Sunday, March 30, 2014
The Business Of Millinery, Part 1: Hats and Public Relationships. What Are The Options And How Does It Really Work?
Illustration Created by Leonid Gurevich For "Anya Caliendo.Couture Millinery Atelier."
Or does it work at all? There are some topics in the modern day business of Millinery in the US, nobody talks about. Somehow vital and important bits of information on how to advance your Millinery business in the context of todays
Fashion Industry remains hidden. They are as mysterious as black holes scattered in space-time. Since the establishment of my brand, I came to the conclusion that this phenomenon might be attributed to the following fact: Couture Millinery, as a part of Accessories Family, is not marketed and supported by the main stream Fashion Industry as aggressively and consistently as the rest of the family in accessories division such as shoes, bags, scarfs, belts, sun glasses and etc.. Traditional Couture Millinery in the US is itself a big black hole missing from the map of action. A little disclaimer: I am not talking about accidental milliners, milliners who decided to be a part of the profession for the shier love of hats and to whom creating hats is more of a hobby rather than an attempt to build strong, viable, successful Millinery. I will also leave outside of the discussion factory made, mass produce hats simply because this is entirely different direction in Millinery and has nothing to do with Couture aspect of it.
Disappointingly, the business of Couture Millinery in the US is not supported by Fashion Industry nowhere near (often feels like not at all!) as strongly as it is supported in Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy. There are many fantastic initiatives created in support of the Millinery Art overseas. For example, "Headonism" initiative by a British Fashion Council curated by Stephen Jones which celebrates new wave of emerging London milliners is keeping the art of Millinery alive, updated, strong and present, securing the path way for new generations of Milliners of the future. British, who don't really have to worry
about the survival of the Millinery as an Art Form, because of the traditionally formed hat culture, go an extra 1000 miles to make sure that Millinery remains as strong and rich in diversity as ever. "Headonism" doesn't get just few hours on display in legendary Somerset House in London during London Fashion Week. It stays on display all through the entire Fashion Week.
Majority of Parisian Couture Houses have Millinery departments and, as we see every season, hats continue to have strong presence on Parisian catwalks. Some of the Parisian Houses choose to employ efforts of well established Milliners located near by. In 2005, if my memory serves me right, Karl Lagerfeld invested funds of the House Of Chanel into purchasing rare artisians like Atelier Legeron , Ecole Lesage and Maison Michele - couture Millinery the only one of its kind remaining in Paris to secure and protect the survival of the artisians. Italy with Milan(the birth city for the word "milliner"), at the very heart of best traditions in craftsmanship, continuously supporting one of the best headgear in the world starting form beloved brand "Borsalino" and all the way to romantic, airy, fabulous hats and headpieces on its catwalks.
We, as Milliners in the US, to this day do not have a firm platform upon which American Millinery can reignite its strong presence as a unique, independent, rich with an amazing historical tradition trade, alive and well, in all its glory on the forefront of major Fashion events and American Fashion in general . Some of the iconic names in Fashion like Donna Karan, for instance, still turns overseas to order hats for her collections as well as some other well established, legendary names of American Fashion.
Today, it feels like American Couture Millinery is an orphan sister of Accessory Family whose rare appearances you see during countless family functions. Her appearances are random, brief and sporadic. It is somehow always a glimpse and rarely a full view. Lets take a close look at what is really happening with American Couture Millinery vs. main stream Fashion Industry.
The support of the Fashion Industry is established in a variety of different ways. If you look at the members of CFDA, the main lobbying force in the American Fashion Industry, you will easily notice that the ratio between apparel designers, jewelry designers, shoes/bags/glasses designers vs. milliners is astonishingly inappropriate. Out of 400 members of CFDA 4 ( + 2) are Milliners. Think about this for a minute... The support of Fashion Industry also comes in a variety of editorial features. For example, pay attention to very popular widely run features like "Top 10 Accessories for Spring", "Best Accessories Of The Week" and so on. If you monitor it closely, you will see that hats are present 5 times out of 100 (lucky if that many!). In addition websites like www.style.com , for example, don't even have "hats" listed as a separate category in the sub-list of "accessories" tab. Often, major American Fashion Publications choose to consistently cover well known Couture Milliners located overseas. We all have tremendous respect for their names, but at the end, American Couture Millinery remains in the shadow as if it does not exist at all. The assumption is that the place of American Couture Millinery is somewhere on the dusty shelves of archives or rare millinery exhibitions, in the nooks and corners scattered all over the place, in unassuming workrooms, ateliers, home studious - away from the spot light. We are struggling for the shier survival of the Art Form of true Couture Millinery.
