Interview and text by Irene Ojo-Felix
How did you two first even know about PR? In the mid to late 80’s, what was the world of public relations like?
Julie Mannion: A beast!
Ed Filipowski: We’ve always been more than PR. We are PR, events, and now we’re also digital and entertainment/technology. We work in New York, Paris, and London so it has evolved into, like Julie said, an international beast. Going back to the very beginning, before it was KCD it was Keeble Cavaco. When Julie started, it was Kezia Keeble and Paul Cavaco as the styling company doing advertising, shoots, and fashion shows.
Julie: I started with them in ’81 so this was my only job ever. A rare thing. I started as an assistant and quite frankly, probably at that time period the term “stylist” didn’t really exist. It was a very new thing and there were maybe five stylists at the time that were in New York. Kezia coming from her editorial background, at that point she had been at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. She was a very dynamic editor, and she left to go freelance and that’s when her and Paul married. Paul started working as her assistant and Paul, being as bright and talented as he is in his own right the two of them became a force. Again, that idea of stylist as a company or as a business didn’t exist. They were the pioneers of it. So when I started that was my background.
Ed: They were two of the first super stylists.
Julie: I was so fortunate in my career to have such mentors. Starting with them and getting that editorial training has been vital to my career. It’s how you look at fashion and do everything. Also starting at that level I did everything as an assistant from shopping for the clothes to going to the shoots to returning the clothes to bill the clothes. So it really gave me an on-the-job training. For the first two or three years, we primarily did almost every major ad campaign and editorial that was happening at the time. Kezia and Paul were working with all of the major photographers – Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, Patrick Demarchelier…they all were superstars at the time.
Ed: And also every major model.
Julie: Yes and the supermodels at the time. So, it was really incredible! Day one there was Christie Brinkley, Nancy Donahue and Kelly Emberg, all of them who were the big ones on shoots. That’s really the genesis of where Keeble Cavaco was at that point.
Ed: And then John [Duka] joined in 1984 and and it became Keeble, Cavaco, and Duka. John came from The New York Times where he was the chief style editor and then it developed into an advertising agency doing ads for Bergdorf Goodman and…
Julie: Trump Tower! Tim Schafer did all of the cartoons in the lobby atrium.
Ed: As they were doing the advertising, Kezia started to develop the PR side. She was looking for someone to help run it as Julie was running the events, styling, and the advertising side. I had one job previous to this at a small PR firm and I came aboard to run the PR division and that’s when Julie and I first met. That was in 1985 and as time went on in the 80’s, that sort of was the first big growth spurt from the agency. We moved away from advertising and it really became more about PR and events. That’s when we first started to grow internationally with the London, Milan, and Paris shows.
Julie: Yohji (Yamamoto) and Katherine Hamnett were our first clients in the PR aspect and then Gianni Versace was one of the first ones we got in ’88 which we signed. That was the beginning of our expansion – Katherine was London based, Yohji was in Paris, Gianni was Milan based.
Ed: We still work with Donatella on the events side.
Julie: Yes. The American market was a big thing at the time and I think one of the big things that Ed and I could offer along with Paul and Kezia was that American point of view and how to edit a collection. That was one of the biggest strengths we had because we came from the journalistic and service point of view but also taking in how could you edit that collection from an American view so that the clothes were understandable to that market. I think that was a key thing with Versace.
Ed: Julie has a really strong styling background, she understood editorial. I went to journalism school and that’s what John had also. We sort of mimicked what the leaders had in their strengths, we had also.
So the best of both sides?
Ed: Yes. John and I went to the same University, Northwestern. So we were able to mirror their strengths in our combination underneath them. Then, John died of AIDS in 1989 and Kezia made us partners with Paul before her death from breast cancer. So it was Julie, Paul, and I. Then Paul left to go to Harper’s Bazaar as he wanted to go back to the editorial world to work with Liz Tilberis. We totally appreciated that because we knew what his strength was and we were really focusing on PR and events at that time.
Julie: I think Paul just didn’t really want to run a business. He wanted the freedom to go to the creative side.
Ed: Losing his partners was a big change.
