Des Garçons brands themselves. It was interesting because, a year in, we realised that they had signed a lease for Dover Street Market in New York. Our jobs essentially expanded to become two jobs. The retailer model for Dover Street has made it more accessible because you can use that as an anchor for what it stands for.
I feel like they still have that niche following and there’s a collectable notion about them. Things like ‘PLAY’ has opened it up to a new customer. Often, when a brand expands, those core followers get off the bus.
Really not with Comme Des Garçons. The staff have been working there since I was born; they’re such brand loyalists and you can even see that with the customers. It’s a business decision to expand for the longevity of the brand.
Coming back to communications, what makes your agency so successful is that what you do and how you do it, is innate for you. It’s not like you look at a communications model.
You’re probably right, I think I just do it. I’ve started thinking more and more about why my practice is different. Starting out, I really just went with my instinct. All my clients at this point are personal friends too. The way we communicate with each other is like a friendship. I treat each brand and each strategy differently, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to it. It’s just instinct and how to formulate that and how to pivot, and use the right tools to tell that story.
Creating genuine communications with brands and the client helps enormously, you can’t help but understand the brand and have their best interest at heart.
That’s the thing. In New York everything is so competitive and you want to do your competitor analysis but you don’t want to be too swayed by opinions. Doing what’s instinctively right for you and your clients will create that unique voice.
We’re all individuals and have our unique opinions so, if you just stay true to yourself, you’ll do something different. One of the things that sets you apart, is that you work in the communications industry and you’re a really good communicator. Although it sounds ridiculous, I can tell you that’s not normally the case. I know that you’re a very positive person, so this might be hard for you, but what is it about the traditional PR model that doesn’t work?
In the context of fashion, I think there are a couple of models that I don’t find as effective. The one largest thing that has been problematic, having worked with it and experiencing both ends with it, is sample trafficking and the idea of having a large showroom. There are beneficial parts to it, having this ‘one-stop’ shop and seeing the collections up close, but it’s through this filter of a third-party agency. Often you don’t get to meet the designer or see the whole brand story.
For me, when I established my first practice, I started to eliminate that. It was a two-part decision, the first because it was just me and I didn’t want to deal with all of that by myself. It does take up a lot of your time. There were days when it was really relevant but today, the return that you get now with the decline of print publications and the rise of digital…
What I’m seeing now are these small brands giving samples to an agency, 30 samples a month and, maybe, 10 out of the 30 times that it gets shot, maybe it only makes it into one or two editorials. The return of investment is really low for some cases.
And of those one or two, that’s a small number to know that they’re good enough.
Yes and thinking sustainably, the entire process is so incredibly unsustainable. Think about those garment bags, the boxing and unboxing; it’s so expensive to transport across different cities.
I recently spoke to Heathermary [Jackson] and talking about how much the industry has changed from then to now. She mentioned that one of the biggest changes is that there are so many people, influencers even, trying to reach samples for events.
Yes, you’re right. There is an influencer culture that’s so on the rise and that’s a huge part of sample loaning now. Often times, brands are seeing that as their primary marketing strategy. With so many people posting, they’re getting that direct return, linking to sales; more than you would with a magazine. Sample trafficking is one portion of how a traditional mode can be, perhaps, improved on.
With the smaller brands I work with, I don’t necessarily encourage them to it. If you have a really amazing intern or a junior, you can usually figure it out in-house. One more aspect of fashion, which I think will change soon, is the face of the fashion show model. It is a large component of what I do too, a lot of my work is during New York Fashion Week and, for a lot of brands, it really does work to broaden your audience and create this amazing experience.
But similarly, fashion shows are incredibly expensive, a huge dent in a brand’s wallet. There are much more meaningful, focused and cost-effective things you can do. I think people have this glamourised idea of having a runway show. You can show something at an art gallery, a dinner or, even, having no event at all. Maybe something digital makes the most sense to their brand and their audience?
I’ve thought about that a lot. The original purpose of these shows was aimed at consumers and making sales. As time went on, it became about showing to department stores and those boutique buyers for them to place their orders. Gradually, over time, it transitioned further and further away from its core intention of selling goods. What do you see as the purpose of a fashion show, how do you think Covid-19 will change and do you think a digital show can be just as amazing as being there?
There are brands that I work with that don’t rely heavily on the wholesale model; they rely on their art/culture community crowd. For example, I work for a brand called Puppets and Puppets. It’s a New York brand that just finished their third year of runway shows. The ‘show’ model worked for them because the collection is not for sale and they’ve only been able to make what’s on the runway itself.
What they’ve done, from a design perspective, is very refreshing because no one has really done it before. They’re leaning towards a model that’s not really for sale. I’ve introduced them, through their shows, to the New York City ballet and certain theatre groups to talk about commissioning costumes down the line. I think that’s an interesting take — it’s hard for brands like them — when everything is all about commercialisation and how much profit you’re making. That’s really not what they had intended since the beginning, they just wanted to create.
It might be a little far out of reach for what the average person would wear but there is an audience and their shows are always well attended; from the culinary and art world, especially, people love them. That’s an interesting example of taking a brand down a different direction. There’s a performative aspect to their show that translates into the performative world.
There’s a lot talk at the moment about whether the runway will still exist. Or does it need to go digital? How can we create something digitally that creates the same kind of marketing effect? Maybe we can because that’s how 99 per cent of people see it anyway?
It’s interesting because, when you think about the digital model, it has always existed, it just hasn’t been adapted. People are using this time to experiment with different platforms and tools in different ways. It was four or five years ago when Christopher Kane hosted a digital show and Ralph Lauren used projection mapping on his store.
There have been these moments, it’s just hard to have that same emotional experience and we will have that one day. People are just experimenting around. One example is Shanghai Fashion Week — it was cancelled because of Covid-19 but the group were able to pivot quite quickly into a digital model. They used the Chinese social media platform Weibo, each designer had their own channels and were able to show their collections in the way of their own choosing. It’s the main platform that many use so there was this massive emotional engagement with it, especially because everyone was isolated at home.
The digital platform can be good for allowing different ways to get that message across. The traditional way is to see the images, we go to a show that lasts a couple of minutes, we see the images on the internet, we read a review written by… well, the same people. Then we’re left to decipher, for ourselves, what it all means. It doesn’t let us hear from the designers or allow for the stories to be told in any other dimensions, other than two.
Absolutely. The perceptions have changed, particularly with fashion shows. What was once this very exclusive thing, and I can understand why they want to keep that magic that, has sort of being democratised.
We just need to keep thinking about who the people we are trying to reach are and the story we’re trying to tell. Hopefully we see some really cool things from brands in the way they want to communicate with us in the future.
I agree. Jerry Saltz recently wrote a piece about how Covid-19 changed the art world. What he said is that ‘creativity is a strategy for survival, particularly in times like these’. That can extend from literature to cooking to the arts. During these times, amazing ideas will come out and I’m feeling optimistic that people are creating these really amazing things.
We have to be optimistic that cultural creativity can thrive through this. Certainly, there’s going to be a lot of changing facets within art, architecture, fashion. Within all the elements of contemporary culture, there are going to be physical and economic restrictions, and new problems for us to solve. There is only one solution to those restrictions and that’s coming up with new ways to do things, which is really exciting.