While the support of the Fashion Industry is critically important, it is also important to understand how the marketing of the brands happen in the context of today's Fashion Industry. Having been around the corner or two, my impression is that the current state of affairs makes it almost impossible for any Milliner to gain altitude and succeed in chosen direction without substantial (the word should be "insane" really) monitory investments in the brand. I am deliberately leaving the legends of the American Millinery like Eugenia Kim, Eric Javits out of this conversation. Eric Javits established his brand back in 1985. Eugenia Kim in 1997. Both started in the time when it was significantly easier to market due to an entirely deferent order of things: powerful PR firms did not yet influence the market cost of presentations and shows, things were often done on a very modest budget, connections were established much more easier, the vast majority of production for the Fashion Industry was still located in the Meatpacking district in New York, not in China, and the body of Fashion itself did not shift its focus from appreciation for the art of design and craftsmanship to the glitter and lights of huge, theater-like show productions at the price tag of hundreds of thousands dollars a pop, the first row attendees and flamboyant after show parties. And so here we are. The truth is: in the modern day business of Fashion it is all about who you really know and who represents your name.
With in the past 10 years PR firms (Public Relationship firms) in Fashion have positively reaffirmed themselves as often the only option on the way to the golden gate of Fashion Industry. They are the go-to middle man between you and your dream. The Gray Cardinals of backstage who are capable of making it all happen. There are many things one must be aware of before choosing to go with PR firm option, countless underwater stones that must be taken into consideration very carefully because this business is all about smoke and mirrors where nothing seems to be what it seems. Challenge # 1 is choosing the right PR firm that is not only well connected to the key people in Fashion Industry, but also the PR firm that has extensive experience in marketing hats. Do your research carefully, make sure to go through the existing list of clients to see the level of operation. Make sure to prepare a list of questions to ask on preliminary meeting and listen very carefully. Make sure to have a very clear picture of how this particular PR firm operates. How often do they let people on the staff go and hire new interns? Because if they can not keep their own staff permanent, chances are - they are disorganized and overwhelmed. And this means - your case will be footballed from one case worker to another creating gaps and holes in your representation.
You will be surprised to learn that not every PR firm positioning itself as Fashion PR has enough experience and connections to do a good enough job. New York is housing hundreds of them courtesy of young, determined, hungry for success and money people fresh out of "Fashion Merchandising" faculties of FIT and Parsons. Remember, PR is always about two things: communication and selling. Any PR person speaking off the record will tell you that the main objective of any PR firm is to sell their services to you. They will promise you the stars and the moon, tell you exactly what you want to hear (after all, they are excellent in communications and building client strategies), but at the end of the day YOU will be the one paying for every single choice and step they make on your behalf. So, essentially, lets get a little cynical here, they don't give a rats tail about the art, craftsmanship, inspiration behind your Collection and so on. What they do care about is all mighty dollar. And there are plenty of those required along the way. Let's take a look at price points on the menu, shall we?
One of the popular PR services is product pitching. For example. PR firm receives a request from a certain important fashion publication preparing to run a story on, lets say, "Flowers in the Attic". Editors would like to request certain head pieces in the certain color pallet. Mind you majority of the stylists and editors do pitch to PR firms in search of what they need because it makes things easier on them. They choose not to have their interns contact each designer on the list one by one. PR firm than pulls out suitable designs from those designers who a signed up with them and ships selection directly to the magazine. Sounds wonderful except... not a single PR firm will sign you on a month to month basis. Instead, you would have to sign up for a year worth of services in advance which will cost you $ 5,000 per month x 12 months = $60,000 + tax . You are expected to pay out this figure without any guarantee that the hats you provided will make it in the publication at all. You will, however, be responsible for the shipping bill. These shipping bills no one ever discusses with you in advance but, potentially, the price of shipping can easily escalate to the sizable sum very quickly, leaving you in the red. This is due to the fact that in Fashion everything is last minute, everything has to be done yesterday. Especially if it comes to hats. The request for the hats always comes last. Stylists will go above and beyond to secure apparel and shoes, jewelry and glasses weeks in advance. But hats are always the last to be thought about. More along the lines: "Well, it would be nice to have some hats... just in case...". In my next post I will touch on the difference between PR firm dealing with stylists on your behalf vs. you dealing directly with stylists.