Julie: It was a soul changing thing, I think.
Ed: Going back to his editorial background was healing I think for him. So, we began running the agency ourselves in 1991 and here we are 25 years later!
How much have things changed since that moment that you guys took it on?
Julie: I think our core values have changed. Obviously the industry and business has changed a lot and it’s been a long time. We come from having worked with Kezia and Paul who both have a love for fashion and that being the driving force…
Ed: And a deep understanding of it.
Julie: That’s what drove us to come from New York in the beginning and we just have a real love for fashion. Both of us are also very service oriented. In this industry, especially being in Public Relations you have to love service. On the PR side it is clients and the press and on the event side it’s the clients and the vendors. The great news of where we are today, we’ve been together for so long and we’ve seen the industry over the course of time. We are at the prime of our careers and our lives so to bring all of that knowledge together, you have a sense of history. Whether it’s a new designer or a brand that you’ve worked with that has been at a certain level, how do we take it to a new interest with everything that has evolved with the digital and social media world. How do we add something new? Or how do we add to what is currently out there? How can we change it up? So all of that comes to play at this stage.
We’re sort of purists, I would say. We really love fashion in a pure way not necessarily all of the bells and whistles. Maybe because we started at the bottom, I think we’re very much a familial agency. Most of our senior people have been with us for a very long time. I think we tend to operate from that level and we tend to nurture and bring that to fruition. We’re very much about the people and who we work with inside and outside.
Ed: I think around the late 90’s, was a pivotal time for us. That’s when we moved into these offices (in Meatpacking). I think that’s when we experienced a tremendous amount of growth and stature in the industry.
Julie: I think it was actually ’97 here and we opened Paris in ’99.
Ed: Our average tenure is really about 15 years for our senior management. That’s when a lot of our employees joined us and have been here with us worldwide. That’s when Tom Ford went to Yves Saint Laurent and we opened our Paris office to support him. That’s been open for 16 years now and that was a pivotal time for us.
How was it going into that market in Paris? Coming from New York?
Ed: It was challenging but I was determined. Honestly, we were the first American office and agency to open there. We were known as “The Americans”. Our proactive way of doing PR specifically was not something that the French press was accustomed to. It was noticed, for sure. **laughs** But honestly in retrospect, I think we had a definite impact on the industry there and the way that both agencies and in-house departments handle their communications over the years. We jump started the modern approach to PR. We were determined not to change our way of doing it. In the end, the reason why brands accepted us there is they realized we were just servicing them in a better way. We were bringing things to them that were worthwhile and valuable. We made them doing their jobs better, easier, and efficient. We weren’t wasting anyone’s time. We were coming to them in a good way and that’s one of our core values too.
Julie: We were also respectful of the culture. We weren’t the Americans coming in and shoving our systems and our way of working down their throat. It had to be something that nobody could offer, our way of doing things.
Ed: Yes, and I was American but the office became completely international. We have a really international group of employees – Spanish, English, Italian. But it was challenging. And also it’s interesting because throughout the decade, it went from being a Paris office to an European office because that’s how the industry changed, too. Everything became global and we do worldwide PR from there.
Globalization has had a huge impact on how people perceive luxury brands. You also have a new entertainment and technology division that opened earlier this year. It’s curious to see how fashion has reacted to the digital world’s presence in the past decade and the new need to entertain while delivering collections whether through social media, celebrity endorsements or other methods.
Ed: They are two separate things – we started our digital division in New York, I think 6 years ago now, and we were the first fashion PR firm to establish a whole division devoted to digital. I was waiting because digital did impact the industry earlier than that, but we sort of felt that everybody was jumping in the water and not knowing what they were doing.
Ed: Yes panicking! So, I let everyone panic while I decided what I wanted to do. Rachna Shah, who is the managing director of the digital division, we decided that we thought we could be an effective link to bring the purity of what we did in fashion to the digital world and help clients create a true link between fashion and digital and keep the integrity of fashion intact as they do it. That’s our goal with our digital clients. We work with everyone from Victoria’s Secret to Victoria Beckham to Mattel to Misha Nonoo and various clients across the board. For Mattel, that’s an effective example of how we bring fashion to the plate. The Barbie Style campaign, we’ve done for three or four years now, just signed on for another year and we’re taking it even broader. We’ve arranged all of the shoots. Barbie going to London, Milan, and Paris, spending time with Pat McGrath, all of the different designers with all the shows that she’s gone to and all of that. It’s very effective for them.
