Invoking meaning into the art of connection must be as delicate, as it is impactful. Much like us all, the styling machines behind dressing Vice Presidents, First Ladies, Congresswomen, starlets, and Civil Rights activists alike are thinking more critically of what fashion can say about a community, a character, even, a platform. For years, Nate Hinton has had the adaptable tact essential in connecting clients with big-ticket events that are defining culture, challenging the norm, and cultivating sales. Both an alum of PR powerhouses, KCD and PR Consulting, Hinton set out in 2017 to start his own company, The Hinton Group, and in less than four years has spun viral moments for clients Sergio Hudson, Aliétte, Hanifa, and most notably, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss. His eponymous PR firm has elevated the importance of innovation and has aligned with clients that are set on restructuring fashion’s rigidity on traditional show formats. We got on the phone with Hinton to discuss how he started in the industry, the democracy of luxury, and the importance of persevering after “no”.
I heard that you were from Virginia originally, and I know the path up to New York is not an easy one. How does a Black man from Virginia first make his way into public relations of all career paths, and did you always want to represent fashion clients specifically?
It ain’t. I think I manifested it as a kid unknowingly, but there were no visible Black people that showed me that I could do this. I found Style.com before I knew what public relations were. I discovered Tom Ford, Versace, Gucci, and what all of those things were. But what really turned me on to this world of PR, marketing, branding, I have to credit that to Diddy. I just wanted to be him as a kid and saw how he and eventually Jay Z were string-pullers, connectors in a sense. I felt, “I don’t know what he does, but I want to do that.” So what I thought I was doing with moving to New York to get a job for Sean John or Rocawear. I didn’t care about luxury fashion anymore. I wanted to work there, but neither of those companies would hire me.
At the turn of the century, Baby Phat, Phat Farm, and Sean John were huge. I remember Diddy winning the CFDA award and that being like the biggest thing that could ever happen to a Black designer and in many ways, still is. So how did you first cross paths with public relations? Did you intern, did someone recommend you to PR Consulting, or did you just kind of stumble into it?
I moved from Virginia Beach to D.C. for an executive trainee program in a finance office at Federated, which formerly owned Macy’s, and I was going to be a finance executive in that company had I stayed there. But then I discovered their marketing department, and I was much more attracted to that and I had to get my foot in the door somehow. I took that finance job, and I discovered what the marketing team did in that company. Then I sold my Ford Taurus and I was like, “You know what? I’ll move to New York and figure it out.” I got a temporary job at Prada as a marketing temp, helping with fulfilling orders, and finessed my way into a full-time job.
So you started that job in Prada’s PR department, worked for however many years with both PR Consulting and KCD, and then decided that you wanted to go out on your own. That’s not an easy decision to make, but what led you to say, “I have a different path than what maybe these companies represent?”
When you work at an agency, they tell you what clients you’re going to work on and very rarely do you get to choose. I lucked up with some of my clients, working on Raf Simons-that’s a dream PR job for anybody. I appreciated PR Consulting for giving me that opportunity and for giving me the lesson. Even though I didn’t love every single experience or moment, I grew from it. It showed me what I wanted to create for myself and the energy that I want to bring to my team when I go to work every day. I want to have an environment that people actually want to come and work with me. I want to have fun doing my job, and I want to be myself, more importantly. I want to be able to speak the way I speak, talk the way I talk, look the way I look, without judgment, without misunderstanding, without somebody questioning my existence. And so the only way, unfortunately, in America that you can really do that is to create your own stuff.
Going back to the clients that you represent, I find that they stand out as not fitting within the traditional fashion calendar, which at this point has kind of just blown up, right? The American Collections experiment that the CFDA is trying to do expands past the usual NYFW schedule, into an all-encompassing extension. What does the future of fashion shows look like to you? Do you feel like these systems are still valid, or is there still some good in breaking the mold?
I think when times change, we have to evolve. It’s human nature. We have to grow and when old things don’t work anymore, they need to change. That system was created and was wonderfully done. It was created and was successful for a very long time and the fashion industry needed that system. Since the world’s shut down, we have to communicate in different ways, and people have to find different ways to show. People have found freedom in fashion and didn’t need any authority figures to tell them what they liked anymore with social media. So that system may work for a few but it is not going to work for the new. You need to be creative, you need to be Hanifa, you need to be a Pyer Moss, and let go of anyone telling you how to operate.