Everything is shipped overnight or with a messenger (don't forget you also paying for the return shipping the same way) which brings the cost to 150$ to 300$ for a single magazine. Multiply by the number of inquiries PR firm gets and you will start picturing the shipping expense you would have to pick up each month. PR will pitch your hats every which way they can without any regard to shipping cost because well, you know, they are working for you and need to show you the result. The results will look like a statement letter at the end of each months sent to you with complete run through of the names of the publications, the months of the issues the photo shoots were done for and with a note on whether your hat made it into the issue or not. I chose NOT to be signed up with PR firm I hired to produce my show at MBFW for additional services, but decided to educate myself on the subject since the opportunity was there.
Do not be disappointed when you see big fat "0" next to this one. After all, remember? - nobody guarantees you anything. Just like no one will guarantee you that the condition of your sample hats will remain pristine. PR will never guarantee you a safe return of your hats, nor will it guarantee you a suitable replacement cost in the event of the loss. The hats are often mistreated on the sets, tossed aside carelessly, packed badly without care and as a result - your samples will have damage, often permanent. In term of money - you will never be able to sell them at their original price, will never be able to replace the cost of materials and production cost. Let's be clear on that.
Another thing to realize is that you are not the only designer they represent. You are one of many and so just as they pull your hats, they pull every single headpiece they see suitable from every other client they represent to put into the same photo shoot. Independent Milliners are rarely represented by PR firms. You will never see solo Millinery collection resting comfortably for the world to see in the caves of PR showrooms. The head pieces, hats and head gear of all kinds come to PR from many different sources. For example, many apparel designers add hats, always factory made, always in very traditional classic shapes to their collection to extend revenues of income. Not only hats, but bags, gloves, shoes and belts too. So, if you are told that you are the only solo milliner represented by PR it doesn't mean that you will be the only source of hats and it doesn't mean your hats will be exclusively pitched. In a nut shell, for 5,000$ a month you get to play a great old-fashioned game known as Russian Roulette while only dreaming about exclusive representation of your hats.
Once in a while you will come across spectacularly, deliciously peculiar situations which have PR written all over it. Some time in 2011, numerous fashion blogs and various publication announced that a young lady, American, by the name of Gigi Burris is appointed by Chanel as a resident milliner. The news seem to hit media outlets simultaneously which means that the press release normally issued in cases like this was distributed (as it should have been) by Chanel in its usual manner - via PR to all international media. Needless to say, it created a swirl of interest for the mysterious and lucky Gigi. In an instant her name became everyone's destination. At the time, 23 year old Gigi, fresh out of Parsons seemed to be the most unlikely candidate: first of all,
Chanel likes to keep it in the family so do speak and see Chanel going with American (not French) resident milliner was absolutely unthinkable. Secondly, Gigi, although wonderfully charming and enthusiastic, was too inexperienced for this sort of position and had absolutely no signature style developed. Finally, her hats - flirty, young and very uncomplicated at the time created very obvious dissonance between what she was capable of delivering as a milliner and high standards of Chanel. Few days later the same media outlets who reported the announcement had to post disclaimers and updates carefully adding that the story is not confirmed and that Gigi herself has no idea and absolutely lost as to who would have an audacity to report a false story on her behalf anonymously. At that time, I happened to be in Paris visiting the very same workrooms of Maison Michele where Gigi (according to the story) was suppose to begin her residency. The manager and CEO of Maison Michele, Mr.Hardouin was extremely puzzled by the news and said that it must be a mistake. Turns out, the entire story was a...well, you do the math. I still smile when I think of it. What a brilliant, brilliant, pardon my French, ballsy move on the behalf of that terrible "anonymous" person. How awful! Very inconsiderate!