Then entertainment and technology which we started last year was again, organic in the way we approached it. We found that there was a number of clients coming to us from those two areas and it sort of established itself. Those two fields, we started working with various divisions of Apple and various entertainment areas. Working with the Tony Awards and working with the CFDA. The divisions for Apple Music or Beats By Dre. It’s an area that myself, Julie, and a lot of staff have interest in entertainment and technology. It also came from designers being the merger of entertainment, technology, and brands. There were the years that designers and artists seemed to be the touch-point of culture but I think that entertainment and technology have become more of a touch-point for designers and brands and it has surpassed the popularity of collaborating with artists even in a way.
Julie: They all share a very interesting sociological statement. I think people relate to it in a different way. People relate to fashion and I think that’s why fashion has really become so important in the forefront because of what fashion can bring, what it says about a person, and how it defines people. There’s an aspirational part to it.
Ed: I also think through entertainment and technology your voice is amplified more than it is through collaboration with artists. It has a larger volume.
Julie: It allows somebody to come in and utilize and define things without having to become an expert. It allows everyone the same democracy to have their voice on an equal level. I think of the entertainment world and social media with Instagram and all of it, the reach that it has.
The potential of a little 4×4 square telling the world of your brand and whether you’re established or not you start to think of yourself as a brand. Do you think it has contributed positively or negatively to the pace of fashion today? Especially with fashion’s incessant need to provide something new?
Ed: We’re not naysayers in that regard. I think the cultural phenomena is much bigger than our industry. And it’s important to embrace rather than to question whether it’s positive or negative. That’s a waste of energy.
Julie: That’s a part of our culture and you have to find a way or manage it. If it doesn’t work for you either personally or professionally, then you can make it work for you or don’t use it in that way. Everybody has different needs and a different vision. So find what works for you and make it work.
It’s our generation. It’s how people communicate so if you want to communicate with that particular generation then you have to find a voice that can speak to them or find a way to tap into it. Otherwise there’s going to be a gap.
Ed: Who are we to say it’s bad for us? Who are we to say it’s bad for our industry? You know? It’s part of our world.
I think a lot of people in the beginning kind of dug their heels in the sand, but maybe it has to do with making fashion almost like a democracy. From any background, you can access fashion…
Julie: I think that has to do with control. Certain brands are very specific in how they want to project themselves or how they want people to see them. They’re very tightly controlled and if you can’t control that, which you’re not going to have that control always in the digital media area. So they didn’t want to play! But then I think it’s a matter of finding out how can you exist within it and still maintain your integrity. To not get into the game, not play, not join or be a part of it, it’s your loss. You’re going to lose. You’re not being modern or contemporary.
Ed: Or realistic!
Focusing on events and shows, clearly the topic of conversation has been the pace.
Julie: The pace is a whole beast. It is just nonstop. It’s extraordinary. It is absolutely constant at this stage of the game, there is no downtime. It just goes from one to the next and even with the fashion seasons they’ve just become longer or shorter in between. Literally as of this year, everybody is trying to find a solution or a voice for what works for them. The seasons used to be fairly constant. You had a Spring and a Fall and then there was men’s and women’s Couture. There was a very defined rhythm which has been in place forever.
Now everyone is trying to figure out, okay do we add consumers into it? What does that mean, does that mean it’s for the September and February season or does that mean it’s July and January? I mean, what is the timing? It has put everything into question so I think this is the year of experimentation. All of it depends on the structure of their business and ultimately, what type of product do they have. There are different considerations that are right for different areas. I think what we’re finding out is that it’s okay. We just need to find what works for them. This year will be a year of trying things out. Some will succeed and be better and some won’t. You have to find that rhythm.
It’s interesting because it’s been approached on individually but outside of the brands you have buyers and editorial. Even for them to do their job, I assume many wonder “how much time do I have?” Do you think there needs to be a consensus?
