Brand Building with Fashion Designer Jessica Milton

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The indie fashion PR component to top fashion PR blog PR Couture, Show Me The Pretty features 5-question interviews with hand-selected indie fashion labels. PR Couture shares the pretty and then turns it back to the designers to ask questions and get advice and feedback about their own fashion PR strategy from a variety of industry experts. Sound like fun? Email info[at]prcouture.com for more information.

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It’s no wonder Jesica Milton was recognized in the August 2009 issue of Seattle Magazine for having the Most Cohesive Collection, her pieces are at once timeless and decidedly current, each impactful yet quietly stunning in their simplicity. A recent graduate of the New York Fashion Academy, Jesica lives in Seattle and recently released her third collection. She also created one of my favorite dresses in recent memory, the soft gray lace party dress fashion blogger and friend Jordana Bruner wore to the recent IFB party. Connect with Jesica on Twitter @JesicaMilton.

What is your background? Where did you learn to design clothes?

My grandma is a really great seamstress and when I was a kid I used to have a blast making random things from her scrap fabrics, but I didn’t get any formal training in design until a few years ago. After a few years of college I realized that I wasn’t happy or fulfilled with the career path I was on, and I left to attend a local design school here in Seattle. I studied there for 2 years and started working on my line immediately after.

How have your collections evolved? What stays the same?

I take feedback from my buyers and clients to heart, so I’ve made some changes recently to lower my prices and use more easy care fabrics. My Spring 2010 collection is much more casual than Fall 09, it has a “borrowed from boyfriend” feel to it. I’m always striving to push myself creatively and learn new techniques, so I think that the line will continue to evolve and improve as I mature as a designer.

Though my upcoming collections are a little more casual than in the past, the general aesthetic is very much the same. The garments are always a juxtaposition of minimalism and romance, and always wearable.

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What has been the most challenging thing about starting your own line? The most surprising?

The most challenging thing about working on my line has been removing myself from my comfort zone. I don’t have any full time employees yet, so beyond the design aspect of the business I also handle the sales, marketing, sourcing, etc. There are certain tasks which are really hard for me to do, like sales, but I’ve learned to overcome my fears in order to succeed.

The most surprising thing has been the amazing friends and supporters that I’ve met throughout the process. Total strangers have gone out of their way to help me just because they believe in what I’m doing – it’s really opened my eyes to how many generous people are out there in the world and it motivates me to work harder to prove them right.

Describe your workspace. What do you keep around you (photos, music) to keep you inspired?

My studio space is in a rustic antique building with tons of character and sky high ceilings. The décor is very utilitarian but I love the space. I do all of my own pattern making and sample sewing so it’s filled with tables, sewing machines, racks of fabric and shelves of art & inspiration books. I make a new mood board every season to hang on the wall with inspirations, sketches, and fabric swatches to help me stay on track while designing. I’m a very visual thinker so I can’t say I’ve ever taken inspiration from music, but it’s always playing in the background to help motivate me through the day.

What is your favorite fashion decade and why?

That’s such a hard question for me! I’ll have to say the 60’s. I love Audrey Hepburn’s style and the minidresses that were so popular in the era.

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Fashion PR Tips*

Since most DIY PR advice focuses on pitching a “story” I don’t feel like it applies very much to the fashion PR I’m trying to achieve. I’d like to offer my clothing for editorial or feature placement, could you give me an example of a pitch for that situation?

PR Couture Says:

While I understand your interest in product placement, editors often appreciate background on a designer, even a few lines on the point of view of the collection. Explain your pieces in the context of an emerging fashion trend, use a tool like Polyvore or style a photograph that relates your collection to a film, to a place…or work that into your photographs. That said, don’t forget to include basic line-sheets that show off the clothes in a sparse environment. In terms of the “ask” you could say something like: Please consider my collection for inclusion in any upcoming editorials. I have samples readily available to be sent over. Looking forward to working together!