Among many other strongly suggested services on the menu are curious little things like "Promotional Week". In addition to your retainer cost you PR will highly motivate you to pay another 5,000- 6,000$ for Promotional Week. Essentially, Promotional Week usually runs 2 times a year and consists of the following: you place your entire Collection with your PR firm and they arrange a full week of visits to PR headquarters of the wide list of stylist, editors, buyers, clients and celebs they deal with. In many cases this Week is done outside of the New York Week Schedule and is arranged not only for New York office of PR firm but also alternative offices in LA (for LA the cost is separate and also will run anywhere from 5,000$ to 6,000$) . I am not sure if this is beneficial for the prosperity of the brand.
Another curious little appetizer is called "Celebrity placement" . And this is where, I have to be honest with you, all of it stops making any sense to me. AT ALL !!! According to this service you, as a designer of fabulous hats, is expected to shed 10,000$ for a single celebrity of a D-list to have an opportunity for this celebrity to grace their own head with you creation so that than this celebrity could grace your own presentation or show with personal appearance OR to wear your design and credit it to your name at coveted Fashion events. What!? Really!? Duh, dummy, look how silly you look with you pretty little jaw on the floor! Now, sweetie, suck it up, reapply, put back on that cute little topper you just lost while having temporary stroke and listen to the rest. The idea behind this tremendous fees to PR is the push effort to gain clientele of a certain stature and financial capability who would actually be able to pay for the superb combination of design and craftsmanship. You just paid for another month of PR representation, sweated over huge 4 figure shipping bill - all in a single effort for those very people who can afford your hats to discover you and buy your hats. And apparently YOU end up to be the one who is expected to pay 10,000$ to a very person who, by all means, is perfectly capable of purchasing the hat. The best part (please drum rolls and a drooling cup because you will need it after another round of convulsions) is that you are kept in the dark about who exactly this D-list celebrity will be. Anybody's wild guess here. I mean, with all do respect, Honey Boo-Boo's Mama anyone? Possibly?...
And again - no control over the situation. It would be logical to assume that the fee is much higher for A-listers. So, how many of those celebrities we see on the front row of the coveted Fashion Shows each season are paid for by the designer vs. invited as a guest and loyal client? How many of the clothes and accessories produced by the designers are actually sold to celebrities? Very little. It is now considered a great luck if your hat is pulled by the stylist for a brief evening for a celebrity to borrow and than return. Celebrities are now viewed as a walking sales pitch and many of them act like one. Why not? They all are getting to keep their fortunes untouched courtesy of new generation of PR who throw merchandise at them with a speed of the bullets flying out of a trace gun. Well, remember it is all smoke and mirrors. All this style awards and best dressed awards lost meaning and essence, because everything is borrowed not bought and the styling in the overwhelming majority of cases is done by someone else. The fashion crowd containing so many familiar faces of those who desperately want to be viewed as style icons and well promoted Fashion Bloggers - majority wear clothes they borrowed form PR showrooms or wear the clothes they are paid to wear as a form of advertising. Modern Day Fashion industry is more and more resembling giant glamourized second hand store. The time of sublime style icons who use to own their wardrobe and, oh horror!!! - dress themselves too: Nan Kempner, Millicent Rogers, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, Anna Piaggi and Isabella Blow are long over. And YOU, as a designer working with PR, is lured into believing that you are a part of it and that you should breathe and dream of lending your hat for use free of charge...while trying desperately to establish and sustain your Millinery business...
Why am I stressing this point? Because I believe you have to have a very clear picture before you will start feeding the always hungry monster of PR. This little Monster is about to get even hungrier since we did not even cover the topic of Fashion Week Show production expenses. In order to keep this series of articles on Business in Millinery manageable, I decided to post them in several installments over the next few posts. With in the next few takes I will cover the subject of successful Millinery Presentation/Show Production, compare alternative and price points between the shows that employ PR vs. independent shows. I will cover the alternative way of obtaining cost manageable PR services and make few suggestions on how to bring it all together, how to build your own personal relationship with stylists and secure wealth and prosperity of your brand without going bankrupt with in the few first years of operation. Meanwhile, if you would like to ask any questions with regards to this subject along the way , I will make sure to cover them as we go. Wishing you wonderful week ahead! :-)