There is nothing quite like learning what you don't want in business relationship to provide a crash course in how you might make that experience less painful for others! As a fashion business owner, Lee Stevenson took a less than fantastic experience with a PR agency and transformed it into a second career as the founder of Cult of Progression (COP), a fashion PR agency headquartered in Washington D.C. with offices in NYC. COP's sweet spot is working with designers throughout the start up process on everything from finding the best factory to the right pattern maker, foundational branding and visual identity to powerful PR campaigns that drive sales.
How did you get started in fashion PR?
I had my own line of shapewear in the early 2000's and had enlisted the help of a PR firm to boost sales and exposure. After a tumultuous 6 months, and a lot of money spent, I decided to end the relationship and instead pursue public relations efforts on my own. As the brand started gaining momentum, my own role in the industry changed from "designer" to "expert." I began getting emails and posts from brands asking if I could help them. I owe this to the fact that other designers felt I was one of them, and not just some suit at a desk. And they were right, I had been on the other side of the cutting table, dealt with disappointments when the wrong fabric arrived, heard "no" more than "yes" and kept going because I believed in what I created. It is that same level of passion and tenacity I put into my clients brands who consider me a friend, not a dictator, which allows me to provide an unmatched service that designers can afford and trust.
What is an example of a typical day in the office?
A typical day for me begins with checking my emails and responding to any new designer inquiries or questions from current clients that came in overnight. After that, I check in with some of my favorite blogs (whowhatwear, refinery 29, and NY Times Style are must-reads) to stay up to date on fashion current events, and then send out announcements to my staff about tasks for the day, new client news, updates on trunk shows or events, etc. I am obsessed with organization and everyone who works with me has to be organized as well. After that I am usually putting out fires, reaching out to buyers, reviewing mood boards for pending photo shoots, connecting with designers overseas, editing collections, reviewing pitches, forecasting the next steps for clients, or getting on conference calls.
What makes COP different from other agencies?
COP is different because we focus on three principal objectives - branding, Public Relations, and sales. Branding comes first because without a point of view, without showing the world visually how your brand walks, and talks, and affects the market you intend to reach, you are simply a carbon copy of what is already being done.
PR follows branding. We take the defined brand and point of view and present in such a way that it becomes easy to do business. The end goal with every PR push is to generate brand awareness and credibility so that the market begins to know and trust in our clients.
After these first two phases are satisfied the chances of sell through dramatically increase. While many firms offer a litany of services, I believe it is better to be great at fewer tasks, than mediocre at many. This is advice I give to my designers as well.
What is a recent client success story?
I recently worked with a fabulous Australian brand (see image) that created a designer collection for plus women, size 12-26. The challenge was getting the US market to embrace this line because it redefines not only what is beautiful but what is in demand. We all know that the average woman in the US is a size 12, but when I found out the largest seller of plus sized fashion is Walmart, I was floored. I quickly joined the crusade to get this brand the notoriety and exposure it needed so this huge group of consumers could be served. After an intense branding campaign we were able to connect the designer with countless editors, and retail chains, which lead her to two luxury retailers who picked up the collection for SS2013.
What are three things you have learned since launching COP?
I can't think of three things that have changed my client’s careers more than one simple five word statement.
Better Perceptions outsell Better Products.
Talk about your Aha moment. To realize that the presence behind your brand can be largely responsible for the success of your collection makes for a very interesting fashion world. And when I sit and look at some of the most iconic designers of our time I do see where the allure and esteem of what they represent entices consumption.
What is your approach when it comes to new clients? Where do you start?
We don’t approach our clients like they are a start up. Instead, we treat every designer like they have the potential to be the next iconic innovator. There are three phase:
Phase 1 - Branding
Phase 2 - Visual Acuity
Phase 3 - Execution in Retail and Public Relations
We start by examining our client’s point of view. What that means is their unique perspective on who the customer is, what the customer wants, what makes for a compelling product, basically all the things they stand for.
How have you seen fashion PR evolve since you began in the industry?
I don't think the industry has changed as much as the needs of today's designers. Emerging brands want direction and education to help them succeed in the marketplace, which has become more and more difficult over the years. It is hard to teach someone the business side of fashion because there is a lot of ebb and flow, things change from season to season and no one rule applies to all. What I am encouraged by is the increase in programs, and fashion incubators across the country that aim to help emerging designers thrive.