Additional Ideas:

We create electronic pitches that have a theme as opposed to traditional press releases. First we identify key styles that coincide with the season that the books are working on and then attach a catchy title, like: “The Bold & the Beautiful” or “The Secret Garden”, include style names, retail prices, our contact info and off it goes. – Shannon Cavanagh-Estrada. Partner, Pitch! Press

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Leave the stories to the fashion journalists, and focus on providing them with the basic elements they need to create a feature out of your collections.  Make sure your campaign images are impeccable, current, and varied, and available in high res formats for use in print, and also ensure you have simple stock images of your garments against a white background.  Let editors know that samples are readily available, and provide examples of your most impressive press coverage, or celebrity clients.  Research each publication, and let them know specifically why you’re relevant to their ethos and readership. – Sarah-Jane Adams, Fashion editor, www.sarahjaneadams.com

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When you hear about pitching a “story” that would be in an effort to garner features on the business, not product placement. If you’re looking for product placements (and they are just as important as features, in my book) you should be getting editors/writers/bloggers a press kit (whether it’s a digital press kit or physical kit), which includes linesheets or a lookbook.  There should be images of your line that they can potentially run. I like having clients shoot on a dress form against white seamless so it appeals to a broader audience. (Your styling and model choice may not ‘jive’ with their media outlet.) If they want to borrow samples to shoot, make sure your samples are standard sample size and that you get them to the editor with respect to their deadline.

When pitching your story for potential features about your company, do fine-tune your story. Play up something that makes you unique. Think about what makes your story special. – Melissa Davis, President, Ruby Press

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For editorial placement the key is to understand what how the magazine you would like to target organizes their editorials. Do they accept already photographed editorial stories from photographers or are they organized in house? If it is organized in house, do your research and understand who organizes them and pitch to that editor. If they accept editorials from outside figure out what stylists they regularly feature and work to build relationships with those stylists. Find their contact information and offer your collection to pull from for upcoming editorials. – Polina Raygorodskay, Polina Fashion

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I have been doing well at getting coverage from fashion blogs and local publications. I feel that in order to gain more wholesale accounts I need to start focusing on getting print coverage in magazines. I’ve heard that a good place to start is by approaching foreign publications. Do you think that this is a good strategy?

PR Couture Says…

I have really limited experience with international publications – though they are some of my favorite to read! That said, traditional PR dictates local to regional to national coverage, and it sounds like right now you are experiencing a bit of a growing pain when it comes to making that jump into national US pubs. I’d keep focusing on coverage in the US – see if there is anyone in your network willing to make an introduction on your behalf, play with your pitch until you find something that is working well, and then commit to making their experience working with you flawless and enjoyable. They’ll be back!

Additional Ideas

I would not start with foreign publications, I’d start with national publications in the US. You’ll have language barriers and issues with their readers being able to purchase your merchandise. Approach the national publications that are the right fit for your brand. (Make sure to do your homework!) I’d also refer to special sections, such as fashion news sections, where you might be a good fit, when contacting these editors. Study the mastheads and find the right contact and email, never phone, to pitch them. (If you’re not sure who is the right contact, call the magazine’s editorial dept and ask.) And follow up with your press kit (including linesheets/lookbook) via mail. – Melissa Davis, President, Ruby Press

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My mantra is: you don’t have to be big to look big.  Start with a strongly branded website and look books and then send them to the correct editors (put your url on everything).  Keep your correspondence short, sweet and professional.  When you reach out to these busier than busy editors, don’t waste their time asking for feedback on your collection, that’s not their job or in their queue.  Mastheads.org is a good place to start wrangling information and creating a media list that is custom to you. – Shannon Cavanagh-Estrada. Partner, Pitch! Press

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We feel there is simply no substitution for an aggressive, business-savvy plan, especially in this area.  First and foremost, have an attractive wholesale proposition that speaks to the interests of prospective wholesale purchasers.  It serves to reason to market your wholesale program in tandem with the geographic areas you are seeking publications.  If you intend on selling only in foreign markets, pursue foreign publications.  If you are focusing on the US markets, target your print coverage there while also actively pushing your wholesale campaign.  In short, pursue wholesale accounts in accordance to where you want them to be.  How will you expect to gain accounts in California, for example, with print coverage in Hong Kong. Your accounts want to know that you have the publicity to create demand in the markets that they are selling.  Lastly, time and breadth of print coverage are critical –as is timing.  Once you get print placement, the timing is critical to really blitz with pushing your wholesale program.  As it is said, you don’t get what’s fair, you get what you negotiate.  – Polina Raygorodskay, Polina Fashion

I started a blog on my website mainly as a place to share company news, but during the times when I am busy working behind the scenes I feel that I have a lack of information to share. Is it a good idea to branch out to covering other topics, or would that detract too much from my brand?

