INTERVIEW A streamlined approach to public relations and event management is the ethos behind VERY New York, the just launched bi-coastal agency co-founded by R Scott French, CFDA member designer, media expert, event planner, co-founder and editor in chief of TheFashionList.com; and Mai Vu, fashion archivist, retailer, educator, and publicist. FashionUnited asked them about the unusual timing of the launch and the changing landscape of fashion PR.
Why did you decide to launch VERY New York while the fashion industry is reeling from the effects of a global pandemic?
SF: We view adversity and disruption as an opportunity. It is impossible to look around at our industry and not see that things will not be “normal” for a long time. The writing was on the wall that the system had to be disrupted and retooled, the pandemic simply forced our hand. Many parts of the PR business model that had worked for decades didn’t work any longer or were no longer needed.
What were some specific failings of the old model that you plan to avoid?
SF: In our last agency situation, for instance, we saw fewer and fewer physical samples being requested and a strong move towards digital assets. Physical samples tended to be only for the much less common, highly produced editorial shoots. Yet we held leases for storage closets that were more often than not approaching empty. We set up VERY New York to be as close to fully virtual as possible. The result has already proven its value to the bottom line and in environmental impact.
We also saw a need for a reset of fees and opened ourselves up to a variety of payment models, and client scales. First and foremost, we want the clients to be happy and feel they are getting good value for their money. We are a service, not a product. We view ourselves as part of the clients’ teams. Watching their bottom line, and in some cases tying our fees to their balance sheet is part of our SOP, in others, we earn a set monthly retainer. Our willingness to be agile in our billing structure has brought business to the table that most agencies would dismiss immediately but which can have tremendous upside if and when the business grows. We firmly believe that such approaches will not be forgotten. It’s a long-term strategy.
Having both worked across the fashion industry for many years, do you think the business of public relations is changing as fast as the sectors of retail or design?
MV: It has changed and it hasn’t. Fashion is a business that is fueled by experience and emotion. Events are very much a part of this formula and will continue to be, whether the event is a full-scale fashion show, a presentation, a meeting in a showroom or the multiple other points of contact that the media and fashion buying public rely upon. More than ever, events must be timely, pointed, well-executed, and special, with not a detail left unaddressed. What has changed in the PR and events space, however, is that today’s editor/influencer/stylist is inundated with invitations. It used to be enough to simply have a show during NYFW and a brand was born. Today, with upwards of 300 shows a week in 250 different locations, in 4 different cities on 2 different continents, and add to that press previews, deskside meeting requests and so on, understandably, the editor is both overwhelmed and overstimulated.
How do your combined skills from being a designer, archivist, retailer, improve your PR approach?
SF: We understand the fashion business from every angle. When we make a request, it is not without knowledge of what it will take to provide the asset being requested. Clients know this and open up to us in ways that most people in our positions would never experience. Just today, I was in conversation with a client discussing pricing strategies based upon an 807 importing model from a Free Trade Zone in the Dominican Republic and how this may impact the pricing model for several high-end retail partner brands they are considering selling. This level of granularity is commonplace in our client interactions. Even if we are not being asked for such advice, our knowledge of the overall fashion business grants us perspective, confidence in planning, and empathy in our demands on clients.
Are you offering services that are unique or currently absent in the fashion space?
MV: VERY New York has several points of difference from other agencies. We believe in no-nonsense transparency. Our prices are clearly noted on our website, you can see them. We don’t hide our fees, nor change them on a whim. Our programs are described with expected deliverables clearly noted. The result of such transparency is that both parties in our contracts feel secure in knowing the details of the experience ahead.
SF: One of our most exciting offerings is our VERY Curated service. There are countless companies in the marketplace that cannot afford, or simply don’t have the need for large, full-scale PR programs. Companies that have a great bag, or signature dress, or home item, for example, and need exposure for these small capsule items, but the traditional retainer expense is prohibitive. We’ve conceived of VERY Curated as a solution, making that item for a fee of $100.00 per month part of the overall “client” known as VERY Curated. Once we amass a grouping of items, VERY Curated will become a stand-alone client and we will pitch editors, and be generating pre-written content for posting. It is a place for editors to discover, be inspired, and is a true point of difference from any other agency in the market. What has really surprised us is that we are not only getting attention about this program from smaller, independent brands, but also from globally distributed name brands with full scale internal PR machines. They see it as an opportunity for reaching alternative media streams and as a way to focus attention on specific products. It is our most visited page on our website, with the second being “Our Team.” Proof positive that even in this climate, companies are seeking new ideas and want to know who’s behind them.
VERY New York also has an LA office––why is it important to have a bi-coastal presence and are there plans for other locations?
MV: Would love to say that it was because we wanted to have a greater footprint and build contacts and connections with west coast brands and media outlets. But the truth is I am from CA and had been wanting to move back for some time and this seemed to make sense for us and our partnership. While we have a great work ethic and will always go above and beyond for our clients, there needs to be a work-life balance and living closer to family is part of that for me. Plus the beaches and weather are pretty great too.
SF: And from the business perspective, it made sense as several of our clients are LA-based and many other creatives including designers, artists, photographers, and musicians have made the city their home. We get to tap into the entertainment market and work more closely with stylists and agencies on celebrity seeding. We are planning other locations to better our commitment to the work-life balance. Thinking VERY Bora Bora, VERY Como, and maybe VERY Vail. With the “new normal” way of working, we can be almost anywhere.
How big is your team?
MV: Physically it’s just the two of us but the VERY New York community is quite extensive, and always working with us in different capacities. We are partnering with our former agency on projects, currently, a gala. We have a specialized team for social media and affiliate marketing, and mentors and advisors that have guided us through the various obstacles of starting a new agency and onboarding clients. Just yesterday I was on the phone with a friend who is a firefighter to learn about the supply chain and sourcing channels for decontamination supplies used by first responders. It is always so varied and we’re always getting approached for out-of-the-box ideas so it’s great to have a wide-ranging and diverse Rolodex of people to call upon.
As some uncertainty still surrounds NYFW on whether shows and events will be live or virtual, do you have anything special planned?
MV: We think at this point all fashion week events should be virtual. It isn’t worth the risk for everyone involved. We certainly are only planning for digital shows and presentations and yes we have a special initiative. With COVID-19 keeping everyone home and online, one of the senses that was being understimulated was our sense of touch. So we are developing a “touch box” of materials that we are sending to key media outlets that will accompany every designer showcase. It includes tangible elements of inspiration, materials used in the designs, and a special keepsake from the designer.
Describe your ideal client
SF: I think our ideal client is one that knows what they want and is realistic about what it takes to attain those goals. For many fashion brands, a Vogue feature, say, might make them feel like they've “made it.” But if the company’s goal is to grow online sales, then those placements may not necessarily have much impact and they would be better suited with a story in Real Simple or a dynamic Pinterest campaign. However, while we love realistic, we also love totally wild and unconventional thinking. It’s great to have clients that challenge us with ideas and strategies and we love to do the same in return. We appreciate many forms of thought leadership whether it is directed at us or asked of us.
Describe the client of your nightmares
MV: I would say those that lack any sense of brand direction and can’t even articulate who their target customers are tend to be more difficult to work with. It is hard for us to deliver results when there is no commitment to a storyline. However, we are always willing to work with brands and designers on figuring out how to best position themselves within their market.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos by VERY New York