Our conversation with Ed Filipowski | KCD Worldwide President and Chief Strategist, & Julie Mannion | KCD President of Creative Services
By Kenneth Richard
In the echelons of fashion public relations, there are but a handful of firms that have the creative vision, strategic experience, and quality of execution to help brands navigate today’s dynamic fashion landscape. Only one of them has a leadership power duo that has been at the helm for over 30 years . . . KCD. Ed Filipowski, Worldwide President and Chief Strategist, and Julie Mannion, President of Creative Services, have been helping brands like Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, Tommy Hilfiger, Jason Wu, Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret and others gain market share and grow globally via their public relations and production service.
Along the way KCD has become one of fashion’s leading public relations agencies worldwide, with offices in New York, Paris and London and an international staff of over 70. On the eve of fashion shows, The Impression sat to talk with Ed & Julie about their longevity in the business, passion for the industry, proactive partnering, new media, a killer team, and Disneyland.
Ed & Julie, thank you for carving out the time to speak as I know it is a busy time with all the shows.
Ed: You have a very impressive website. I love the design of it. It is a great read, congratulations.
Stop it! (hand gesturing asking for more). Very kind of you. It is really a passion project, which I’m sure you two can relate to. You both are known for your passion and have been at KCD from the beginning. What is your secret to longevity?
Julie: It is the passion. You couldn’t sustain it if you didn’t really believe in it because it is grueling, especially now because the schedule is escalating faster and faster. If you didn’t really love it and believe in it, you couldn’t keep up with the pace.
Ed: I think Julie is absolutely right, both of us, and the employees that we hire and have had here for quite a long time, truly believe in fashion and the collection designers create each season. They are important to us, we love the creative process and we love getting to know the minds of the designers that we work with. We’ve been that way since the beginning, over 30 years ago. It is something that we are fully committed to with every client and it’s just in our DNA. I think that is really what keeps us going, that’s the fuel that keeps the engine running because if you don’t have that, then it just becomes a job in this industry. I believe you have to believe in what goes down that runway, and we do.
Julie: I personally still get so excited every season.
Ed: With every show.
Julie: Every season I want to see ‘what is the new collection’ and it’s like a Broadway show, the creative process is live. No two are ever the same, they never replicate. One season you work with the designer and you see they are truly inspired and it comes easily, it flows. Then there are some seasons you see the struggle, you see the ‘Oh my gosh! This is not what you want’ moments. So they are all quite different and you approach each one as a new beginning and sort of a new process, that’s what keeps it interesting.
Ed: On the PR side, for the women’s collections last season, we had 62 shows worldwide that I attended, that we handled the “front of house” for between our different offices. I could go back through every one of those shows and tell you what I loved about it, what the designer brought to the picture, and every one of them had a moment that thrilled me in some way. You have to have that if you’re going to be in that industry this long, it’s important.
Your passion for shows shows. Can you share the power of runway as it relates to brand awareness and public relations?
Ed: That depends on the designer or the house because a show means a different thing to different designers and different houses. For some younger designers or designers who don’t have large advertising budgets, it is their whole means to create news and create their point of view for the season. It is their main vehicle for existing in the fashion world and that is important. For other bigger houses, it becomes a major publicity tool, creating worldwide press. Some of it is now beyond what I could ever imagine it could be in this industry.
From a PR point, it can vary; it’s important to various designers and houses in different ways. Overall, the majority of shows have a creative relevance that is just as important, if not more important than, the PR relevance. It is a point of view or a thought or a direction that is being presented that keeps the industry moving forward.
With the way the fashion industry has exploded in the last 10 years with the digital sphere and social media and with the popularity of fashion beyond the industry itself and globalization and all the factors that have made us into what we are today. Sometimes the creative impact of what we do is overshadowed by the PR impact of the results and that’s just the nature of the game right now. Julie, wouldn’t you agree?
Ed: Julie oversees the creative services side of our agency, which works directly with the designers on the fashion shows and their collections. She sees the creative process first hand.
Julie: That is really the exciting part, working directly with the designers and their teams. Fashion is very much about a team, it’s never just one person, it’s a group of people. From the designers, stylists, hair and makeup, it’s exciting to see it all come together. Figuring out what is the message behind this particular collection and what the designer is trying to portray. It is truly a process that we love.
Outside the runway shows, KCD is known as brand champions. Can you share more about your engagement with brands beyond runway?
Ed: Most brands we have worked with for 12 or more years so we have many legacy clients we have formed long-term partnerships with. We truly do not act as a supplement to our clients, we act as a partner to our clients. We work with all levels of their eternal structure from their CEO, to commercial director, designers, design team, digital team, sales team, and so on. We try to align ourselves with the needs and direction of the brand. That is something we have been doing from the onset, I believe, for much longer than most agencies have.
Julie: We are both great communicators. We both come to solutions from the very beginning. We have a great perspective of the industry, having worked with globally, big designers and big brands to small designers and small brands.
We have a very innate and very astute sense of where a brand is in their trajectory and where the brand is going, where they should be, where they want to be, and what the steps are to get from A to Z. So we have a good gauge that gives a good prospective so we can share that with our clients.
Ed: Going back to the earlier stages of our agencies and one of our founders, Kezia Keeble, who was a mentor to both Julie and I, she did not come from a corporate background. What she would always say to the clients is, “What is your vision? Where do you want to be? And how can we take you there? How can we create it for you.” That idea of knowing and creating a vision for somebody and taking them to that vision, is something we have been doing since the founding of the agency. It is really part of our DNA. We’ve been thinking that way since we started at this company.
Love to hear your thoughts on the evolution of public relations and when it is engaged and how early. Are you working on the conceptual phase?