PR Couture says…

For independent designer especially, I think a blog can be a great way to play with and expand your identity and the aesthetic of your clothing. As a potential customer, I absolutely want to know if you love vintage bikes, early eighties movies or VC Andrews novels! A blog is a means to forge a deeper, more intimate relationship with your readers. If we have things in common, that just solidifies my desire to support and wear clothes that are reflective of who I am.

Additional Ideas

Your content should amplify your brand’s message. There are thing all around that match the lifestyle of your customer. It may be home trends (interiors, decor), lifestyle (yoga, Pilates) or a cause (animal welfare, equal rights). As long as it’s in line with what your brand represents and the customer who buys your products lifestyle; it’s okay to write about. It shows relevance and it shows that you’re listening and consciously creating your collections.  A great example is Free People’s blog, cleverly titled, A Caravan of Curiosities. See how the content is delightfully of interest to the person who buys the brand?  It’s social, it’s unique and even a bit odd.  – Macala Wright Lee, Founder, FashionablyMarketing.Me

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Stick to all that pertains to you and what you care about -too much deviation can be a turnoff to people that keep up with all that you do.  People following your blog, or on Twitter, want to hear from you — and they want to hear from you often.  Try to keep a calendar for yourself and give yourself minimum goals to meet for maintaining content and making new content.  Furthermore, try creating content to have your fans talk among themselves and carry on a self-sustaining discussion.  Providing interactivity can take the pressure off the need to make something as regularly. – Polina Raygorodskay, Polina Fashion

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We have a blog on our website and we think that if we posted only about company news and news about our clients it wouldn’t be very appealing to many people. I think a mix is great. Think of your blog as an extension of your brand.  For example, if your line is sophisticated, dark and sexy, you might want to blog about things you’re interested in that live in that same world. – Melissa Davis, President, Ruby Press

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As your blog is actually integrated into your official website, I’d suggest that you don’t veer too far away from covering your own brand so as not to distract your visitors.  Don’t feel that if you’re busy behind the scenes that this leaves you with no material; why not post backstage videos, diaries or snapshots?  Or if you’re still lacking things to report, try displaying mood boards or discuss your day to day inspirations or musings as a designer.  You can also use your blog area as an incentive to create visitor loyalty, by posting exclusive discounts or limited editions items. – Sarah-Jane Adams, Fashion editor, www.sarahjaneadams.com

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The cost of printing good quality marketing materials is extremely high for independent brands. For that reason I’ve chosen to use digital lookbooks instead. Is this a big negative in the eyes of buyers and press?

PR Couture says…

I don’t think it’s a negative – it is often appreciated – even I have stacks and stacks of press kits – and unless it’s really beautiful – it’s probably going to get tossed and I’m going to keep a linesheet or a business card as a reminder. However, having something physical on hand can be great, especially if it is tactile. I think the challenge there is to think about how to make it affordable in a way that stays on brand. For example, could you sketch an rough illustration on a left-over piece of fabric and include a card with your web site? What about swatches of fabric from your collection with a URL that takes editors to a unique page on your site with information (digital press kit) just for them.