Julie: I think it will evolve into where it naturally needs to fall. Again, this is such a great time of experimentation and nobody has ever experienced it. We haven’t even gotten into one season yet of the whole straight-to-consumer model. Does that work? Does the consumer respond positively that way? Are there certain items that people do want to wait to get? On a high fashion level or on a real fashion level it’s almost impossible to predict what you’re going to do and buy the fabric and buy the quantity and have all of that and say this is what I’m going to put out there and make it. It’s just not done that quickly.
Ed: I think Tommy Hilfiger and Burberry will be big contenders for whether it works. They’ll have the wherewithal to do the things that will either impact or not impact their results.
Julie: But as an industry it will take several years to evolve. If people find it successful they’ll gravitate that way. They’ll start it at a certain degree, and then can they turn around all of the factors, their timing, their deliveries, their buying time. That is a big thing. That takes a full year to integrate or to even start a dialogue and then going through. So it’s a several year process. I don’t think it’s going to turn around immediately but we’ll start to see what works and what doesn’t.
How far back do you start the process for shows? When couture and men finish up in the Summer you start planning for September…
Ed: Right after.
Julie: You start immediately after. When New York finished in February and we went through all of the seasons – London, Milan, Paris, all the way into March, then you’re starting right back up again. Everybody has a different rhythm and process but you do start right from the beginning. Whether it’s the location, timing, or team. It’s all of those questions on putting the creative teams together, does anything change, is it a bigger production. Working with all of the different designers and everybody has a different approach how they do a show. Some are bigger, some are smaller, some are more Couture like and others are big extravaganzas. It’s finding out what their intent or goals are for that particular season. Tommy Hilfiger is a big example because this was a big season change for them. They started from the get-go, planning earlier.
So after shows, what’s the process in connecting what everyone has seen and then connecting it with buyers and editorial? Do you have showrooms? What’s the process for someone who might not be privy to how the full picture comes together?
Ed: As an agency our connection is primarily immediately with the press. So if the press is not able to attend the show, there are various ways to access collections through our showroom or the clients showroom. We might use digital assets to communicate but those are the main ways that we amplify the show experience if we need to. That’s the first level. But as the season moves on we work with our clients to reach consumers through covers and also through other events we might do for them at the consumer level. It’s a two stage process.
Julie: The reason that journalists go to the shows and why they’re the first voices is they establish what’s the trend. What’s going to come out of this season? From an editorial and a retail point of view that’s what they want to see. What is the point of view and what is the designer saying.
Ed: That’s the very unique thing about our agency too is that on the event side is our fashion services part of our agency, where Julie and her team work directly with the designers on the point of view of the show and the casting, the hair, makeup, the stylists and the run of the show. That’s a service that we’ve provided since day one with Kezia and Paul. It’s a unique service that many agencies don’t have. That’s a difference about our agency is working side by side with the designer.
Julie: And the many creatives in the industry that have that point of view and a deep understanding of the voice of the designer. These are the trends that come out of it and how to think about a collection.
Ed: They also want our point of view from the PR side too because of our knowledge of the current industry and the history of the industry. Many designers want to know our viewpoint of the collection before it hits the runway so that we can help guide them as to what to say or what not to say!
As far as digital media how do you feel when it comes to brand outreach or interviews? I wonder if for digital media is there less of a push to immediately put the brand onto that format than a traditional magazine?
Ed: No. It’s a priority and it has been for the last five years. It’s definitely been equal priority. It’s opened up in the same language as print, not as second tier. You speak about an online publication in the same breath as a book and they’re equal weight strategically.
And how do you feel the industry has changed? For better or for worse?
Ed: I think that’s an easy question because for Julie and I, one of our core values is always to embrace change and not to judge it. That’s how we’ve always been. Going back to just talking about whether digital or social media is good or bad…just embrace it! It’s bigger than we are. That’s a good example of that, and I find it’s valuable in this industry to not focus too much on what was in the past and what has been but to focus on what is and what’s coming up. It’s much healthier and I think it’s a much better place to be in this industry.