Ed: The very first thing that separated KCD was that we were not reactive; we were proactive. There were many great fashion PR agencies that existed when we were founded but the way of fashion PR was more reactive. When we came in we were very proactive. It was us picking up the phone and making things happen and we’ve been that way from the very start, so that’s been a part of us forever.
We were the first U.S. fashion PR agency to open an office in Paris. It was totally natural to us, but this idea of taking the lead on what the French press should be doing and calling them and discussing ideas with them was just a shock, truly a shock. But they realized, after a while, the credibility and the integrity that we were doing it with and our agency in Paris is now our European headquarters on par in size with New York.
We are definitely involved in the conception stage. All of our clients have in-house communications departments, and both Julie and I work directly with the designers and with the departments. For a lot of our programs, we are fully involved from the ideation to implementation.
For one of our French luxury houses, we are planning a major program for the next year for their presence in the United States and we were fully involved from the beginning six months ago. For another major retailer, we have a three-year contract in advance of their major event. So yes, we do really work from the very first steps that people take.
You’ve watched the digital influence grow, how have you’ve seen public relations evolve as a result?
Ed: It definitely has changed dramatically and that’s probably an understatement. There is less opportunity in print unless you are advertised. There is more opportunity when you first break through and are new but to sustain that, unless you are advertising, is very difficult.
But converse to that, there are so many more opportunities for getting your message out there because of digital. What we do in print, from a strategic media point of view, is what we do in digital and the opportunity to get stories, to get product placements, to create initiatives in the digital sphere is so enormous that it now balances with print, particularly for the brands that don’t advertise. There is a whole new universe that helps balance the scales between what has been lost with magazine editorial and there’s a new place to gain it back. So, it’s just sort of a re-balancing of the scales with a whole new player, with the whole new player being the digital world.
What’s your take on fashion films?
Julie: I find more and more brands are utilizing them or coming up with shorts or incorporating them. Whether parts of their shows, part of creative, part of what they are doing. I think they are inspired by film because it’s something that is live and has motion to it and it’s something that they can create and set a whole mood to it and I think it is becoming more and more relevant.
Ed: That’s true, and many of our clients are developing digital assets that are complimenting either print advertising or a special creative initiative that they are doing. A piece of film that exists on its own that provides content for different outlets is becoming frequent. It would be interesting if people started doing things that would speak in a different voice and break through what fashion advertising looks like. Films that start to look more original and not match the other brands’ fashion advertising or fashion imagery.
Julie: I think some are and some do become quite narrative.
Ed: Some do, but it would be interesting to see more come forward.
What is next for you and KCD?
Ed: We have New York Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week, which we are already in full swing for. I think Julie and I both agree, where there is growth for the agency is our digital division, which is 5 years old. We now have a staff that has an international scope within our London and Paris offices and is attracting non-fashion specific brands that are looking for someone within the fashion industry to provide them with a creditable point of view, like Beats and Mattel and The Tony Awards.
Our London office, which we opened two years ago, has grown exponentially in just two years. It’s grown much faster than we anticipated, we moved to our third office in two years and just put on another floor. Our business there is just phenomenal, with a very strong group of American brands. We also have some very forward British brands and European brands. We are working with Maison Margiela on the reintroduction of John Galliano. Plus we are working with the very talented LVMH prizewinner, Thomas Tate.
Also, we see our business building by working with clients across all three offices. There is a need for brands to focus attention in the United States, in the UK, and also Europe through the Paris office. American brands have strong foreign retail distribution and want to focus on the growth in all three countries through three different offices.
How do you survive Fashion Month? Do you have some magical holiday relaxation spa technique you could turn everyone onto? Or do you hibernate for three weeks?
Julie: You don’t have the luxury of that! (Laughs) You kind of just have to get right back out there and on it. Especially for us, the beginning of January through March is a very tight schedule. We came back to New York and we had the Pre-Fall shows immediately that first week then we went over to Paris and had the Men’s Shows. From there we went directly to Milan for Men’s then went to Paris for Men’s and/or Couture, which brings us back here right into New York. We particularly have a lot of shows in New York since it is our home base both from the production and the PR side.
Then we turn around again and go back to London, Milan, and back to Paris for another round. Once we finish in March we go into the next stage, which is typically events season, usually going from March to June.
Then we go back to Resort, back into the Men’s cycle, and that takes us right into August, which we have to prep for the September shows and we finish that in mid October and then we’re right into December, which tends to be event season again.
Ed: And then we go to Disney Land! (Laughs)
That’s exhausting. Do you meditate or medicate? And when does the book on ‘how to multitask’ come out?
Julie: Luckily, thank goodness we both have strong stamina; I mean it really does take that. You have to pace yourself.
Ed: We also have amazing senior management worldwide. Just as I have mentioned, we have many clients that have been with us for over 12 years, we have an average of senior management tenure of 10 years worldwide. That makes a strong team of people that have been doing business for quite a while and know how to handle this demanding agency schedule. You reach the point when you’ve done something for so long it doesn’t stress you out.
Also, going back to the point that we love shows, yes we do. If you are in this industry and you don’t love shows, get out! When we come back after a major designer show, people who weren’t involved turn to us and say ‘How was it? What did they show?’ They want to know and that is the culture here. It’s not a machine that is just producing or publicizing a series of fashion shows, it is the message and the creative side of what the designers are doing and how this industry is moving forward through that which is important. That is the fuel that keeps everything going here and everybody wants to know that. It’s the common denominator. If you feel that way about what you’re doing, it’s contagious and all our employees start to catch it. I think that is what holds it together and keeps it moving.
Couldn’t be more thrilled to hear you fan the flames of that passion and thank you so much for the time. Good luck with all the shows!
Ed: You’re welcome, and good luck covering.
Julie: Same to you, Kenneth.