A very close friend of mine always said, “You always hated rules.” Don’t tell me that this is the only way that things can be done, it’s just not. I like the freedom to think, to be free, and to say, if I want to do multiple things, I can. If I want to try something new, I can. I think that the fashion industry was a very elitist system and that the fashion system was very elitist. It catered to a few. Hanifa wasn’t a CFDA-admitted designer. They didn’t bring her into CFDA, she found her break on her own self-funding, and is making more money than a lot of CFDA designers. If you’re not accepted, find your own lane.
“that system may work for a few but it is not going to work for the new. You need to be creative…and let go of anyone telling you how to operate.”
Absolutely, it seems like it’s about sticking to your convictions. The choice to show only once a year at the time seemed very risky for Kerby and Pyer Moss but now seems to be a wise move considering, many probably wish they could release once a year to save money and not have to lay off staff due to the expense of fashion shows.
If you think about how a music artist puts out a record, every artist isn’t rushing to put out their music in a single music week. So why do fashion artists have to be relegated to a week or even every year? Why can’t they have the freedom to do that same thing? With Kerby, I think about how I promote him as if he were a musician. When we put a project out, we’re thinking how to tour this project, that we’re going to do a press run, we’re going to do our single drops and then do shows.
Do you think luxury can be democratic? Luxury seems to inherently be this thing that you have to limit in order for it not to get played out.
I hate to wear luxury anyway. I mean, for a few people, they’re affected by other people having something that they have. That’s a cold-minded way of thinking. “If somebody else got this, I don’t want it, because they got it.” Luxury is whatever in that moment makes you feel good, that makes you feel like you have something else significant of value. Sean John for me in high school was a luxury. I can have this too and it’s not something that I cannot obtain.
How did the pandemic affect your agency and how have your clients been able to curate connections and communicate their ideas? Did it cause you to do a full stop or were you guys able to pivot?
I refuse to stop. I’ve had this conversation with Kenneth Nicholson and had just come from a morning of setting intentions and expressing my gratitude to God for not giving up during the beginning of the pandemic, which really turned our world upside down. We thought the industry was over, that we’re weren’t going to have a job for our employees. He just was like, “Me, too.” What he left with me that day was that people who decided they’re going to wait until the world opens or wait until normalcy resumes, are going to be left behind. We have to figure out what our existence is in this moment. That is what I’m trying to offer to my clients, that mindset of adaptation and how do we survive, how do we live?
How can emerging brands really stand out in a time of what some would consider over-saturation in the fashion market, let alone like the New York market? What factors do you focus on when picking up new clients?
It’s a feeling. Normally, if I see that I can do something with it, then that’s really all that matters to me. If I don’t feel connected, I’m not taking on a client. I think that we’re in a place where there’s a bit of a purge of unnecessary things. Emerging brands have an opportunity right now to be seen and newness is accepted. When we were all in lockdown, we were all sitting back and had a moment to actually look at what we’re buying. What did you really like? A brand like Aliétte, everything isn’t a hype moment – it’s about expressing what it is in [Jason Rembert’s] mind and how he feels and what he wants to offer to women. He doesn’t want to tell them what to do, or be like, “I only want to design for this type of woman” or “I want to create this thing to get people talking.”
What’s your process of reaching back to people who want to say they want to get into PR? How do you help the new generation so that they don’t have the issues that you had as far as not seeing people of color that you recognize?
I hire a diverse set and what it does for my employees that are Black working alongside our white, Hispanic, Asian counterparts and clients, is that we can all coexist and that you get a seat at the table. Anytime I get a chance to motivate young people, that for me is probably the biggest accomplishment. To be able to talk to a young person and have them believe in themselves because they see I could do this? That’s the special part of the job.
What advice would you give to new designers or entrepreneurs that want to get into fashion currently in 2021, this new world that’s now emerged? What would be the one piece of advice to give them?
I think it’s not allowing anybody to tell you how to exist and to never give up when you get those no’s that people say all the time. You have to eat that “no.” Don’t let that be the end-all, be-all. Even before I got with Kerby he’s been shot down, he’s been blackballed from retail, from fashion firms. After all that he said, “I’m me. I’m going to tell my people’s story and I’m not going let people discourage me from doing that.” When I met him, he was in that mindset, “I’m going to beat this.” After he did his Black Lives Matter show, people kicked him out of his stores, canceled orders, made death threats, and he said, “I’m still not giving up.” I think every designer can learn a lesson.