It can be. For the most part people have moved to doing things digitally but there are always some people who prefer the traditional means. My suggestion would be to go with a digital version and if someone requests a printed copy then print it out specifically for them (but make sure it is a high-quality print). We suggest having at least a few on-hand in the event that it is necessary to show someone and a digital version is not available. – Polina Raygorodskay, Polina Fashion

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While some people haven’t adopted to digital technologies yet, there is nothing negative about implementing digital lookbooks or catalogues. Not only are they more environmentally friendly, the are also cost effective. Now, if you are attending trade shows or market weeks, you must have something printed. A simple, well design take away is effective. Make sure the collateral points them to the complete line available in digital format online. Alice + Olivia has a very creative way of showing products to retailer and wholesale customers. Yuliz Ziv (also wrote a great article on how designers are incorporating digital technologies into runway or doing away with runway all together from NYFW S/S10. -Macala Wright Lee, Founder, FashionablyMarketing.Me

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Buyers and press representatives are well versed in digital formats, and won’t be put off by looking at your lookbooks online.  However, nothing can replace the experience of flicking through a hard copy, and printed copies hang around longer than links.  For the press, they also demonstrate how your items and campaign images translate to print, and they have the bonus of being physically passed around between numerous people who may otherwise not be exposed to your digital version.  Digital lookbooks are still a great alternative, so why not look into doing things you can’t do in print, such as adding catwalk videos… and aspire to print your lookbooks when your company is in a position to do so. – Sarah-Jane Adams, Fashion editor, www.sarahjaneadams.com

Besides reposting my press mentions on places like twitter, facebook and my blog, what else can I do to help make the most out of current buzz?

PR Couture…

In addition to the sites listed, taking advantage of social shopping sites like StyleHive, StyleFeeder, and perhaps even short-term advertising on sites like Chictopia could also be considered – if not to promote your press but to just get your designs in front of more eyeballs! This is sort of social media version 2 – going above and beyond simply using the tools as a mouthpiece but thinking about engaging your fans with contests, unique opportunities, behind-the-scenes content etc.

Additional Ideas

I highly recommend sharing your press and really great blog posts on other sites like Kirtsy.com, Digg.com and StumbleUpon.com. This is great for creating links to your content building traffic. Figure out what sites work best and incorporate those into your social marketing strategy. You can also share you articles with other communities you participate in. Sites like Chictini (http://chictini.com/) allow you to submit items.  If you have a retail website, I’d  have your webmaster create a direct feed to Polyvore.com ( I wrote an article on Polyvore and brands here – http://fashionablymarketing.me/2009/09/polyvore-brands-retailers-fashion-website-advertising-marketing/) so community members could easily find your products and create sets with them.. – Macala Wright Lee, Founder, FashionablyMarketing.Me

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Engage people.  Have a call to action.  Make YouTube videos and post challenges, questions, etc. to those that subcribe to you.  Interacting with your followers allows for a deeper connection and impression to be made.  While video is incredibly rich content, and flash is wonderful when it provides interactivity, simply reposting content is not the answer.  There is no substitute for interesting, quality content.   The more unique, engaging things you have for me, the follower to connect to you with, the more reason I have to remember you, talk about you to friends, stay within your ‘fanbase’, etc. – Polina Raygorodskay, Polina Fashion

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PR Couture is committed to sharing a variety of voices and opinions related to PR on our site. While we may not always agree 100% with our advisory panel’s suggestions, we believe in the power of discussion and debate and recognize that there are many approaches to fashion PR and each one deserves it’s due. Please consider leaving a comment with your own thoughts to continue the conversation. Or to put it another way, The opinions contained in this article are those of practitioners quoted and may not reflect the opinions of PR Couture.

Photo Credit: Top image, Jesica Milton collage created by Where the lovely things are. Photographs by Angela Burdine

About This Author

Known as the “fashion publicist’s most powerful accessory,” (San Diego Union-Tribune) and the “West Coast ‘It’ girl of fashion PR,” (YFS Magazine) Crosby Noricks put fashion public relations on the digital map when she launched PR Couture in 2006. She is the author of Ready to Launch: The PR Couture Guide to Breaking into Fashion PR, available on Amazon. Crosby spends her time managing PR Couture and mentoring fashion publicists through PRISM and Instappable, as well as the biannual NYC workshop, Fashion PR Confidential. Occasionally, she opens up limited consulting spots for emerging brands through her signature offering, The Brand Elixir.